Transcript: Kissinger Talks ISIS, Confronts His History in Chile, Cambodia

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On September 9th, 2014, Takeaway Guest Host Todd Zwillich sat down with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. A full transcript of their interview appears below. You can listen to the segment above.


Todd Zwillich [TZ]: We begin this hour with a big picture look at America’s understanding of itself in the world, and how it’s changed dramatically over the last century.

In the 1920s and 30s in the wake of World War I, the U.S. declined to join the League of Nations. It focused instead on domestic challenges, turned inward, rather than face the rise of fascism in Europe. For Dr. Henry Kissinger, America’s inward turn had great personal impact.

The former secretary of state and national security advisor and his family suffered persecution as Jews in Nazi Germany and fled to the United States in 1938 when he was 15-years-old.

Since he began his career in foreign policy, Henry Kissinger has been known as a realist, a champion of hard practicality in world affairs and the pursuit of American goals above all else.

But in his latest book, Kissinger tempers that foreign policy outlook with a nod to idealism and a belief in America’s moral vision as he argues the U.S. has to take the lead in the face of Islamic terrorist threats like ISIS, and a resurgent Russia.

Henry Kissinger’s book is called “World Order,” and he joins me now in the studio. Mr. Secretary, thank you for being here.

Henry Kissinger [HK]: Great pleasure to be here.

TZ: The scope of your book is very broad, and I thought today would be a good day to focus on the current crisis with the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, ISIS as they’re called. The president will give a speech tomorrow laying out U.S. strategy there.

Saudi Arabia’s going to be a key part of the emerging coalition here, and in your book you really place Saudi Arabia at the center of the modern Islamic state dilemma—Western leaning, in partnership with the U.S., both politically and economically, but also the standard bearer of Islamic Sunni theocracy and jihad.

So now with the threat of ISSI, what does this moment mean for Saudi Arabia and the contours of the Middle East as you see it?

HK: Saudi Arabia, historically, has never agreed at any one point is the turning point, and it has considered surviving the various crises its principle objective. But now it finds itself in an extremely difficult position.

It is overwhelmingly afraid of the rise of Shia power in the region, which means Iran. But it is also threatened by Sunni fanaticism, which threatens its entire structure domestically. They will have to decide, and I think they will decide, that they will have to back the war against ISIS. But then we will face a second round of issues when Iran becomes dominant in the news cycles again.

TZ: Sticking with Iran for the moment, and I want to look at Iran maybe through the lens of the United States, you talk at length in the book about nuclear talks with Iran that are going on now with the deadline next month, and the opportunity that lies in those talks.

But you also describe Iran in detail as the standard bearer for Shiite jihadism, and really make the suggestion that, regardless of the outcome of nuclear talks, the fundamental incentives for Iran don’t really change. You use the example, which I think is the Ayatollah’s own example, “Just because a wrestler is flexible, doesn’t mean he’s forgotten who his opponent is.”

HK: That’s a direct quote from the Supreme Leader of Iran explaining his negotiations with the United States.

TZ: And that suggests that even if nuclear talks are successful, we shouldn’t take too much of a message of reform.

HK: First of all, I think a successful negotiation on nuclear matters is very problematical, because the position of the two sides are fundamentally very far apart. And with respect to that, one has to ask one’s self: What is one trying to achieve? And then secondly, Iran, independent of the nuclear negotiations, has really three patterns of its own history that it can theoretically choose from.

One, the period before the Ayatollah’s came in when it was a national state concerned with traditional aspects of national security, not intervening in the affairs of its neighbors, except along the lines that European states had impacted on each other. The second is an empire that governed large areas of North Africa and all of the Middle East for a period.

TZ: The Persian Empire

HK: The Persian Empire. And the third it’s the center of jihadism. In the period since 1979 when they came into office, we have seen a combination of imperial Persian policy and jihadist policy. If they maintain that position, then a nuclear agreement by itself will not bring about a change in the impact they have and the threat they represent.

So, the question is a psychological one—are they capable? Which of these models are they going to follow so they are not defeated in the negotiations?

TZ: Merely flexible, as the Ayatollah said and you quoted, in a wrestling match.

HK: Maybe. We should be open to a political change, but we shouldn’t gamble our hope. We should see if there are concrete results.

TZ: Well then, looking more broadly then, what is the moment of opportunity for the United States in the Middle East at this moment? You’re describing a situation that’s remarkable between the Saudis and the Iranis in their discussions, but probably a temporary alliance based on one focal threat and not really a strategic change. You’re describing an Iran, in your view, that is at the table with nuclear talks but not changing its fundamental world views.

HK: Maybe not changing

TZ: Maybe not changing its world view or its incentives. Is there a real opportunity in crisis for the United States now or are we just checking boxes here?

HK: What we’re seeing in the Middle East is a number of revolutions going on concurrently. There is the internal revolution in almost every state that occurs. There is the conflict between Shia and Sunni. There is the conflict between various sectarian groups, even beyond the Shia and Sunni conflict of which Syria is a classic example and now Libya.

And then there is the attack on the international system that was created in 1920 at the end of World War I, and where the borders do not reflect anything except its sphere of influence between Britain and France of that period.

So all of these crises are going on simultaneously. It has many similarities between the Europeans Thirty Years’ War 400 years ago. At the end of that war, they came up with an agreement, what was called the Treaty of Westphalia which, quite in contrast with the previous period, established a number of principles, which more or less governed the relationship of European states for 300 years.

Now is it possible to create an equivalent of such a system? That is a challenge for the United States and for others, we alone can’t do it. The world without balance of power is an arbitrary world, and the nature of the balance of power will change. But the principle that you cannot have one regional, one country, dominate the whole world will re-emerge, or should re-emerge.

TZ: You exercised the balance of power for many, many years as Secretary of State and National Security Advisor. So many people are interested in your history and echoes of it come out in your book.

I wanted to ask you about that. One passage in your book says that idealism is a critical part of American policy, but that the most sustainable course will involve a blend of realism and idealism, [which is] too often held out in the American debate as incompatible opposites. It made me think of your history in places like Chile. Was it the case that realism trumped democratic idealism there when you engineered the coup against Salvador Allende, was that an example of that?

HK: Ahem. You know one trouble with discussion of this...You’re referring to an event that happened 50 years ago, and so it’s very hard to reconstruct…

TZ: 40, yes.

HK: Or 40 years ago. It’s very hard to reconstruct. The fact is I did not engineer a coup against Allende. Allende was overthrown by his military with whom we had no contact with two years earlier or three years earlier when he came in.

TZ: The head of the Chilean army, General Rene Schneider, was assassinated in his car pursuant to a CIA operation that you did help initiate. You said you turned off but you did help initiate.

HK: That was three years earlier.

TZ: Correct

HK: It was not an operation that we initiated. It was not planned as an assassination, and we turned it off once we became aware. But that happened three years earlier. That was not in connection with this.

TZ: Many other people testified in front of the Church Commission in the Senate later on that in fact you were well informed of that operation even after officially turning it off in a memo –

HK: Let me tell you something here—it’s an issue that your audience cannot possibly know much about. This happened over 40 years ago, it has been exhaustively discussed. It is a reflection of a period in which the divisions in America were so great that opponents seemed to take a perverse pleasure in charging the people with whom they disagreed on other points with sort of criminal activities.

To have a meaningful discussion, you have to begin with the premise that serious people are trying to do the best for their country. We have been trying to overthrow President Assad. We overthrew, in this administration, we supported and took military action in Libya for the purpose that America has an interest in bringing about democratic government. It’s a well-established fact.

What the details were in 1971, with all due respect to you, it’s not an appropriate subject here because it’s easy to fish out individual statements before committees. I think a national debate would be helped if we assumed that serious people were trying to achieve serious objectives and to ask what these objectives were. Not to see whether there is one act taken by some outlying CIA group.

TZ: I understand that, the nature of these questions is not to have a prosecutorial forum. A lot of very smart people have pointed to the way you, as a world leader and Secretary of State, has shaped the world that we see today in places like Cambodia and Chile and other places, and we don’t’ have time to get into all of them...

HK: Cambodia! That’s another one. Here we are at a time when we find terrorist activities going on from foreign countries. What was the issue of Cambodia? Four Vietnamese divisions had occupied a strip of territory in Cambodia. These divisions entered Vietnam at will and were killing Americans. They launched an offensive against the Americans in Vietnam before we even knew the way to the bathroom in the White House. We had four to six hundred casualties in the first eight weeks.

So what would your listeners have done? Would they have bombed these areas or not? We bombed these areas that were largely uninhabited. The current administration is doing it Pakistan, Somalia...

TZ: Excuse me, sir. Uninhabited goes against the facts of history. There were hundreds of thousands of people killed in that campaign.

HK: Wait a minute. Ignorance is no excuse for being insulting. The bombing that people are talking about, that they’re criticizing the White House, was a 10 mile strip in which very few people were killed—if any.

Then there was a military intervention when the North Vietnamese tried to occupy all of Cambodia. And then as a result of the ground operations that were going on, the same sort of casualties occurred as occurred on the ground in Vietnam. Those were not under any individual White House control, and I don’t know whether the numbers are correct, I’m sure they were not hundreds of thousands – there were civilian casualties as a result of the ground operations caused by the North Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia.

But to have to go over this again 50 years later, it’s really absurd.

TZ: Well, let me bring it to the present day. The frustration is understandable I suppose. Would students of history have an easier time with some of these questions—I’m not the first to ask these questions, of course—but would students of history have an easier time with these questions, Mr. Secretary, if your papers and your documents that are so important to you U.S. history, and controversial to so many people, weren’t gifted at the Library of Congress in a way that seals them off to the public until after your death—until well after your death?

HK: Absolutely. Your knowledge doesn’t match your malice. So uh…

TZ: Are your records available?

HK: Records in the Library of Congress are copies of records that were in the files. I would say 98 percent of them have been made public, and the ones that are not made public are not kept secret because of my wishes.

I have been spending years and hundred of thousands of dollars to try and get them declassified but they’re hung up on the technicality that the classifying people say they’ve already declassified them as part of another system, and they don’t want to go through the process again.

TZ: So you’re on record here saying it is your wish...

HK: It’s a certain fact that I have tried to make all of these records available. I have nothing to be embarrassed about. I served in a difficult period of various wars in which we did the best we could to bring an end to the wars and begin a structure of peace. And really, for 50 years after, an interview that would spend this much time on this is outrageous.

TZ: Well let me give you the last word from the pages of your book then, Mr. Secretary, and I’m happy to do so. You write, and I think quite meaningfully, in your book that, “Long ago in youth, I was brash enough to think myself able to pronounce the ‘meaning of history.’ I now know that history’s meaning is a matter to be discovered not declared.” I’m very interested in that passage, especially given the number of years you’ve served, the things you’ve seen, and the expertise you possess.

HK: I wrote this paragraph because, as an undergraduate, I wrote a thesis on the meaning of history based entirely on philosophical explorations. That was the longest thesis that had ever been done by an undergraduate and produced a rule that no one could write a thesis of such length.

So in that last paragraph, I pointed out that in between the time of having written totally abstractly on history, and the period of having participated in the making of history, it is clear that you cannot simply develop a theoretical construct and think that this is what history is. It is a process that has to be experienced. And I pointed out, also in that paragraph, at the end of the day when you are a national leader, you have to act on the basis of assessments you cannot prove true when you make them, so that there’s always a margin of judgment.

But we cannot be fair to that history if we spend our time pouring over individual documents and seeing if you can find a sentence that proves a pre-existing theory. And when you create the impression on a program that there’s something hidden and has been deliberately hidden because one doesn’t want it before the public. There are no secrets to be discovered.

TZ: There’s nothing new to be learned about the career of Dr. Kissinger?

HK: There may be something...I think the...I do not remember every document, nor, it’s impossible to remember every document. So far, despite insidious efforts of people with the attitude you’ve represented here, they haven’t found anything of a fundamental nature. And they won’t.

TZ: Well, I thought it worth asking. There are very many serious journalists and analysts who have used descriptions of you, Dr. Kissinger I know you’re very well-aware, very serious ones including ‘war criminal’ that they’ve used. It’s appropriate in a context like this to bring those very serious issues to light and allow you to give your point of view and defend yourself against them.

HK: They’re not issues that have been brought up, no. They’re brought up by a tiny minority. There’s a vast majority that has a very different view. I think the time has come, if we want to bring America together in the crisis that we face that we leave plenty of good faith with people we disagree with, and maybe we can still trust in their practical judgment.

But we should stop conducting these discussions as a civil war. And the purpose of this book, anyway, was to see if I could put before the public a general notion of international order. I have devoted my life to that. But some people disagree with it. That aspect is inevitable, but the tone of this sort of question creates an impression that our government is run as a conspiracy. And that is unjust to any administration.