Unlikely Heir: Obama Returns to Kissinger's Realpolitik

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Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, shown here with his wife Nancy, remains an influential public figure. Zoom
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Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, shown here with his wife Nancy, remains an influential public figure.

Henry Kissinger, the hawkish national security advisor to Nixon who popularized realpolitik, turns 90 this week. Few would have expected President Obama to pick up his mantle, but the erstwhile idealist resembles Kissinger more every day.

When Henry Kissinger was at the height of his power, the US media dubbed then President Richard Nixon's national security advisor "the true president." At the time, he was traveling around the world at such a breakneck pace that journalists speculated that there must be five Kissingers (four doubles and one real). Around that time, a reporter asked him a question: Why are Americans so fascinated by a young man from Fürth in the German region of Franconia, who fled the Nazis at the age of 15?

Kissinger replied: "I've always acted alone. Americans like that immensely. Americans like the cowboy who leads the wagon train by riding ahead alone on his horse."

At Harvard University, the German émigré wrote his senior thesis about Austrian statesman Count Clemens von Metternich. Some 388 pages long, it prompted the university to introduce a page limit. His theory was that while Metternich might have temporarily destroyed the beginnings of liberalism in 19th-century Europe with the help of his secret diplomacy, he also preserved the balance of powers.

Kissinger, who celebrates his 90th birthday on May 27, has more in common with Metternich than he would like to admit, after having made his mark in history with a number of cool diplomatic strokes. He balanced the fragile equilibrium of horror among the nuclear powers in the Cold War. And, to his credit, Kissinger's secret negotiations with the North Vietnamese communists secured the relatively orderly withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam.

Kissinger secured Mao's China as a strategic partner and practiced Bismarckian realpolitik in Latin America. In the Kissinger system, unrest was more dangerous than injustice, and a functioning balance of power was more important than human rights.

His policies, however, often collided with America's self-image. The country likes to think it can save the world, if not actually reinvent it. But it also wants to be loved, a wish Kissinger neither could nor wanted to fulfill.

Realism without Moral Scruples

Before Washington's withdrawal from Vietnam, Kissinger, together with President Nixon, had Cambodia bombed practically back into the Stone Age. He also resisted an early end to the war for a long time, and wrote to Nixon: "Withdrawal of US troops will become like salted peanuts to the American public: The more US troops come home, the more will be demanded."

Kissinger supported Chilean General Augusto Pinochet, which helped bring about an economic recovery, but Pinochet also proved to be a brutal dictator. Kissinger's diplomacy opened up China, but it also made Beijing's nomenclatura policies socially acceptable. He still openly admires what he sees as China's wisdom today.

For such realism without moral scruples, he was chided even in the United States as a manipulative monster with a German accent, and even as a war criminal who "lies like other people breathe," as investigative journalist Seymour Hersh wrote.

After Nixon, American presidents, instead of citing the national interest, preferred once again to invoke America's God-given mission, most notably former President George W. Bush and his neo-conservatives. They even wanted to free the world from the "axis of evil." But the neo-cons are history, while Kissinger's realism, stemming from the 19th century, still remains valid, as President Barack Obama, the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, demonstrates today.

During the election campaign, Democratic candidate Obama portrayed himself as an idealistic "citizen of the world." But he was hardly in office before he began pursuing the maxim that idealists give nice speeches, while realists shape policy.

In this fashion, the president turned himself into a lone judge who personally approves which Islamist is to be killed with a drone attack somewhere in the world. He launched a new era of conflict with massive investments in "cyber war." And Obama prosecutes betrayers of state secrets even more relentlessly than any of his predecessors.

The president has coldly recognized that war-weary Americans prefer progress at home instead of elsewhere in the world. This is one reason he has threatened Syrian dictator Bashar Assad while following up with little in the way of action. Not unlike Kissinger's approach in Chile, Obama looks the other way when America's allies, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, subjugate their people, or when China harasses dissidents. US author Jacob Heilbrunn calls this approach "neo-Kissingerism," and notes: "Obama may even start speaking about foreign affairs with a German accent."

Kissinger is a realist with a weakness: He is vain, and he was never indifferent to how other people felt about him. It must make him jealous to see that Obama is so popular in many parts of the world, despite his cold-blooded actions. But as he turns 90, Kissinger probably relishes the notion that the president resembles him more and more every day.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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1. The “parliamentarization” process of American politics.
titus_norberto 05/23/2013
The Presidential system can be successfully thought as an elective monarchy for a limited time, and as such this system can be affected by the same ailments that a true monarchy suffers, one ailment I dubbed: “parliamentarization”. “The king reigns, but he does not govern”, this is the motto of “parliamentarization”, and in England it has been implemented after the so called “The Glorious Revolution” of 1688 in which the Dutch William III of Orange, supported with timely Jewish financing, managed to organize a fleet of about 400 hundred vessels to cross the Channel and depose his father in law, King James II Stuart or Steward, as the family was known in their motherland, Scotland. A change of dynasty was effected and in the process another prestidigitation act was performed as well in which the King (or Queen) lost his executive power to a person elected by Parliament, a process I’ve coined (not literally speaking…) “parliamentarization”. Another subtle mutation of the old parliamentarian system (complement to the one imposed by the Barons to King John Lack-land when he was forced to sign the Magna Carta ) was effected as well; the official autonomous “political party” has been created. The old Cromwellian factions such as the “Independents”, “Levellers” and so forth were recognized as political entities with effective political powers behind the scenes. These political parties represented in practice commercial interests under the guise of politics. Back in the US, the same process is occurring in front of our eyes. The role of the President is been eroded in the benefit of a non-elected office, the Secretary of State, which is “owned” by the party. Perhaps Kissinger is the most famous of the “independent” Secretary of States which in turn survived the Watergate debacle… Now, Kissinger has been feted for his spectacular China approachment (which besides, was just balancing the USSR victory in Vietnam, mere PR and cosmetics…), but in my view, Kissinger is far more important in managing USA’s default of 1971 by repudiating the Gold Exchange Standard when General De Gaulle demanded GOLD in exchange for French US dollar held in lieu in the US. Essentially, Kissinger was the tip in the iceberg betraying a process carried-out behind the scenes in USA eroding the Presidential power in the benefit of the Secretary of State, a representative of the hidden commercial forces in action continuing with Brzezinski, and Hillary Clinton. After a weird turn during Bush Jr. tenure in which REALPOLITIK deflected to the Vice President Cheney and even to some Pentagon’s work alcoholics mostly due to the fact that the Secretary of State office was fulfilled by a nice gentle lady, Condy Rice, not accustomed to the works of ruthless power chosen, perhaps, due to the sensible advice of Bush’s father, the latest of USA’s true monarchs… Obama, in turn, was endorsed with Hillary Clinton, daughter of scion, to boss him around as she probably did with her husband Bill and other foreign heads of state on behalf of the US establishment… Thus, we can conclude this little essay by declaring that the American Parliamentarian system currently in place is the triumph of commercial interests gaining power at the expense of the presidential system as they did in Britain since the XVII century as a result of a magnificent ground work performed by tyrant and regicide Oliver Cromwell, "Our Chief of Men", indeed...
2. Hell
LODANTMINGUS@AOL.COM 05/23/2013
The man should burn eternally in hell!!! He is on an equal footing with hitler as far as his "contribution" to humanity is concerned!.
3. Obama is not so realistic
musicmaster 05/23/2013
Obama's reaction to the "Arab Spring" is a classical example of hubris and arrogance. There was an accidental uprising in Tunisia that led its geriatric ruler to give up and leave. From this accident Obama drew the big conclusion that the Arab world was on the eve of a big wave of democratization. He considered himself a great leader for realizing this so soon and not fighting against history as other US presidents would have done. As a consequence he first forced Mubarak to give in to copycat protests and then he bombed Gaddafi to history. He is still making trouble in Syria. His relation with Iran is similarly deluded. When he became president he announced a dialogue with Iran. However, instead of the customary habit of making small concessions to improve the climate before the talks he allowed himself to be convinced by the hawks that he should instead increase the pressure by tightening the sanctions. Predictably the talks failed...
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