Six years after he stepped down as former president Gerald Ford’s secretary of state, Henry Kissinger returned to the corridors of power last week as President Ronald Reagan’s nominee to head a 12-man, two-party commission on U.S. policy in Central America. Reagan announced the appointment in a speech to the annual convention of the International Longshoreman’s Association in Florida. With the administration’s policies of I military aid to El Salvador and “covert” war against Nicaragua encountering I apathy or hostility at home and tension increasing in the region itself, the choice of Kissinger underscored the White House’s sense of urgency. Reagan charged Kissinger’s group with forging “a foundation for a long-term, unified national approach” to Central America. “We must not allow totalitarian communism to win by default,” Reagan declared. “Henry Kissinger brings the credentials of a diplomat who has become virtually a legend in that field.”
Predictably, the nomination was controversial. While Republican Senator Howard Baker Jr. and Democratic Senator Henry Jackson approved, Republican Senator Jesse Helms said that he could not think of anyone “in this broad land who is lower on my list of choices.” From advance indications, Kissinger is more likely to become a salesman for existing policy than an architect of new departures. In the past he has opposed open war with Nicaragua, but he favored “an overt American military presence” on the Honduran-Nicaraguan border to stop Nicaraguan aid to guerrillas in El Salvador.
Kissinger is unquestionably the most praised—and vilified—U.S. diplomat in : memory. In his eight-year stint (196977), first as former president Richard Nixon’s national security adviser, and later as secretary of state under both Nixon and Ford, Kissinger became a global celebrity, something of a ladies’ man and a renowned wit. “I haven’t addressed such a distinguished audience,” he told one Washington gathering, “since dining alone in the [Versailles] Hall of Mirrors.” His calculatedly accented English—Kissinger came to New York City from Nazi Germany as a teenager—became familiar worldwide. Fanned by adulatory press coverage, his
reputation for negotiating savvy, patience and ruthlessness burgeoned into that of a latter-day Machiavelli. No diplomatic tangle, it sometimes appeared, was proof against the unscrambling guile of “Henry the K.”
Kissinger assiduously fostered his image as “Super K”—and sometimes employed it as a weapon. But it was based on a striking series of accomplishments. Together with Nixon, Kissinger ultimately negotiated U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, the most painful American trauma in a generation. For that he shared a Nobel Peace Prize with North Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho (who refused it). Kissinger also played a crucial role in Nixon’s reformulation of U.S. global strategy, fostering détente with the Soviets, negotiating the first Strategic Arms Limitations Treaty (SALT) and engineering the “opening” to Communist China. Kissinger’s finest hours were during the Ford years. His “shuttle diplomacy” between Israel, Syria and Egypt cleared the way for the creation of demilitarized zones between the opposing armies and laid the groundwork on which the Camp David peace accords were later built.
Even in the late 1970s, however, long before Seymour Hersh’s blistering exposé, The Price of Power, it was already evident that there was a very dark side to Kissinger’s force. Simultaneously egotistical and insecure, Kissinger frequently drove his staffers past the point of endurance and felt little compunction about taking credit for their work. In the conspiratorial ambience of the Nixon White House, Kissinger was a ruthless, effective in-fighter—especially in undercutting any policy role for Nixon’s first secretary of state, William Rogers.
As part of the White House “plumbers’ ” attempt to stop unauthorized leaks to the press, Kissinger authorized wiretaps on his key aides. In his own leaks, Kissinger portrayed himself to selected friendly journalists as a “moderate” among White House hawks on Vietnam. Subsequent revelations,
however, showed him to be an eager architect of the ultimately disastrous decision to invade Cambodia in 1970. He was also a forceful advocate of punitive B-52 raids on Hanoi in 1972 and on Cambodia in 1975 after the Khmer Rouge seizure of the U.S. merchant ship Mayaguez. Even some of Kissinger’s I
most highly publicized triumphs concealed lingering damage for the United States. His diplomatic legacy, argues John Prados, author of The Soviet Estimate, a history of U.S. intelligence on the Soviet Union, “resembles a series of time bombs. Some have already gone off, others will be ticking for years.” During the first SALT talks, Kissinger missed what now appears to have been the only opportunity to halt the mutual deployment of multiple warheads—the very root of current nuclear anxieties. The United States had a substantial lead in the weapons race at the time and the Soviets were eager to come to terms. But Kissinger ignored the overtures, calculating incorrectly that it would be years before the Soviets caught up. Again, the eventual peace in Vietnam, in retrospect, differed little from North Vietnamese proposals made years earlier-before thousands were killed—but which Kissinger and Nixon repeatedly rebuffed. On other fronts, Kissinger’s belief in the durability of Portuguese and Rhodesian white rule in southern
Africa left the United States unprepared to respond to the collapse of colonialist regimes there; his “tilt” toward Pakistan in its 1971 war with India needlessly alienated New Delhi; and the Kissinger era decision to grant the late Shah of Iran virtually unlimited access to U.S. arms in retrospect stands as a
benchmark in the decline and fall of the Peacock Throne.
On a deeper level, Kissinger’s policies reflected an obsessive concern with maintaining America’s geopolitical clout against the Soviets and a pessimistic assessment of U.S. democracy’s capacity to do so. “Democracies,” he wrote in 1957, “by the nature of their institutions cannot conduct policy as deviously, change course as rapidly, or prepare their moves as secretly as dictatorships.” His most admired role model, Austria’s Prince Klemens Metternich—the subject of his PhD thesis-operated in a highly authoritarian society and dedicated his career to
maintaining that status quo. Kissinger clearly viewed Congress and the press as interlopers in the geopolitical game. “I am sympathetic to the covert operations [against Nicaragua],” Kissinger told an interviewer earlier this year, “if we can conduct them the way their name implies. But if covert operations have to be justified in a public debate, they stop being covert and we wind
up losing public support.”
Regaining such support, of course, is the task of the commission Kissinger now heads. With its Democratic members all drawn from the conservative wing of that party, the “bipartisan” group contains no known critics of Reagan’s Central American policies—and scant expertise on the region. Kissinger’s experience with the Hispanic half of the Americas is essentially limited to overseeing U.S. plans to “destabilize” the Allende government in Chile. “I don’t see why a country should be allowed to go Communist through the irresponsibility of its own people,” he said shortly after Allende’s 1970 election victory.
The Kissinger commission is unlikely to challenge the premises behind Reagan’s policy in Central America. As on most issues, Kissinger views the U.S. stake in the region as essentially a matter of the credibility of U.S. power on a world scale. “If we cannot manage Central America,” he said earlier this year, “it will be impossible to convince threatened nations in the Persian Gulf and in other places that we know how to manage global equilibrium.” The commission’s deliberations may, however, provide undecided congressmen with grounds for voting the military aid Reagan has been seeking, at least until the panel’s report is prej sented in December.
But with a stacked membership and a chairman who opposes even elected Marxists in Latin America, the commission is unlikely to bolster White House credibility either at home or I abroad. And given the dense cloud of contro1 versy that still swirls I around Kissinger, there I is a strong possibility that his appointment may actually galvanize dissent. “Kissinger has few rivals in diplomatic experience or expertise,” concedes Connecticut Democratic Senator Christopher Dodd, one of the sharpest-tongued opponents of the administration’s Central American venture. “But that experience has made him a symbol for a foreign policy many would rather forget than repeat.”
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