Henry Kissinger’s Great Escape

Why did the statesman remain a respected figure among the political elite, in the mainstream media and in major cultural and academic institutions, despite his long and ghastly rap sheet?

Henry Kissinger’s Great Escape
Henry Kissinger in 1976. (PL Gould/Images/Getty Images)

In his 12th major book, “Does America Need a Foreign Policy? Toward a Diplomacy for the 21st Century” (2001), Henry Kissinger drew a sharp contrast between his own Cold War generation and the Vietnam and post-Cold War generations. Kissinger expressed skepticism about the emerging doctrine of humanitarian intervention, pointing out its inconsistent application (why Bosnia and not Sierra Leone?) and the risks it posed to U.S. prestige. But his most pointed words came in his discussion of the growing acceptance of “universal jurisdiction.” This trend was seen most disturbingly for Kissinger in the arrest of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in London two and a half years earlier, in 1998, following an extradition request issued by a Spanish judge. Giving national judges anywhere in the world the ability to bring charges against officials and ex-officials, even of the most powerful nations, Kissinger warned, was a recipe for international mayhem. “It would be ironic,” wrote Kissinger, “if a doctrine designed to transcend the political process turns into a means to pursue political enemies rather than universal justice.”

Kissinger didn’t mention it in the book (or in his Foreign Affairs article of the same year, titled “The Pitfalls of Universal Jurisdiction”), but he had another, more personal reason to be alarmed by growing interest in the idea of universal jurisdiction and the broad acceptance among European nations of the 1998 Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court: Under these norms, he might be questioned or charged for his role in atrocities while he was in office, potentially even in allied countries like France. Indeed, in May 2001, a French judge requested that Kissinger appear before him in a case being brought against Pinochet for the deaths of five French citizens during the period of Chile’s military dictatorship (1973-1990). Kissinger claimed he was “too busy” and fled the country. He was also formally asked to give testimony about atrocities committed by South American military dictatorships in the 1970s by an Argentine judge that summer. In light of these developments, Kissinger believed that many countries, including France, Belgium, Argentina and Spain, were eager to subpoena him. He arranged his international travel plans accordingly.

Kissinger, then, faced the possibility that, perhaps before long, a case might be brought against him under the principle of universal jurisdiction.

A case of sorts was brought against him, but not by an international court. The same month that Kissinger was summoned by the French judge, the British journalist Christopher Hitchens’ polemic “The Trial of Henry Kissinger” appeared in book form (it was originally published as a two-part article in Harper’s Magazine, and inspired a documentary film). Hitchens presented his wittily argued book as a legal brief laying out the case for Kissinger’s criminality. As Hitchens put it, for Kissinger, “war criminal” was not “a metaphor” but rather a “job description.”

Since the election of Jimmy Carter in 1976, Kissinger had never been more out of step with the dominant trends among the foreign policy elite as he was in the 1990s. To be sure, the Reaganites had defined themselves against Kissinger as much as Carter’s administration had. As Reagan had moved to take over the Republican party, he had attacked Kissinger. “Henry Kissinger’s recent stewardship of U.S. foreign policy,” Reagan said at the 1976 Republican National Convention, “has coincided with the loss of U.S. military supremacy.” Meanwhile, the neoconservative faction of Reagan’s wing of the Republican party, exemplified by Norman Podhoretz, editor of the magazine Commentary, consistently attacked detente as “strategic retreat” throughout the 1980 campaign.

But by mid-1980, Kissinger officially endorsed Reagan and supported his plans for a more muscular approach to the Cold War, while Reagan sought Kissinger’s advice. In his 1983 book “The Price of Power,” the journalist Seymour Hersh took Kissinger to task for his “blindness” in his White House years to the “dead and maimed in Vietnam and Cambodia — as in Chile, Bangladesh, Biafra, and the Middle East.” Such criticisms did nothing to deter Reagan from appointing Kissinger in 1983 to lead a bipartisan commission on U.S. policy in Central America.

With the end of the Cold War, however, Kissinger found himself under a public microscope. A 1992 New Republic expose on the international consulting firm Kissinger founded in 1982, Kissinger Associates, was picked up by the CBS show “60 Minutes.” Both the article and the TV report raised questions about Kissinger’s potential conflicts of interest. Kissinger’s status as an adviser to the Chinese government and his consulting firm’s efforts, following the Iran-Iraq war, to raise money for the debt-ridden Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein came under scrutiny.

Even more pointedly, the global human rights movement took aim at Kissinger. For example, in her Pulitzer Prize-winning 2002 book, the human rights lawyer Samantha Power recounted Kissinger’s contributions to the “problem from hell” of genocide in Cambodia and the ethnic cleansing of Kurds in Iraq. Government documents declassified through the Freedom of Information Act during the 1990s bolstered the case, showing that during a 1975 trip to Jakarta, Kissinger and President Gerald Ford had signed off on the Indonesian dictator Suharto’s imminent genocidal invasion of East Timor.

Yet Kissinger was never held responsible for these atrocities. On the contrary, his celebrity, his mystique as a guru and his mainstream legitimacy seemed only to grow through the first decades of the 21st century, as political leaders from both parties made certain to insist that Kissinger was their “friend.” Kissinger’s cross-party appeal as a foreign policy intellectual was so great by 2016 that both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump affirmed that they had learned from the nonagenarian.

When Kissinger died on Nov. 28, he escaped once and for all from having to face an irreversible decline in his respectability among American elites, let alone actual punishment for what many agree was, at the least, his critical role in the killing of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people in the Global South.

Why did this happen? Why did Kissinger remain a respected figure among the political elite, in the mainstream media and major cultural and academic institutions, despite his long and ghastly rap sheet? If Milosevic, why not Kissinger? Such questions were asked by Hitchens and the celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, while the historian Howard Zinn hoped in 2001 that at least this “darling of the establishment” would be banned from “dinner parties.” On the contrary, Kissinger continued to have fellowships and scholarships named after him at major universities such as Yale and institutions like the Library of Congress; he played an advisory role of one kind or another to every administration that came after his time in the White House; he remained a go-to expert in the mainstream media, both television and print; and he held positions on corporate boards, from Pepsi to CBS to the ill-fated Theranos.

One plausible explanation for Kissinger’s endurance as a venerated figure, who was at worst “controversial” or “complicated,” is luck. On a radio show in London in 2001, Kissinger was asked if he ever felt like a “fraud” for winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973. “What?” a dumbfounded Kissinger asked before getting up and walking out of the radio station. Then, on Sept. 11, 2001 — before the world-changing developments of that day — the Washington Post reported that a suit had been brought against Kissinger, former Director of Central Intelligence Richard Helms and others in the Nixon administration for the kidnapping and murder of Gen. Rene Schneider in the lead up to the 1973 coup in Chile.

Suddenly it seemed plausible that Kissinger might, as Hitchens had hoped, soon face a reckoning — or, at the very least, that he would no longer enjoy the near-unanimous reverence of the political class in Washington.

But it didn’t happen. News of the suit brought against Kissinger was drowned out by 9/11. In October 2001, Kissinger stood next to Rudy Giuliani at Ground Zero, solemnly surveying the wreckage. The next year, Bush appointed Kissinger to head the 9/11 Commission (he withdrew in late 2002 over criticism of conflicts of interest relating to Kissinger Associates). Hitchens and Bourdain both died without seeing Kissinger on trial, while Samantha Power accepted the Henry A. Kissinger award from Kissinger himself in 2016. In 2023, Power and her husband Cass Sunstein attended Kissinger’s centennial birthday fete at the New York Public Library.

Kissinger had escaped destruction, danger and obscurity on numerous occasions in his life and career, seemingly through contingent luck. He managed to escape Nazi Germany with his parents in 1938, whereas 14 of his relatives were killed in the Holocaust. Then, in 1968, he escaped the prospect that the Johnson administration would publish the records of his secret efforts on behalf of the Nixon campaign to sabotage the peace agreement between North and South Vietnam. Such a revelation by Johnson, who was secretly taping the Nixon campaign, would likely have torpedoed Kissinger’s career. Kissinger was subsequently the only major figure in the Nixon administration known by the Watergate Special Prosecution Force to have been involved in the Watergate plot who survived Nixon’s downfall, thanks to the perception of one the investigators that “if I found something that finished Henry, the country was going to be in bad shape.” Likewise, he survived the Church Committee’s investigation into his role in CIA assassinations in 1975. And he outlasted Pinochet’s downfall and the heyday of universal jurisdiction. Those who were interested in prosecuting U.S. officials for torture and war crimes shifted their attention from Kissinger to Bush, Rumsfeld and General Tommy Franks for the policies of the “war on terror.” Then the promise of consensus on universal jurisdiction of the late ’90s waned, as more critics noticed that officials from less powerful countries were far more likely to be prosecuted than those from more powerful ones.

In fact, however, luck does not explain the mysterious endurance of Kissinger’s seemingly unique position within the foreign policy establishment over five and a half decades. It doesn’t explain how somebody like Samantha Power, who called attention to Kissinger’s complicity in war crimes, nevertheless felt obligated to accept awards in his name and attend his birthday celebration. Nor does it explain how the post-Vietnam generation and the post-Cold War generation of policymakers — both of which Kissinger felt didn’t understand his worldview and didn’t appreciate the tragic realities of power — came to varying degrees to accept and embrace Kissinger’s importance as they took over and ran the Washington establishment. Rather, there are three alternative ways to make sense of Kissinger’s persistent ubiquity in the rarefied echelon of U.S. foreign policymaking. Let’s call them Kissinger exceptionalism, the Kissinger consensus and the Kissinger paradox.

In her discussion of Henry Kissinger in her “interview with history” in the early 1970s, the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci recalled a joke that had circulated in Washington. “Just think what would happen if Kissinger died,” Fallaci recounted. “Richard Nixon would become president of the United States.” Kissinger’s reputation as brilliant intellect, master strategist, even puppeteer of power emerged almost immediately upon his arrival in the public eye in 1968 and 1969, and was more or less sustained over the next half-century.

Several of Kissinger’s sobriquets have been mentioned in his obituaries — “Super-K,” for instance, which captured his outsized importance. Others that have less frequently been remembered include “the Dr. Ruth of geopolitics,” “the mental wet-nurse of Richard Nixon” and the “mental wet-nurse of Gerald Ford.” These monikers cast Kissinger in an almost maternal role for American statecraft, astoundingly early in his career, given that he was only in his late 40s and early 50s when they appeared. Leaving to one side the implications of how these monikers feminized Kissinger’s intellect, they acknowledged his unique role and exceptional position. This role was affirmed when, in 1973, Kissinger became the first person to simultaneously hold the positions of national security advisor and secretary of state. Such a perch within the national security state, straddling the National Security Council and the State Department, has never been repeated.

Kissinger’s fiercest critics also emphasize his unique savagery and unique responsibility for crimes of state. This was true of both the global human rights movement and of Hitchens. For the latter, Kissinger was a singularly evil figure, exceptional in his cruelty and sadism. Hitchens was certain that no one in the world deserved more than Kissinger did to be brought to trial for war crimes. Indeed, he ranked Kissinger among the worst war criminals of the 20th century. From one point of view, Hitchens’ stance was an example of turning American exceptionalism on its head. But from another perspective, it was an example of reifying what I call Kissinger exceptionalism: the idea that Kissinger was a singularly important figure, different in some essential way from the other crafters and executors of American foreign policy. As Thomas Meaney put it in his 2020 New Yorker piece, “The Myth of Henry Kissinger”: “If all the sins of the U.S. security state can be loaded onto one man, all parties get what they need: Kissinger’s status as a world-historic figure is assured, and his critics can regard his foreign policy as the exception rather than the rule.”

Kissinger might be better seen as less clairvoyant and more mundane by those who celebrate him. For example, there is much in the historical record to sober those who see Kissinger’s unique genius at work in the policies of detente with the Soviet Union, the so-called opening to China and the so-called shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East following the October 1973 war. The policies of detente may have lessened the likelihood of a superpower confrontation, but at the cost of encouraging the continuation of what historian Paul Thomas Chamberlin has called the “Cold War’s killing fields” of the Global South — which did precious little, it must be said, to stabilize the world.

Furthermore, among the means to the end of the opening with China — which in any case was not the product of Kissinger’s singular design — was U.S. acquiescence in the Pakistani military’s 1971 massacres in what became Bangladesh. In addition, the shuttle diplomacy after the October 1973 war that led eventually to the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt might have been achieved much earlier had Kissinger and those around him not been dismissive of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s expression of desire for a peace treaty with Israel two years before that war.

In 1975, Kissinger sent secret letters to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin promising that the United States would not recognize or negotiate with the Palestine Liberation Organization until it recognized Israel’s “right to exist” — a promise that was maintained during the Carter and Reagan administrations — and created the foundation for the United States’ role in what historian Seth Anziska calls “preventing Palestine.” Kissinger’s self-imposed restriction on dealing with the Palestinians’ chosen leadership solidified a pattern that, among many effects, has not contributed to Kissinger’s vaunted order and stability.

At the same time, Kissinger’s criminality might be seen as more mundane. While Hitchens, before his political volte-face after 9/11, did hold what he called the U.S. “political class” responsible for harboring the “war criminal” Kissinger, he maintained a singular focus on Kissinger as the most monstrous figure around. In contrast, Noam Chomsky argued that if the principles of the Nuremberg Tribunal were applied universally, then each U.S. president since World War II (presumably Chomsky would now include every president through Biden), would have been hanged. The point is that if Kissinger were subject to universal jurisdiction for the crimes that Hitchens asserted, then so might many other U.S. officials, past and present. When “The Trial of Henry Kissinger” was published in 2001, Hitchens believed that Kissinger’s impunity was coming to an end. But things didn’t turn out the way Hitchens imagined. One of the reasons for this was the Kissinger consensus.

The Kissinger consensus worked in two directions: Kissinger had a knack for attaching himself to the consensus position in Washington, even as it changed over time. At the same time, a bipartisan consensus emerged about Kissinger in Washington: that however controversial he might be, he was valuable and, as the frequent use of the adjective suggests, brilliant. These two trends reinforced one another after Kissinger left his positions within government and founded Kissinger Associates, from which he monetized his foreign policy connections for decades, creating a model for post-office profiteering and branding that some subsequent high officials sought to emulate.

In his memoir “Turmoil and Triumph,” George Shultz describes without comment Kissinger’s presence at important moments during Shultz’s tenure as secretary of state (1982-1989). Kissinger appears as actively involved in the policy-formation process on multiple occasions. This might be explained by the fact that Shultz and Kissinger had worked together during the Nixon administration. Yet it was true in all subsequent administrations. For example, Kissinger was by Bill Clinton’s side in 1998, promoting the policy of backing China’s entrance into the World Trade Organization. During George W. Bush’s presidency, Bush received book recommendations from his “friend” Henry Kissinger (the president was especially enamored of a book Kissinger suggested by a North Korean dissident).

Kissinger understood how to align himself with power. This was perhaps his greatest political gift. It was what he would end up selling at Kissinger Associates: access to the powerful for corporate clients and foreign regimes. While the roots of Kissinger’s ideas may have been in those of 19th-century conservative European leaders such as Metternich and Bismark — “in a country of optimists, Henry Kissinger was a European pessimist,” Fareed Zakaria has quipped — what really stands out is that Kissinger wholeheartedly accepted the premises of American exceptionalism. That is, he adhered to what historian Andrew Bacevich calls the “sacred trinity,” among which is the idea that to ensure global order, the United States must project the image of U.S. supremacy, whatever the cost.

While he may have expressed reservations about interventions before they occurred, Kissinger supported every U.S. intervention for over half a century once it happened. In the case of the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq, Kissinger voiced support for the idea in the Washington Post as early as August 2002, while advising that “planning should be based on the visible availability of an overwhelming force capable of dealing with all contingencies, and not on the expectation of a quick Iraqi collapse.” In Kissinger’s worldview, the worst thing the United States could ever do was to appear weak. For Kissinger, it was in the projection of a particular image, more than anything else, that power was expressed. And it was Kissinger’s consistent alignment with and articulation of this principle that most accounted for the Kissinger consensus, ensuring that he would never truly fall out of favor with the powerful, no matter what else he might have done.

However admired Kissinger’s statesmanship might be in remembrances by those such as Zakaria and historian Niall Ferguson, however genuinely George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton might have considered Kissinger to be their friend, he was more often not well liked. At Harvard, where he endured the remnants of an antisemitic culture, he was known, according to historian Bruce Kuklick, as “Henry Ass Kissinger.” His relationship with Nixon represented what historian Jeremi Suri has called a “marriage of convenience.” Kissinger often maintained his obsequiousness in the face of Nixon’s cascades of antisemitic slurs. When Fallaci finally met Kissinger for an interview, when he was secretary of state, she found him to be insecure and constantly attempting to play power games to maintain the upper hand in their conversation. She was repulsed. It was a far cry, she thought, from the confident playboy image that Kissinger had cultivated to enhance his celebrity.

Here were the elements of Kissinger’s paradox. He was a powerful Jewish man in what, at least at the start of his political career, was a WASP world. His intellect was feminized and exoticized at the same time that he was widely seen to be the master of power politics. He was thoroughly anti-democratic in outlook and himself an unelected official, yet he perceived himself to be the guardian of American democracy. He was widely understood to be a conservative intellectual, yet was at the same time a radical relativist, even a post-truthist avant la lettre. Indeed, long before Donald Rumsfeld’s second stint as defense secretary, or Donald Trump’s presidency, Kissinger spoke of the United States creating its own reality. When it comes to his roles in Chile, Indonesia and Cambodia, there is abundant evidence that Kissinger lied.

Perhaps the biggest paradox, however, was that through his role in inaugurating secret bombing campaigns and in conspiring against democratically elected governments — his support for the coup against Chilean president Allende, for example — Kissinger ensured that Kissinger Associates would have business for decades. This was a form of inverse karma, the chance to reap what he had sown for his own profit. Yet we ought to remember that Kissinger was never as well liked nor as powerful and influential as he wanted people to believe.

What if Kissinger escaped the reckoning his critics sought not because he was unique and special but precisely because he was mundane and orthodox? While Kissinger might be gone, something we might someday call Kissingerism remains. It is not exotic and “other,” but rather banal and familiar. And whatever we take Kissingerism to mean, it might be one of the only things holding the American foreign policy elite together.

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