Last night’s debate found some more daylight between the two Democratic presidential candidates: Bernie Sanders clashed with Hillary Clinton over the former secretary of state’s praise for Henry Kissinger, who Sanders described as one of the worst secretaries of state in living memory.
During a series of questions about foreign policy, Sanders, who has remained fairly vague about his own foreign policy influences, pinned Clinton on her ideological ties to Kissinger:
The secretary and I have a very profound difference. In the last debate and I believe in her book, very good book by the way, in her book and in this last debate, she talked about getting the approval or the support or the mentoring of Henry Kissinger.
Now, I find it rather amazing because I happen to believe that Henry Kissinger was one of the most destructive secretaries of state in the modern history of this country. I am proud to say that Henry Kissinger is not my friend. I will not take advice from Henry Kissinger, and in fact, Kissinger’s actions in Cambodia when the United States bombed that country, and created the instability for the Khmer to come in, who butchered generations of people—one of the worst genocides in the world. So count me in as somebody who will not be listening to Henry Kissinger.
The crowd in Wisconsin responded positively to the broadside: among some Democrats, Kissinger is associated with state secrecy, support for military juntas, and his lingering presence inside the national security apparatus.
In 2005, Kissinger penned an opinion piece in which he outlined what the Bush administration’s exit strategy should be in Iraq. “American strategy, including a withdrawal process, will stand or fall not on whether it maintains the existing security situation but on whether the capacity to improve it is enhanced. Victory over the insurgency is the only meaningful exit strategy,” he wrote. He cited American attempts to stabilize the South Vietnamese government as a model exit strategy, until the North won the war in 1975.
Sanders’ distaste for Kissinger is par for the course among far left liberals: Kissinger’s enthusiastic support for military coups against the leftist governments of Salvador Allende in Chile and Isabel Peron in Argentina led to the suppression of all civil liberties under a military regime and the disappearances of thousands of leftist political opponents. In southeast Asia, he championed the secret bombing campaign against Cambodia in an attempt to stop Communist Vietnamese fighters attacking South Vietnam across the border. The campaign helped lead to the rise of the Khmer Rouge, who forcibly depopulated all urban centers, put the entire nation to work in collective farms and killed up to 3 million Cambodians. By one estimate, Kissinger’s policies lead to the deaths over at least 4 million civilians, not counting deaths in Vietnam.
Clinton countered Sanders’ accusation of Kissinger’s influence on her foreign policy with his lack of credit advisors: “Well, I know journalists have asked who you do listen to on foreign policy and we have yet to know who that is,” she retorted, exposing what has been a weak spot in Sanders platform.
“Well, it ain’t Henry Kissinger, that’s for sure,” Sanders responded.
Nevertheless, Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State during President Obama’s first term was seen positively by most, both for her efforts to rescue troubled relationships internationally, and for her attempts to peacefully resolve international conflicts.
Clinton led the reset efforts with Russia in 2009, repaired Pakistani relations by hosting a series of discussions with various segments of Pakistani society, and pushed the perception of a new era in foreign relations in this country. She also called for Bashar Al-Assad to step down in 2011 after he ordered the Syrian military to start shooting protesters. In Egypt, albeit belatedly, she called for an orderly transition to democracy, a veiled demand for Hosni Mubarak’s to step down in 2010. Kissinger only ever paid lip service to the concept of democracy.
By registering his dislike of Kissinger, Sanders taps into the Democratic electorate’s awareness of this country’s poor foreign policy record. In a 2010 Gallup poll published during the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, 74 percent of Democratic voters and 57 percent of independents said the Iraq war was a mistake. Younger voters have benefited from the passage of time, including document declassifications on anti-Communist foreign policy during the Cold War. At the onset of President Obama’s attempt to lead a multi-national effort to intervene in Iraq and Syria against ISIS’s burgeoning military power, young people aged 18-29 disagreed with the action more than any other group.
In Clinton’s review of Kissinger’s book World Order, she said of Kissinger, “Even when there are tensions between our values and other objectives, America, he reminds us, succeeds by standing up for our values, not shirking them, and leads by engaging peoples and societies, the sources of legitimacy, not governments alone.” But Kissinger’s wisdom will be a hard sell to younger Democratic voters, who have come to dislike the sort of policies associated with him.