In Africa, Kissinger Was Known for His Failures

In the summer of 1975, just a few months after the fall of Saigon, Henry Kissinger was searching for a way to salvage his reputation as secretary of state.

At that moment, Angola, a poor, vast country in sub-Saharan Africa, exploded in civil war.

Mr. Kissinger sensed an opportunity. Having been disgraced by the loss of Vietnam, he turned his attention to another developing nation in turmoil. Using some of the same tools he had employed in Southeast Asia — covert action, realpolitik analysis and an unshakable confidence in his own intelligence — he pushed the United States into a war he knew little about.

“Up until then, he thought Africa was totally irrelevant,” said Nancy Mitchell, a foreign policy historian at North Carolina State University.

He was dismissive of the State Department’s own Africa experts, Ms. Mitchell said, calling them “missionaries” and “do-gooders.”

In Angola, Mr. Kissinger teamed up with the apartheid government of South Africa and one of Africa’s most notorious dictators, Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, to defeat Angola’s left-leaning rebels. But those rebels enjoyed popular support and, soon, the help of thousands of Cuban troops — a twist Mr. Kissinger had failed to predict.

“Kissinger thought he could rack up an easy win in Angola,” Ms. Mitchell said. “And he lost.”

That began a string of misjudgments that would characterize Mr. Kissinger’s ham-handed attempts to steer events on the African continent. The Angolan war raged for years, killing at least half a million people. And the same leftist rebels that Mr. Kissinger tried so hard to defeat through African proxies eventually won.

The year after that war started, in 1976, Mr. Kissinger became seized with the idea of bringing peace to Rhodesia, another southern African country embroiled in a liberation war. He failed there, too.

“Kissinger’s diplomatic achievements were quite astonishing,” wrote Peter Vale, a South African scholar, in a piece in The East African. “But his track record in the global south — especially in Africa — is dismal.”

The Rhodesia failure followed the same path as Angola. Mr. Kissinger just didn’t understand the popularity — and power — of the Black liberation movements.

“When Mugabe’s name came up at a meeting, Kissinger asked: ‘Who’s that?’” Ms. Mitchell said.

Robert Mugabe would go on to be a legendary and contentious figure across Africa and the longest serving president of Zimbabwe, the country formed after white rule ended in Rhodesia.

Mr. Kissinger mostly stayed away from Africa after that. He is now viewed as having a narrow-minded perspective on African affairs and being far too cozy with racist white regimes. In 1969, when he was national security adviser for President Richard Nixon, he essentially put this in writing.

“The whites are here to stay,” reads a line from a seminal paper his staff prepared for the C.I.A. and other government officials.

Ms. Mitchell said that paper best represented the approach to southern Africa that the Nixon administration followed for years.

“Kissinger was thinking arrogantly that this is Africa, it’s a simple situation, that he could master it,” she said. “He left a total mess.”

Source: The New York Times

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