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Realpolitik was Kissinger’s excuse, not his motivation


There are many possible entry points to discovering how evil the widely-elite-respected war criminal who died yesterday was. One I strongly recommend is Gary Bass’s The Blood Telegram, which exhaustively details Nixon and Kissinger’s active complicity in Pakistan’s genocidal massacre of Bengali nationalists in East Pakistan. The “realist” pretext for Nixon and Kissinger giving the green light was Pakistani dictator Yahya Khan’s assistance in opening up diplomatic relations to China. But as Bass demonstrates with extensive documentation — most notably the direct communications between Nixon and Kissinger the former elected to preserve for posterity — the realpolitik was more rationalization than reason. They were, as Bass observes, driven “not just by such Cold War calculations, but a starkly personal and emotional dislike of India and Indians.” Nixon greatly enjoyed the company of the jockish Khan and needless to say despised Indira Gandhi.

As Dexter Filkins summaraizes:

In practice, this meant that Yahya — a vain, shallow mediocrity — was suddenly considered indispensable, free to do whatever he wished in East Pakistan. With the White House averting its eyes, the largely Muslim Pakistani Army killed at least 300,000 Bengalis, most of them Hindus, and forced 10 million to flee to India. Bass lays out his indictment of the White House: Nixon and Kissinger spurned the cables, written by their own diplomats in Dacca (the capital of East Pakistan), that said West Pakistan was guilty of carrying out widespread massacres. Archer Blood, the counsel general in Dacca, sent an angry cable that detailed the atrocities and used the word “genocide.” The men in the White House, however, not only refused to condemn Yahya — in public or private — but they also declined to withhold American arms, ammunition and spare parts that kept Pakistan’s military machine humming. Indeed, Nixon regarded the dictator with genuine affection. “I understand the anguish you must have felt in making the difficult decisions you have faced,” he told Yahya.

The voices of Kissinger and Nixon are the book’s most shocking aspects. Bass has unearthed a series of conversations, most of them from the White House’s secret tapes, that reveal Nixon and Kissinger as breathtakingly vulgar and hateful, especially in their attitudes toward the Indians, whom they regarded as repulsive, shifty and, anyway, pro-Soviet — and especially in their opinion of Indira Gandhi. “The old bitch,” Nixon called her. “I don’t know why the hell anybody would reproduce in that damn country but they do,” he said.

These sorts of statements will probably not surprise the experts, but what is most telling is what they reveal about Nixon’s and Kissinger’s strategic intelligence. At every step of the crisis, the two men appear to have been driven as much by their loathing of India — West Pakistan’s rival — as by any cool calculations of power. By failing to restrain West Pakistan, they allowed a blood bath to unfold, and then a regional war, which began when Gandhi finally decided that the only way to stop the tide of refugees was to stop the killing across the border. That, in turn, prompted West Pakistan to attack India.

At this point, the recklessness of Nixon and Kissinger only got worse. They dispatched ships from the Seventh Fleet into the Bay of Bengal, and even encouraged China to move troops to the Indian border, possibly for an attack — a maneuver that could have provoked the Soviet Union. Fortunately, the leaders of the two Communist countries proved more sober than those in the White House. The war ended quickly, when India crushed the Pakistani Army and East Pakistan declared independence.

Nixon and Kissinger spent the decades after leaving office burnishing their images as great statesmen. This book goes a long way in showing just how undeserved those reputations are.

Nixon and Kissinger’s carefully cultivated reputation as hard-headed realists was just PR to cover up they fact that they were both bloodthirsty maniacs consumed with various prejudices and animuses. Nixon and Kissinger’s not only immoral but bumbling response to the crisis averted even worse disasters because the leadership in the Soviet Union and China was much more rational.

Kissinger’s other PR move was to portray himself as a civilizing, restraining force on Nixon’s worst impulses. This, too, was bullshit. Kissinger used more moderate rhetoric in group settings, but when alone with Nixon “[a]ll the sophistication vanished, replaced with a relentless drumbeat against India.” Kissinger at various points “spun out control,” goading Nixon to escalate confrontation with the Soviet Union. If anything, Nixon was the constraint on Kissisnger rather than the reverse. Kissinger has been able to cover up his role with the help of a lot of willing lapdogs.

Vietmam is also crucial context here, and further underscores the hollowness of Nixon and Kissinger’s “realism.” There escalation in Vietnam and Cambodia 1)failed to make the Saigon government viable, 2)did not get the US anything meaningful in a deal LBJ couldn’t have gotten in 1968, and 3)led to countless senseless deaths while also paving the road for the Khmer Rouge. For Nixon and Kissinger the use of force was always an end in itself, and it is more important now than ever not to whitewash Kissinger’s disgraceful record.

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