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Henry Kissinger and War Crimes Trials

Commentary by Greg Lewis /
January 6, 2004

In a recent article ("Let Them Try Saddam Hussein"), I suggested, only half in jest, that a group of conservatives was being considered to question Saddam Hussein in a trial setting as part of a "reality TV" program concept being considered by two major networks. Among those mentioned was Henry Kissinger, and his name elicited this response from a reader: "[T]he question I am left with is: why is Henry Kissinger (as you've casually included as reference) not regarded as a war criminal in the like of Hussein?"

The reader was from Europe, and, although I risk making possibly unwarranted assumptions here, it's fairly clear that he shares the attitude of many of his continent-mates about what constitutes war crimes. The most damning and damaging of those attitudes is based on the moral equivalency implicit in seeing Henry Kissinger as a war criminal of the rank of Saddam Hussein. (And don't get me wrong about the business of making assumptions: I'm all in favor of exercising critical judgment and grouping people together in cases involving, for instance, national security. It's not Scandanavians or senior citizens in brightly colored golf slacks who are trying to highjack planes and fly them into American buildings, and it's a waste of time to pick them out for questioning and closer inspection of their luggage in airports, unless, of course, you have specific intelligence suggesting that they're being recruited by Al Qaeda and are scheduled to board a flight leaving Heathrow for Los Angeles.)

But to return to the point: The reader seemed already to have concluded that Kissinger is a war criminal. By extension, I sense that there was also widespread dismay among those who share his opinion of the former Secretary of State that Belgium recently lifted its warrants for the arrest of Kissinger, President Bush, and other Americans seen as war criminals.

Some of the ammunition for the position that Kissinger is a war criminal comes from a Harper's article (subsequently published in book form) by Christopher Hitchens. The reader in question had obviously taken Hitchens' opinions about Kissinger a bit more seriously than I have, and was willing to give credence to what I consider questionable (not to say borderline irrelevant) "evidence" that Kissinger ordered the hit on Chilean General Rene Schneider and that he should be held legally liable (and not simply guilty of morally reprehensible behavior) in the killing of civilians from Cambodia to Bangladesh.

Even if you "believe" the evidence Hitchens presents, the problem I find with asserting that Kissinger is more than a Machiavellian figure engaged in high-level international political intrigue which results in casualties and deaths involves moral equivocation which I don't buy into. First, the forces against which Kissinger and Nixon and the U.S. were fighting in Asia and South America during the late 1960s and early '70s were the forces of international communism. Now communism is the most murderous political ideology ever to despoil this planet. As many as 100 million people died, most at the hands of their own communist governments, as a result of communism in the 20th century. Communism, and its more benign handmaiden, socialism, promulgate an ideology that largely suppresses the human spirit and creative human enterprise in the service of putting in place overwhelmingly powerful and imperialistic central governments.

Communism was (and is, where it hasn't been put down) infinitely more imperialistic than western capitalistic democracy will ever be. This is not to say that capitalist countries haven't been imperialistic; it is to say that they are no longer a threat to the sovereignty of other nations. And despite the arguments that the United States is waging "imperialist" war in Iraq in order to gain control of the 11 percent of the world's known oil reserves that remain untapped in that country, it is clear to me that national security is the overwhelming consideration in our liberation of Iraq, and that nudging the balance of power in the middle east toward democracy (and away from anti-western terrorist states) is correctly seen by this administration as the way to bolster that security. The fact remains that western democratic nations do not — and never have — waged war against each other. The spread of democracy is, in the long run, the single greatest deterrent to breaches of our national security such as those of 9/11.

And so I always have to put my assessment of Kissinger in the context of the murderous and imperialistic political forces against which he found himself engaged. In this light, I see him as having done what he had to do in order to prevent the world (literally) from being overrun by those who would (and did, in Cambodia, North Korea, and Vietnam, to name three) establish tyrannical communist dictatorships. This is not to condone killing but to recognize that something drastic was required to keep Soviet and Chinese Communism from overrunning the planet. Nor do I think that the Soviets and the Chinese would have collapsed under the weight of their own iniquity if the United States had not stood up in defense of freedom.

And there is a categorical difference between monsters such as Stalin, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, Kim Il Sung, and Saddam Hussein (who is said to have watched with satisfaction as those who opposed him were killed by being slowly fed, feet first, into shredding machines) and people such as Kissinger, who, in an important sense, was forced to act in defense of principles which would otherwise have been obliterated from our world by the aforementioned monsters. It is precisely because he was acting in defense of liberty and in the cause of the spread of freedom from tyranny for all people that Mr. Kissinger's actions are not war crimes. Where liberty is at stake, there is no room for moral equivalence.

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