Henry Kissinger, who died on Wednesday, exemplified the gap between the story that America, the superpower, tells and the way that we can act in the world. At turns opportunistic and reactive, his was a foreign policy enamored with the exercise of power and drained of concern for the human beings left in its wake. Precisely because his America was not the airbrushed version of a city on a hill, he never felt irrelevant: Ideas go in and out of style, but power does not.
From 1969 to 1977, Mr. Kissinger established himself as one of the most powerful functionaries in history. For a portion of that time, he was the only person ever to serve concurrently as national security adviser and secretary of state, two very different jobs that simultaneously made him responsible for shaping and carrying out American foreign policy. If his German Jewish origins and accented English set him apart, the ease with which he wielded power made him a natural avatar for an American national security state that grew and gained momentum through the 20th century, like an organism that survives by enlarging itself.
Thirty years after Mr. Kissinger retired into the comforts of the private sector, I served for eight years in a bigger post-Cold War, post-Sept. 11 national security apparatus. As a deputy national security adviser with responsibilities that included speech writing and communications, my work often focused more on the story America told than the actions we took.
In the White House, you’re atop an establishment that includes the world’s most powerful military and economy while holding the rights to a radical story: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” But I was constantly confronted by the contradictions embedded in American leadership, the knowledge that our government arms autocrats while its rhetoric appeals to the dissidents trying to overthrow them or that our nation enforces rules — for the conduct of war, the resolution of disputes and the flow of commerce — while insisting that America be excused from following them when they become inconvenient.
Mr. Kissinger was not uncomfortable with that dynamic. For him, credibility was rooted in what you did more than what you stood for, even when those actions rendered American concepts of human rights and international law void. He helped extend the war in Vietnam and expand it to Cambodia and Laos, where the United States rained down more bombs than it dropped on Germany and Japan in World War II. That bombing — often indiscriminately massacring civilians — did nothing to improve the terms on which the Vietnam War ended; if anything, it just indicated the lengths to which the United States would go to express its displeasure at losing.
It is ironic that this brand of realism reached its apex at the height of the Cold War, a conflict that was ostensibly about ideology. From the side of the free world, Mr. Kissinger backed genocidal campaigns — by Pakistan against Bengalis and by Indonesia against the East Timorese. In Chile he has been accused of helping to lay the groundwork for a military coup that led to the death of Salvador Allende, the elected leftist president, while ushering in a terrible period of autocratic rule. The generous defense is that Mr. Kissinger represented an ethos that saw the ends (the defeat of the Soviet Union and revolutionary Communism) as justifying the means. But for huge swaths of the world, this mind-set carried a brutal message that America has often conveyed to its own marginalized populations: We care about democracy for us, not them. Shortly before Mr. Allende’s victory, Mr. Kissinger said, “The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves.”
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