Last week, Henry Kissinger was back in the news, or Fox News at least, saying he disagreed with Rand Paul’s stance on domestic surveillance and urging the United States to escalate its fight against ISIS.
Neither position should be surprising. Within months of entering the White House as National Security advisor in early 1969, Kissinger goaded Richard Nixon to place illegal wiretaps on close friends and associates, journalists, and government officials, including his own NSC aide Morton Halperin (father of political commentator Mark). FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s memo of his phone call with Kissinger notes that Kissinger “hoped I would follow it up as far as we can take it and they will destroy whoever did this if we can find him, no matter where he is.”
As to the fight against ISIS, of course he wants to escalate. That’s been his advice since Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos and onward through Angola, Mozambique, Panama, Central America, Libya, the first Gulf War and the second. In Kissinger’s grand strategy, escalation is always required so that de-escalation can proceed. We’ve been bombing Iraq continuously since 1991, a cause that our foreign policy establishment refuses to connect to the effect of the current catastrophe in the region.
Kissinger, out of public office since 1977, has cheered on the United States every step of the way as it plunged into the Persian Gulf. Here he is in 1996, telling Bill Clinton to increase the number of cruise missiles he was sending into Baghdad: “The issue in Iraq is not the hiding of biological weapons,” Kissinger said; “the issue is, do we have a strategy for breaking the back of somebody we don’t want to negotiate with? And if we’re not able to do that, how can we then avoid negotiating with him? If we are not able to destroy and we are not able to isolate him, we’re only going to demonstrate our impotence.”
That, Kissinger said—trying to establish the domestic will to break the back of adversaries—was what he and Nixon tried to accomplish in Vietnam. “Whether we got it right or not,” Kissinger said, “is really secondary.”
It’s not that remarkable a statement. At least it is honest: What matters is the effect that the will to bomb (or, if possible, actual bombing) has on us, providing a sense of purpose so we can bomb some more. Kissinger, despite his reputation, isn’t a realist—or at least he doesn’t believe that policymakers have access to reality. Rather, perception of reality has to be created by resolved, circular action: The projection of power creates our understanding of purpose and an understanding of purpose allows us to project power. “Whether we got it right or not,” Kissinger has said, “is really secondary.”