Real Realism

Henry Kissinger, that personification of dispassionate diplomacy which privileges national interest, not feel-good principles, has once again topped himself.  Recently released transcripts of secretly recorded conversations capture Nixon’s consigliore telling his boss that facilitating the emigration of persecuted Jews from the Soviet Union was not an American “objective.”

It is a startling statement from a German émigré whose own family fled Hitler.  But then this: “And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern.  Maybe a humanitarian concern.”  Note Kissinger’s rhetorical hedge, which serves to avoid any possibility of entangling the US in some flight of fancy not vital to the country’s national interest, including arresting genocide.

Writing in Slate, Christopher Hitchens wonders whether Kissinger’s grotesque amorality counts as “Holocaust pre-denial.”  Maybe.  But what else is to be expected from someone so utterly devoid of scruples that he would not only sell out his own mother to satisfy his megalomaniacal ambitions, but might stick her in an oven, too?  That’s not too far off the mark.

It may be recalled that Kissinger, secretly acting as then candidate Nixon’s surrogate during US-North Vietnam peace talks held in Paris in 1968, helped sabotage negotiations in order to undermine the election prospects of Hubert Humphrey, President Johnson’s vice president.  As Hitchens elaborates, four years and 20,000 US service member’s lives later (and the lives of countless Vietnamese, Laotians, Cambodians, and others), Nixon tried to negotiate a peace agreement on roughly the same terms.

The rot at Kissinger’s core is well trod.  Of more interest is his peculiar interpretation of realpolitik.  While Kissinger preached statecraft devoid of sentimentality—nations have interests, not friends, he might remind—he practiced something far different.  His advocacy of recklessly expanding hostilities in Indochina needlessly prolonged a civil war whose outcome had little bearing on US national interests.  Rarely was realism less realistic.

The gap between real and perceived national interest is brought to mind in the wake of the most recent review of the administration’s Afghanistan strategy issued on Thursday, the one-year anniversary of the decision to send an additional 30,000 US combat troops to the country.  Though the study cites progress in the nine-year-old campaign, it is full of caveats.  Not that some blinkered optimists will take note.  In a rebuke to the “counsels of despair,” Max Boot writes in Commentary, “I return [from Afghanistan] convinced that the campaign is, in fact, going well and that it is suppressing the Taliban.”

The despairing includes the US’ 16 intelligence agencies, whose consensus view on the war is contained in the latest National Intelligence Estimate.  That review highlights Pakistan’s determined refusal to dismantle Taliban sanctuaries in its lawless tribal regions bordering Afghanistan, which critically undermines the war effort.  Is this an act of betrayal?  Perhaps, but that misses the point.  Islamabad sees the Taliban as a key proxy that will guarantee its influence in Afghanistan once America departs.  Two billion dollars in bilateral aid from the US won’t change that calculation.

And then there’s Karzai.  US counterinsurgency strategy depends on having a viable partner—a point underscored by none other than General Petraeus—but our man in Kabul is as feckless and corrupt as the cavalcade of puppets we installed in South Vietnam.  If success depends on him, and it does, then we are guaranteed to fail.

Unpacking the war’s flawed premises risks overlooking a more fundamental question: what’s the US national interest in Afghanistan?  In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 it was clear, the global terrorist threat emanated from the country.  No longer.  Terrorism has metastasized.  Its cancerous nodes have taken root far and wide.  Why, then, is our focus so dangerously narrow—and dangerously narrow in a place we cannot possibly prevail?

Obama can’t pull the plug on a doomed war he inherited but now owns.  “We are on track to achieve our goals [in Afghanistan],” he said this week.  It is the sort of light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel assessment that makes US engagement in the expensive ($113 billion annual cost) and intractable conflict self-perpetuating.  No wonder the date for wrapping up US active involvement in Afghanistan keeps slipping—now to 2014.

This all goes to show that we’ve lost the plot.  Countries should stick to doing what’s in their self interest (and yes, stopping genocide can qualify).  It’s called realism.  What the US is doing in Afghanistan falls short of that standard—unless, of course, our’s is the sort of obtuse realpolitik that Henry Kissinger would endorse.

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