Scathing on Thin Ice

September 1, 2001 Topics: Society Regions: RussiaEurasia Tags: AcademiaCold WarThe Clash Of CivilizationsTory

Scathing on Thin Ice

Mini Teaser: Christopher Hitchens' diatribe against Henry Kissinger should disappoint even the most credulous of the statesman's opponents. Effective polemic this is not.

by Author(s): George Jonas

Hitchens also holds Kissinger responsible for "the bloody invasion of Cyprus." Briefly, his case for the prosecution is that since Kissinger disliked the nonaligned Cypriot president, Archbishop Makarios, he took no steps to prevent Greece's right-wing military junta ("a U.S. client", in Hitchens' words) from engineering a coup against Makarios in July 1974. Then, when Turkey responded to the coup by invading the island, Kissinger again allowed events to unfold without blocking the Turkish invasion. This resulted in the death, displacement and disappearance of thousands of civilians, all because Kissinger "made himself an accomplice in a plan of political assassination" of the archbishop. (Makarios physically survived the coup.)

As proof of Kissinger's intentions, Hitchens quotes his description of Makarios as "the proximate cause of most of Cyprus's tensions" from Years of Renewal, the concluding volume of Kissinger's memoirs. Hitchens offers this fragment as the motive for Kissinger's endorsement of a coup d'etat: if Kissinger felt that President Makarios was "the 'proximate cause' of the tensions", Hitchens writes, "then his removal from the scene is self-evidently the cure for them." Very cute-except Hitchens conveniently omits Kissinger's full sentence: ". . . Makarios, the proximate cause of most of Cyprus's tensions, was also the best hope for a long-term peaceful solution" (author's italics). In Hollywood movies this is usually where the lawyer puts down his notes and says: "The defense rests."

Whether the site is Indochina, Bangladesh, Chile or East Timor, Hitchens' method of prosecution is the same: he concedes that "some of these allegations can only be constructed prima facie, since Kissinger-in what may also amount to a deliberate and premeditated obstruction of justice-has caused large tranches of evidence to be withheld or possibly destroyed." In other words, Hitchens turns his inability to find sufficient evidence to prove his charges against Kissinger into another charge: obstructing justice. The late A. Ya. Vyshinsky, who used to run Stalin's show trials, would applaud.

Taking another leaf out of a show trial prosecutor's book, Hitchens argues that measures Kissinger contemplated but did not employ-such as bombing dikes in Vietnam to flood the countryside-show a "regnant mentality" disposed to war crimes. Quite apart from the fact that targeting dikes or other infrastructure would have been legitimate in a war (e.g., NATO did so two years ago in Yugoslavia), the point is that if anything shows one's "regnant mentality", it is what one ultimately does-which in Kissinger's case was his decision not to use such measures. As John O'Sullivan put it in the National Review, Hitchens "can content himself with having invented a new international felony-a 'war-thought-crime.'"

Hitchens spends most of chapter 10, called "Afterword: the Profit Margin", intimating that Kissinger has benefited financially from his foreign policy counsel. As he can offer no evidence for any conflict of interest, Hitchens comes up with the clever term "harmony of interest" to bolster his innuendo. The aspersion comes off as another attempt to hit below the belt, not only by the Marquis of Queensbury rules, but even by the lowly standards of gutter journalism.
In his preface Hitchens contends that "[t]he Pinochet verdict in London, the splendid activism of the Spanish magistracy and the verdicts of the International Tribunal at The Hague have destroyed the shield that immunized crimes committed under the justification of raison d'etat." In fact, Hitchens is ready to extend the principle a good deal further. He proposes to prosecute not only crimes but policy decisions made for reasons of state, provided they are policy decisions that run counter to his own predilections.

Hitchens' charges against Kissinger range from the totally spurious to ones that could be brought against most political figures whose countries were engaged in hostilities, anti-terrorist campaigns, or faced insurrections during their terms of office. Never mind tough guys like Ariel Sharon, Yasser Arafat, Vladimir Putin, Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher: Hitchens' net-if consistently applied-would catch even ex-'60s peaceniks such as Gerhard Schröder, Bill Clinton or Tony Blair. (nato's air raids over Serbia claimed civilian casualties, as did Clinton's cruise missiles lobbed at Sudan, among other places, in 1998.)

Dressing up politics in black robes does not elevate politics, of course; it just lowers justice. Incongruous as it is to discuss Dr. Kissinger in the same breath with General Pinochet, the Pinochet extradition case does provide one object lesson. The lengthy wrangling in the British courts illustrated that whenever judges are inclined, for political or ideological reasons, to arrive at a certain result, they are likely to find the legal props to support it. Pinochet's extradition made no sense in law as presented in the Spanish magistrate's initial request, which said in essence that the international treaty on genocide should be extended to cover the killings of political opponents, and also authorize trials in the national courts of other countries. The Law Lords rejected this-not surprisingly, because the treaty contains no such provisions-but then agreed to have Judge Garzón's request amended under the UN Torture Convention to which Britain became a signatory in 1988, resting the entire case on a single incident, the beating of a suspect in a provincial Chilean police station.

What this indicates is that courts are not impervious to the general political climate in which they find themselves. Although the idea of any country trying to prosecute a former U.S. secretary of state on the basis of assertions such as Hitchens' still seems only the erotic dream of neutered liberals and ex-flower children who have long fantasized about setting up a Holy Inquisition of the Left, the FBI has seen fit to issue quiet warnings to former American officials about traveling in some European countries-not without reason, as Judge Le Loire's attempt to summon Kissinger in Paris has indicated. Within weeks, a court decided that it had jurisdiction to try Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Belgium for war crimes. The danger that international systems of justice may be hijacked for political ends is quite real.

For now, the faithful are content to utilize the "splendid activism" of Spanish, French or Belgian magistrates, but as their ultimate instrument they look forward to the still-to-be established International Criminal Court. This body came a step closer to being on December 31, 2000, when President Bill Clinton (as he then was) announced that the United States would become a signatory to the Rome Treaty. Though the treaty is unlikely to be ratified by the Senate-and in any case the ICC would have no jurisdiction over Kissinger because it cannot try cases retroactively-if such a court came into being today, it might well put Colin Powell in the dock for some policy decision tomorrow.

Any international court is almost guaranteed to prosecute identical conduct selectively. If such a court wished to protect the peace, it would often have to make a mockery of justice; if it insisted on justice, it would often be obliged to wreck the peace. (The Dayton accords, after all, could not have been signed if Slobodan Milosevic had been charged with war crimes in 1995.) Ultimately, the greatest risk international courts raise is that of moral deception: political fashion hiding behind a mask of justice. Since such warnings tend to be dismissed as alarmist or exaggerated when made in the abstract, perhaps one should be grateful to Hitchens for helping to prove the point. As the 21st century begins, we are seeing those who were wrong during the Cold War proposing to pass judgment on those who were right. Since they don't seem to do it very well in books, they are trying to do it in courts of law.

Essay Types: Book Review