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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 27, June 22, 2013

Why Indians Won’t Trust Henry Kissinger

Saturday 22 June 2013, by M K Bhadrakumar

Recently Dr Henry Kissinger, the US National Security Adviser under President Richard Nixon, turned 90. On this occasion the author, a well-known diplomat and writer, assesses the role that Kissinger played vis-a-vis India in the seventies of the last century.

Anyone who worked as a diplomat in the latter half of the 20th century would have his private story to tell regarding Henry Kissinger.

So let me begin with mine, circa February 1972 in a cavernous room of the Union Public Services Commission in Delhi, while seated awkwardly across a big table facing a phalanx of hostile-looking elderly gentlemen who were to judge my credentials to become a diplomat.

I had expected a fair portion of the interview to be on a famous American, Tennessee Williams, on whom I did my Ph.D work. But Kissinger, who had just returned from the secret visit to China, hijacked the interview.

To my great relief the interview went very well since a congenial atmosphere easily formed with a consensus opinion that Kissinger was not at all a good thing for India.

For me it was easy to be emotional, because as a Leftist student activist I saw Kissinger anyway as the ogre of Vietnam. The intellectual understanding that led to profound admiration followed in later years.

The Indian elites never really got to like Kissinger. The Kissinger saga predates his China visit. During the South Asia crisis of 1971 Kissinger regarded India as a ‘Soviet stooge’ and he refused to accept the Indian accounts of genocide in the then East Pakistan.

We never forgave him. And to add insult to injury, he sent the USS Enterprise to the Bay of Bengal to intimidate India. We felt outraged and there is nothing worse than passive outrage. But then, there was nothing personal in all that on Kissinger’s part. He also brushed aside the cables from the American diplomats based in Dacca (now Dhaka) on the ‘reign of terror’ let loose by the Pakistani Army, because human rights issues never bothered him.

This was a consistent streak in Kissinger’s outlook—his very lack of idealism and his conviction that there could be only one immutable principle in foreign policy, namely, a country’s self-interest.

It is not that he entirely lacked liberal instincts. But ‘liberalism’ was only one principle among many and it could only be a general principle at that, and taking into account the stubborn realities of the world, often it required some bending.

Nixon and Kissinger Did Not Want to Displease Pakistan’s Yahya Khan

Plainly put, the Richard Nixon Administration did not want to displease Pakistani dictator Yahya Khan who was providing a secret communication link for the US’ quest for rapprochement with China.

Besides, the US wanted to show to Beijing that it would support its allies in Pakistan come what may.

The Cold War dimension was unquestionably there, too. For one thing, there was the possibility that the crisis could mutate into a China-Soviet conflict and/or a US-Soviet confrontation.

A controversial CIA report added fuel to the fire, by leading Kissinger and Nixon to believe that India’s intention was not only to dismember Pakistan, but also to destroy the Pakistani armed forces.

The CIA input prompted the US to transfer planes to Pakistan and to tell the Chinese that ‘if you are ever going to move this is the time’.

On the same fateful day—December 8, 1971—Nixon and Kissinger decided to send the USS Enterprise and other naval forces into the Bay of Bengal so that a ‘Soviet stooge, supported by Soviet arms’ would be stopped in its tracks from over-running Pakistan.

Two days later, Nixon sent a ‘hotline’ message to Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev to ‘restrain’ India, while also nudging China to move against India and guaranteeing that the US would support Beijing if the Soviets retaliated.

Strangely, Kissinger really believed that China was ‘going to move. No question, they’re going to move.’ But Nixon wasn’t so sure that Beijing and Moscow were about to go to war.

Kissinger can be inscrutable. Did he exaggerate with a definite purpose?

At any rate, by then the Soviets had assured the White House that the Indians had no intentions to attack West Pakistan and that they were working with Indira Gandhi to arrange a ceasefire, which of course took effect on December 16 following the surrender of the Pakistani forces in East Pakistan.

Kissinger was Appalled that Such a Phoney Person could Get Away with Threatening the Status Quo

All this is documented history. Kissinger played the key role in micromanaging the US moves. To my mind, clearly, he wasn’t punishing India.

His calculus had two angles: A. The US’ Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union and his apprehension of a collapse of the ‘balance of power’, and B. The anxiety to keep the US’ nascent Chinese arm.

We Indians mistook this as his ‘tilt’ to Pakistan, but neither Pakistan nor India figured except collaterally in Kissinger’s scheme of things—as minor instruments that could spoil the big symphony.

But the Indians somehow convinced themselves that Kissinger had an entrenched, visceral hatred toward their country. His irritation with India at that point in time was that Indira Gandhi was upsetting the preservation of the worldwide balance of power. This had everything to do with Kissinger’s conception of foreign policy. Kissinger remained steady in his refusal to confuse foreign policy with theology.

He saw no scope for moral condemnation in foreign policy. The Indians, on the other hand, insisted on playing on both sides.

Self-interest guided Indian foreign policy most of the time and moral condemnation never perturbed India or hindered it from doing things that were in its self-interest, but India also reserved the right to resort to moral condem-nation of the US’ behaviour.

Kissinger thought this was rank hypocrisy. His vituperative remarks about India and Indira Gandhi can be seen almost entirely in this light.

He judged that while on the one hand India proclaimed non-alignment as the moral equivalent of the two sides that straddled the Cold War crises, on most issues it ended up tilting toward the Soviet position or where it was not patently possible, ended up remaining aloof rather be supportive of the US.

Kissinger felt irritated by India’s day-to-day tactics. He was unmoved by the ideals of the shared affinities the two countries lavishly proclaimed, being democracies and so on.

What mattered to him were the political choices that India was prepared to make.

Kissinger remained genuinely unconvinced that Indira Gandhi’s anguish over the repression in East Pakistan was anything but a pretext and it led him to think of her and the country’s policies at that point as driven by aggressive intentions.

Kissinger was appalled that such a phoney person could get away with threatening the status quo in the world order.

In those uncertain times in the early 1970s, the preservation of the status quo subsumed all other considerations on Kissinger’s mind.

He Grants that Indian Policies are Born Out of its Unique Cultural and Historical Experience

His entire foreign policy sensibility was geared to the balance of power ethos and there was hardly any room for private morality. Robert Kaplan recently wrote about how it worked: ’Realism is about the ultimate moral ambition in foreign policy: The avoidance of war through a favourable balance of power.’

Of course, in later years Kissinger expressed public regret over his anti-India comments. He admitted slyly, ‘The fact we (the US and India) were at cross purposes at that time was inherent in the situation but she (Indira Gandhi) was a great leader who did great things for her country.’

He politely explained that the caustic things he said about Indira Gandhi and the Indians did not form part of a ‘formal conversation’ and was ‘Nixon language’.

But the sense of humiliation remains in the Indian mind and the remarks still rankle—‘The Indians are bastards anyway. They are starting a war there (in East Pakistan).’

And, honestly, how far Kissinger meant his regret is also difficult to tell. What matters, perhaps, is what he thinks of present-day ‘emerging’ India.

Evidently, his enthusiasm for India some six or seven years ago following the visit by President George W. Bush to India and the promise of an unprecedented level of US-Indian cooperation and interdependence has dissipated.

However, he is much more tolerant in his understanding of Indian policies. He is willing to grant that Indian policies are born out of
the country’s unique cultural and historical experience.

In a 2006 essay (external link) he acknowledged that American exceptionalism and the Indians’ outlook on their international role are fundamentally different: ‘Hindu society does indeed also consider itself unique but, in a manner, dramatically at variance from America’s. Democracy is not conceived as an expression of Indian culture but as a practical adaptation, the most effective means to reconcile the polyglot components of the State emerging from the colonial past.’

‘The defining aspect of Indian culture has been the awesome feat of maintaining Indian identity through centuries of foreign rule without, until very recently, the benefit of a unified, specifically Indian, State. Huns, Mongols, Greeks, Persians, Afghans, Portuguese and, in the end, Britons, conquered Indian territories, established empires, and then vanished, leaving behind multitudes clinging to the impermeable Hindu culture.’

He understands non-alignment better—namely, that given India’s disinterest in spreading its culture or its institutions in the world without, India would not make a ‘comfortable partner’ for the US.

The point is, India’s traditional notions of equilibrium and national interest, especially its national security requirements, guide its global activities very precisely.

Kissinger Rejects the Notion of India being a Counterweight to China in US Policy

Kissinger has written that Indian involvement in international affairs will manifest at different levels. In its South Asian neighbourhood, the attempt is to maintain Indian hegemony.

Kissinger sees India’s China problem as of a great power confronted by a comparable rival, but he estimates that so far the preoccupation has been to create a security belt against military pressure while neither power has got engaged in a diplomatic or security contest over pre-eminence in the heartland of Asia.

And he sees no change in the foreseeable future also because both India and China realise that they have too much to lose from a general confrontation.

Kissinger rejects the notion of India being a counterweight to China in US policy. He sees there is no scope for a US-India condominium against China because both countries are interested in maintaining a constructive relationship with China and while the US’ global strategy to build a new world order could gain from India’s cooperation, India will not only refuse to serve as America’s foil with China, but will resent any attempts to use it that way.

At the same time, he sees that India’s ‘Look East’ policy works in harmony with the US’ regional policies in South-East Asia insofar as both countries are interested in an inclusive regional architecture that also includes China, Japan, ASEAN and themselves too.

On the whole, Kissinger sees that globalisation has reinforced the incentives for both the US and India for cooperation. Both the major political groupings in India are advocates of India’s integration with the world economy. And a ‘geopolitical confluence of interests’ has also emerged with the end of the Cold War.

Interestingly, Kissinger has been a staunch supporter of the 2008 US-India nuclear deal. He opposed the US sanctions against India following the nuclear tests in 1998 and espoused that India should be treated as a nuclear country whose capabilities in the nuclear field are irreversible.

Evidently, Kissinger’s perspectives on India have changed over the years. Much of this is to be understood in terms of the post-Cold War setting, while his panache for realism and the primacy he attaches to the ‘balance of power’ have not withered away.

Arguably, his continuing role as the flag carrier of US-China cooperation and interdependency can be explained this way.

How does India take to the mellowed Kissinger? India’s elites have also dropped their earlier allergy toward Kissinger, although they are on guard still.

His advocacy of China’s harmonious rise doesn’t go down well with the Indian pundit. Besides, there is a credibility problem, since it is virtually impossible to fathom what is really going on in Kissinger’s seamless mind.

His past and present views on India have been so dramatically divergent. But the new Kissinger probably senses a change in the Indian attitude.

Or else, he wouldn’t have travelled to Kolkata in November 2007 to call on the then Chief Minister of West Bengal, Buddhadeb Bhatta-charjee, a top leader of the Communist Party of India-Marxist, in an effort to convince him that the US-India nuclear deal was a good thing to happen.

However, while in Kolkata, Kissinger again got things all wrong about India and the Indians. He said Bhattacharjee reminded him of Deng Xiaoping and he openly praised the ’Communist Government committed to investments and development’. Bhattacharjee was voted out of power in 2011.

Without Remorse, Yours Sincerely, America

It so happened during 1971 that South Asia got pulled into the centre of a vortex created by forces released by major realignments in the Cold War line-up.

The US was aware China was dissatisfied with the Soviet Union because China felt the Soviets wanted its dependency. The US wanted to take advantage of the situation not only to improve its stance in the ongoing Cold War, but also to fulfil its more enduring aspirations in the geopolitical context. So it set about prising China from the Soviets with fixity of purpose. What tied South Asia to the emerging courtship is a mix both of design and intent on one hand, and coincidences on the other.

It is well known the US showed remarkable consistency in backing Pakistan throughout 1971, in face of mounting domestic and inter-national criticism and prevailing public opinion in the US itself. This came to be known as the ‘US tilt’ because it was difficult to explain it without giving up the secrecy associated with the cherished project of establishing workable contacts with China at the highest level.

A lot more has surfaced recently that helps to understand the US tilt towards Pakistan in the days following March 25, 1971. On that day, the then President of Pakistan, General A.M. Yahya Khan, on his way back from Dacca, asked Lieutenant General Tikka Khan to ‘sort out’ the Bengalis in East Pakistan.

Tikka Khan and his successor, Lt Gen A.A.K. Niazi, went about their task in a manner that was widely condemned all over the world. Pak atrocities and genocide have been well recorded.

The US consulate in Dacca started sending earnest reports about the killing in East Pakistan. The first report of March 28 speaks of a ‘reign of terror’ unleashed by the Pakistan Army [Images]; the report of March 31 estimates the dead between four and 6000.

US Ambassador Kenneth Keating in New Delhi [Images] showed his concern as early as March 29 that the US military equipment was being used by Pakistan. The happenings in what is now Bangladesh were so horrendous that the Pakistan envoy in Washington was required to plead special circumstances—civil war-like situation—in mitigation of what was on.

All this left the US Administration unmoved. What were the inputs that went into US policy and what were the consequences of that policy need to be reviewed in the light of the latest revelations.

Besides the all-encompassing Cold War compulsion of containing the Soviet Union and diminishing its support base, what really inspired President Richard M. Nixon and his National Security Adviser, Dr Henry A. Kissinger, in their China initiative has been summed up later by Kissinger:

‘Geo-politically, America is an island, off the shores of the large landmass of Eurasia, whose resources and population far exceed those of the United States. The domination by a single power of either of Eurasia’s two principle powers—Europe or Asia—remains a good definition of strategic danger for America, Cold War, or no Cold War...

‘Of all the great and potentially great powers, China is the most ascendant...

‘As the nation with the longest history of independent foreign policy and tradition of basing its foreign policy on national interest, China welcomes American involvement in Asia as a counterweight to its feared neighbours, Japan [Images] and Russia [Images]—to a lesser degree—India [Images].’

Establishing contact with China was such an important strand of US policymaking that during their meeting with Chairman Mao, Kissinger emphasised, ‘It was the President who set the direction and worked out the plan.’

This was in February 1972. Before that, in July 1971, Kissinger had made his initial trip to China in great secrecy with Pakistani assistance. He also held several secret meetings with Chinese representatives in Paris before that. Since secrecy was one of the fundamental preconditions till the deal was struck, the US seems to have been particularly beholden to Pakistan.

As early as April 6, 1971, the US consulate at Dacca addressed a cable to the Secretary of State, inter alia mentioning the following:

‘We as professional public servants express our dissent with current policy and fervently hope that our true and lasting interests here can be defined and our policies redirected in order to salvage our position as a moral leader of the World.’

 This obviously produced no dent, and a decision was taken by Nixon on April 28 not to pressurise Yahya Khan. If the US interest in South Asia was Pak-centric, the Chinese interest had strong anti-India dimensions: the first was derived from the residue of the 1962 conflict, or unsettled border dispute; and the second was on account of Indian sanctuary to the Dalai Lama.

 In the context of the Cold War, China looked upon India as pro-Soviet, and by implication, anti-China. The US policy formulation that backed Pakistan, in opposition to India, was music to Chinese ears, particularly as it represented a turn around after 1963.

‘Gratitude is not the outstanding quality of India, as Moscow [Images] will learn,’ said Kissinger, during the October 22, 1971 meeting with Chou-En-Lai. Even shorn of the bantering tone, the meaning is clear. Earlier Chou had pointed out India does not believe in the existence of Pakistan, and, ‘We understand the traditions of India.’ The US and China had expected India to go to war, so it seems.

 The possibility of war between India and Pakistan was foreseen by the US as early as end May 1971, but the thrust of the US policy was never directed towards avoiding it. It was to partially compensate India for expenditure on account of refugees, and justify the US position by saying if the US were to bear heavily on Pak it would lose such influence as it had.

 Kissinger also assured India, just before going to China, the US would ‘not encourage’ China against India. Later this also changed, and by December 9, 1971, he was virtually coaxing China into some small actions in the mountains. The Chinese connection seems to have become an obsession with the Nixon-Kissinger team to the exclusion of many other considerations.

 The predilections of Nixon and Kissinger both seemed to have influenced US policy to a great extent, initially to hold back action, and subsequently to intervene. Yahya Khan was ‘indulged’, so it seems, because he was ‘a good friend’; Kissinger is more than aware of Nixon’s special feeling for Yahya; Kissinger emphasised, ‘It was a fact of life.’

 Perhaps, ‘sometimes stupid’ Pakistanis were to be preferred to the ‘devious’ Indians. Without such an assumption, it is difficult to share the US policy-makers’ perception it was Yahya who needed sympathy because he was anguished over decisions which he had to take, namely the orders he had issued to Tikka Khan to sort out the Bengalis. Rarely does one come across such a transformation in which the perpetrator is viewed as the victim. This attitude of the principle policy-makers explains quite a lot that is otherwise difficult to understand.

 The US decided to reward the perpetrators, namely, Pakistan’s ruling Army oligarchy. The scale of wanton killing and barbarities by the Pakistan Army was staggering.

 Since the US faced no grave danger at the time, and such a threat could not be pleaded in defence of the total lack of compassion it displayed, it must be presumed it was walking in the footsteps of Cardinal Richelieu, believing universal values are inconsistent with raison d’etre. This conviction of Nixon and Kissinger seems to have been the guiding light of the US administration.

 China certainly was a beneficiary of US policy. Subsequent developments have vindicated Chinese wisdom in accepting the olive branch proffered by the US. But it spelt disaster even for Pakistan, the beneficiary of US sympathy and consideration. It ended up by losing its eastern wing.

 By equating the interest of the Pak military junta with that of Pakistan, the US supported the Yahya Khan initiated natural checks and balances that operated within the two wings of Pakistan, and also between India and Pakistan. Yahya drew all the wrong conclusions, possibly because he basked in the sunshine of US support. He declared, ‘If that woman wants war...’ etc. Had he not been given to understand he could continue to draw upon US support, no matter what he did, for so long as he served as a catalyst, he might have been more prudent and less cavalier in challenging ‘that woman’.

US policymakers in 1971 opted for the hardnosed raison d’etat as conceised and practiced by Cardinal Richelieu and Father Joseph the Grey Eminence, and set aside all humanitarian considerations.

Understandably, Indian protests might have been devalued by the US because of the well-acknowledged animosity between Pakistan and India, but what about the public opinion all over the world and in the US? What about US laws? The Nixon Administration had defence equipment delivered to Pakistan through subterfuge. There was clearly an assumption by the US that it knew best what was good for the US.

This assumption of infallibility in judgement and action by the US is frightening; and it was not even the only superpower then. It is well known Nixon at the time toyed with the idea of using nuclear weapons in the subcontinent. These indeed are disturbing reminders, particularly in the charged atmosphere of today. Being the only surviving superpower no international body or the UN are in a position to restrain the US from wilfulness. The world community would rather rely on the internal checks and balances in the US Constitution for this purpose.

To a certain extent, public opinion in the US matters, but not directly and immediately. How the Administration functioned during the tumultuous days of 1971 is interesting and instructive also from this point of view.

The famous checks and balances, a significant part of the US constitutional fabric, did not seem to work in 1971; nor was the value-based policy much in evidence. Insofar as the interests and aspirations of Bangladesh and India were concerned, the US Administration might as well have signed off 1971 with, ‘Without compassion or remorse, yours.’

M. K. Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). 

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