Henry Kissinger’s mixed legacy in Washington reflected in Biden’s brief response to his death

Diplomat draws muted praise from White House under pressure for its foreign policy

From Beijing, the praise was unstinting. Henry Kissinger was an “old friend” of China, said President Xi Jinping. In Russia, Vladimir Putin spoke of the “wise and far-sighted statesman”.

Israel’s President Isaac Herzog hailed Kissinger for having “laid the cornerstone of the peace agreement” with Egypt “and so many other processes around the world I admire”.

From the White House, however, the reaction to Kissinger’s death on Wednesday was somewhat less effusive.

It took nearly a full day for Joe Biden to respond. And when the US president did, on Thursday evening, his statement on the passing of the legendary and deeply controversial diplomat was brief and hardly laden with praise.


Biden (81), recalled the first time they met, when he was a young senator and Kissinger was secretary of state. The two men, he noted, had “often disagreed and sometimes strongly”.

Biden credited Kissinger’s “fierce intellect and profound strategic focus” and for giving “his views and ideas to the most important policy discussion across multiple generations”. But no paean or glorification of Kissinger the statesman.

That kind of sentiment gushed in instead from other quarters of Washington and beyond. “Today, the world Henry Kissinger leaves behind bears his indelible mark,” said Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the Senate, on Thursday. “The nation he served – the global superpower he helped create – owes him our gratitude.”

Kissinger served under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, two Republican presidents. Democrats have always been more measured in their assessment of the former national security adviser, even if their presidents, including Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Biden, sometimes sought his advice.

Although Kissinger nurtured close ties with Democrats in the US foreign policy establishment, many on the left still see him as a villain who sacrificed human rights and democratic principles at the altar of naked US geopolitical interests.

The timing of Kissinger’s death, at the age of 100, has come at a particularly sensitive time for Biden, who has faced the sharpest backlash of his presidency from the Democratic party’s left wing over his staunch support for Israel’s war against Hamas.

After Biden spoke briefly at a ceremony to light the National Christmas Tree on Thursday night, protesters shouted “Genocide Joe” at the US president – the kind of attack frequently directed at Kissinger over the years.

Earlier in the day, John Kirby, the White House’s co-ordinator for strategic communications, had offered his own version of muted praise for Kissinger – mainly as a veteran.

“This was a man who, whether you agree with him or not, whether you hold the same views or not, served in World War two, served his country bravely in uniform,” Kirby said. “Whether you saw eye to eye with him on every issue, there’s no question that he shaped foreign policy decisions for decades, and he certainly had an impact on America’s role in the world.”

Other Democrats took a different tack from Kirby in describing Kissinger, offering less diplomatic language.

“[I am] remembering all the lives Henry Kissinger destroyed with the terrible violence he unleashed in countries like Chile, Vietnam, Argentina, East Timor, Cambodia, and Bangladesh,” Jim McGovern, a Democratic lawmaker from Massachusetts, wrote on social media platform X. “I never understood why people revered him. I will never forgive or forget.”

Ben Rhodes, a close adviser to Obama and a national security official in his administration, wrote in The New York Times that Kissinger was a “hypocrite”. It was another sharp example that a younger generation of Democratic national security officials were less charmed by the former secretary of state.

Kissinger “exemplified the gap between the story that America, the superpower, tells and the way that we can act in the world”, Rhodes wrote.

It was left to Antony Blinken, the secretary of state – who was performing his own version of “shuttle diplomacy” in the Middle East on Thursday with a trip to Israel – to offer the administration’s most complimentary, and most reflective, comments on Kissinger’s legacy, even calling him by his first name.

“It was Henry’s enduring capacity to bring his strategic acumen and intellect to bear on the emerging challenges of each passing decade that led presidents, secretaries of state, national security advisers, and other leaders from both parties to seek his counsel, including me,” Blinken said.

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023