By RUPERT CORNWELL
At 78, in the fullness of his wisdom and his years, life should be set fair for the most famous Secretary of State in United States history. Henry Kissinger may no longer run American foreign policy, but in these troubled international times, sages are in particular demand.
And where sagacity in foreign policy is concerned, the star attraction of Kissinger Associates, perched in its discreet skyscraper suite on New York's Park Avenue, yields to absolutely no one.
His well-paid services as a speaker are in world demand. But even the most respected individuals have a past - and that of Kissinger is coming back to haunt him with a vengeance. Not the glorious chapters, when he managed the Cold War and played off China against the Soviet Union, but the dirty little history of the Nixon/Kissinger administration's dealings in Latin America.
Measured against nuclear arms reductions and the balance of global power, it was nothing, a grubby little pile of fetid laundry in America's backyard. But a quarter of a century on, the unrequited demands for justice threaten to destroy a vain old man's most precious asset: his reputation.
The crinkly hair has turned white, and the face is a little wizened. He seems slightly shrivelled and stooped after a heart attack some 18 months ago, which obliged him to lose 11kg on doctor's orders. But there are precious few other acknowledgments of human frailty. Kissinger still speaks with that German accent. The tones are slow, guttural and as apparently immune to self-doubt as ever.
He wears the same square, dark-rimmed glasses shielding eyes that seem not to move, but miss nothing. The instinctive theatrical sense and ponderously perfect timing that can hold an audience in thrall are undiminished. But, just possibly, the most discerning Kissinger-watchers in the hall may notice something different - a slight uneasiness, a sense that accumulated glory might be no protection from what could come.
This week Britain turned down requests from French and Spanish judicial investigators to question Kissinger during a visit to London about Operation Condor, a cross-border conspiracy of secret-service murder, torture and kidnappings orchestrated by Latin American dictators in the 1970s.
The name of the Spanish investigator was no surprise. He is Baltazar Garzon, the magistrate who in 1998 sought the extradition from Britain of General Augusto Pinochet to answer charges that the old dictator ordered the murder of Spanish citizens among the estimated 4000 people who either disappeared or were killed after the September 1973 coup that toppled the elected civilian president Salvador Allende.
The extradition request was finally denied by the Law Lords on the technical grounds that the Chilean dictator, who by then had suffered at least one heart attack, was too old to face trial. But Garzon is no respecter of persons and his tenacity is legendary.
Pinochet was the prime mover behind Operation Condor - which, in addition to Chile, also covered Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil, Bolivia and Uruguay. Declassified documents released by the State Department and the CIA since Pinochet's detention have strengthened suspicions that Kissinger, as Nixon's national security adviser and in effective full control of US foreign policy, was well aware of what was happening.
If Kissinger is running into trouble, it is entirely of his own making. No Secretary of State has matched his combination of bravado and conspiracy. None has mixed so brazenly the secret agent and the showman. Kissinger had a flair for the dramatic, and understood the value of the dramatic in diplomacy. Yet he was addicted to intrigue.
As no Secretary of State before him, he combined the intellectualism of the Old World with the boldness and free thinking of the new one that adopted him. He was a master of bureaucratic infighting, the most gifted and powerful courtier of the Imperial Presidency. He had a prodigious vanity, and a habit of bearing epic grudges.
But the decisive driving force was his extraordinary relationship with Richard Nixon, who named Kissinger his national security adviser in the very first appointment of the new Republican Administration in 1969.
Not only did the two have a similar world view, of a West menaced at every turn by Communism, both directly and by proxy. Both were insecure, driven by ambition yet desperately in need of reassurance. Each saw advantages in the other: for Nixon, Kissinger's credentials at Harvard and in the service of Nelson Rockefeller, the governor of New York, implied establishment acceptance. For Kissinger, Nixon meant power.
And that power, both believed, should be jealously guarded and wherever possible exercised in secret, beyond the scrutiny of Congress. Kissinger demanded, and Nixon granted him, absolute sway in foreign policy, first as National Security Adviser and, after 1973, as Secretary of State. Which was fine, as long as things did not go wrong. But when they did, there was no blaming errant aides; either he or Nixon was responsible. Kissinger's singular achievement thus far has been to preserve his reputation as Nixon's has crumbled.
In the US, the 37th President still languishes in posthumous limbo. Not Henry the K. Network anchors continue to interview him as if his views were carved on stone tablets brought down from Mt Sinai. Kissinger was, and remains, a statesman for the ages - the man who initiated detente with the Soviet Union, co-plotted Nixon's opening to China, and whose diplomatic shuttles after the 1973 Middle East war paved the way to Israel's subsequent peace treaty with Egypt.
Even on Vietnam, the majority of Americans still remember him not as the cynic who secretly bombed Cambodia in defiance of the Constitution, but as the negotiator who won the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize for the Paris talks with North Vietnam. With a modesty that hindsight reveals to have been even wiser, his opposite number from Hanoi, the fellow laureate Le Duc Tho, declined the award. Finally, for his admirers, Kissinger was the man who single-handedly kept American foreign policy on the rails as Watergate engulfed the Nixon presidency.
Such is Kissinger as he would like to be remembered. Nor has he lost his sense of the value of theatrics in his present role as a star catch for New York socialites, to whom he dispenses aphorisms with heavy, but not disagreeable wit.
"The main advantage of being famous is that when you bore people at dinner parties, they think it is their fault," is one much-recycled Kissingerism.
No other Secretary of State could have featured in an advertisement to lure tourists back to New York City after September 11. And it wasn't bad - Kissinger (or rather a double) diving headfirst to score a run at Yankee Stadium, then rising to dust off his uniform and exhort the world in his Teutonic baritone to come and sample the sundry thrills of the Big Apple.
So much, though, for Kissinger, the listed national monument. There is another, darker vision of the man, summoned by Judge Garzon and his French equivalent, Sophie-Helene Chateau, which increasingly threatens to wreck his carefully nurtured historical reputation.
The case against him is not new. Back in 1979, the British journalist and author William Shawcross, in his acclaimed book Sideshow, told the story of Kissinger and Nixon's secret bombings, which destroyed Cambodia and paved the way for the terrible regime of Pol Pot.
Last year, another British journalist, Christopher Hitchens, published The Trial of Henry Kissinger, arguing that he was no less a war criminal than Pinochet or Milosevic.
Hitchens' charge sheet is long. Not just Cambodia and Vietnam, but also the Pakistan army's genocidal depredations in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in 1971, the Greek military junta's invasion of Cyprus in 1974, and the Indonesian invasion of East Timor one year later. In these last three instances, Hitchens argues persuasively, Kissinger gave the green light to brutal regimes that were allies of the US to embark on savage adventures killing hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians.
But it is the charges relating to Latin America that are hardest for Kissinger to shrug off. Not only must Spanish and French magistrates be kept at bay. The widow of Charles Horman, an American journalist, is trying to force Kissinger to testify in Chile about her husband's murder after he had revealed the US military's hand in the 1973 coup.
In Washington, meanwhile, Kissinger faces a criminal suit over his alleged involvement in the assassination in 1970 of General Rene Schneider, the Chilean army chief of staff who insisted on the legality of Allende's election.
The evidence is increasingly hard to dispute. Material recently released by the US Government shows that Kissinger sent signed documents to the American embassy in Paris informing the ambassador that his city was to be the headquarters of Operation Condor in Europe, the French lawyers say.
Few dispute Hitchens' assertion that dissidents from Chile and other Latin American countries who had sought refuge in the US were kept under surveillance by American intelligence, under an agreement made with Condor's organisers. Among those refugees was Orlando Letelier, the former Chilean foreign minister and a most effective opponent in exile of the Pinochet regime. In September 1976 Letelier was killed by a car bomb in downtown Washington.
For all his writings and public appearances, Kissinger has rarely confronted the Chilean charges head-on. Questions, he says, should be addressed to the State Department, which conducts American foreign policy. If pressed by some awkward customer after one of his lectures, he takes refuge in fading memory or the pressure of other events at the time. After all, when Russia and the US were close to nuclear showdown in the Middle East, who had the time to bother about goings-on in a country once dismissed by Kissinger as "a dagger pointed at the heart of Antarctica"?
Kissinger's other tactic is to blame everything on what he sees as a lingering, obsessive hatred of the Nixon Administration and all its works. "It's so over the top," he has said of Hitchens' book. "I have not answered it, and I won't answer it." But answer it he may soon be forced to do.
Meanwhile, Kissinger's world is slowly shrinking. It is unlikely, for example, that he will soon return to Paris, having hastily left the city last year to avoid a (non-binding) summons issued by Chateau. Spain is surely not part of his travel plans either - nor Chile, where the Pinochet case is anything but closed.
By RUPERT CORNWELL