Nov 30, 2023 - Politics & Policy

White House treads careful line on Kissinger as critics decry "war criminal"

Photo: Jason Lee-Pool/Getty Images

The death of former Secretary State Henry Kissinger — arguably America's most famous and divisive diplomat — has triggered an outpouring of remembrance, respect and revulsion from current and former U.S. officials.

State of play: Nearly 24 hours after news of Kissinger's passing broke on Wednesday night, President Biden put out a statement praising Kissinger's "fierce intellect" but noting that "we often disagreed. And often strongly."

  • Biden said in the statement that he'd never forget receiving his first briefing from Kissinger as a young senator. Some members of Biden's administration, including Secretary of State Tony Blinken, continued to seek out Kissinger's counsel.
  • But Kissinger told the New York Post last year that Biden was the only president — dating back to his time as Richard Nixon's national security adviser — who had not invited him to the White House.
  • During a bilateral meeting with the president of Angola Thursday afternoon, Biden had declined to respond to multiple reporters' questions about Kissinger's death.

Why it matters: Kissinger's impact on American history and foreign policy cannot be overstated "whether you agreed with him or not," White House National Security Council John Kirby carefully responded when asked about his death at a press briefing today.

  • Kissinger "set the standard for everyone who followed in this job," Blinken told reporters in Israel.
  • "I was very privileged to get his counsel many times, including as recently as about a month ago. He was extraordinarily generous with his wisdom, with his advice," Blinken added, referring to Kissinger's continued role as a confidant and friend to American elites even in his old age.
Screenshot via X

What they're saying: Historians, progressives and representatives of countries who suffered from the consequences of Kissinger's policies — including U.S.-backed coups and bombing campaigns — were not so kind.

  • "[F]or huge swaths of the world, [Kissinger's] mind-set carried a brutal message that America has often conveyed to its own marginalized populations: We care about democracy for us, not for them," former Obama deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes wrote in the New York Times.
  • "A man has died whose historical brilliance never managed to conceal his profound moral misery," tweeted Chile's Ambassador to the U.S. Juan Gabriel Valdes.
  • There are "few people who have had a hand in as much death and destruction, as much human suffering, in so many places around the world as Henry Kissinger," veteran war crimes prosecutor Reed Brody told The Intercept.

The bottom line: "How many of his eulogists will grapple with his full record in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Bangladesh, Chile, Argentina, East Timor, Cyprus, and elsewhere?" Princeton professor Gary J. Bass wrote in The Atlantic.

  • "The uncomfortable question is why much of American polite society was so willing to dote on him, rather than honestly confronting what he did."
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