One of the very few things that still brings the Republican and Democratic political establishments together is their shared reverence for Henry Kissinger.
Kissinger’s death, at the age of 100, has served as a reminder that the frequent, wide-ranging and substantial allegations of war crimes against him never dimmed the admiration he inspired among the powerful in Washington.
“Henry Kissinger, War Criminal Beloved by America’s Ruling Class, Finally Dies,” was the Rolling Stone headline on his obituary, expressing the bewilderment and frustration of many progressives at his enduring popularity among the elite.
The Republican tributes were hardly surprising – it was as national security adviser and then secretary of state to Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, that Kissinger made his mark on the world.
What is more striking is the enduring fealty of Democrats, who otherwise identify as liberals and defenders of human rights on the world stage.
The current secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said on Thursday he had sought Kissinger’s counsel as recently as a month ago, and issued a lengthy and fulsome tribute to Kissinger’s “enduring capacity to bring his strategic acumen and intellect to bear on the emerging challenges of each passing decade.”
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The defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, said he had also looked to Kissinger for advice and called him a “rare scholar turned strategist”.
Joe Biden was a little more measured, praising the late statesman’s “fierce intellect and profound strategic focus” while adding the two men often strongly disagreed.
That note of caution was the only veiled nod by the administration towards Kissinger’s record of ruthless acts, some of which have been widely categorised as war crimes or crimes against humanity.
In 1968, he helped sabotage Democratic President Lyndon Johnson’s peace talks with the North Vietnamese, helping ensure Nixon’s election and the extension of the Vietnam war by another five years.
In 1969, he orchestrated the carpet-bombing of Cambodia, a neutral country, which resulted in the killing of up to half a million people, without consulting Congress or declaring war. He gave US acquiescence in the 1971 slaughter of 300,000 Bengalis in what was then East Pakistan by the dictator, Gen. Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan.
In 1973, he helped orchestrate a coup against the democratically elected president of Chile, Salvador Allende, installing a military dictator, Augusto Pinochet. And in 1976 he gave a green light to the military junta that had taken over Argentina to get rid of its leftist opposition, telling it: “If there are things that have to be done, you should do them quickly.”
It is a litany that cuts across everything liberal Democratic foreign policy is meant to stand for, and yet one powerful Washington Democrat after another has gone out of their way to fete Kissinger.
“I’ve always been genuinely mystified by it myself,” Ben Rhodes, Barack Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, said.
Rhodes suggested a couple of possible explanations for the Kissinger syndrome, including an inferiority complex Democrats have long felt over foreign and national security policy.
“Some Democrats and some liberals have a lack of confidence on foreign affairs, and there’s this aura of credibility around Kissinger,” he said, adding that it imparted an air of hard-headed realism that helped contain the risk of being labelled an idealist.
“I think some people thought: here I am talking to Henry Kissinger, and that means I’m serious. I think that is entrenched in the American establishment,” he said.
Rhodes’ former boss, Obama, was a significant exception to the Democrats’ fandom, noting in 2016 that the Nixon and Kissinger legacy in southeast Asia had been “chaos, slaughter and authoritarian governments”.
For others however, Kissinger’s record of pursuing détente with Russia and China, reducing the threat of nuclear conflict, was more important than his involvement in atrocities elsewhere.
“I think there are some Democrats and some liberals who are actually pure realists,” Rhodes said. “They might not have liked Vietnam and Chile and Bangladesh but his realpolitik was seen as an alternative to war, and a validation of diplomacy with countries like China and Russia.”
Sidney Blumenthal, a former adviser to both Bill and Hillary Clinton, argues there was a more practical reason they were keen to meet Kissinger long after he had left office.
“He stayed around for a long time and made himself invaluable as an intermediary and made a tremendous amount of money, particularly as a channel to China,” Blumenthal said.
In July, Kissinger secretly flew to China, after he had turned 100, at the invitation of Xi Jinping, as the Chinese president made the first step towards improving relations with Washington.
Brett Bruen, the director of global engagement in the Obama White House, argued you could admire Kissinger’s craft without necessarily endorsing his policies.
“We need to separate what Kissinger contributed to modern diplomacy from his policies and politics,” Bruen said. “You can admire the ways in which he created concepts like shuttle diplomacy, and how he worked to overcome enormous divides with Beijing, while at the same time detesting some of the things that he did with those diplomatic tactics.”
Aaron David Miller, a former senior diplomat under a series of administrations, argued that it was Kissinger’s agility as a statesman, and his ability to get things done in government that was the real secret to an appeal that transcended political differences. Other diplomats simply admired his power.
“What is the world’s most compelling ideology?” Miller asked. “It’s not nationalism, it’s not communism, it’s not even capitalism. It’s success.”