No. 121: Thursday AM Thoughts

Apologies for missing Tuesday’s post. I’m a bit jumbled on helpful content to post, but here’s some of what’s on my mind.

Alassane Ouattara’s Second Term

Alassane Ouattara stepped into his second and final term as President of Ivory Coast earlier this week. Five years ago, President Ouattara was barricaded in a hotel after Laurent Gbagbo and his supporters refused to step down after an election that didn’t go their way.

Today, Ivory Coast has taken its cocoa production to new heights though it is having to deal with the effects of El Nino and questions about the country’s export policy favoring President Ouattara’s stepson. Important power and transportation infrastructure projects are in the works, and foreign investors are paying ever closer attention to the country. Meanwhile, former president Gbagbo stands trial next month for his role in fomenting violence in the country over several elections. Granted, there has been conversation about President Ouattara’s role in violence while seeking office at several points over the past decade and a half.

I look forward to seeing where President Ouattara takes the country in his second term.

Henry Kissinger and the Cold War Years

I’m in chapter 81 of Niall Ferguson’s biography of Niall Ferguson and this peek into the shaping of foreign policy during the Cold War is amazing. Twenty chapters to go!

Ferguson’s recounting of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations is less than flattering. The Kennedy administration’s corruption in securing the presidential election, hand in three or four assassinations of leaders around the world, and penchant for women is a rather sobering cocktail.

The anecdotes of the Johnson administration’s ignorance of the global players in this fight against communism was pretty shocking. This was a time when the future of so many countries was being shaped by the United States! I’ve had many a chill reading some of the stories.

Also, the recounting of Barry Goldwater and the 1964 Republican Convention was pretty amazing. The narrative seemed so reflective of the narrative around Donald Trump. I don’t know whether that is a fair comparison, but Trump kept coming to mind while reading.

Ferguson makes a pretty convincing argument for Kissinger being an idealist. It is very interesting to see his disgust at the Kennedy administration’s unwillingness at times to thoroughly face itself on the question of nuclear power and take a position. Kissinger’s concept of morality doesn’t seem to be so much concerned with whether one’s morals were good or bad, but that one had taken the time to think and take a position no matter how ugly that position may be. I’m still wrapping my head around this, but it is interesting to consider.

No. 116: Can You See the World Through My Eyes?

Niall Ferguson’s biography of Henry Kissinger continues to provoke thought. The following two quotes were delivered at Harvard’s Commencement in 1950.

To see Asia through Asian eyes — that is the prime requisite for Western policy towards Asia…You cannot prepare a policy mold for Europe and … assume that it will do for Asia as well.

– General Carlos Romulo.

The tendency to brand any nationalist movements whatever in Asia as Communistic rests on another of those assumptions which need to be re-examined…There are unquestionably nationalist movements in Asia which are Communist-led or which are abetted by Communists. But the fact does not necessarily invalidate the intrinsic quality of the genuine nationalist movements in the region…These movements, though originally sprung from a people’s natural aspirations to freedom, are subsequently taken away by the politically sly and ruthless Communists from the hands of the timid and confused liberals lacking prompt and effective support from their friends in the West.

-Secretary of State Dean Acheson

No. 115: Henry Kissinger Was an Idealist?

Niall Ferguson has put together a fascinating biography of Henry Kissinger. Well, at least the 17 chapters I have worked through have been extremely thought provoking. Kissinger: 1923-1968: The Idealist covers the first half of Kissinger’s life (For those that don’t know, Kissinger is still quite alive at 92). Ferguson just took a fellowship position at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and plans to finish the second volume while there.

The first thing that stood about the book was it’s title. No where have I seen Kissinger and idealist in the same sentence. My mind immediately went to my government class with Mr. Nat Jobe, where I got my first introduction to Kissinger and realpolitik. Ferguson aims to make the case that Kissinger is actually an idealist, at least in his days leading up to 1968. I look forward to seeing how well he does so.

The second thing that stood out and was a bit distracting was the effort Ferguson made to swat away conspiracy theories about Kissinger in the introduction. I found that a bit unfair to the reader. Why not go through the history and let the reader make a judgement?

Kissinger’s intellect became evident early in the book. Ferguson recounts Kissinger reading Dostoyevsky at a very young age. My mind went to elementary school when I picked up Crime and Punishment because it was worth an absurd number of Accelerated Reader points. I perhaps got through a chapter before returning it to the library, and haven’t taken a look at it since.

What has been troubling about the biography has been events that brought my mind to frustrating events unfolding today. Here are a few examples.

The rise of Nazi Germany felt so fast in the biography. The support of parts of the Christian church in Germany for Hitler was troubling. Ferguson quotes a prayer by a pastor thanking God for Hitler. Ferguson does a helpful job explaining the divide between the two camps of Jews in Germany – the orthodox and reformed. Out of fairness, he probably could have done the same with the Christians, pointing out the dissenting voices of folks like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but maybe that is irrelevant for the purposes of the biography.

Today, we often see Christian leaders point to Islam as a violent religion and pointing to parts of the Qu’ran as evidence of that, while repudiating those who try to make the argument that ISIS, Boko Haram, and others like them do not represent Islam. Looking over the history of Christianity, there are many points of severe violence. Often, I hear a similar refrain that the Christianity of those who brought that violence should be questioned. It is interesting that some Christians do not offer Muslims the ability to do the same.

The experience of Jews in the US around the time of Kissinger’s arrival in New York was fascinating. Teenage Kissinger’s observations of America are interesting: the enormous opportunity in this country, the stark contrast between the ultra wealthy and the desperately poor, his disdain for the individualism of American society, and a particular shock at the lack of serious introspection when it came to things of spirituality.

A troubling anecdote about the racism Jews faced in the US was the image of a father approaching a police officer, with an Irish Catholic name like O’Brien, to report a case of his son being beaten up. The officer, while grinning, says that the boys were just having some fun. Imagine the frustration. Today, we are seeing frustration in the black community at the high rates of violence at the hands of police. It is frustrating to see this brushed off as griping.

Alright. Need to get the little one ready for school. If you are reading this biography, I would welcome a chance to discuss it with you as we progress. Over the course of 900 pages, there will be lots of opportunity to come up for a breath.