WHAT’S WRONG WITH this country? The appointment of Henry Kissinger, a war criminal — well, an accused war criminal — to oversee a committee that will investigate national-security failures prior to September 11 is an international scandal, and only the Nation (as you would suspect) is paying attention. It’s true that the New York Times offered tentative criticism of the appointment, claiming that Kissinger may be a "less than staunchly independent" figure to lead a stalwart investigation into failures that may have led to the terrorist attacks that brought down the World Trade Center and ripped a hole in the Pentagon. But our opinion makers have by and large paid scant attention to what may be — depending on what the investigation finds — one of the most explosive and debatable appointments Bush ever makes.
But that’s not all. No one even noticed last February when John M. Poindexter — a convicted liar, thief, and traitor for his role in the 1986 Iran-contra affair during his tenure as national-security adviser under Ronald Reagan — was appointed to head the Pentagon’s newly formed Information Awareness Office. Only recently have reports come out about what that office is up to — spying on the American public — and Poindexter’s role in it all. But again, there’s been a disconcerting lack of outrage. In disturbing contrast to all this were the recent front-page stories previewing Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday on December 5. What are we to make of the fact that the centennial celebration of a racist segregationist gets more attention than the appointment of a convicted secret conspirator to a Pentagon office designed to track our credit-card purchases?
George Santayana famously noted that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." This is the historian’s version of Freud’s theory of "the return of the repressed" — the more we try to forget unpleasant memories or feelings, the more persistently (and monstrously) they will resurface in our consciousness. But the appointments of Kissinger to investigate national-security problems relating to September 11 and Poindexter to spy on Americans, coupled with the celebratory coverage of Thurmond’s 100th birthday, are not the result of forgetting the past. Rather, they represent an open and gross manifestation of the desire to re-create the past. This isn’t the return of the repressed — it is the return of the repressive. And President George W. Bush is leading the way.
Bush has peppered his administration with political criminals from the past. John Negroponte — who, as ambassador to Honduras during the Reagan administration, helped supply arms to Nicaraguan contras in defiance of a congressional ban, and who helped conceal from Congress acts of murder, kidnapping, and torture committed by a CIA-equipped and -trained Honduran military unit — is now the ambassador to the United Nations. Elliott Abrams, who pleaded guilty in 1991 to two counts of withholding evidence from Congress for his role in the Iran-contra scandal (and who was pardoned for his crimes by the first president Bush) is now the National Security Council’s senior director for Near East and North African affairs and an aide to the president on Middle East issues. And Otto Reich — who headed the Office for Public Diplomacy, which was censured by the House Committee on Foreign Affairs for engaging in covert propaganda activities — is the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs. But Bush’s appointment of Kissinger — known primarily for his overlapping stints as national-security adviser (1969-’75) and secretary of state (1973-’77) in the administrations of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, but who is remembered by many as "the butcher of Cambodia" for his illegal bombing of Cambodian Laotian civilians in February and March of 1969 — to head an independent commission to investigate the causes of the attacks and to ask whether the FBI and CIA could have averted them is hard to top. (See "Look Who’s Back," page 24.)
To both his admirers (yes, they’re out there) and his detractors, Kissinger is infamous for his use of secrecy and deceit in wielding political power. He urged Nixon to prosecute newspapers if they published the Pentagon Papers, claiming that publication would erode the power of the federal government to make and implement policy decisions (an argument almost identical to the one used to support Vice-President Dick Cheney’s refusal to hand over the list of who attended his energy-commission meetings). He wiretapped his own colleagues and journalists when he suspected leaks about the bombings in Cambodia. Kissinger has never really been much of a pro-democracy sort of guy. During the brutal and murderous military takeover of Chile, he remarked, "I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go Communist because of the irresponsibility of its own people."
Kissinger’s career of public (dis)service ended after his stint as Ford’s secretary of state. Six years later, he started his own consulting company, Kissinger Associates. Most of the company’s work involves negotiating relationships between multinational corporations and foreign governments. He refuses to make public his list of clients, but they’re known to include American Express, ITT, Lockheed Corporation, Coca-Cola, Fiat, Revlon, Union Carbide, and H.J. Heinz. But the world of American consumerism isn’t all that far from Kissinger’s old world of foreign policy. As Christopher Hitchens points out in his book The Trial of Henry Kissinger (Verso, 2001), Kissinger’s firm helped Heinz find a market for baby food in China: "Selling baby food in China may seem innocuous enough, but when the Chinese regime turned its guns and tanks on its own children in Tiananmen Square in 1989, it had no more staunch defender than Henry Kissinger. Arguing very strongly against sanctions, he wrote that ‘China remains too important for America’s national security to risk the relationship on the emotions of the moment.’" Is this a man we should trust to determine if any connections exist between Saudi oil money and Al Qaeda?
Even worse, however, is that Henry Kissinger is viewed by many other countries as a war criminal. In May 2001, he was asked to testify about the fate of French citizens who disappeared under the Pinochet regime. He has also been called to testify about his relationship with the Pinochet government’s use of assassination and torture in Chile and Argentina. In September 2001, he faced a civil lawsuit charging him with complicity in the murder of General Rene Schneider of Chile. The situation is so bad that the Brazilian government rescinded its speaking-engagement offer to Kissinger because it realized it could not guarantee him immunity from prosecution. Indeed — like his supporter and friend General Augusto Pinochet — Kissinger could be snatched up and made to testify on human-rights abuses if he travels abroad. As Hitchens recently reminded us in a piece for Slate, Kissinger gets legal advice before he travels anywhere to avoid becoming another Pinochet — detained and even arrested for his past crimes against humanity.
It’s hard not to ask why Kissinger? Why not, as Senator John Kerry recently suggested to Tim Russert on Meet the Press, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani? Why not former secretary of state Madeleine Albright? Why not Jimmy Carter, who just won the Nobel Peace Prize? (Of course, that award in itself may not necessarily commend him — Yasser Arafat and Kissinger himself are also Nobel Peace Prize laureates.) Even the first president Bush would have been a better choice.