In Defense of Kissinger

January 2, 2014 Topic: HistorySociety Regions: BangladeshIndiaPakistan

In Defense of Kissinger

Mini Teaser: The Blood Telegram gets America's reaction to the 1971 South Asia crisis wrong.

by Author(s): Robert D. Blackwill

IN HIS BOOK Diplomacy, Henry Kissinger concludes that the United States “faces the challenge of reaching its goals in stages, each of which is an amalgam of American values and geopolitical necessities.” 1 The recent debates about U.S. military options in Libya and Syria reflect the enduring tension between these intertwined, at times competing components of our external relations. No U.S. statesman can ignore this dilemma, and none will find it easy to strike exactly the right balance between the two, especially in times of crisis. All would seek to simultaneously pursue the promotion of the national interest and the protection of human rights. Kissinger, famous for advocating an American foreign policy based on the national interest, has long stressed that values and power are properly understood as mutually supporting. As he argued in a 1973 speech, since “Americans have always held the view that America stood for something above and beyond its material achievements,” a “purely pragmatic policy” would confuse allies and eventually forfeit domestic support. Yet “when policy becomes excessively moralistic it may turn quixotic or dangerous,” giving way to “ineffectual posturing or adventuristic crusades.” 2 The key to a sustainable foreign policy, in his view, is the avoidance of either extreme: “A country that demands moral perfection of itself as a test of its foreign policy will achieve neither perfection nor security.” 3

This ever-present fusion of American values and national interests was evident in the spring of 1971, as a crisis erupted in South Asia during Kissinger’s tenure as Richard Nixon’s national-security adviser. When the British Raj ended in 1947, a partition of the subcontinent led to the creation of India and Pakistan as separate, estranged sovereign states. Pakistan, envisioned as a homeland for South Asian Muslims, emerged with an unusual bifurcated structure comprising two noncontiguous majority-Muslim areas: “West Pakistan” and “East Pakistan.” While united by a shared faith, they were divided by language, ethnicity and one thousand miles of Indian territory.

Over the course of a fraught sequence of events from 1970 to 1972, a party advocating East Pakistani autonomy won a national parliamentary majority, and Pakistan’s two wings split. Amid natural disaster (a cyclone of historic proportions struck the East on the eve of the vote, killing up to half a million people and devastating fields and livestock), constitutional crisis, a sweeping crackdown by West Pakistani forces attempting to hold the East, mass refugee migrations, guerilla conflict and an Indian-Pakistani war, East Pakistan achieved independence as the new state of Bangladesh. By most estimates, the victims of the Bangladeshi independence struggle, which included communal massacres unleashed during the crackdown, numbered in the hundreds of thousands.

In his new book, The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide , Princeton professor Gary Bass, who has written previous books on humanitarian intervention and war-crimes tribunals, portrays the American president and his national-security adviser as the heartless villains of these events. While Bass makes a cursory acknowledgement of the two men’s geopolitical accomplishments, he derides the thinking that informed their actions as the product of a “familiar Cold War chessboard.” His own implicit framework is a deeply heartfelt and contrary view to Kissinger’s, one that places human-rights concerns at the pinnacle of U.S. foreign policy, at least in this crisis.

But how persuasive is Bass’s history? Instead of producing a definitive account, he offers an ahistorical and tendentious rendition that, more often than not, lacks a broader context. He reduces a complex series of overlapping South Asian upheavals, Cold War alliances and diplomatic initiatives to “a reminder of what the world can easily look like without any concern for the pain of distant strangers.” 4 He faults the United States for not taking a firmer, more public stand on Pakistan’s domestic repression while offering only vague assurances that this U.S. pressure would have brought about an actual improvement in conditions. Moreover, he trivializes the possibility that his human rights–dominated policy preferences could have had profoundly damaging strategic consequences for the United States. Ironically, in his previous book Freedom’s Battle, Bass sympathizes with precisely the sort of cautionary impulses that animated Kissinger:

Even if a president or prime minister has credible information about atrocities . . . there must still be a cold realpolitik calculation about the costs of intervening. . . . If a humanitarian intervention would lead to a broader international crisis, or plunge the country—or the world—into a massive war, then most cabinets will decide that it is just not worth it. . . . Believing in human rights does not make one suicidal.

In fact, he goes even further, allowing that the “point of a balance of power”—Kissinger’s principal preoccupation in 1971, as throughout his career as a statesman—“is a profound moral goal: it keeps the peace.” 5 But in The Blood Telegram , he implies that Nixon and Kissinger should have realized that they could have had it both ways with no risk —achieved their strategic breakthrough with China, with all of its attendant geopolitical benefits, and concurrently put human rights in East Pakistan at the top of their policy agenda. If only life were that simple: as Kissinger observes, “The analyst runs no risk. If his conclusions prove wrong, he can write another treatise. The statesman is permitted only one guess; his mistakes are irretrievable.” 6

Image: Pullquote: Under Bass's definition of 'complicity' with atrocities, few practitioners of American foreign policy would escape unindicted.Essay Types: Essay