When Henry Kissinger finally died, I was disgusted but not surprised to see a “we often disagreed… but…” tribute to the butcher of Cambodia from President Biden. I wasn’t even surprised to see the very similar sentiments expressed by allegedly “anti-war” Republican Senator J.D. Vance, who admitted that Kissinger did some bad things but praised him as a “statesman” who rose above “childish moral argument[s].”
Kissinger was directly involved in blood-curdling crimes everywhere from Latin America to Southeast Asia. Yet in the decades after the end of his unprecedented dual role as Secretary of State and National Security Advisor under Presidents Nixon and Ford, he was treated as a respected elder statesman by the bipartisan establishment. He was brought on cable news to sound off on each new foreign policy crisis. He was invited by almost every president—Democrats as well as Republicans—to come to the White House to discuss world events. And when he turned 100 last year, a literal red-carpet celebrity gala was held in his honor with a bipartisan coterie of political luminaries in attendance: everyone from Bush 41’s Secretary of State James Baker to Obama’s USAID Director Samantha Power to current Secretary of State Antony Blinken made the rounds.
If anything, I expected the volume of praise for Kissinger to be higher after his death. It probably would have been if the old monster hadn’t managed to outlive so many of his friends and supporters. What surprised me was the specific way in which I saw many of Kissinger’s defenders excusing his record–especially in some supposedly “dissident” corners of right-wing media.
The night after Kissinger died, I went on Dan Abrams’s show on the News Nation cable network to argue with American Conservative editor Sumantra Maitra. At one point in that discussion, Dr. Maitra, his voice dripping with irony, said that Kissinger’s pragmatic approach to foreign policy earned him hatred from both leftists like me and “neocons”—i.e. neoconservative warmongers who posture about how the United States has a moral mission to “spread democracy” around the world.
The same day, there was a similar debate on Breaking Points, a show co-hosted by progressive commentator Krystal Ball and conservative Saagar Enjeti. While granting that Kissinger had made a lot of “mistakes,” Enjeti favorably contrasted Kissinger’s “realist” legacy to the warmongering moral self-righteousness of the “neocons” who came after him. Politically ambiguous writer Malcom Kyeyune took a very similar line the next day in an article for the “post-liberal” journal Compact.
It’s true that Kissinger was concerned about the dangers of mounting tensions with other great powers, for example, which is an excellent thing to be concerned with if you don’t want a Third World War. It’s easy to see Maitra, Enjeti and Kyeyune’s point if you restrict yourself to the right range of issues and avert your eyes every time you find a detail that doesn’t fit the narrative. Focus on the rapprochement with Mao’s China, for example, and ignore the oceans of blood he was willing to spill to “stop communism” everywhere from Chile to Cambodia. Focus on his early statements on Ukraine and NATO, and ignore the position he held when he died.
If we’re going to be serious about this, though, we need to take in the whole picture. And once we’ve done this, we can ask broader questions—not just about the legacy of one elderly war criminal, but about what kind of “realism” Kissinger’s defenders are selling as a general matter. Does it really represent a preferable alternative to what the “neocons” represented?
To start to answer that question, it’s worth taking a long step back and thinking about who and what the neoconservatives were and why exactly their legacy has become so despised.
The Rise and Fall of the “Neocons”
As far as I can tell, the original meaning of “neoconservative” was biographical. In other words, to be a “neocon,” you had to start out as a leftist (or at least a liberal) and then move to the right. Cold War anti-communism was a big part of what was going on with the original neocons but so, in some cases, were issues like race and crime. As time went on, though, the term was more and more defined by a closely linked group of specific neocons like Norman Podhoretz and Irving Kristol and their foreign policy preoccupations. It has long since been routinely applied to lots of people who were never on the left—including second-generation neocons like John Podhoretz and Bill Kristol.
While the Cold War was still going on, this group wanted the United States to take a more aggressive stand against the Soviet Union. In the 2000s, they were the most enthusiastic backers of U.S.-sponsored regime change against various governments in the Middle East. And they’ve always been passionately pro-Israel.
The passion for smiting the enemies of “the west” has been a consistent thread. In 1996, Podhoretz wrote that a key difference between neocons like him and old-school conservatives is that he and his fellow neoconservatives had a greater loathing for the commies because of their experience on the left:
“The neoconservatives did not love commerce, or anything else, more than they loathed Communism; nor did their allies in the labor movement. Few businessmen, and few Republicans for that matter, had ever met a Communist. Some of them seemed to think that the Soviet Union was one huge regulatory agency, a sort of gigantic Federal Trade Commission armed with nuclear weapons (which was about as close as they could come to an image of absolute evil). Others were so temperamentally remote from and unfamiliar with the phenomenon of ideological fervor that they thought the Soviets could in effect be bribed out of Communism by the right business deals.”
In the minds of neocons like Podhoretz, the Soviets were a frothing, atavistic mass incapable of recognizing their own interests and pursuing diplomacy. The Cold War, they thought, was a war between an enlightened West and a barbaric East that could be resolved through force alone.
It doesn’t seem to have registered with Podhoretz that the Soviets were in fact quite eager to pursue a foreign-policy détente with the United States. It’s not as if the 182nd Airborne landed in Moscow and forced Gorbachev to open up to the West—the Soviet premier pursued liberalizing reforms and diplomacy of his own accord because he believed they could save a Communist system that was in the midst of a slow-motion collapse.
Podhoretz spent the final decades of the Cold War convinced that a diplomatic resolution could never happen, and in 1996 he apparently still believed that it hadn’t. He seems to have imagined that the only acceptable end to the Cold War would have been something akin to the ending of Inglourious Basterds, in which Hitler and the other top Nazis are massacred at a movie theater in an act of righteous fury.
The same conviction that “we” were engaged in an apocalyptic struggle against an implacable, civilization-threatening “them” defined the neoconservative approach to the War on Terror. In his 2005 book Neoconservatism: Why We Need It, for example, Douglas Murray railed against the position that “the West does not have a right to conquer or destroy evil.”
The foreign policy of George W. Bush is generally seen as the high point of the influence of the neocons—represented in the administration by the likes of Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and speechwriter David Frum (who coined the term “Axis of Evil” to describe Iran, Iraq, and North Korea). President Bush enacted a “Global War on Terror” that has been carried on by the next three presidents, with little to show for it but a pile of corpses and greater global instability. With the neocons as ideological guides, the Bush administration brought us the grisly realities of the drone war, indefinite detention, and long-term military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.
I’m old enough to remember what it felt like to oppose those wars when they started. The war in Afghanistan in 2001 was only criticized by the kind of people who picked up every fresh collection of interviews with Noam Chomsky when it hit the shelves at Barnes & Noble. There was far more significant public dissent against the war in Iraq: In the months before “Operation Iraqi Freedom” began, close to two million Americans marched around the country in opposition, flooding the streets of over 600 cities. But in the end, the war was supported by nearly all elected Republicans, most of the prominent Democrats, and a solid majority of the public. As late as 2004, the Democrats nominated a presidential candidate who urged Bush to surge troop levels in Iraq, and, by and large, the liberal base lined up behind him.
In 2024, the landscape is vastly different. Even George W. Bush’s brother conceded several years ago that invading Iraq was a “mistake.” In 2021, when Joe Biden finally pulled U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, there was plenty of criticism of how he handled the withdrawal, but hardly any commentators bothered to argue that the underlying mission could have been salvaged.
These days, while there is no shortage of figures whose politics could be accurately described as “neoconservative,” and some “classic” neocons like Eli Lake have crawled out from under their rocks to cheer for the Israeli war crimes in Gaza, far fewer commentators seem to be comfortably applying the label to themselves. I certainly couldn’t imagine Douglas Murray, for example, releasing a new edition of Neoconservatism: Why We Need It. By the time Kissinger kicked the bucket in November, if the word “neocon” passed the lips of a pundit or a politician of either party, it’s a safe bet that they weren’t bringing up the neocons to praise them.
Members of the New Right often describe neocons as being on the top of their enemies list. Take, for example, GOP presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, who in a December debate referred to his opponent Nikki Haley as a “fascist neocon with lipstick” and announced that his hypothetical appointees would have to sign a “No to Neocons” pledge by which they agree that “avoiding WW3 is a vital national objective.” Former Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson, meanwhile, has claimed that Trump is being prosecuted as punishment for opposing “the neocon war agenda.”
Twenty years ago, critics of the military-industrial complex faced opponents who wore their enthusiasm for endless war on their sleeves. Today, it can feel like practically everyone is “not a neocon.” But not everyone learned the same lessons from the disasters of the Bush years. The morphing of “neocon” into a widely-used term of derision is a good thing—as far as it goes. Leftists have, of course, understood neocons to be a scourge for decades, and it’s good to see the rest of the public finally catching up. But it can also lead to a lot of confusion, allowing right-wing critics to pose as “anti-war” when they are anything but. Many of the same people who rail against neocons with one breath often sound just like them with the next.
The Limits of Foreign Policy Realignment
If (almost) all of us can agree that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were catastrophically misguided, what about wars that are going on now? Or ones that might break out in the near future?
In some cases, there’s genuine convergence between starkly different parts of the political spectrum. Noam Chomsky is sharply critical of U.S. involvement in the war in Ukraine. He advocates a ceasefire and peace negotiations. So do the Democratic Socialists of America. So do I. But so does Vivek Ramaswamy, and so does Marjorie Taylor Greene.
Some leftists take this as a reason to think people like Chomsky are wrong. Accustomed to assuming right-wingers are always wrong (a procedure which, in fairness, usually points toward truth and justice), they add “not caring about Ukraine” to the list of right-wing sins. This leads them to forget the massive amounts of death and suffering caused by America’s prolonging of the war (not just by providing a blank check of continued military aid but by scuttling peace talks), the very real dangers of a wider conflict between the United States and Russia, and the anti-war instincts that have traditionally animated the Left. I’d point out to these critics that support for the Biden administration’s Ukraine policy represents a convergence between them and the likes of Bill Kristol and David Frum—not to mention George W. Bush.
Either way, no one should embrace any particular view because their enemies have said the opposite. That procedure is likely to lead to some very strange places. Nor is it a bad thing to have some of your ideological enemies converge with you in opposing a particular war. I want as many people as possible to oppose destructive wars.
I can’t help but notice, though, that a surprising number of conservative Ukraine doves seem to be hawks on Taiwan. As I have noted previously, Ramaswamy promotes a “Korean War-style armistice” between Russia and Ukraine on the grounds of preventing “World War 3,” but simultaneously says he will commit the U.S. to militarily defending Taiwan should China invade, which would put us in direct conflict with another nuclear-armed power. Likewise, critics of the “proxy war” in Ukraine, and retroactive critics of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, seem to not only support limitless U.S. involvement in Israel’s carpet bombing of Gaza but to be oddly unconcerned about the prospect that it might spiral into a broader regional war that could drive the United States into direct war with Iran. Nearly everyone in the GOP presidential field—including Trump (also frequently heralded as an anti-war hero by the right), Ramaswamy, Ron DeSantis, and Nikki Haley—have expressed enthusiasm for a war with Mexico.
Many people with this idiosyncratic set of positions claim to be foreign policy “realists.” Senator J.D. Vance (R-OH), for example, said during his campaign for Senate that thanks to the lessons he learned as a Marine in Iraq, he would “always insist on a U.S. foreign policy of realism and restraint.” My News Nation sparring partner Sumantra Maitra very frequently sounds off on “realism,” which he contrasts to what he called the “crumbling and panicked worldview” of “liberal internationalists and their neoconservative cousins.” That Dr. Maitra said this while praising the foreign policy of Ron DeSantis—hardly a dove—gives you some sense of the ambiguity of these terms. What exactly is “realism”?
The truth is that it’s a somewhat slippery term, often used to gesture at a cluster of ideas that don’t always have to go together. One central idea of realism is that we should not see America’s enemies in the way the neocons do—as irrational chaos demons who we can and should “defeat” once and for all. Instead, realists say, we should treat them as actors with comprehensible motives who are unlikely to disappear. If we decide to go to war against them, realists say we should be clear-eyed about the likely consequences of such wars.
These are healthy instincts, but for many on the Right, this “realism” is highly selective. How much of a “realist” are you if you put on rose-tinted glasses when considering the likely consequences of invading Mexico, starting a war with China, or trying to “destroy Hamas” by creating a mountain of mostly civilian corpses in Gaza? (Reality check: However many terrorists are killed along with all the civilians, far more will be generated as a consequence. Polling shows that support for Hamas within the Gaza Strip, which had been declining, has skyrocketed in the months since Israel’s bombing campaign began.)
Never has the emptiness of this kind of “realism” been more apparent, though, than when some on the “anti-war” Right lined up to praise the allegedly “realist” approach of the most infamous Secretary of State in American history.
Doves for Kissinger?
Henry Kissinger personally oversaw target selection in Nixon’s illegal bombing of Cambodia—a dramatic escalation of the Vietnam War that was initially kept secret from the American people. A chilling transcript of his conversation with his deputy Alexander Haig spelled out his general approach. “Anything that flies,” he told Haig, “on anything that moves.” More explosive material was dropped on that country than the United States had dropped on all of Europe during all of World War II, and 150,000 human beings lost their lives.
You would think anyone who’s generally critical of excessive U.S. belligerence abroad would see Kissinger as a villain. Similarly, you’d think anyone critical of the U.S. imposing “regime change”—even when the regimes being changed are brutal dictatorships like that of Saddam Hussein—would be disgusted by Kissinger’s role in conspiring to overthrow the democratically elected president of Chile, Salvador Allende, in 1973. “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist,” Dr. Kissinger said, “due to the irresponsibility of its people.”1
With Kissinger’s help, the democratic socialist Allende was replaced with General Augusto Pinochet, who instituted a reign of terror against the Chilean left that would lead to his arrest for kidnapping, torture, and murder after he finally left office in the 1990s. Most of this happened within Chile, but Pinochet also collaborated with other Latin American dictators and the CIA to sponsor something called “Operation Condor,” which extended the terror across South America as Nixon and Kissinger pretended not to notice. In one particularly shocking instance, while Kissinger was still Secretary of State, Condor-affiliated assassins used a car bomb to kill Pinochet critic (and former Chilean ambassador) Orlando Letelier in the United States.
But in his Compact piece, Malcom Kyeyune sneered at accusations that Kissinger was a “war criminal” or that our country is better off without a man like him advising every president and being asked by the media to weigh in on every issue of war and diplomacy:
“Does anyone think America’s leaders, in rejecting Kissinger’s realpolitik in favor of liberal and neoconservative interventionism, became a greater force for good in the world? Would anyone seriously argue that US foreign policy in recent decades has become less prone to starting or backstopping devastating conflicts? By all means, talk about the dead in Cambodia—but what about the dead in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, and Ukraine? Their blood isn’t on the hands of the amoral Kissinger, but on those of leaders who sold their causes as unimpeachably moral.”
The contrast Kyeyune tries to draw here falls flat the moment we remember that Kissinger, who was a friend and confidant of George W. Bush, supported the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. After 9/11, Kissinger compared the terrorist attack to Pearl Harbor and said it merited “the same response.” When asked by one of Bush’s speechwriters why he supported the invasion of Iraq, Kissinger reportedly said, “Because Afghanistan wasn’t enough.” Islamists had “humiliated” America, and the only way to regain the country’s standing was to “humiliate” them right back by showing the world American tanks rolling through an Arab capital.
That sounds more than a little bit like the infamous pronouncement Jonah Goldberg once attributed to his fellow neocon Michael Ledeen—that “every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.” Perhaps the difference is that the likes of Goldberg and Ledeen mixed these frank expressions of power politics with moral rhetoric about Spreading Democracy and Defeating Evil, while Kissinger preferred to drink his power politics straight.
Was Kissinger’s support for the bloodshed in Iraq and Afghanistan better, though, for leaving out the hypocritical appeal to humanitarianism? I can’t see how. If you told me that you killed your neighbor because you considered him to be a wicked person, I wouldn’t be more disturbed than if you’d openly told me that you killed him because he caught you trying to steal his wife’s jewelry. The frank “realism” of the second justification would make it more disturbing, not less.
Perhaps you disagree and admire Kissinger for being more honest than Wolfowitz about the point of the Iraq war. That still wouldn’t make him better on the substance of the issue. And in ways that strike me as far more important than whether or not to hypocritically reach for humanitarian justifications for imperial wars or to more honestly justify those wars as raw projections of American power, Kissinger’s record in the Nixon and Ford administrations bore more than passing resemblance to the actions of the Bush-era neocons.
Like the neocons, Kissinger’s foreign policy adventurism was often based on wishful thinking. The bombing of Cambodia, for example, was justified by the crackpot theory that the Viet Cong could be brought to their knees by taking away Cambodian supply lines, thus securing an eventual American exit on more favorable terms. The utter devastation of Cambodian society had no such effect. The U.S. continued to lose ground in Vietnam until Nixon and Kissinger finally accepted pretty much the same peace deal they’d worked to sabotage when LBJ was trying to negotiate it in 1968. But, much like the rise of ISIS after the war in Iraq, it did create the conditions for Pol Pot’s ascension to power.
Like the neocons, Kissinger saw international law and even domestic constitutional constraints on the war-making power of the executive as unserious objections that didn’t deserve much weight. One of the allegedly witty remarks for which he was famous was, “The illegal we do immediately. The unconstitutional takes a little longer.” And his record in office faithfully reflected the spirit of the bon mot. When an aide told Kissinger that it was illegal for him and Ford to supply arms for Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor, which led to the death of a staggering 20 percent of the East Timorese population, an aspirated Kissinger told him, “I know what the law is.”
As for Yemen, I see no evidence that Kissinger opposed U.S. involvement in Saudi Arabia’s war there. Nor has he ever been a critic of the larger U..S-Saudi alliance. Nor is it likely that someone as outspoken on a broad range of foreign policy issues as Kissinger was until the end of his life would have kept any such criticisms to himself.
It is true that Kissinger long supported Ukrainian neutrality and worried about the consequences of escalating tensions between the United States and Russia. He was critical of the idea of Ukraine joining NATO, for example. Any sane person should be–both the First and Second World Wars started because of defensive alliances that made regional wars spiral into wars between great powers, and if the same thing happened in a future round of conflict between Russia and Ukraine, that could be the end of the road for human civilization as a whole.
In general, Kissinger’s support for détente with other great powers is the best part of his legacy—although, to spell out what should be obvious, easing tensions with China and the Soviet Union hardly required carpet bombing neutral Cambodia or overthrowing the elected president of a country with which the United States was not at war.
Even here, though, the contrast Kyeyune wants to draw doesn’t quite work. Kissinger is someone who could rarely bring himself to dislike any war once it had started, and Ukraine was no exception. It’s true that he had early reservations which hurt his standing with the Washington, D.C. “blob,” but it’s also true—and surely relevant—that he abandoned those reservations when they mattered most. This September, Kissinger told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy that he now supported Ukrainian membership in NATO.
Not All “Realisms” Are Created Equal
If this were just about some “realists” having an inaccurate assessment of one deceased monster, it would only be of historical interest. The apologetics for Kissinger, however, are one of several indicators that some “realists” on the Right might bear more resemblance to the neocons they love to hate than either might like to admit.
“Realism” is a capacious word. Many who apply it to themselves, and even many leading lights of what’s considered to be the realist “school,” are advocates of U.S./China de-escalation, opponents of the carpet bombing of the Palestinians, and harsh critics of the legacy of “Dr. K.”2 Leading realist scholar Stephen Walt, for example, argued back in 2020 that people who praised Kissinger as a “realist” were missing the boat. Important realists like Kenneth Waltz, Hans Morgenthau, and George Kennan “all opposed the war in Vietnam,” and “contemporary realists opposed the Iraq war in 2003.” By contrast, he pointed out, “Kissinger waged one and supported the other.”
There is, however, an unmistakable school of conservative “realism” on foreign policy that’s godawful on all three of the issues I just mentioned—China, Palestine, and Kissinger. And they aren’t just making bad judgment calls about particular cases. There’s a fundamental problems with their foreign policy worldview—which is, ultimately, still all about projecting American imperial power all around the world.
To “realists” of this variety, the U.S. continually escalating its involvement in Ukraine, for example, isn’t bad because it has led to enormous and unnecessary death and destruction and has the potential to spiral into a catastrophic war between great powers. Their objection is merely that it’s the wrong great power conflict because it doesn’t serve us strategically.
Just as Barack Obama didn’t object to the war in Iraq for the reasons Noam Chomsky did but because he thought the U.S. was taking its “eye off the ball” of the more important war in Afghanistan, some opponents of U.S. involvement in Ukraine, like Tucker Carson, are explicit about thinking it’s a “distraction” from confrontation with China. “The U.S. ought to be in a relationship with Russia,” Carlson has said, “aligned against China.”
Was the problem with Iraq and Afghanistan just that these were wars that didn’t serve “the national interest?” Many of these guys seem to think so. One problem with that is that there’s no such thing as “the” national interest. The interests of major shareholders at Raytheon and Lockheed Martin are not identical to the interests of working-class people who benefit from social services that might be sacrificed for the sake of the defense budget. But even if we put this aside and pretend that there is such a thing as “the” national interest, there’s a deeper moral divide between the kind of “realists” I’m talking about and those of us who object on principle to the idea that the U.S. should attempt to dominate the world.
If it can be argued that Israel’s bombing of Gaza, which has already killed many thousands of children and displaced about 85 percent of the civilian population from their homes, does serve Israeli and American interests, does it follow that it’s not particularly objectionable? Or are there perhaps more general reasons, both moral and pragmatic, not to respond to terrorist attacks with acts of bloodthirsty collective vengeance that just lead to more terrorism in the long run?
The neocons are indeed very bad. We all agree on that. But why? Was the problem that they claimed to be motivated by high-minded considerations of morality and human rights? Is the only, or the best, alternative to neoconservativism a sort of geopolitical Nietzscheanism?
I reject that view root and branch. The problem with neocons isn’t that they pretend to care about democracy and human rights. It’s that the wars they promote, far from making the world more humane and democratic, make it far more dangerous. The lesson to draw from the grim consequences of imperial wars justified with rhetoric about promoting the interests of Iraqis and Afghans is not that we shouldn’t be concerned with the fate of our fellow human beings in other nations. It’s that their interests aren’t served by turning their homelands into war zones.
Anyone who starts from the very correct idea that the legacy of the neocons should be rejected and ends by trying to rehabilitate a genuine demon like Dr. Kissinger is only revealing that they’ve rejected neoconservatism for all the wrong reasons.