Why, it seems only yesterday that Slobodan Milosevich was cementing his power in the Balkans over a mid-morning pear brandy in Dayton, Ohio, with US diplomat Richard Holbrooke ... and now, look at him. From high-level diplomacy to the war crimes tribunal dock in barely a decade. So, one fine day, maybe Henry Kissinger will have to leave the black tie and canapés circuit, and be brought to account for his past. Certainly, no one who finishes The Trial of Henry Kissinger, Christopher Hitchens's little book on Henry K, will be left in much doubt whether he deserves to be hauled before an international court of justice.
Ah, but he's a powerful American with powerful friends, and that means the rules are different. For latecomers, Kissinger was Secretary of State during the Nixon and Ford administrations (1969-75) and he ran US foreign policy like a Renaissance prince during those years. With deliberate archness, Hitchens builds a case that Kissinger's actions in office qualify him for prosecution as a war criminal. In the wake of World War II, Japanese soldiers and politicians were hanged for less, and on much scantier evidence than exists about Kissinger.
Step by step, Hitchens gives us verse and footnote on how Kissinger promoted policies that he had prior reason to believe would kill hundreds of thousands of civilians in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Chapter by chapter, Hitchens goes on to detail Kissinger's complicity in a litany of coups, assassinations and mass killings in Chile, Bangladesh and Cyprus. Not to mention his sanctioning of the bloody invasion of East Timor ('Timor was not a significant policy problem' - Kissinger) and many other grisly adventures in US foreign policy.
Hitchens is in top form throughout, which is a relief. Done badly, his book could have seemed like an ageing liberal's obsession. Why bother going after Kissinger, yesterday's man? One good reason: many Americans make a fetish out of their good intentions, while being wilfully ignorant of the crimes committed by their country as it has carried out its imperial role in the world. This 'good German' tendency has only increased since September 11, and Hitchens's book is the perfect antidote. It gives us timely reminders (from recent history) as to why the US inspires such hostility in so many corners of the globe.
The fact that Hitchens's book serves this purpose is somewhat ironic, given his recent attacks on Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein and others. Hitchens was so incensed at what he saw as the 'fascism with an Islamic face' lying behind the September 11 attacks that he virulently went after Chomsky ('soft on fascism', etc) and anyone else who dared to differ in their response. Happily though, in this book at least, there is no sign of the physical and intellectual deterioration that has been evident in Hitchens during recent months.
The highlights? Although it is not a new story - Anthony Summers told it first in his book The Arrogance of Power - the role played by Kissinger in aborting the Vietnam peace negotiations in 1968 is still a fairly mindboggling piece of duplicity, well recounted by Hitchens. On the evidence, the Vietnam war could have ended years before it did, if an outbreak of peace hadn't clashed so completely with Kissinger's career plans. While he was still a member of Lyndon Johnson's negotiating team, Kissinger secretly promoted a Republican 'better offer' to the Vietnamese, a ruse that torpedoed Johnson's peace efforts and helped Nixon win a tight election. Several years and hundreds of thousands of lives later - including 20,000 more American deaths - a Vietnam peace deal was finally achieved in Paris, on the same terms that Kissinger had undermined in 1968. By then, Vietnam had served its career purpose. Nixon had rewarded Kissinger by making him his first major appointee on gaining office in 1968.
So it goes, just as this review was being finished, (April 2002), documents surfaced in the US that may prove Kissinger lied in 1975, when he justified the US role in Angola's civil war as a response to an invasion by Cuban troops. There is now clear evidence that the US and South Africans were in Angola months before the Cubans arrived, and that the Cubans were there to protect Angola from being destabilised by the apartheid regime and its friends in Washington. Kissinger's machinations in Angola - by promoting Jonas Savimbi's Unita rebels - have led to 25 further years of war, and cost some 500,000 lives.