Why Washington Couldn’t Quit Kissinger

Henry Kissinger, the former national-security adviser and Secretary of State who served in the Nixon and Ford Administrations and became the most famous American diplomat of the twentieth century, died this week, at the age of a hundred. Kissinger’s legacy remains one of the most debated and contentious artifacts of the Cold War era. Although he has been excoriated, and sometimes called a war criminal, by writers such as Seymour Hersh and Christopher Hitchens, he remained in the good graces of Administrations of both parties well after his time in government, was a frequent presence on the party and social circuit in New York and Washington, D.C., consulted with a wide range of governments and appeared on corporate boards, and published best-selling books. All the while, his critics accused him of a catastrophic record in countries from Vietnam to Chile to Argentina.

To talk about this divide, and Kissinger’s legacy, I spoke by phone with Richard Haass, the president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, who served as the head of that organization for two decades, until earlier this year. A former diplomat who worked on peace in Northern Ireland and served in Colin Powell’s State Department during the George W. Bush Administration, Haass is one of the most recognizable figures in the foreign-policy establishment, and he knew Kissinger well and interviewed him at length. During our conversation, the transcript for which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed how Kissinger should be remembered, his role in extending the Vietnam War, and whether Washington élites were too forgiving of Kissinger’s mistakes.

What is Dr. Kissinger’s legacy?

His legacy, to begin with, is that he’ll be seen as the greatest scholar-practitioner of the era.

Just to begin with.

I think he’ll be seen as someone who, in his eight years in government with Nixon and Ford, transformed U.S. relations with China and stabilized U.S. relations with the Soviet Union. I think great-power relations will be a central part of his legacy. The other big, positive part will have to do with the Middle East, his handling of the 1973 war, and essentially setting the foundation for what became the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty negotiated by the Carter Administration.

I heard you say, about him being the greatest scholar-practitioner of the era, “I believe that Henry combines scholarship, as well as ability, to be effective in government. And when you add them up, I believe he stands apart from anyone else who has served over this three-quarters of a century.” What do you think made him unique?

I stand by that. I would say he was one of the four great post-World War Two Secretaries of State, with George Marshall, Dean Acheson, and James Baker. What I think allowed Henry to stand apart was that he wasn’t just a skilled practitioner, a skilled negotiator, a skilled bureaucrat, but he was someone who also just had this enormous understanding of history. I remember, as a graduate student, fifty years ago, when I read the book that grew out of his doctoral dissertation on the post-Napoleonic era.

Is this the Metternich book?

Yeah. It was impossible not to be stunned about someone’s grasp of history, but also his ability to write New Yorker-quality portraiture of the characters involved. Then his ability to toggle, back and forth, between the small and the big. He could zero in on a conversation, or on a diplomatic note. Then take a step back and try to say, “Let me explain to you why this was really significant and what was going on behind the scenes.” There’s not a lot of people who have that ability to engage both in detail but also then take a step back, or a step up. You can count those people on the fingers of one hand.

Maybe not even any hands anymore, with him passing away. How well did you know him, personally?

Right. First met him forty-nine years ago. Were we intimate? No. Over the five decades, we had dozens and dozens of conversations, meals. In my twenty years as president of the Council, he would speak there often. We didn’t play golf together on weekends.

But you interviewed him several times, right?

Yup.

There are obviously some more controversial parts of Kissinger’s legacy: the rise of Pinochet in Chile, the bombing of Cambodia, the genocide in Bangladesh. What did Kissinger say when you would ask him about these things?

I’d have to go back and look at the transcripts. Let me sort of give you a more general answer. I haven’t refreshed my memory on all these things.

I know you’re the former head of the Council on Foreign Relations. It’s not like you can respond to everything that’s happened in foreign policy.

Yeah. I hear you. Let me put it this way—here’s what I’m comfortable saying. I thought the critics, in some cases, had a point. I think what happened in, say, East Pakistan, what became Bangladesh, his prioritization of the relationship with Pakistan, whether it was because of his dislike of India and [Indira] Gandhi, or because of Pakistan’s role as a go-between with China, I just thought his priorities were misplaced. He was slow to see what was going on, and to react to it. The idea that he stood by the Pakistani leadership of the day was just wrong.

What happened in Vietnam is a much more complicated conversation. I think that there’s real questions about the value of having extended the war as long as it was, only to end up with the agreement we got. It’s hard to make the case that it was all wonky. He was always concerned about credibility. My own view is that he placed too much emphasis on all that, and, historically, the sacrifices were seen as excessive given U.S. interests.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *