A review of The Trial of Henry Kissinger, by Christopher Hitchens

For some time now it has appeared that Christopher Hitchens, the acerbic critic for The Nation and other lefty publications, was on the slippery slope to becoming at least an adjunct member of the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy. In addition to being one of Bill Clinton's most lacerating critics, Hitchens's public repudiation of Sidney Blumenthal over Clinton's actions in the Lewinsky cover-up probably ended Blumenthal's future prospects as a serious journalist—a high public service by any reckoning. 

Hitchens has recently confessed to abandoning socialism and becoming more interested in libertarian ideas, admitting that Margaret Thatcher represented a more revolutionary force in British politics than the Labour Party. He has been prominent among figures on the Left who have reacted splendidly in the aftermath of September 11, attacking "Islamic fascism" and affirming the right as well as the duty of America to make war. But his greatest heresy from liberalism is one we hear least about. Hitchens opposes abortion on materialistic grounds: human life has to begin at some point, and there is no non-arbitrary way to determine that is begins at a point after conception but before birth. He still smokes tobacco products and enjoys adult beverages. 

Above all, Hitchens is a lively and stylish writer. He is never a bore, even when arguing a tendentious case, as he does with his most recent book, The Trial of Henry Kissinger. Hitchens delights in being an iconoclast, yet this book seems calculated to protect Hitchens's left flank from charges that he is a full-fledged defector. Few figures except the ghost of Joe McCarthy provoke the furies of the feverish Left more than Henry Kissinger, so this book should preserve Hitchens's club memberships on the Upper West Side. 

There are many good reasons to be harshly critical of Kissinger's statecraft, some of which are on display in my own book,The Age of Reagan. Kissinger's precocious intellect is at the core of the problem. "The more history I read," Peter Drucker wrote in reflecting on Kissinger in 1978, "the more I become convinced that the genius foreign minister is a disaster for his country." The conservative critique of Kissinger derives from the view that Kissinger's European-style realism is ill suited for American democracy, and that Kissinger's détente drained away the moral content of the American position in the Cold War. The leftist critique that Hitchens builds in The Trial of Henry Kissinger appears to be more straightforward: Kissinger is a war criminal who deserves a Nuremberg-style tribunal. "There is now no reason why a warrant for the trial of Henry Kissinger may not be issued, in any one of a number of jurisdictions," Hitchens writes, "and why he may not be compelled to answer it." 

Hitchens's indictment includes charges of mass murder of civilians in Southeast Asia and Bangladesh, complicity in genocide in East Timor, and involvement in several murder conspiracies at home and abroad. Hitchens offers only a little new material or evidence for these affairs, instead relying on his powers as a stylist to recycle and sensationalize old episodes, starting with the "open secret" that Kissinger was part of the Nixon cabal to derail Vietnamese peace negotiations on the eve of the 1968 election. Hitchens also retreads the sequel to this episode that had long been a staple of leftist lore—that Kissinger and Nixon eschewed the opportunity to conclude a peace agreement with North Vietnam in 1969, deliberately prolonging the war another five years and costing 20,000 more American lives. 

The latter charge is nonsense; the former charge is probably true, though the full details remain murky. Moreover, the retailers of this charge fail to consider seriously some larger questions of politics and statecraft lurking in the background. It is inconceivable that the crafty President Johnson was oblivious or uncalculating in agreeing to a bombing half and negotiations on the very eve of a national election. Johnson aide John P. Roche had predicted early in 1967 that North Vietnam would agree to negotiations at the point where it would create the most mischief in American politics—close to the election. Perhaps Johnson, who had bugged Nixon's campaign, wanted to make mischief, in which case Nixon would be right to intervene in order to preserve some latitude for his own statecraft. 

Any serious inquiry into these kinds of murky affairs requires confronting the inherent moral ambiguity of international relations, especially in the context of a worldwide great-power confrontation. The unstated premise of Hitchens's categorical condemnation of Kissinger is that the Cold War, and its attendant practical dilemmas, was unnecessary. If Kissinger and the United States engaged in some unsavory acts that make us squeamish, we should keep in mind that the alternative in the 1970s was the sanctimonious statecraft of Jimmy Carter, the disastrous and lasting effects of which could be said to have persisted right up to September 11. It is doubtful that Afghanistan would be the chaotic rogue it is today if the Shah or his familial ancestors had survived as rulers or Iran, and has preserved it as a bastion for the West.

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At first glance the right-wing and left-wing critiques of Kissinger appear symmetrical. Both are based on a moral complaint. But on closer inspection the similarity turns out to be illusory. The leftist critique rests on a high-minded view that "reasons of state" cannot justify immoral means, even for moral ends, while in judging a nation's actions, most conservatives will place a priority on the essential justice of a regime and the threat it faces. As Churchill reminded us, "The Sermon on the Mount is the last word in Christian ethics. Still, it is not on these terms that Ministers assume their responsibilities of guiding states."

This is one of the oldest debates in politics, made ever more acute by contemporary phenomena, from nuclear weapons to terrorism. It can always use fresh treatment, to help statesmen reflect on the prudence of statecraft. Rather than taking up the theoretical problem of the moral obligations and constraints of governments in foreign affairs, Hitchens sets his sights chiefly on overthrowing the privilege of sovereign immunity, and other incipient theories of international justice. 

Of course, Hitchens may be putting us on; perhaps his swing to the Right has accelerated to warp speed. It is tempting to wonder whether Hitchens is merely leapfrogging all the way over to the fever swamps of the militia-right, where Kissinger has always been regarded as the chief water boy for the Rockefeller Trilateral Commission conspiracy. The serious clue will come from his next book, which is reportedly about George Orwell. Here Hitchens faces an even bigger challenge than with Kissinger. He no doubt sees himself as a successor to Orwell. Orwell saw clearly the depravity of the left, but could never put together a coherent alternative of his own. Being a brilliant critic is no mean achievement, but at the end of the day readers will want more, and have to turn elsewhere to find it.