Kissinger on humanitarian war

Doug Henwood dhenwood at
Mon Jun 28 07:57:35 PDT 1999

Telegraph (London) - June 28, 1999


Whatever happened to wars fought in the national interest? Boris Johnson talks to Henry Kissinger

IT'S just too much: the celestial choirs, the haloes. Henry can't stand it. Never mind the conduct of the Kosovo war; he objects to "the appalling, oozing self-righteousness with which it is being presented to the American public - the distinction also being made by your people between moral wars and national interest wars".

Before Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, so the spin goes, the world was run by ruthless men and women who thought solely in terms of realpolitik, or national interest. The draft-dodger and the CND member grew up thinking Kissinger's bombing of Cambodia was the quintessence of geo-political cynicism; how very different from their own unselfish, humanitarian detonations in the Balkans. One can see why the former Secretary of State is miffed.

"I object to statesmen who pretend that there is a new concept that they have invented, and that the previous centuries have been run by people of lesser illumination," he says in his Claridges suite and his magnificently studied German-American drawl.

Dr Kissinger is over here en route to Warsaw to launch his latest volume of memoirs, dealing with the Ford years, from 1974 to 1977: the opening to China, the agony of Vietnam, the fall of Cambodia, the war in Cyprus. It's all there, an extraordinary first person panopsis. He is the Cold War warrior whose efforts helped to bring America to her unchallenged global supremacy, where Russia can no longer obstruct the bombing of Yugoslavia; and yet his brand of foreign policy is now held to be in some way morally inferior.

The other day Bill Clinton made a speech explaining that the international community had a duty to intervene all over the world to protect people from oppression by their governments. Yes, says Dr Kissinger. But where is the principle? "If you asked would you do it in Chechnya, you'd say no. Would you do it in Tibet? You'd say no. So where the hell do you do it? Only with very weak countries?"

Well, I say: surely it's not shameful to say you will intervene where you can, even if you can't alleviate the sufferings of the entire globe. "Intervene when you can? That is true even in the benighted period that preceded the present dispensation," says the statesman sniffily.

As for Kosovo, Kissinger doubts whether it really exemplifies a new kind of uniquely virtuous war. Once Nato had begun, of course, he proclaimed that "victory was the only exit"; and he makes clear his admiration for the British role. "The British are the only European nation that like war," he observes.

But he thought the whole business was misconceived. The Rambouillet text, which called on Serbia to admit Nato troops throughout Yugoslavia, was a "provocation", "an excuse to start bombing". "Rambouillet is not a document that an angelic Serb could have accepted. It was a terrible diplomatic document that should never have been presented in that form."

The Serbs may have behaved barbarously in suppressing KLA terror. But 80 per cent of the ceasefire violations, between October and February, were committed by the KLA. "It was not a war about ethnic cleansing at that point. If we had analysed it correctly we would have tried to strengthen the ceasefire and not put the entire blame on the Serbs.

"If Milosevic had engaged in massive ethnic cleansing without the bombing, I would probably have gone along with it. But if you add up all the suffering and ethnic strife that has followed, and all the consequences yet to happen, I am not persuaded that another course would not have been better."

So what would you have done? "That's like asking someone who critiques a painting: How would you have painted it?" he says, but adds: "I would have strengthened the international observers and let the guerrilla war run its course, the way they usually do; the way they did in South Africa and elsewhere, with the exhaustion of the imperial power."

Having begun, however, he would have threatened ground troops from the outset. He had doubts about the morality of bombing from 15,000ft.

This supposedly moral war, says Kissinger, was also about getting Kosovo off the evening news. "I believed that there was no overwhelming American national interest." Of course, he says, some people say that is precisely why it is so "beautiful". "But that is not something you can tell mothers if there are actual casualties. You have to relate it to something that is meaningful to their societies."

What if there aren't any casualties, at least on your side? "Then that's a great bonus; but if something is moral, then it is presumably of universal validity and worth dying for. You cannot say that the only moral issues are the ones with no risk of casualties."

If there is one moral difference between Kosovo and Cambodia, he says, it is that when he was in power America was prepared to sacrifice American lives for the sake of justice in other countries. As for the new moral order, "it is a question of a group of nations claiming to apply a universal jurisdiction which is not shared by the majority of mankind. It is an unsustainable policy. It will have to be modified".

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