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The many legends of Henry Kissinger

It is hard to recall a figure whose death has evoked more polarised reactions than that of Henry Kissinger. The last of America’s grand strategists was as reviled as he was adulated — often by the same people.

Many prominent Americans who as students in the 1970s loathed the Vietnam war and the secret bombing of Cambodia, were only too happy to appear at one of Kissinger’s centenarian parties this year. Kissinger’s rehabilitation owes as much to the passage of time as the evolution of his critics.

Kissinger was vilified as having blood on his hands by writers such as Christopher Hitchens and Seymour Hersh. Within minutes of his death on Wednesday evening, Rolling Stone, the counterculture magazine of Kissinger’s era, published an obituary under the headline: “Henry Kissinger, war criminal beloved by America’s ruling class, finally dies.”

Much of the world, including China’s president, Xi Jinping, mourned the passing of a global statesman. “Dr Kissinger will always be remembered and missed by the Chinese people,” said Xi. Among the mourners was Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, who was a guest at Kissinger’s New York 100th birthday party in June.

Figuring out whether Kissinger was a diplomatic wunderkind or a sociopathic amoralist is a fool’s errand. It is possible to be both. Many of the actions that earned him notoriety were also moves on the geostrategic chessboard.

President Xi Jinping at a 2015 meeting with Kissinger, as part of the China-US track-two dialogue in Beijing. The former US secretary of state was highly regarded in China © Jason Lee/Getty Images

The decision he and Richard Nixon took to back Pakistan’s brutal suppression of the uprising in what became Bangladesh is high up on any charge sheet against him. Yet that decision was also bound up with Pakistan’s role as the secret conduit for America’s opening to China — a cloak and dagger operation at which Kissinger excelled.

Bringing China in from the cold was a blow to Leonid Brezhnev’s Soviet Union during a key phase in the cold war. Stoking Moscow’s paranoia of a two-front threat — from China in the east and Nato in the west — helped to accelerate Kissinger’s project of detente with the USSR. Within weeks of Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, Brezhnev invited America’s president to a summit.

Other acts, notably the carpet bombing of Cambodia, which spawned the rise of the Khmer Rouge, one of the 20th century’s most genocidal regimes, are harder to assuage with diplomatic logic. Partly by seeming capable of anything, Nixon aimed to terrify North Vietnam to the negotiating table. Tens of thousands of Cambodian deaths were not enough to wring concessions from Hanoi or blunt its communist insurgency. It is hard to reconcile how Nixon could have been elected in 1968 promising a “secret plan” to end the Vietnam war yet taken five years and countless deaths to get there.

Kissinger played a devious game of aiming for “peace with honour” while simultaneously broadening the war to the rest of south-east Asia. When America finally withdrew its troops in 1973, earning Kissinger the most controversial Nobel Peace Prize in history, he forecast that there would be a “decent interval” between America’s departure and the fall of Saigon. He was right; the Vietnam civil war lasted another two years. Kissinger and Nixon purchased that interval with indecency.

The argument over Kissinger’s place in history has been going on for decades — he died 47 years after leaving office. That debate is likely to rage on, not least because today’s geopolitical threats find strong echoes in Kissinger’s 1970s.

The 1970s bombings of Cambodia by the US killed tens of thousands of people and helped to fuel the rise of the Khmer Rouge regime © William Lovelace/Evening Standard/Getty Images

Joe Biden is confronted by a reconciled Russia and China acting in concert against America’s so-called rules-based international order. The spectre of war in the Middle East, which Kissinger tried, with some success, to contain through his shuttle diplomacy, is as real now as when he was in office.

Allegations of US hypocrisy — paying lip service to western values while indulging strongmen that run friendly countries — are as familiar today as when Kissinger was in charge. Although elected, India’s Narendra Modi and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu are the rough equivalents of Pakistan’s Yahya Khan and Indonesia’s Suharto. European fear of Vladimir Putin’s Russia is nearly as acute today as their cold war dread of the Soviet Union.

It is because Kissinger faced comparably thorny challenges that his counsel was sought by every president, including Biden, since he left public service. He was simultaneously speaking to Putin, Xi, other world leaders, and their predecessors.

Unique qualities

Yet there is a limit to what today’s Washington strategists can apply from Kissinger’s legacy. He was a one-of-a-kind public impresario who is unlikely to be seen again.

There are three qualities to Kissinger’s career that are likely to remain unique. The first was the double-dealing nature of his meteoric rise. Although Nixon and he were virtual strangers, Kissinger was his first appointment after his 1968 victory. His role in funnelling intelligence on Vietnam to the Nixon campaign from Lyndon Johnson’s Paris peace talks was seminal. Unbeknown to LBJ’s negotiators, Kissinger was playing both sides of the field.

He also offered his services to Hubert Humphrey, Nixon’s Democratic opponent in the 1968 election. Kissinger’s juggling skills were preternatural. It would be next to impossible in today’s partisan Washington to make yourself available to both of America’s parties. Some people attributed Nixon’s choice of Kissinger to the likely trivial titbits that he secretly passed on from Paris. In practice, Nixon admired Kissinger’s foreign policy brain. But he also greatly valued Kissinger’s talent for subterfuge. “One factor that had most convinced me of Kissinger’s credibility was the length to which he went to protect his secrecy,” Nixon wrote in his memoir.

Kissinger’s second unique quality was the outsize power that he wielded. It is hard to imagine a foreign policy adviser in today’s Washington having anything close to the sway that Kissinger amassed. It came partly by accident. Contrary to conventional wisdom, it was Nixon, not Kissinger, who set the foreign policy goals during his first term, including the opening to China. After Nixon was re-elected in 1972, he was increasingly besieged by the Watergate scandal. The following two years, when Nixon was fighting for his political survival, and increasingly taking to the bottle, were the apogee of Kissinger’s power.

The moment of peak Kissinger was when he put US forces on Defcon 3 — the highest state of peacetime nuclear alert — after the Soviets threatened to insert forces into the Israel-Egypt war. Nixon, who was in the White House living quarters, and probably the worse for wear, was almost certainly not consulted before Kissinger’s late evening escalation. Nixon had appointed Kissinger as secretary of state while keeping him in the role of US national security adviser.

This combination had not happened before, or since. As the joke goes, the only time the two roles have operated in harmony was when Kissinger held them both. But Kissinger’s plenipotentiary phase only happened because the president was missing in action. It is inconceivable that Jake Sullivan, today’s national security adviser, or Blinken, could declare Defcon 3 without asking Biden.

Kissinger’s third unique quality is the least appreciated: his ability to be all things to all people. He is widely seen as the paragon of the school of foreign policy realism, which aims for a global balance of power based on US national interests. This is distinct from the more natural American tradition of seeking to remake the world in its own image. In practice, Kissinger’s viewpoint was endlessly malleable.

US President Richard Nixon with Kissinger in the Oval Office in February 1971. Nixon once wrote that he admired the lengths to which Kissinger went to protect a secret © Richard Nixon Presidential Library/Reuters

In the 1976 presidential election, Kissinger was depicted as a menace by conservatives and liberals alike. Jimmy Carter, the Democratic candidate, branded Kissinger as an amoral operator whose methods were covert and secretive. Carter’s words were scripted by Zbigniew Brzezinski, Kissinger’s longtime rival, and the next national security adviser. Ronald Reagan, who challenged Kissinger’s boss, Gerald Ford, for the Republican nomination, accused Kissinger of appeasing the Soviets. Ford, who only just staved off the Reagan challenge, promptly banned the word “detente” and made it clear that he would not reappoint Kissinger if he won the election.

Yet after Ford lost, Kissinger the juggler was not discouraged. He repeatedly offered his services to Carter as a diplomatic envoy, which Brzezinski made sure Carter turned down. After Reagan seized the 1980 Republican nomination, Kissinger repackaged himself as a cold war hawk. Reagan was unconvinced and did not offer him a job. Either way, versatility, not consistency, was Kissinger’s hallmark.

Sage for sale

Kissinger put that quality to commercial use in the second half of his career — as a highly remunerated foreign policy consultant. He invented the lucrative field of foreign policy advisory services with the 1982 launch of Kissinger Associates in partnership with his former colleague Brent Scowcroft. Among Kissinger’s clients were American Express, Rio Tinto, Lehman Brothers, Disney and JPMorgan, and a roster of foreign clients.

The key to Kissinger’s ability to charge high monthly retainers was his regular presence in the corridors of power. Kissinger had easy access to every president, whether they were Democratic, including Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Biden, or the Republicans George Bush Sr and Jr, and Donald Trump. Kissinger parlayed his presidential access into high consultancy fees. It was both a conflict of interest and a brilliant business model.

Keeping that business humming, which Kissinger did until the final months of his life, meant curbing his sharp analytical brain. Kissinger’s public commentary, which he continued to provide through books, op-eds and speeches, were packaged in a way that did not jeopardise his access to the White House, the Kremlin or Zhongnanhai.

Kissinger with Egypt’s foreign minister, Ismail Fahmy, centre, as he helped to negotiate an Egypt-Israeli agreement in August 1975 © David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images

This marked him out from his peers. Both Brzezinski and Scowcroft, for example, were biting critics of Bush Jr’s 2003 invasion of Iraq and his global war on terror. Kissinger supported both. Although Trump, the next Republican president, was Bush Jr’s foreign policy opposite, Kissinger declined to criticise him either.

He was a realist when he needed to be, and a neoconservative when the winds changed. In public at least, Kissinger subordinated his geopolitical acuity to his business interests. America produced other great cold war strategists, such as George Kennan, Dean Acheson, Brzezinski and James Baker. What marked Kissinger out was his brilliance as a global consultant.

By any standard, not just Washington’s, he was also very funny. The list of Kissinger witticisms competes with that of Mark Twain or Groucho Marx. “The illegal we do immediately,” he said. “The unconstitutional takes a little longer.” Kissinger’s knack for self-deprecation was also in a class of its own. “I have not faced such a distinguished audience since dining alone in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles,” he told a group of dignitaries when he was secretary of state. He worked hard on such one-liners. “Nobody will ever win the battle of the sexes,” he once said. “There is too much fraternising with the enemy.” Most famously Kissinger observed that power is a great aphrodisiac.

He might have added that power is also a great money machine. It came as little surprise that Kissinger was on the board of Theranos, the Silicon Valley blood-testing company run by Elizabeth Holmes, that went bankrupt after being exposed as fraudulent. By that stage of Kissinger’s life, his benefit to Holmes was hard to distinguish from the photo-op value he lent to US presidential candidates, or a Chinese foreign minister. It enhanced their credibility.

That, rather than his dexterity as a diplomat, will be the enduring puzzle of the Kissinger legend. Among the avalanche of statements on Wednesday night, Putin described Kissinger as an “outstanding diplomat, a wise and far-sighted statesman”.

What did Kissinger value? Nobody in today’s America could emulate such a career path. He was an academic prodigy, and an entrepreneurial statesman, who spent the second half of his life monetising his brand. He could have spoken truth to power. He chose to massage both.

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