For a man described as 'America's preeminent foreign-policy thinker and practitioner' in the second half of the 20th century, Henry Kissinger, who passed away this week (Nov. 29) at the age of 100, certainly won't have too many to mourn his death in Bangladesh. For decades, Kissinger strode the stage of international relations like a colossus, with editors, academics and politicians alike placing a premium on every word he uttered in his inimitable style. A proponent of realpolitik, Kissinger greatly influenced U.S. foreign policy while serving in government and, in the decades that followed, counselled a succession of U.S. presidents and sat on numerous corporate and government advisory boards while authoring numerous bestselling books on history and diplomacy.
It was only belatedly that he came to be recognised, at least in some circles, for having facilitated genocides such as the one in what is now Bangladesh during its Liberation War in 1971, as well as Cambodia and East Timor. Famously, Kissinger for a period served as both national security adviser and secretary of state. When war broke out in the then-East Pakistan, he was still only NSA to Richard Nixon. Writing in the New York Times in 2013, Gary J. Bass, a Princeton academic and author of The Blood Telegram, wrote that together, Nixon and Kissinger 'vigorously supported the killers and tormentors of a generation of Bangladeshis'.
As revealed in later declassified documents and White House tapes, Nixon and Kissinger barely exercised the considerable leverage Washington enjoyed over Pakistan's military government. In the pivotal days before Operation Searchlight commenced on the night of March 25, they consciously decided not to warn the Pakistani generals against opening fire on their own population. They did not press for respecting the December 1970 election results, nor did they prod the military to cut a power-sharing deal with the Bengali leadership. They did not offer warnings or impose conditions that might have dissuaded the Pakistani junta from committing atrocities. Nor did they threaten the loss of American military or economic support once they came to know of the massacre being perpetrated. The two of them also got into a vicious row with the then Indian prime minister, Indira Gandhi, over supporting the Bangladeshi cause.
So it is completely understandable that amid the general outpouring of praise and deference occasioned by his passing, the Bangladeshi foreign minister has stated that Kissinger should have apologised for his role in the country's Liberation War, which was far bloodier than it had to be. Once an independent Bangladesh was a reality, Kissinger remained scathing in his assessment of the country's chances of surviving, let alone thriving. It was promptly dismissed as an "international basket case" by Ural Alexis Johnson, the U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs at the time, during a December 1971 meeting. Kissinger agreed and replied: "But not necessarily our basket case."
It should be satisfying to Bangladeshis that before his death, Kissinger did live to see himself proved wrong, as Bangladesh today is well and truly capable of standing on its own two feet. The apology never came, but if he was indeed the towering statesman he was made out to be, this much would not have escaped him.
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