Kissinger in Hindsight

Posted on Tuesday, December 5, 2023
by AMAC, Robert B. Charles
Henry Kissinger and President Nixon

Working in the White House of George H. W.  Bush, my office lay across the hall from Room 208, the mysterious “Cordell Hull Room.” Hull was FDR’s Secretary of State, the longest at that post (1933-44). Between 1875 and 1947, the entire State Department fit in that room. In 1992, a little man sometimes clicked down the hall, thumbs hooked in his belt loops, and disappeared into that room. That man was Henry Kissinger.

Such was the influence of this diplomat, who just died at 100, that every president who followed Richard Nixon, for whom Kissinger was Secretary of State and National Security Advisor – at the same time – consulted with him on foreign policy.

Looking back, Kissinger will be remembered for half a dozen things, some good, some not so good, yet taken together, epic. Kissinger was, to borrow from a friend, “a titanic figure in every sense of that word.”

High energy, outsized ambition, embodiment of the American Dream, he was Jewish, escaped the Nazis, served in US Army intelligence (1943 to 1945), later earned his PhD from Harvard, where he dug into history to understand “great power politics,” how nations balanced power in the 1800s.

If he was a deep thinker, he was also oddly disconnected from the traditional moral compass, willing to think about big questions in purely practical terms, which had up and downsides.

As a tactician, negotiator, imaginative thinker, risk taker, and ultimately peacemaker, he was novel, different, uniquely suited to guide Richard Nixon, another smart, practical, complex, haunted leader.

Kissinger’s extraordinary grasp of history, power, geopolitics, and how humans can be guided to a useful conclusion was not much burdened by the moral nature of countries whose power needed balancing, thus his genius for problem-solving was offset by a weakness, underestimating moral imbalances.

Put differently, he won a Nobel Peace Prize for the “Paris Accords,” which brought the Vietnam War to an end but counseled intense carpet bombing, especially in Cambodia, causing good people to shudder.

Likewise, he opened China, but got little for it. China joined the modern world with many thinking economic inclusion would produce political freedom. That did not happen. Instead, the West has gradually underwritten the rise of their greatest mortal foe.

Between 1973 and 1975, Kissinger again showed genius, this time in the Middle East. He showed stamina, energy and the ability to prove trustworthy to nations hating each other.  He disentangled Israel, Egypt, and Syria after the October 1973 Yom Kippur War with “shuttle diplomacy.”

Applying his Harvard studies of “great power politics” and “spheres of influence” to modern times, he pushed “détente” – a concept used by Austria, France, and Great Britain mid-1800s – to reshape US and Soviet relations, triangulating China.

Notably, Kissinger’s approach to the Soviets bought time and reduced the chance of war, but was flawed. It failed to grasp what Ronald Reagan saw:  Soviet communism was illegitimate, evil, and could not stand.

Kissinger’s leadership in Vietnam, China, Middle East, and the Soviets was vital, a tour de force, world-changing, and in many ways brought stability that the Nixon White House needed, even at a high cost.

Why? Because Nixon’s White House was itself in crisis, disintegrating under a moral deficit, one closer to home, “Watergate.” Like Kissinger, Nixon had a worldview that allowed for compromise of character, a view aptly described as closer to amoral than moral.

Great leaders, back to biblical times, have been a mix of good and the bad, moral impulses that produced good things, amoral and immoral tolerances that stood in stark contrast.

Kissinger was a bit like that, a “first order” problem-solver, wise in ways of the world, witness to times rife with evil, times desperate for leadership, especially for peace, which he used history to deliver. 

But in many ways, this tactician always operated on one chess board, within the same four corners, convinced history was about power, not moral leadership, practical outcomes, not lofty ideas. 

As those close to Kissinger would tell you, while he was a close friend of conservative William F. Buckley, he was far removed from Buckley’s belief in one truth and the importance of moral leadership.

Kissinger – unlike Buckley – thought Ronald Reagan was wildly hopeful about the Soviet Union ever ending. Perhaps lack of imagination, preoccupation with power politics, but Kissinger could not see it.

Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, was all moral compass. He could see it.  Because Reagan could, he shifted away from Kissinger’s “realpolitik,” or “anything goes.” He threw down the gauntlet, declared good and evil exist, that we must choose good and not converge with evil, even when invited to.

This is the real closeout:  Kissinger was brilliant, no doubt. He was grateful to America, loved America, gave his life to serving America. He was effective, applied his grasp of history to the present. Doing so, he helped bring peace.  But, for all his brilliance, he missed what Reagan saw and history also teaches:  Moral leadership offers lasting solutions, where “realpolitik” is just a way to get by. 

For me, Kissinger exemplifies much that is good, he was an epic diplomat.  We could use some of that today. But he also represents error, putting practical above moral, even when the bar is high. I can still see him, clicking alone down that marble hall, turning into Cordell Hull, thumbs hooked in his belt loops.

Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, former Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, attorney, and naval intelligence officer (USNR). He wrote “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003), “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), and is National Spokesman for AMAC.

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