For the past several weeks, Hillary Clinton has tried to extend a gracious welcome to any and all Republicans rightly disgusted by the prospect of a President Donald Trump. In the case of one very famous Republican, however, the outreach has been going on for much longer. For years, Clinton has spoken warmly and admiringly of Henry Kissinger, a man whose record around the world displayed a special disregard for human rights, the rule of law, and basic decency.
On Monday, an article in Politico detailed the Clinton campaign’s attempt to woo GOP foreign policy “elders,” including Condoleezza Rice, James Baker, and Kissinger. Later in the day, the New York Times reported that 50 Republican former national security officials had signed a letter essentially saying Donald Trump was unfit to be commander-in-chief. Kissinger, Baker, Colin Powell, and others were not on this list, sparking speculation about whether an even higher profile repudiation of Trump is in the offing.
There’s nothing wrong with the Clinton campaign making its case to Republicans wary of their party’s nominee; the continued defections from the party establishment are a damning blow for Trump. When it comes to Kissinger, however, Clinton should know better. Yet rather than distance herself, Clinton has wooed him with unrestrained enthusiasm. She has often spoken of his wisdom and the value of his “insight” and “expertise.” She reviewed one in the seemingly endless supply of his books with fulsome words of praise. (A taste: “Kissinger is a friend, and I relied on his counsel when I served as secretary of state. He checked in with me regularly, sharing astute observations about foreign leaders and sending me written reports on his travels.”) She defended him in a debate with Bernie Sanders during which the latter attacked Kissinger’s record on foreign policy. She has even chosen to spend holidays with him. Team Clinton likes to talk of a special bond among the men and women who have held the position of secretary of state.
But Kissinger’s record as secretary of state makes any association with him morally suspect. Donald Trump may pose a unique threat to American democracy, but he hardly has a monopoly on contempt for democratic norms. And few American officeholders have been as cavalier about violating those principles as Kissinger.
The Nixon administration’s illegal bombing of Cambodia stands as one of the most callous decisions any American administration has made. It led to the predictable destabilization of that country and later, to genocide. A disregard for democracy and preference for military rule were hallmarks of the Nixon-Kissinger foreign policy, whether in Chile (where Kissinger showed a decided preference for Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorial rule) or Greece (where a military junta was also seen as preferable to democracy). In the case of South Asia, Nixon and Kissinger (then national security adviser) kept up their staunch support for a Pakistani military dictatorship responsible for the slaughter of tens (if not hundreds) of thousands in what is now Bangladesh. (It’s often hard to uncover exactly how many people were killed because of Nixon-Kissinger policies.)
Donald Trump’s compliments to Vladimir Putin are nothing compared to the respect Kissinger showed to one strongman after another, from Argentina to Iran to Zaire. And let’s not forget Kissinger’s role in the 1968 election. By leaking information he learned about peace negotiations, Kissinger, then an academic, abetted Nixon’s scheme to inform the South Vietnamese that they would get a better deal from his administration, should he come into power. Upon hearing this news, the South Vietnamese government refused to send negotiators to peace talks in Paris, despite the Johnson administration’s suspension of bombing raids. The result was embarrassing to the Johnson administration, whose vice president, Hubert Humphrey, went on to lose a close election to Nixon several days later. (Naturally, with Nixon and Kissinger in power, the war went on for several more pointless and bloody years.)
Kissinger’s post-governmental career has hardly been more respectable. Over the years, he has spoken approvingly of repressive regimes around the globe. Of the Tiananmen Square massacre, Kissinger commented:
This is not the place to examine the events that led to the tragedy at Tiananmen Square; each side has different perceptions depending on the various, often conflicting, origins of their participation in the crisis … The occupation of the main square of a country’s capital, even when completely peaceful, is also a tactic to demonstrate the impotence of the government, to weaken it, and to tempt it into rash acts, putting it at a disadvantage.
It’s a position not dissimilar to Donald Trump’s view of the “tragedy”; Trump told Playboy in 1990, “When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it. Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength.”
Despite this ugly record, there are some who believe that the Clinton campaign should welcome any and all support because of the threat Donald Trump presents to the democratic order. I am broadly in sympathy with this point of view: Many of the 50 foreign policy specialists who denounced Trump, for example, are unsavory characters with questionable pasts. But the urgency of defeating Trump does call for a big tent and open arms for people willing to denounce Trump and work to see him defeated.
That doesn’t mean everyone is welcome. Clinton must exercise the judgment that will be required of her in office. Her potential role as savior of American liberal democracy has not been granted because a majority of Americans trust her—far from it. She is simply the only nonauthoritarian in the race with a realistic chance at capturing the presidency. One way she could make herself worthy of more than a grudging vote from skeptics would be to make clear that while she welcomes the support of those with differing viewpoints, she does not need or desire helping hands as bloody as Henry Kissinger’s. The fact that she is unlikely to foreswear his support is disappointing, if unsurprising. The prospect of Kissinger having influence in a Clinton White House is downright scary.