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COMMENTARY: Coming to terms with Kissinger’s legacy — it’s complicated

Over his century on Earth, Henry Kissinger left a big mark, love him or hate him. And a lot of people sure did hate him.

Take Anthony Bourdain. The late celebrity chef and TV personality is back in the public eye with the reminders of his long-ago takedown of Kissinger, who died last week at age 100. But when I think of the Vietnam War veterans I know who share his opinion, Bourdain wasn’t very far out on a limb either.

“Henry Kissinger walks into a bar,” Bourdain once asked guests as they appeared on an episode of his “Parts Unknown” TV program. “Would it displease you if I walked over and punched Henry Kissinger in the face?”

Harsh. But not an unheard-of sentiment when it came to Kissinger. Bourdain died by suicide in 2018 after spending time in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, among the more than 80 countries to which his career took him. He made no secret of his disdain for Kissinger based on the damage left behind by America’s war in Vietnam.

“Once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands,” Bourdain wrote in his 2001 memoir, “A Cook’s Tour: Global Adventures in Extreme Cuisines.”

Still, it’s not quite that simple. It must be said that Kissinger’s legacy is complicated. As some of my surviving Vietnam-era Army buddies would say, right or wrong, a lot of the hate stirred up against Kissinger was just the sad price of being associated with an unpopular war.

Yes, war is complicated, as are the people who wage it. War is hell, as the apt saying goes. So can be the task of holding leaders accountable for its wretched excesses and illegalities.

Kissinger’s legacy as Richard Nixon’s national security adviser and secretary of state is often described in one word: mixed. On the positive side, it includes his pivotal work in the early 1970s opening relations with Maoist China, achieving major arms control agreements with the Soviet Union and hammering out the Israeli-Arab accords that elevated the United States as a dominant power in the Middle East.

No, the critical issues in those regions are not all put to rest. But Kissinger helped us make progress.

Unfortunately, he also was accused of appeasing dictators, enabling war crimes and playing a leading role in some of Nixon’s most underhanded acts, including the secret bombing of Cambodia, the effort to topple Chile’s elected socialist president and wiretapping reporters — in what turned out to be a preview of the Watergate scandal that ended Nixon’s presidency.

Yet Kissinger, though passionately criticized, continued to be widely respected by prominent members of both parties. When he turned 100, he was toasted by Secretary of State Antony Blinken who, like former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other past Washington diplomats, turned to Kissinger for advice.

Well after Kissinger’s power-wielding days under Nixon and Gerald Ford, he continued to advise presidents and other leaders wanting to tap his expertise.

These meetings were rarely publicized. They remind me of the old Washington etiquette, particularly in matters of foreign policy, that laid partisan concerns to the side and welcomed input from D.C. elders who could call upon stores of knowledge gained only from years of experience.

Some of Kissinger’s hottest controversies can be traced back to his career-long embrace of “realpolitik,” the “realist” school of foreign policy associated with Austrian statesman Klemens von Metternich, who also figured prominently in Kissinger’s Harvard Ph.D. dissertation. Known for putting together the post-Napoleonic order in Europe, Metternich’s philosophy held that peace is best achieved by balancing the interests of great states against given circumstances rather than strictly following moral, ethical or ideological premises.

No, this position does not necessarily please those of us who continue to respect moral, ethical and even ideological considerations, depending on the ideology. However, it does appeal to those desiring a good deal, the presumed goal of any negotiation, whether you’re buying a new car or seeking to resolve a world conflict.

As much as Kissinger enjoyed the reputation of a respected elder statesman in his sunset years — giving speeches, offering advice and managing a lucrative global consulting business — he continued to find himself dogged by critics who shared Bourdain’s outrage. Irreverent British writer Christopher Hitchens, who died in 2011, famously published his case against the master diplomat in a 2001 book, “The Trial of Henry Kissinger.” But even Hitchens, in my view, seems to make more of a moral case than a legal one for holding Kissinger accountable.

In the end, coming to terms with Kissinger’s legacy means choosing: Should morality have any bearing on how a world power behaves in bare-knuckled global affairs? How you decide that question likely will determine how you view Henry Kissinger.

Contact Clarence Page at cpage@chicagotribune.com.

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