By Barry Lando
It’s always comforting to have Henry Kissinger around to advise the current U.S. administration on what to do. His latest advice to President Barack Obama regarding Egypt: Slow down, take things easier, don’t rush Egypt’s sensitive leaders.
“We should be looking at a democratic evolution,” said Kissinger. But he warned that the U.S. should cultivate key democratic reformists and military leaders in a low-key fashion during the process. “It should not look like an American project. The Egyptians are a proud people. They threw out the British and they threw out the Russians.”
On the other hand, when thin-skinned right-wing dictators in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay were kidnapping and murdering “democratic reformists” by the thousands in 1976, Kissinger, then secretary of state—not having to worry about lurid accounts of torture on Twitter and Facebook and Al-Jazeera—advised South American generals to get on with their grisly task so as not to provoke censure from a U.S. Congress beginning to waken to the ongoing slaughter. Or, as Kissinger put it to Argentine Foreign Minister Adm. Cesar Augusto Guzzetti in June 1976: “If there are things that have to be done, you should do them quickly. But you should get back quickly to normal procedures.”
The things to be done were no secret: Human rights organizations and State Department memorandums supplied all necessary details. In Argentina alone more than 10,000 people had been “disappeared” by the end of 1976. But, in the name of fighting the Cold War, messy things had to be done, said the generals and their apologists—Kissinger included.
Ironically, for the past 30 years Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and his allies abroad have justified his brutal repression in similar terms. Some are still doing it. It’s just the name of the bogeyman that’s changed: from communism to radical Islam aka the Muslim Brotherhood—from Fidel Castro’s revolutionary virus to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida. The fact that al-Qaida’s leaders have condemned the Muslim Brotherhood for its willingness to participate in Egyptian politics is an inconvenient detail.
The parallels between Egypt and the onetime military dictators of Argentina, Chile and Uruguay are striking. According to the State Department memo on a 1976 meeting between Kissinger and Adm. Guzzetti obtained by the National Security Archives, the Argentine told Kissinger, “Our main problem in Argentina is terrorism. It is the first priority of the current government that took office on March 24. There are two aspects to the solution. The first is to ensure the internal security of the country; the second is to solve the most urgent economic problems over the coming 6 to 12 months. Argentina needs United States understanding and support. ...”
The archives’ analysis of that memo explained, “This at a time when the international community, the U.S. media, universities, and scientific institutions, the U.S. Congress, and even the U.S. Embassy in Argentina were clamoring about the indiscriminate human rights violations against scientists, labor leaders, students, and politicians by the Argentine military, Secretary Kissinger told Guzzetti: ‘We are aware you are in a difficult period. It is a curious time, when political, criminal, and terrorist activities tend to merge without any clear separation. We understand you must establish authority.’ ”
The U.S. ambassador had earlier protested to the Argentina government about the disappearance and torture of human rights workers, including American citizens. Kissinger, however, told Guzzetti, “In the United States we have strong domestic pressures to do something on human rights. ... We want you to succeed. We do not want to harrass [sic] you. I will do what I can. ...”
One could almost hear an American official today—sotto voce—giving similar advice to Egypt’s new vice president, Omar Suleiman, who, let’s not forget, for the past eight years headed up the feared Intelligence Directorate—infamous for systematic brutality, torture and disappearances; so skilled at its work that the CIA frequently used Suleiman and his uniformed thugs in the U.S. rendition program.
All of a sudden, though, Suleiman, with his impeccable dark suit and tie and unflappable demeanor, is not only the go-to man for torture but also, the go-to man to engineer “a transition to democracy.”
Not too fast a transition though, and certainly not too democratic.
Just as Henry the K. would advise.
Barry M. Lando, a graduate of Harvard and Columbia University, spent 25 years as an award-winning investigative producer with “60 Minutes.” He has produced numerous articles, a documentary and a book, “Web of Deceit,” about Iraq. Lando is finishing a novel, “The Watchman’s File.”
A slightly different version of this article has been published elsewhere.
White House / National Archives