A realist might dismiss the utility of pondering an alternate history for Southeast Asia, one where negotiation, financial and infrastructural investment, human outreach, and efforts towards peaceful resolution and cooperation might have produced a different outcome. While we can’t change the past, imagining alternatives—something Clinton and her class seemed unwilling to do—is the only way to find a different way forward. Kissinger appears uninterested in such deliberate introspection, simply preferring to accept the brutal world as it is.
To understand Kissinger’s concession to brutality, consider the justification he offers for the bombing of Cambodia in the Goldberg interview. The campaign was undertaken, he says, to prevent North Vietnamese exploitation of that country. The fact that the North Vietnamese illegally violated Cambodian sovereignty is no justification for an illegal American bombing. What Kissinger’s perspective reveals is a belief that the rule of law is determined by the rule of power. The most powerful state—the one most capable of inflicting violence—dictates what is lawful.
The endorsement of Kissinger by Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and, eventually, by Clinton, has normalized him, making his views a central part of American statecraft by casting him as a fount of establishment gospel—a gospel that preaches the value of American humanity and accepts as necessity the casual destruction of other people and places. Normalization of this sort, also perpetuated by figures in the media, policy experts, and academics, is dangerous. It transforms the deplorable into the acceptable. Donald Trump is now trying to make such a shift; there is no guarantee that he will fail. Kissinger offers a lesson in how to succeed, by never disavowing and never apologizing, and by relentlessly persuading others of the legitimacy of his diplomacy.
While I object to Kissinger’s decisions from a moral point of view, they are also dangerous strategically, especially when yoked to the “American is great, because it is good” narrative that is frequently espoused by Americans. They have a hard time comprehending why other people might resent being bombed, since, after all, it’s for their own good, to save them from whatever danger Washington believes also threatens their country. When Americans then suffer blowback, they cannot understand why anyone would respond to their good intentions with deadly attacks. And Kissinger’s view—that force must be met with even greater force—is legitimated, then perpetuated.
As an American and as a refugee, I see the world both from the aerial perspective of American drones and from the view of those on the ground, looking up at American bombers. This unsettling sensation allows me to empathize with Kissinger even as I cannot accept as normal, or inevitable, his philosophy. He appears to empathize with the powerful and not the powerless. In this way, he represents quite well the instincts of many Americans, as well as many people the world over.