No Safe Havens: From Henry Kissinger to Barack Obama

Thomas Schelling at a meeting of 12 prominent Harvard professors with Henry Kissinger in May 1970, just after Nixon had announced the invasion (though not the secret bombing) of Cambodia:

As we see it, there are two possibilities: Either, one, the President didn’t understand when he went into Cambodia that he was invading another country; or two, he did understand. We just don’t know which one is scarier.

As Greg Grandin​ points out in Kissinger’s Shadow, from which I got this quote, Kissinger/Nixon’s justification for invading (and secretly bombing) Cambodia was to ferret out the “sanctuaries” that this neutral country was providing to the enemy in Vietnam. Today, that doctrine is widely accepted among America’s ruling and chattering classes: no “safe havens” for terrorists. That was the justification for George W. Bush’s invasion of Afghanistan and Obama’s drone attacks on Yemen and Pakistan and his military operations in Syria and Iraq. But in 1970 it was considered so radical as to terrify Schelling and these other Establishment worthies from Harvard.

On Sunday, October 4, at 12:30, I’ll be interviewing Greg about his book at the Brooklyn Public Library. Stay tuned!


  1. yastreblyansky September 19, 2015 at 12:21 pm | #

    I don’t think it’s exactly the same, as US operations in Pakistan and Yemen were permitted by and coordinated with local governments; horrible perhaps, but not criminal in the same way as the Cambodia horror (the question whether the US is encouraging Saudi Arabian slaughter of Yemenis now is a different matter, but there’s some reason to hope it isn’t).

    • cynicalatheist September 21, 2015 at 9:16 am | #

      @Yastreblansky: It is true that the US invaded Cambodia while our incursions into Pakistan and Yemen have been done with the approval of those governments. I guess I still see the similarity more than the difference. In both cases we have the USA adding fronts to a war while losing the main front. It seems like a pattern, this tendency for our wars to sprawl outward at the same time that we are losing them. I admit that I don’t fully understand it.

      • LFC September 21, 2015 at 3:07 pm | #

        What do you consider to be “the main front” today?

        • cynicalatheist September 23, 2015 at 9:02 am | #

          @LFC: I’d consider Afghanistan, and to a lesser extent Iraq, to be the main fronts in our “Global War On Terror”/”Overseas Contingency Operation”.

          • LFC September 23, 2015 at 10:48 pm | #

            Putting aside the problem that it’s not altogether certain what ‘victory’ and ‘defeat’ mean in these conflicts, I would say that the war in Afghanistan has not been lost. It also hasn’t been won. It’s just grinding on and the outcome won’t be clear for a while. The best resolution would be a political settlement between the Afghan govt and the Taliban, which is within the realm of possibility. (Iraq, on the other hand, given its connection now to the war in Syria and the wider regional mess, seems to be — I don’t even know how to describe it adequately. To call it a bad situation right now would be an understatement.)

  2. Cass Bettinger September 19, 2015 at 12:34 pm | #

    Correction; “No safe haven for terrorists not under CIA and/or Pentagon sponsorship”.

  3. JRose September 19, 2015 at 1:43 pm | #

    I wish I had the opportunity to meet you one of these few days of my life!!! I love your courage to inspire the world of something they might have been forgotten…

  4. Michael Kelly September 19, 2015 at 5:32 pm | #

    Is the interview going to be streamed online?

    • Corey Robin September 19, 2015 at 6:38 pm | #

      Not sure. I might write it up as a column for Salon. We’ll see.

  5. xenon2 September 19, 2015 at 11:46 pm | #

    why not stream it and write it up?
    does Salon want to be first?
    what about a video within Salon?

  6. xenon2 September 19, 2015 at 11:52 pm | #

    When I first saw ‘safe haven’, I read ‘safe harbor’, as any library, archives, edu.

  7. LFC September 20, 2015 at 3:50 pm | #

    I’m sure there are a lot of good things in Grandin’s book, but in my opinion this opening anecdote (I believe it comes at the start of the book) is not really one of them. The problems, at least as it’s initially presented, are not enough context and not enough acknowledgment of dissimilarities.

    By May 1970 the majority of the U.S. professoriate (and other ‘chatterers’) had turned against the Vietnam War and favored some kind of withdrawal, either faster than the Nixon/Kissinger pace or immediate. So it’s no surprise that Schelling et al in that 1970 meeting opposed the U.S. invasion of Cambodia. Whether Schelling was genuinely, deeply concerned about the invasion of a technically neutral third country to root out enemy ‘sanctuaries’, or whether he had come to oppose the war in general by 1970 and was seizing on a ready objection to this move that came to hand, is difficult to say without more discussion of that whole meeting. (Schelling is still alive. Did Grandin interview him?) Another consideration is the changed structure of the intl system: an invasion of a third country in 1970 might conceivably have touched off a more direct conflict w the USSR, which was still the US’s main adversary then, and this despite detente and Kissinger’s fancy triangulating among the USSR and China; Schelling et al might have been concerned about that. (Again I don’t know; it wd help to have an account of the whole meeting.) By contrast, the inv. of Afghanistan was less likely to have touched off a response from a rival superpower, since the USSR no longer existed.

    Dissimilarities etc.
    (1) On a side pt, I think it is not accurate to say that the majority of ‘the chattering class’ accepts the Bush/Obama drone program; probably a majority oppose it. Anyway, the sentiment is split. (2) The invasion of Afghanistan in Oct. ’01 looks, on the surface, rather similar to the invasion of Cambodia in 1970, but there are differences. First, the invasion of Cambodia occurred in the midst of an increasingly unpopular war. Second, it was not directed vs. terrorists in the generally accepted meaning of that word but against guerrilla and conventional forces. Al-Qaeda by contrast is a terrorist group that had, at the time of the invasion of Afghanistan, claimed responsibility for 9/11. It seems to me one could have opposed the invasion of Cambodia and been less sure about the invasion of Afghanistan (at the time, I mean). It’s not *necessarily* a case of a wholesale shift of elite opinion on the question of the legitimacy of a certain kind of mil. operation. Such a shift might indeed have occurred but it’s rather hazardous to infer it from this 1970 quote, istm.

    Basically, the question is: were Schelling and the other ‘worthies’ objecting to the invasion of Cambodia mainly b.c it represented a violation of the principles of neutrality and state sovereignty, or rather were they objecting mainly b.c it represented an expansion of a war that they had become convinced was a mistake and shd be wound down a.s.a.p.? Or was it some mixture of the two? To seize on that one remark of Schelling’s and say that that answers it does not seem to me to be warranted. Again, and in fairness, I have not read the book; I’m just reacting to this opening anecdote and the interpretation he seems to put on it.

    • LFC September 20, 2015 at 4:29 pm | #

      p.s. Looking at the relevant pp. on AmazonLookInside, I see Grandin has a quote from Schelling to a journalist, after the meeting, about how even if the invasion of Cambodia succeeded in clearing enemy sanctuaries, it still “wouldn’t have been worth the invasion of another country.” That is some support for Grandin’s take, but I wd remain of the view that he is prob. making too much of this particular thing. However, this is one of those cases on which there are reasonable arguments on both sides of the interpretive question.

    • Glenn September 24, 2015 at 11:48 am | #

      A minor objection to actions of the Unitary Executive today, but of great significance in 1970, was compliance with the Constitution.

      There was good reason for the subterfuge of burning documentation of Cambodian bomb attacks.

  8. gstally September 21, 2015 at 2:41 pm | #

    Marked it on my calander, looking forward to it!

  9. gstally October 4, 2015 at 2:10 am | #

    You know, this reminds me of another debate that took place in Israel. I believe the precedent set was “If you can get away with it, do it.”

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