Hillary Clinton’s campaign operatives found themselves in the peculiar position Thursday night of having to defend the legacy of none other than Henry Kissinger, the 92-year-old former secretary of state whose past deeds many believe amount to war crimes, but whose exercise of American statecraft has nevertheless inspired admiration among political elites for over 40 years. In the final portion of the Democratic debate at the University of New Hampshire, Clinton said she “was very flattered when Henry Kissinger said I ran the State Department better—better than anybody had run it in a long time.”
It would seem fair to assume that if she considers praise from Kissinger to be “flattering,” she therefore values his judgment. I put this thesis to Clinton’s chief strategist, Joel Benenson, a “surrogate” operating in the post-debate “spin room” session. “People generally believe that Henry Kissinger was a good secretary of state,” Benenson said. “I think he’s respected. I think he’s been an honest spokesman for issues around the world. He was a diplomat. You know, the world is not as hyper-partisan as the media likes to make it.”
Benenson’s comment speaks to the mindset of America’s political elite, for whom Kissinger is foremost a guardian of the prevailing foreign policy consensus; his approval confers a certain legitimacy, and inclusion in said consensus. Thus, the significance of Kissinger’s well-documented responsibility for atrocities in Cambodia, East Timor, Chile, and elsewhere is subordinate to his reputation as a statesman unbound by partisan loyalties. (Republican presidential candidates such as Ted Cruz and Chris Christie also have pilgrimaged to seek Kissinger’s counsel.)
I asked Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire whether Clinton’s claim to the “progressive” label was at odds with her Kissinger remark. “Oh, come on,” Shaheen, a Hillary supporter, said. “She was making the point that someone who has been a secretary of state in the past, who has a nationwide recognition, who is from the other party—so you would assume they would tend to be more critical—is pointing at her skill at managing the Department of State. So I think that’s just fine.” John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign manager, said, “Here’s a guy who’s certainly knowledgeable about what it takes to manage the State Department. He did it, and I think that he’s a credible source on that.”
For Benenson, Shaheen, Podesta, and others in the Clinton orbit, Kissinger’s supposed managerial expertise is worthy of praise even if that expertise was deployed for atrocious ends. Kissinger’s “credibility,” as Podesta put it, is untarnished by his complicity in upwards of four million deaths, according to an estimate by historian Greg Grandin. If there were ever a quintessential insight into elite pathologies, the widespread Kissinger adulation would be a prime contender.
Of course, Clinton is far from alone in lavishing praise on Kissinger. Her successor, John Kerry, confirmed that he and Kissinger lunched as recently as last October. “He obviously continues to amaze all of us,” Kerry later remarked.
Tad Devine, a senior strategist for Bernie Sanders, took a dimmer view of Kissinger and his role in American political life. “Hillary Clinton is the embodiment of the establishment in America,” he said, “and I can’t think of anybody who embodies that establishment in foreign policy more than Henry Kissinger.”