Nixon introduced us to permanent, extrajudicial war in Southeast Asia, and it continues today in the Middle East
In April 2014, ESPN published a photograph of an unlikely duo: Samantha Power, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and former national security adviser and secretary of state Henry Kissinger at the Yankees-Red Sox season opener. In fleece jackets on a crisp spring day, they were visibly enjoying each other’s company, looking for all the world like a twenty-first-century geopolitical version of Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. The subtext of their banter, however, wasn’t about sex, but death.
As a journalist, Power had made her name as a defender of human rights, winning a Pulitzer Prize for her book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. Having served on the National Security Council before moving on to the U.N., she was considered an influential “liberal hawk” of the Obama era. She was also a leading light among a set of policymakers and intellectuals who believe that American diplomacy should be driven not just by national security and economic concerns but by humanitarian ideals, especially the advancement of democracy and the defense of human rights.
The United States, Power long held, has a responsibility to protect the world’s most vulnerable people. In 2011 she played a crucial role in convincing President Obama to send in American air power to prevent troops loyal to Libyan autocrat Muammar Gaddafi from massacring civilians. That campaign led to his death, the violent overthrow of his regime, and in the end, a failed state and growing stronghold for ISIS and other terror groups. In contrast, Kissinger is identified with a school of “political realism,” which holds that American power should service American interests, even if that means sacrificing the human rights of others.
According to ESPN, Power teasingly asked Kissinger if his allegiance to the Yankees was “in keeping with a realist’s perspective on the world.” Power, an avid Red Sox fan, had only recently failed to convince the United Nations to endorse a U.S. bombing campaign in Syria, so Kissinger couldn’t resist responding with a gibe of his own. “You might,” he said, “end up doing more realistic things.” It was his way of suggesting that she drop the Red Sox for the Yankees. “The human rights advocate,” Power retorted, referring to herself in the third person, “falls in love with the Red Sox, the downtrodden, the people who can’t win the World Series.”
“Now,” replied Kissinger, “we are the downtrodden” — a reference to the Yankees’ poor performance the previous season. During his time in office, Kissinger had been involved in three of the genocides Power mentions in her book: Pol Pot’s “killing fields” in Cambodia, which would never have occurred had he not infamously ordered an illegal four-and-a-half-year bombing campaign in that country; Indonesia’s massacre in East Timor; and Pakistan’s in Bangladesh, both of which he expedited.
You might think that mutual knowledge of his policies under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford and the horrors that arose from them would have cast a pall over their conversation, but their banter was lively. “If a Yankee fan and a Red Sox fan can head into the heart of darkness for the first game of the season,” Power commented, “all things are possible.”
All things except, it seems, extricating the country from its endless wars.
Only recently, Barack Obama announced that U.S. troops wouldn’t be leaving Afghanistan any time soon and also made a deeper commitment to fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, including deploying the first U.S. ground personnel into that country. Indeed, a new book by New York Timesreporter Charlie Savage, Power Wars, suggests that there has been little substantive difference between George W. Bush’s administration and Obama’s when it comes to national security policies or the legal justifications used to pursue regime change in the Greater Middle East.