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The Trial of Robert D. Kaplan

The Atlantic's absurd defense of Henry Kissinger

Getty Images/Win McNamee

Great times call for great men. The cold war era provided Henry Kissinger. We have Robert Kaplan. Where Kissinger was content to oversee the bombing of Cambodia, the pointless extension of the Vietnam War, and the undermining of elected governments, Kaplan has set his sets higher: he wants to justify all these actions, and even celebrate them. In the current issue of The Atlantic, he gives this dirty task his best shot, and inadvertently proves that he is the most overrated pundit writing on foreign affairs.

The first thing to understand about both Kaplan and his hero is that they are obsessed with appearing as tough and no-nonsense. Their admitted amorality isn’t merely a philosophy, but rather a style. While others whimper about human rights and wrongs, they focus on the big picture: the national interest, strategic thinking, the “balance of power.” Thus Kaplan starts his piece with a defense of Castlereagh and Palmerston, the nineteenth century British statesman who in “difficult, uncertain times” managed to maintain the “status quo.” The beauty of such an outlook is that nearly everything becomes defensible. Other may shirk from the rough job of upholding the balance of power, but they do not.  As Kaplan phrases it, summing up his thesis:

The rare individuals who have recognized the necessity of violating such morality, acted accordingly, and taken responsibility for their actions are among the most necessary leaders for their countries, even as they have caused great unease among generations of well-meaning intellectuals who, free of the burden of real-world bureaucratic responsibility, make choices in the abstract and treat morality as an inflexible absolute

The most glaring problem with this argument, however, is its inherent logical flaw. If the balance of power is worth preserving, then presumably it is preserving for a reason. If the cold war should have been fought with vigor and without sentimentality, as Kaplan believes, then presumably the United States should have tried to defeat the Soviet Union for a reason. Everyone is, at bottom, some sort of moralist.

Kaplan falls into this error, and others, in his discussion of Chile. He explains the situation there in 1973 as follows:

Nixon and Kissinger encouraged a military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet, during which thousands of innocent people were killed. Their cold moral logic was that a right-wing regime of any kind would ultimately be better forChile and for Latin America than a leftist regime of any kind—and would also be in the best interests of the United States. They were right—though at a perhaps intolerable cost.

Notice Kaplan trying to have this every possible way. They were right—i.e. the policy was justified—although the costs were “perhaps” intolerable, meaning that the policy was not justified. Kaplan goes on to celebrate Pinochet’s rule, but then adds, pathetically, “Still, no amount of economic and social gain justifies almost two decades of systematic torture perpetrated against tens of thousands of victims in more than 1,000 detention centers.” So which is it? Moreover, why does Kaplan pretend to care about torture and death? What are a few Latin American victims set beside the national interest, and the dangers of the Evil Empire?

Kaplan’s discussion of Vietnam is equally confusing. Yes, it’s true that the Nixon campaign helped sabotage the Paris Peace Talks in 1968, and yes, it’s also true that the eventual terms of the American retreat were nearly identical to what was discussed in that election year. But Kaplan, as an admirer of the Domino Theory, treats the whole question as a matter of America’s image. Arguing that it would have been difficult to pull out troops in 1969, he writes, “And that’s leaving aside the diplomatic and strategic fallout beyond Southeast Asia that America’s sudden and complete betrayal of a longtime ally would have generated.” In other words, thank God we stuck around for another half-decade. Imagine the consequences if we had left right away? But wait:

Let’s consider how Carter’s morality stacks up against Kissinger’s in the case of Ethiopia, which, like Angola, Nicaragua, and Afghanistan, was among the dominoes that became increasingly unstable and then fell in the months and years following Saigon’s collapse, partly disproving another myth of the Vietnam antiwar protest movement—that the domino theory was wrong.

Translation: everything that Kaplan warned against happened anyway! Put aside the assertion that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the rise of the Sandinistas, and chaos in Africa were all the result of America leaving Vietnam, and merely ask: what exactly did the Nixon-Kissinger policy—which led to tens of thousands of American deaths and more Southeast Asian deaths than we can even count—accomplish?

Kaplan is better equipped to discuss the bombing of Cambodia. Here he can merely celebrate immoral policy, and do so without gaping logical holes. He goes on to laud Kissinger’s oh-so-clever China policy by stating that with the Nixon embrace of China (and the ensuing Chinese economic reforms), “personal freedom effloresced.” Effloresced! Thank God the people of China live with such glorious freedom. Kissinger’s opinion on the Tiananmen Square Massacre, by the way, was as follows: “This is not the place to examine the events that led to the tragedy at Tiananmen Square; each side has different perceptions depending on the various, often conflicting, origins of their participation in the crisis ... The occupation of the main square of a country's capital, even when completely peaceful, is also a tactic to demonstrate the impotence of the government, to weaken it, and to tempt it into rash acts, putting it at a disadvantage.”

By the end of Kaplan’s piece, he is in full-on apologetics mode. He mentions that Kissinger denied that Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union was “an American concern.” He doesn’t add what Kissinger also said: “And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.” Maybe. This is ugly stuff, but men of great will—from Kissinger to Kaplan--cannot be dissuaded from the business of hard-nosed statecraft.

Follow Isaac Chotiner on Twitter @IChotiner.