Clinton and Sanders on Mideast War and Kissinger’s Legacy (PBS Debate)

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Both the Middle East conflicts and the ghost of the Vietnam War haunted the PBS Democratic debate Thursday evening. Vietnam was symbolized by Henry Kissinger, former Nixon National Security Adviser (1968-1975) and Secretary of State for Nixon and Gerald Ford (1973-77).

In the last Democratic debate, Sec. Clinton had boasted openly of her close relationship to Kissinger. Last night, Sanders used that relationship to critique Clinton as a warmonger:

“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, overthrew Prince Sihanouk, created the instability for Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge to come in, who then butchered some 3 million innocent people, one of the worst genocides in the history of the world. So count me in as somebody who will not be listening to Henry Kissinger.”

Sanders deploys Kissinger as a symbol of war and aggression, blaming him for the Nixon administration decision to widen the Vietnam War to Cambodia, and for the subsequent Khmer Rouge genocide. By tying him to Sec. Clinton, Sanders is hoping to depict her as an inveterate war monger in he arena of Public consciousness.

Clinton did not reply effectively, resorting instead to saying that as secretary of State you listen to all kinds of people.

Sanders continued the ‘warmonger’ tack:

“Now I think an area in kind of a vague way, or not so vague, where Secretary Clinton and I disagree is the area of regime change. Look, the truth is that a powerful nation like the United States, certainly working with our allies, we can overthrow dictators all over the world.

And God only knows Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator. We could overthrow Assad tomorrow if we wanted to. We got rid of Gadhafi. But the point about foreign policy is not just to know that you can overthrow a terrible dictator, it’s to understand what happens the day after.

And in Libya, for example, the United States, Secretary Clinton, as secretary of state, working with some other countries, did get rid of a terrible dictator named Gadhafi. But what happened is a political vacuum developed. ISIS came in, and now occupies significant territory in Libya, and is now prepared, unless we stop them, to have a terrorist foothold.”

Sanders even went back to the CIA overthrow of the Iranian nationalist prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh, in 1953.

This time, Clinton was a little better prepared, claiming that Sanders’s voting record reveals that he was less consistently anti-war than he now maintains:

“CLINTON: If I could just respond. Two points. One, Senator Sanders voted in 1998 on what I think is fair to call a regime change resolution with respect to Iraq, calling for the end of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

He voted in favor of regime change with Libya, voted in favor of the Security Council being an active participate in setting the parameters for what we would do, which of course we followed through on.

Clinton also defended herself from the charge of lacking political judgment by saying that she was among those who urged President Obama to send a Navy Seals team in after Osama Bin Laden. She thus recovered from he charge of serial interventionism by instancing a positive intervention.

On Syria, Sanders continued to urge a rapprochement with Iran, and Clinton attacked him on that point.

The focus was not in fact on Syria but on Iran. Clinton is making a play for older more conservative voters, whether Jewish or Gentile, who are wealthy enough to give substantial donations to her PACs. Sanders feels as though he doesn’t need those money men since he has a wide grassroots donor base.

Sanders argued that Iran could gradually be brought in to a better relationship with the US, just as Cuba had been. He thus turned the table on Clinton, since she couldn’t strongly denounce either principle without attacking President Obama, who is very popular with South Carolina African-Americans. The two candidates are vying for the African-American vote there, which is 56% of the Democratic vote.

That is the way that Kissinger hung over the debate on the modern Middle East. Kissinger is an exemplar of Realism, an amoral approach to foreign policy, seeking to uphold US interests without reference to ethics.

Clinton uses Kissinger as a way of underlining her ability to talk to Republicans and to avoid petty boycotting of others.

Bernie came close to accusing her of hanging out with war criminals.


Related video:

PBS: “Sanders calls out Clinton on taking advice from Henry Kissinger”

22 Responses

  1. Good recounting of a vital aspect of the two candidates to help consider which one to support. I think associating with Kissinger and giving him credibility like Clinton does shows the kind of dangerous leadership she’d bring, even though I sincerely sympathize with her candidacy. I suppose there’s a chance she wouldn’t be a provocateur warmongering president though the chance would be a small one. Surely it was Clinton’s State Department that began plotting to overthrow the duly elected government of Ukraine to install a rightist, neo-nazi-laden coup regime in its place. And yes the Ukraine government before the rightist coup was ‘duly elected’, just like the less Soviet-friendly government duly elected previous to the overthrown one was. The elections there aren’t perfect but each side has one an election or two, showing that Ukrainian democracy had been evolving toward credibility. The U.S.-led overthrow of Ukraine’s government – just to stick it to Russia and to try to comandeer Russia’s historic and current Crimean naval base (as well as to ‘win’ Ukraine for western banking monopolies, of course) – was a sadistic tragic and genocidal intentional horror that has killed thousands of innocent people and caused deprivation and suffering where before there was little of those horrific conditions. That’s why I would never prefer an imperial neocon such as Clinton unless she were the only one running in a general election against the even more amoral monsters of the Republican Party.

  2. Obama/Clinton’s bragging about catching Osama Bin Laden is laughable. It’s like a NYC mayor taking credit for a drug bust in the Bronx.

    It’s hard to know what actually happened, but accepting the official version, the work done and the risk taken was by intelligence professionals and Navy Seals.

    The notion that Obama was courageous to give the go-ahead is preposterous.

    When in recent years has a US president fretted about prior consent for, or ‘collateral damage’ from, a military op in a Muslim country?

  3. Clinton did not reply effectively, resorting instead to saying that as secretary of State you listen to all kinds of people.

    But her reply was more than sufficient to listeners who want a woman as next president and who don’t know or care about the Clinton legacy: The Balkans, Iraq sanctions, Iraq War, Libya, Syria, “welfare reform,” criminal justice “reform,” etc.

  4. Kissinger was guilty of many things, of which Senator Sanders mentioned only a few. The overthrow of Allende in Chile and placing of the war criminal Pinochet in his place is an example of a terrible mistake. The peace treaty we signed with North Vietnam was basically the same we could have gotten when Nixon first came into office, but Nixon/Kissinger wanted more war in hopes of a more favorable treaty. Kissinger supported MIRV’in the MX m missile, something he admitted years later was very de-stabilizing. He also has said that he wanted to foster a belief in the Kremlin that Nixon was unhinged and unpredictable, an extremely dangerous game to play, especially given the Russian mindset.Also I think he was wrong to put us so firmly behind Pakistan in their conflict with India and may have looked the other way while Pakistan was developing nuclear weapons. We now know that the Pakistani scientist most responsible for their nuclear weapons development became a rogue peddler of nuclear information, sending important information on developing nuclear weapons to North Korea as well as other states, all for a good payoff of course (he was quite the capitalist. ). Professor Cole you seem to equate realism with amorality. Kissinger claims to be a realist, but he isn’t because his analysis of situations is so often wrong. A realistic foreign policy does not have to be amoral. All the wrong decisions Kissinger made were amoral, but their opposite were often moral as well as realistic.

    • Then there was East Timor:

      East Timor excerpts from the book The Trial of Henry Kissinger by Christopher Hitchins – link to

      FORD, KISSINGER AND THE INDONESIAN INVASION, 1975-76: Ford and Kissinger Gave Green Light to Indonesia’s Invasion of East Timor, 1975: New Documents Detail Conversations with Suharto – National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 62 Edited by William Burr and Michael L. Evans – link to

      With friends of Hillary such as Kissinger and Albright I have to go for Bernie. If that doesn’t work, Plan B might just be Anybody-but_Hillary.

  5. I can see President Sanders constantly at the bully pulpit, waving his finger and telling the American people JUST what the Republicans are doing. He can rile them up. “Get in the streets people!” And they will. Sometimes – that works.

  6. Someone who is competent but devious untrustworthy, and is willing to be associated with Kissinger? Oh no. Just as I feared. Hillary is the reincarnation of Nixon.

    • Movement conservatives like Cruz hate Kissinger for even negotiating with Communists, or in fact negotiating with anyone at all. They hate diplomacy on principle. God’s messenger doesn’t negotiate with the heathens, he dictates.

  7. To quote Bob Dylan “Karl Marx has got you by the throat and Henry Kissinger has you tied up in knots”

  8. “Bernie came close to accusing her of hanging out with war criminals.”

    Well, heck, if she acknowledges that she hangs out with Kissinger then that’s a pretty fair cop.

    “Sec. Clinton had boasted openly of her close relationship to Kissinger”

    QED – Shrillary does indeed hang out with war criminals.

    Sanders should not “come close” to calling her out on that score. He should openly call her out for what she is i.e. a camp follower of war criminals.

  9. Hillary represents the War Party, never saw a problem she didn’t think could be solved by bombing campaigns. Bill Kristol is a big supporter and justifiably so, one bloodthirsty psychopath infatuated with another.

  10. Shortly before the 1991 bombing of Iraq began, Sanders became a congressman. He voted against that war, and correctly stated that , “we are laying the groundwork for more and more wars for years to come.” I think his judgement now is as sound as it was 25 years ago.

  11. “He voted in favor of regime change with Libya, voted in favor of the Security Council being an active participate in setting the parameters for what we would do, which of course we followed through on. ”
    UNSC Resolution 1973 did not authorize regime change in Libya. It called for protecting civilians through a no-fly zone and cease-fire, among other things. Clinton pushed for regime change and argued that it would be legal under the terms of the resolution to arm the rebels, even though the resolution called for an arms embargo. One of the reasons it has been so difficult to get non-NATO countries to support resolutions with respect to Syria is that they don’t trust the US, UK, France because of Libya.

      • Prof. Cole, your memory here may have been affected by hindsight. You say you supported the protection-of-civilians resolution in Libya, not its abuse by big powers for the purpose of regime change. But at the time, you made no such distinction, and supported the actions taken by foreign powers (and rebels) towards regime change. For example, not once did you criticize rebel shelling of civilian areas, which turned out to be no less intense than government attacks on cities.

        If this is the beginning of a reevaluation of your views on foreign intervention, that is to be applauded.

  12. I agree strongly with Gary Page (above). Lots of people misunderestimate foreign policy “Realism.” It is supposed to stand for clear eyed pursuit of national interests. But that is not what Kissinger did in practice. In fact, he defended the interests of the foreign policy elite and the regime in power to the great detriment of US national interests. How is it in the US national interest to become an international pariah? Answer: It is not.

  13. She does in fact hang out with war driminals. See this new article from Mother Jones – she and hubby Bill have been hanging out with the Kissingers every Christmas for years! This is so surreal.
    link to

  14. Prof. Cole, what would be your foreign policy “dream team” for advising Senator Sanders as a candidate? Would you consider doing it yourself?

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