The trials of Henry Kissinger

Once he was arguably the world's most powerful man. Now his foes think they've got him on the run. On the eve of a controversial scheduled visit to Britain, Rupert Cornwell wonders if time is running out for the former éminence grise of US foreign policy
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At 78, in the fullness of his wisdom and his years, life should be set fair for the most famous secretary of state in US history. Henry Kissinger may no longer run American foreign policy. But in these troubled international times, sages are in particular demand. And where sagacity in foreign policy is concerned, the star attraction of Kissinger Associates, perched in its discreet skyscraper suite on New York's Park Avenue, yields to absolutely no one.

Tomorrow (barring last-minute cancellations after this article has gone to press), Henry Kissinger is due to address the annual conference of the Institute of Directors in the Royal Albert Hall, an occasion described by the IoD as "the most prestigious event in the UK corporate calendar". Those fortunate enough to be present will be able to listen to "one of the world's most respected individuals".

But even the most respected individuals have a past – and that of Kissinger is coming back to haunt him with a vengeance. Not the glorious chapters, when he managed the Cold War and played off China against the Soviet Union, but the dirty little history of the Nixon/Kissinger administration's dealings in Latin America. Measured against nuclear arms reductions and the balance of global power, it was nothing, a grubby little pile of fetid laundry in America's backyard. But a quarter of a century on, the unrequited demands for justice threaten to destroy a vain old man's most precious asset: his reputation.

If Kissinger goes through with the engagement (as it appears he will at the time of writing), most of the assembled businessmen will notice little difference. True, the crinkly hair has turned white, and the face is a little wizened. He seems slightly shrivelled and stooped after a heart attack some 18 months ago, which obliged him to lose 25lbs on doctor's orders. But there are precious few other acknowledgements of human frailty. Kissinger still speaks with that ridiculous German accent. The tones are slow, guttural and as apparently immune to self-doubt as ever.

He wears the same square, dark-rimmed glasses shielding eyes that seem not to move, yet which miss nothing. The instinctive theatrical sense and that ponderously perfect timing that can hold an audience in thrall are undiminished. But just possibly, the most discerning Kissinger-watchers in the hall may notice something different – a slight uneasiness, a sense that accumulated glory may be no protection from what may yet come.

For one small inconvenience weighs upon what should be a routine $25,000, or £17,000 (plus expenses) canter around the lecture circuit. While Kissinger is on British soil, judicial investigators from France and Spain are seeking permission to question the distinguished keynote speaker about Operation Condor, a cross-border conspiracy of secret-service murder, torture and kidnappings orchestrated by Latin American dictators in the 1970s.

The name of the Spanish judge will come as no surprise. He is Baltazar Garzon, the magistrate who in 1998 sought the extradition from Britain of General Augusto Pinochet to answer charges that the old dictator ordered the murder of Spanish citizens, among the estimated 4,000 people who either disappeared or were killed after the September 1973 coup that toppled the elected civilian president Salvador Allende. The extradition request was finally denied by the Law Lords on the technical ground that the Chilean dictator, who by then had suffered at least one heart attack, was too old to face trial. But Garzon is no respecter of persons, and his tenacity is legendary. Pinochet was the prime mover behind Operation Condor – which, in addition to Chile, also covered Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil, Bolivia and Uruguay. Meanwhile, declassified documents released by the State Department and the CIA since his detention have strengthened suspicions that Kissinger, as Nixon's national security adviser and in effective full control of US foreign policy, was well aware of what was happening.

So Garzon, and others, are trying again. In 1999 Switzerland, Belgium and France were also seeking General Pinochet's extradition. Armed with the same new information, the French magistrate Sophie-Hélène Château, too, has now demanded permission from Britain to have Kissinger answer questions about the Condor plan. Her interest is in the four French citizens who disappeared after the 1973 coup, which the CIA had backed and fomented from the outset. If she and Garzon have their way, Kissinger will be summoned to give evidence under oath in a magistrates' court, where he can be questioned by the presiding district judge or by the two foreign judges. Nor is that all. Peter Tatchell, the human-rights campaigner who once attempted a citizen's arrest on Robert Mugabe, yesterday made an application for Kissinger's arrest under the Geneva Conventions Acts, for alleged war crimes "commissioned, aided and abetted" by him in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia between 1969 and 1977. The application was rejected, but Tatchell now intends to seek leave to bring a private prosecution.

With a proposed welcome like this, it would come as no surprise to hear a last-minute announcement that Kissinger had cancelled his visit to the UK. Except that, if he did, it would be widely interpreted as an astonishing public admission that he has something to hide. He is, in short, damned if he does set foot in Britain, and damned if he doesn't.

If Kissinger is finally running into trouble, it is entirely of his own making. No secretary of state has matched his combination of bravado and conspiracy. None has mixed so brazenly the secret agent and the showman. Kissinger had a flair for the dramatic, and understood the value of the dramatic in diplomacy. Yet he was addicted to the back channel.

As no secretary of state before him, he combined the intellectualism of the Old World with the boldness and free thinking of the New One that adopted him. He was a master of bureaucratic infighting, the most gifted and powerful courtier of the Imperial Presidency. He had a prodigious vanity, and a habit of bearing epic grudges.

But the decisive driving force was his extraordinary relationship with Richard Nixon, who named Kissinger his national security adviser in the very first appointment of the new Republican administration in 1969.

Not only did the two have a similar world view, of a West menaced at every turn by Communism, both directly and by proxy. Both were insecure, driven by ambition yet desperately in need of reassurance. Each saw advantages in the other: for Nixon, Kissinger's credentials at Harvard and in the service of Nelson Rockefeller, the governor of New York, implied establishment acceptance. For Kissinger, Nixon meant power.

And that power, both believed, should be jealously guarded and wherever possible exercised in secret, beyond the scrutiny of Congress. Kissinger demanded, and Nixon granted him, absolute sway in foreign policy, first as National Security Adviser and after 1973 as Secretary of State. Which was fine, as long as things did not go wrong. But when they did, there was no blaming errant aides; either he or Nixon was responsible. Kissinger's singular achievement thus far has been to preserve his reputation as Nixon's has crumbled.

In America, the 37th president still languishes in posthumous limbo. Not Henry the K. Network anchors continue to interview him as if his views were carved on tablets brought down from Sinai. Kissinger was, and remains, a statesman for the ages – the man who initiated détente with the Soviet Union, co-plotted Nixon's opening to China, and whose diplomatic shuttles after the 1973 Middle East war paved the way to Israel's subsequent peace treaty with Egypt.

Even on Vietnam, the majority of Americans still remember him not as the cynic who secretly bombed Cambodia in defiance of the Constitution, but as the negotiator who won the 1973 Nobel Peace prize for the Paris talks with North Vietnam. (With a modesty that hindsight reveals to have been even wiser, his opposite number from Hanoi, the fellow laureate Le Duc Tho, declined the award.) Finally, for his admirers, Kissinger was the man who single-handedly kept American foreign policy on the rails as Watergate engulfed the Nixon presidency.

Such is Kissinger as he would like to be remembered in the autumn of his years; and the great volumes of memoirs, the weighty ruminations on statecraft, and the op-ed pieces in The New York Times are all designed to reinforce this image.

Nor has he lost his sense of the value of theatrics in his current role as a star catch for New York socialites, to whom he dispenses aphorisms with heavy, but not disagreeable wit. "The main advantage of being famous is that when you bore people at dinner parties, they think it is their fault," is one much-recycled Kissingerism.

No other Secretary of State could have featured in an advertisement to lure tourists back to New York City after 11 September. And it wasn't bad – Henry (or rather a double) diving headfirst to score a run at Yankee stadium, then rising to dust off his uniform and exhort the world in his Teutonic baritone to come and sample the sundry thrills of the Big Apple.

So much, though, for Kissinger, the listed national monument. There is another and darker vision of the man, summoned by judges Garzon and Château, which increasingly threatens to wreck his carefully nurtured historical reputation.

The case against him is not new. Back in 1979 the British journalist and author William Shawcross, in his acclaimed book Sideshow, told the story of Kissinger and Nixon's secret bombings, which destroyed Cambodia and paved the way for the terrible regime of Pol Pot. An even more devastating portrait emerged a few years later in Seymour Hersh's The Price of Power. Most recently, in 2001 another British journalist, Christopher Hitchens, published The Trial of Henry Kissinger, arguing that he was no less a war criminal than Pinochet or Milosevic.

Hitchens's charge sheet is long. Not just Cambodia and Vietnam, but also the Pakistan army's genocidal depredations in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in 1971, the Greek military junta's invasion of Cyprus in 1974, and the Indonesian invasion of East Timor one year later. In these last three instances, Hitchens argues persuasively, Kissinger gave the green light to brutal regimes that were allies of the US to embark on savage adventures in which hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians were killed. But it is the charges relating to Latin America that are hardest for Kissinger to shrug off. Not only must Spanish and French magistrates be kept at bay. The widow of Charles Horman, an American journalist, is trying to force Kissinger to testify in Chile about her husband's murder after he had revealed the US military's hand in the 1973 coup. In Washington, meanwhile, Kissinger faces a criminal suit over his alleged involvement in the assassination in 1970 of General Rene Schneider, the Chilean army chief of staff who insisted on the legality of Allende's election.

The evidence is increasingly hard to dispute. Material recently released by the US government shows that Kissinger sent signed documents to the American embassy in Paris informing the ambassador that his city was to be the headquarters of Operation Condor in Europe, the French lawyers say.

Few dispute Hitchens's assertion that dissidents from Chile and other Latin American countries who had sought refuge in the US were kept under surveillance by American intelligence, under an agreement made with Condor's organisers. Among those refugees was Orlando Letelier, the former Chilean foreign minister and a most effective opponent in exile of the Pinochet regime. In September 1976 Letelier was killed by a car bomb in downtown Washington.

For all his writings and public appearances, Kissinger has rarely confronted the Chilean charges head-on. Questions, he says, should be addressed to the State Department, which conducts American foreign policy. If pressed by some awkward customer after one of his lectures, he takes refuge in fading memory or the pressure of other events at the time. After all, when Russia and the US were close to nuclear showdown in the Middle East, who had the time to bother about goings-on in a country once dismissed by Kissinger as "a dagger pointed at the heart of Antarctica"?

Kissinger's other tactic is to blame everything on what he sees as a lingering, obsessive hatred of the Nixon administration and all its works. "It's so over the top," he has said of Hitchens's book. "I have not answered it, and I won't answer it." But answer it he may soon be forced to do.

Meanwhile, Kissinger's world is slowly shrinking. It is unlikely, for example, that he will soon return to Paris, having hastily left the city last year to avoid a (non-binding) summons issued by the same judge, Château, who is now trying her luck in London. Spain is surely not part of his travel plans either – nor Chile, where the Pinochet case is anything but closed.

In fairness, Kissinger is in part victim of today's rampant anti-Americanism, which believes the capital of the world's premier rogue state is to be found in Washington DC. The Republican administration of George Bush Jnr shuns international agreements banning landmines, nuclear testing, and the pursuit of chemical and biological weapons. It refuses to sign up to the Kyoto global-warming treaty. And it rejects the authority of the International Criminal Court, which formally came into existence earlier this month.

Many critics see scant difference between Kissinger's exercise of power and the foreign policy of this Bush: US interest to the exclusion of all else, clothed in self-righteousness and double standards. Now, as then, the US embraces democracy and human rights, except where it might inconvenience important allies (Indonesia, Pakistan, most of Latin America then, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia now).

But there is one important difference. The unashamed realpolitik at which Kissinger excelled has gone out of fashion. No longer can every excess be justified by the need to repel Communism (as threats go, al-Qa'ida simply doesn't measure up to the Red Army). There is a Wilsonian idealism abroad that must unnerve Kissinger, the realist and pragmatist par excellence. These days great nations are urged to intervene in the affairs of others, not out of self-interest – but, Heaven forbid, because it's the right thing to do. Global attitudes are changing, and with them international law.

No longer does the doctrine of sovereign immunity apply. As the enforced sojourn of Pinochet on the Wentworth estate three years ago and the current blusterings of Slobodan Milosevic from the dock in the Hague prove, heads of government can be answerable for their crimes once they have left office.

Nor can the US count upon even the sturdiest of its allies. It is a delightful irony that the Britain of Tony Blair, so criticised for his faithful support of President Bush over Iraq and in the war against terror, is one of the loudest champions of international justice. Having caused General Pinochet so much grief, we may now be poised to deliver similar medicine to a most eminent citizen of our closest ally.

In short, the legal pursuit of Kissinger is no longer a pipe-dream, but a reality that has some bearing on his travel plans. And if he is not immune, then who is? No wonder that American opponents of the International Criminal Court see the harassment of Kissinger as another good reason why the US should have no truck with it.

We must not, of course, get carried away. Kissinger is not "the Milosevic of Manhattan". Unlike Pinochet, or the former Yugoslav president, he did not rule the state that committed such heinous crimes against its own people. Rather, he is what American law calls a "material witness", whose testimony is important enough to decide the outcome of a case. "He is a witness. He has to contribute to the truth," says William Bourdon, one of the French lawyers seeking to establish the fate of French citizens who vanished after the Pinochet coup. But "he has nothing to fear. He will not be indicted."

That will be small consolation. Even if Kissinger never appears in the dock, his problems will not go away. For the methods which, if he did not originate them, he certainly helped refine, persist to this day.

More than a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US absurdly continues to persecute an insignificant island called Cuba, of whose government it happens to disapprove. Its appalling behaviour in the 1980s in Nicaragua, Guatemala and San Salvador in Central America caused untold misery. Kissinger may be accused of ignoring mass slaughter in East Pakistan and East Timor – but in 1994 the Clinton administration chose to ignore a true genocide in Rwanda, again for raisons d'état. Most recently, Washington may have been complicit in this month's botched coup in Venezuela which briefly overthrew President Hugo Chavez. Truly, old habits die hard.

Thus Kissinger is part of a tradition that did not begin or end with him. His reputation is probably safe – it is too large, and the facts in question are already too remote, for him to be disgraced. But his remarkable ability to distance himself from every error of the Nixon era is surely exhausted. And never again, surely, will there be a US foreign-policy maker with the untrammelled powers that Kissinger enjoyed. To which the world's reaction will be a heartfelt amen.