I have a short piece up in The Hill where I compare Henry Kissinger to Jesus. The piece originally began “Did Henry Kissinger die for our sins?” but they took that line out.
Let me explain.
His true skill was ingratiating himself to those who had power, and escaping the opprobrium that normally fell upon war criminals. Leaders we all felt should have known better nevertheless embraced Kissinger when the time came. Clinton and Bush and Obama each believed that it could be some other way, then discovered that the president of the United States kills people when he gets out of bed each morning. For the powerful, Kissinger offered absolution in the terms of, “Whatever you’re doing, no matter how many people it kills, is okay as long as it serves the national interest.”
Many sins can be placed on Kissinger’s shoulders; indeed, over the course of his career he did not seem particularly averse to the layering of additional sins, as each one seemed to increase his historical significance. Arguably his most strident critics simply enhanced his historical profile. This is perhaps best exemplified by Christopher Hitchens, who attempted to lay all of the sins of postwar American foreign policy upon the shoulders of Kissinger, only to become one of the most enthusiastic advocates of a war that would kill hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.
I find Kissinger a fascinating figure because he’s more interesting in a totemic sense than as a policymaker or an academic. That totemic nature applies to both his friends and his critics; his actual performance as both statesman and war criminal was not nearly as far outside the norms of post-war American foreign policy as either group would like. What made him unique is the absolute refusal to play the apology and absolution game, a move that enabled the strange combination of fierce hatred and elite esteem that characterized his post-government career.