When I told friends and colleagues that I was writing a book about the legacy of Henry Kissinger’s foreign policy, many made mention of Christopher Hitchens’s The Trial of Henry Kissinger. But I saw my purpose as antithetical to Hitchens’s polemic, which is a good example of what the great historian Charles Beard, in 1936, dismissed as the “devil theory of war”—placing the blame for militarism on a single, isolable cause: a “wicked man.” To really understand the sources of conflict, Beard argued, you had to look at the big picture, to consider the way “war is our own work,” emerging out of “the total military and economic situation.” In making the case that Kissinger should be tried—and convicted—for war crimes, Hitchens didn’t look at the big picture. Instead, he focused obsessively on the morality of one man, his devil: Henry Kissinger.

Aside from assembling the docket and gathering the accused’s wrongdoings in one place, The Trial of Henry Kissinger isn’t very useful and is actually counterproductive; righteous indignation doesn’t provide much room for understanding. Hitchens burrows deep into Kissinger’s dark heart: The statesman was implicated in horrors in Cambodia, Laos, Bangladesh, Vietnam, East Timor, Latin America, southern Africa, and Washington, DC (the assassination of Orlando Letelier), as well as against the Kurds. Readers are left waiting for Hitchens to come out and tell us what it all means (that is, besides the obvious: Kissinger is a criminal). But Hitchens never does. In the end, we learn more about the prosecutor than the would-be prosecuted; the book provides no insights into the “total situation” in which Kissinger operated, and makes no effort to explain the power of his ideas or how they tapped into the deeper intellectual currents of American history.

Most students of Kissinger find it hard to say anything about Kissinger that isn’t about the man himself. He is such an outsize figure that he eclipses his own context, leading his many biographers, critics, and admirers to focus nearly exclusively on the quirks of his personality or his moral failings. His “Holocaust upbringing” has made him extremely insecure, writes one biographer, and what many people mistake as “deceitfulness” is really just a desire to be accepted.

Seymour Hersh’s The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House, published in 1983, did capture the secretive world of the national-security apparatus as it existed during the Vietnam War, and his study of Kissin- ger’s paranoia reads like a (somewhat innocent) prelude to the all-pervading surveillance and counterterrorism state we live under now. Hersh gave us the defining portrait of Kissinger as a preening paranoid, tacking between ruthlessness and sycophancy to advance his career, cursing his fate and letting fly the B-52s. Small in his vanities and shabby in his motives, Kissinger, in Hersh’s hands, is nonetheless Shakespearean, because his pettiness gets played out on a world stage, with epic consequences. But Hersh, writing in the early ’80s, couldn’t know the long-term effects not only of Kissinger’s specific policies, but also how his imperial existentialism set the stage for a later generation of militarists who, in the 1990s, took us—after a quick detour through Panama and elsewhere in Central America—deeper into the Middle East and then, after 9/11, into Afghanistan and Iraq. Kissinger’s shadow is long.

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Henry Kissinger is 92, and his life courses through the decades like a bright red line, from the jungles of Vietnam and Cambodia to the sands of the Persian Gulf, shedding spectral light on the road that has brought us to where we now find ourselves. Let me stress here (because some early reviewers have already gotten this wrong) that I do not hold Kissinger to be singularly responsible for the evolution of the US national-security state into the perpetual-motion machine it has become today. His extended career, though, does illuminate that evolution like no one else’s. In particular, Kissinger was a key player during a transformative period of the imperial presidency, in the 1960s and ’70s, when the Vietnam War undermined the traditional foundations on which it had stood since the early years of the Cold War: elite planning, bipartisan consensus, and public support.

The unraveling of America’s long midcentury domestic consensus, which ran from about 1941 to 1966, had begun earlier, under Lyndon B. Johnson. Nixon and Kissinger took the crisis to a new level: the illegal bombing and invasion of Cambodia, of which Kis- singer was the architect and executor, kicked off a series of events—including the killing of student protesters at Kent State and Jackson State—that led directly to Watergate and Nixon’s resignation in 1974. Paranoia fueled more paranoia. It was Kissinger, more than any other Nixon staffer, who got Nixon riled up about Daniel Ellsberg’s leaking of the Pentagon Papers. “It shows you’re a weakling, Mr. President,” Kissinger told Nixon. He also stirred up Nixon’s various resentments, depicting Ellsberg as smart, subversive, promiscuous, and privileged. As Nixon’s chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, recalls: “Henry got Nixon cranked up, and then they started cranking each other up until they both were in a frenzy.” The “civil war,” as Kissinger described the domestic polarization he helped spur, spiraled out of control—and the credibility gap widened into a chasm.

Yet even as the breakup of the old national-security state was taking place, Kissinger—who survived Watergate to continue on under Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford—was helping with its reconstruction in a new form: a restored imperial presidency capable of moving forward in a post-Vietnam world.

There are many different elements of this restoration. Kis- singer’s off-the-books support of insurgencies and third-party mercenaries in southern Africa, for example, provided a template for the Reagan administration’s increasing dependence on secrecy and covert action throughout the Third World, including in Nicaragua. Likewise, Kissinger mastered the use of militarism to leverage domestic polarization for political advantage. He and Nixon repeatedly used brutality abroad to win over racists and anticommunists at home, be it with their massive bombing of Laos and Cambodia or their support for apartheid in southern Africa. At one point, Kissinger claimed that if it weren’t for the need to convince Ronald Reagan and other movement conservatives that Nixon was a true hawk, “We wouldn’t have had Cambodia. We wouldn’t have had Laos.” Finally, Kissinger was adept at deploying ever more spectacular displays of violence to shock and awe a war-weary and cynical citizenry. “Let’s look ferocious!” Kissinger said, urging Ford to launch an unnecessary military assault on the Cambodian island of Koh Tang to “rescue” 39 merchant marines who had been briefly held by Cambodia.

But neither covert ops nor political opportunism was Kissin- ger’s chief contribution to the post-Vietnam resurgence of American militarism. Instead, his main legacy is metaphysical.

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Conventional wisdom contrasts Kissinger with the crew—Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, and others—who drove the United States into Afghanistan and Iraq. Kissinger’s sober “realism” is said to belong to a different philosophical tradition than the heady arrogance of an administration that thought the US military was so powerful that it could “make reality,” as one of George W. Bush’s staffers, believed to be Karl Rove, put it. Many of the most prominent neocons, in the last days of the Ford administration, did use Kissinger as a foil. They said that he was an appeaser (because of détente), a loser (Vietnam), and a sinner (since Kissinger supposedly didn’t believe that America’s sense of righteousness should guide its foreign policy, Dick Cheney and others had a “morality plank” inserted into the 1976 Republican Party platform).

But conventional wisdom is wrong: If realism is taken as a worldview that reality is transparent, that the “truth” of facts can be arrived at simply by observing those facts, then Kissinger was decidedly not a realist. Of all the policymakers who helped construct the post–World War II national-security state, Kissinger, born in Germany, was perhaps the most cognizant of the philosophical premises that justified his actions. He was deeply influenced by an antirationalist and extremely subjectivist strain of German metaphysics that, considering how often it has been used to justify war and more war, might be called “imperial existentialism.”

In Kissinger’s Shadow, I explore how this romanticism manifested itself in his specific policies (such as the secret illegal bombing of Cambodia) and, once he left office, in his constant push to militarize the Middle East. Here are some of its major beliefs: Action creates our perception of reality; the past has no meaning other than what we in the present assign to it; the future is undetermined; and the greatest of great statesmen are aware of this radical “freedom” and refuse to be “paralyzed” by the past or held captive by the overabundance of data and intelligence produced by modern bureaucracies. These statesmen, Kissinger believed, act on hunches and intuition and thrive on “perpetual creation, on a constant redefinition of goals.” It is the responsibility of true leaders, Kissinger wrote in 1954, “not only to maintain the perfection of order but to have the strength to contemplate chaos, there to find material for fresh creation.”

Kissinger has repeatedly urged America’s leaders to make clear what they mean to accomplish with any given action—to, as he put it, understand their purpose. But he found it difficult to define what he meant by “purpose.” In some cases, Kissinger appears to mean the ability to imagine where one wants to be in relation to one’s adversaries in 10 years’ time. In other cases, he refers to the need to create “legitimacy” and demonstrate “credibility.” But these are all instrumental definitions of purpose. They all still raise the question: Why?

Kissinger is best known for the concept of the “balance of power.” But there’s a fascinating and rarely cited passage in his 1954 doctoral dissertation in which he insists that what he means by this is not “real” power: “A balance of power legitimized by power would be highly unstable and make unlimited wars almost inevitable, for the equilibrium is achieved not by the fact but by the consciousness of balance” (Kissinger’s emphasis). He adds that “this consciousness is never brought about until it is tested.” In order to “test” power—i.e., to create our awareness of it—one needs to be willing to act. And the best way to produce that willingness is to act.

On this point, at least, Kissinger was unfailingly clear: “Inaction has to be avoided” in order to show that action is possible. Only “action,” he wrote, could void the systemic “incentive for inaction.” Only “action” could overcome the paralyzing fear of “drastic consequences” that might result from such “action.” The purpose of American power, then, is to create an awareness of American purpose. We can’t defend our interests until we know what our interests are, and we can’t know what our interests are until we defend them.

Over and over again, in Cambodia, Laos, North Vietnam, Angola, Mozambique, and elsewhere, Kis­singer plunged into the vortex of his own circular argument: Inaction has to be avoided in order to show that action is possible. He revealed himself as the ultimate antirealist, trying to bring about the world he believed he ought to inhabit (in which massive bombing would break the will of its targets) rather than the reality he was living in (“I refused to believe that a little fourth-rate power like North Vietnam does not have a breaking point,” Kissinger once said). The twirl continued out of office, as he urged Bill Clinton to step up his bombing of Iraq in 1998 as a way of demonstrating American purpose. That’s what he and Nixon did in Southeast Asia, Kissinger said, and “whether we got it right or not is really secondary.”

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“Whether we got it right or not is really secondary.” It’s not actually a remarkable statement, at least when one considers Kissinger’s longstanding insistence that the demonstrative effects (on Americans) produced by one’s act of will are more important than the consequences of the act (on its foreign victims). Sound familiar? It should, for it is basically the metaphysical rationale of the neocons, of those who believe America creates its own reality—from William Kristol, who constantly complains that Americans have grown too soft, to Dick Cheney, whose “one-percent doctrine” held that if there’s even the slightest chance that a threat would be realized, the United States must act as if it were a foregone conclusion. (An implicit argument of my book is that Kissinger is a quintessential American because American exceptionalism is a form of will-to-power irrationalism, of which the neocons are its highest and most self-aware expression.)

After September 11, Kissinger was an early advocate of attacking not just Afghanistan and Iraq, but Somalia and Yemen as well. He called on Bush to launch a “revolution” in international law, to sweep away antiquated notions of sovereignty. Indeed, on August 26, 2002, Cheney directly quoted Kissinger in a speech on the “imperative for preemptive action” against Iraq. Then, once the Iraqi occupation became a disaster, Kissinger met regularly with Bush staffers, citing his experiences in the Vietnam War as a reason why the United States shouldn’t withdraw its troops.

But neoconservatism is just the highly self-conscious core of a broad consensus that reaches well beyond the Republicans to capture ideologue and pragmatist, realist and idealist alike. Hil- lary Clinton, who in 1970 protested the invasion of Cambodia, recently praised Kissinger, calling him her “friend” and saying that she “relied on his counsel.” The “famous realist,” she said, referring to Kissinger’s most recent book, “sounds surprisingly idealistic.” Kissinger’s vision is her vision: “just and liberal.” Defense intellectuals and journalists regularly pen essays prescribing a neo-Kissingerian tonic for today’s troubles, but they often have difficulty defining what exactly such a policy would look like.

Often, Kissingerism is defined in negative terms: It’s not the recklessness of the neocons (though, as I’ve tried to show, it actually is), and it’s not the pragmatic ­overcorrection of Barack Obama, a foreign policy mistaking efficiency for meaning, power for purpose (though, again, Kissinger himself did exactly that). Kissingerism is so hard to pin down, and this, I think, is an effect of Kissingerism, of the rehabilitation of the national-security state and the relentless militarism accompanying it. Constant, unending war—be it fought with the neocons’ zealotry or Obama’s dronelike efficiency—has done more than coarsened thought and morality. It has brought about a dissociation of words and things, belief and action, in which abstractions are transmuted into their opposites. According to Clinton, “idealists” are “realists” and everybody is a “liberal”—and Henry Kissinger is our avatar.

At the very least, we can learn from Kissinger’s long life that the two defining concepts of American foreign policy—realism and idealism—aren’t opposing values; instead, they reinforce each other. Idealism gets us into whatever the quagmire of the moment is; realism keeps us there while promising to get us out; and then idealism returns anew both to justify the realism and to overcome it in the next round. So it goes.