Moral Clarity, in the End, Counts. Liberals Acknowledge This Truth — Finally.

Carla Seaquist
9 min readMay 17, 2024


It took the death of their Nemesis — Henry Kissinger — to force liberals, finally, to give voice to their moral outrage, and to do so with extraordinary power and clarity.

Moral voice restored! And just in time.

This same moral outrage, the good kind, now needs to be directed at another moral outrage, the bad kind, the kind threatening to retake power — Donald Trump.

Liberals make a point of omni-tolerance. “Nothing human is foreign to me,” enunciated by the Roman playwright Terence, is almost a liberal motto, invoked so often that, fettered by so much sympathetic understanding, outright expression of right and wrong is rare and even rarer is a moral judgment. Instead, liberals have made a fetish of ambiguity, which ability — allowing for more than one interpretation — can perhaps get at Truth better than more ideological thinking, but can also lead to bog — uncertainty, indecision, inaction.

Not so, however, on the subject of Henry Kissinger, architect of mid-20th century American foreign policy who, in his peers’ final analysis, had no peer in his exercise of power on the world stage, whether for good or no.

To his conservative peers, that sway was for good; to liberals, emphatically not. As the only Secretary of State to hold two key roles concurrently — he served also as President Richard Nixon’s National Security Adviser, and was held over at State by President Gerald Ford — Kissinger, from 1969 to 1977, had an extraordinary lock on foreign policy decision-making.

Kissingerian foreign policy was driven by the principle of realpolitik — assessing and acting on things as they are, on the ground, rather than on ideals. A German Jew who at age 16 escaped Nazi Germany and made his way in America, first as a history professor and then as a practitioner of it (History), Kissinger brought an understanding both innate and historical to the question of the centrality of power. In the international sphere, the power equation is always to be solved: What force, in the eternal contest among nations, is superior? If it is a malign force, like Nazism or Fascism, woe to the world.

Thus it is in the national interest of a great democratic power, like the United States, to forge a foreign policy that ensures the world’s order and security. Only in this context can ideals, like morality and human rights — the liberals’ emphasis — be practiced. Historian Walter Russell Mead of The Wall Street Journal writes:

“[P]ower is the platform that makes moral action possible for a state. For Kissinger, the construction, tending and repair of a sustainable balance in global affairs was the superior moral and political challenge of statecraft, especially if nuclear weapons threatened to make great power war unsurvivable…. Power and morality aren’t opposites.”

That was theory. It was theory’s practice — especially Kissinger’s conduct of the Vietnam War and the wanton loss of life, there and in other ventures — that infuriated liberals and, upon his death, evoked their moral outrage.

That moral outrage is reflected in the titles, take-aways, and tone of their “appreciations” after his death. As to tone, vilification does not even begin to describe it.

In What Kissinger Didn’t Understand,” George Packer’s essay for Atlantic, the damning subhead reads: “His blindness to human suffering was, in the end, both a moral failure and strategic one.” Kissinger “is a problem to be solved: the problem of a very human inhumanity.” Writes Packer scathingly: “He valued order above all, and order was created in the relations between great powers. Small countries and the lives of ordinary people didn’t matter…. This view led him….to sacrifice millions of Indochinese and thousands of Americans in prolonging the Vietnam War well after it was lost, in the interest of maintaining ‘credibility.’”

In “Henry Kissinger, the Hypocrite,” Ben Rhodes, President Barack Obama’s deputy national security advisor, writes in The New York Times: “[Kissinger’s] was a foreign policy enamored with the exercise of power and drained of concern for the human beings in its wake.” Despite liberating a concentration camp as a member of the U.S. Army, the experience “didn’t leave him with much sympathy for the underdog.” Rhodes writes scathingly: “Nor did it motivate him to bind the postwar American superpower within the very web of norms, laws and fidelity to certain values that was written into the American-led postwar order,” thus the hypocrisy. Credibility, again power’s point, “was rooted in what you did more than what you stood for, even when those actions rendered American concepts of human rights and international law void.”

Greg Grandin in “A People’s Obituary of Henry Kissinger” for The Nation writes acidly of Kissinger’s view that “Great powers, like great men, are absolutely free — free from not only moral oversight but also the causal logic that might link past actions to current problems.” In “The People Who Didn’t Matter to Henry Kissinger” for The Atlantic, Gary Bass focuses on the “forgotten genocide” that Pakistan conducted against the Bengalis, with Kissinger and Nixon approving. Others focus on the secret bombing of Cambodia that enabled the Khmer Rouge’s “killing fields” and Kissinger’s approval of the assassination of Chile’s democratically elected president Salvador Allende.

The through-line here is ultimately, one sees, ignoble: Moral considerations — human lives — were sacked for power. But the moral dimension, in the end, is paramount. As a former Kissinger colleague told Packer upon news of Kissinger’s death: “If you disregard the human costs and the human reality of your decisions, you’re missing not just the moral consequences but the reality of the situations with which you’re dealing. In the long run, that reality shapes the policies of nations, like our own, and the strategic moves then fail.”

For myself, while I admire the strategic moves of Kissinger’s opening to China, which altered the dynamics of the Cold War, pitting China against the Soviet Union, and spawned a thousand op-eds (and an opera), it is impossible to forgive Kissinger and Nixon for this final (I will use the word) sin: for extending the Vietnam war, for the basest of all motives — to enhance Nixon’s re-election chances — but at the dearest of costs: Another 20,000 American soldiers died without valid reason in a war already lost. Conservatives hail Kissinger’s “unsentimental” approach, but to read the Comments sections of Kissinger’s obituaries is to comprehend — to see at long last — the moral impact, the unconscionableness. Final judgment is rendered in the grief of Vietnam vets for lost comrades, so visceral decades later, and in the damnation of the war’s final shaper.

Again, in the end, the moral — the rightness and wrongness of things — is paramount: in foreign policy, in life. As this moral artist always knew. I am heartened the moral point, which I have striven to make for decades, is now being made for me. But why has it been such a struggle?

My fellow liberals get upset with me when they see in my critiques of liberalism the implication that liberals lack a moral consciousness. “What about Obamacare?” they ask, and “What about FDR’s social programs?” and “What about Jimmy Carter’s human rights-based foreign policy?” But my critique has never been over policy. In the main, liberal policy has had the greater benevolent impact on American life. Note, though, the Vietnam War was begun and conducted in its early phases by two Democratic presidents, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.

My critique has always been with the liberal impact on culture, understood both sociologically, as the environment in which we all swim, and artistically, as the products that that environment produces. Some examples: Pornography, we were told by its liberal promoters, was “victimless,” but now research reveals the serious harms inflicted on young boys who get their ideas of women and sex from the porn that, all these decades later, is now wall to wall. In the theatre, those of us attempting moral examination were blocked by the blockbuster play “The Vagina Monologues.” Hollywood and TV now portray the extremes of human behavior as perfectly normal: The line from “Bonnie and Clyde” — “We rob banks” — legitimized heretofore illegal activity. The film “Taxi Driver” sought to normalize a sociopath’s explosive violence. I recall a New York Times critic extolling such films’ “choreography of violence”; it became chic to glorify “transgressive” behavior; critics neglected their vital function of cultural gatekeeper. Characters who functioned as gatekeeper, who extolled law and order and social norms, were portrayed as risible, pathetic.

These markers of cultural decline culminated in 2008 in the wildly popular TV series “Breaking Bad,” about a chemistry teacher who plans to provide for his family following his forthcoming demise from cancer by devising the perfect recipe for prime-quality meth. However, there was a price to be paid for moral decline: the election in 2016 of the amoral Donald J. Trump. Shortly thereafter I wrote a commentary titled “A ‘Breaking Bad’ Culture Got Its President.”

This is a lot of cultural decline. It bespeaks a people who have surrendered their moral language and suspended moral judgment. Recall the horror of being called “judge-y.” In fact, it bespeaks so much decline that one might expect to see the vacating of a moral consciousness entirely. And yet, and yet, note again the extraordinary moral outrage expressed at the death of Henry Kissinger.

It is time — high, high time — that liberals mount their moral resistance to the greatest public menace of the present moment, Donald Trump.

The question with Mr. Trump, who presents what might be called a “target-rich environment,” is: Where to start? (Or, to quote the English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “How do I love thee?”: “Let me count the ways.”) In other words, with Mr. Trump, we have a super-abundance of grounds for moral outrage.

For example, liberals’ vaunted veneration for the Truth. Where was the moral outrage when Trump’s constant lying made his elastic relationship with Truth undisputed? Especially after The Washington Post had the good sense to start compiling for our study each of Trump’s lies during his presidency? Clearly, the Post believed an American president should not be a liar, if the people were to rely on him or her in a crisis, as COVID proved to be. But pushback from any quarter, including from notable liberals who should have been (forgive the forthcoming cliché) screaming to the high heavens, was minimal. (It is beyond ironic Trump’s social-media service is called Truth Social.)

Of more recent vintage, and ongoing: the unending stream of invective coming out of Trump’s mouth. The threat that if Trump does not win in November, “It’s going to be a bloodbath for the country” is one of myriad examples. Claiming he was referring to the auto industry being battered by Chinese imports, still he knowingly uses incendiary language: Why? With the country a tinderbox, is it to incite violence? Liberals should call him out on it.

Trump regularly uses dehumanizing language to refer to migrants, calling them “animals” and “not people, in my opinion,” who are “poisoning the blood” of the country. Liberals of all people should defend humanity. Let’s hear that defense expressed more frequently and vigorously. Tom Nichols of The Atlantic warns us against “moral exhaustion” regarding Trump. It is good advice.

A full iteration of Trump’s moral outrages would take an encyclopedia. But liberals know what they are. More to the point, all decent people know. The point is, speak up about them more!

Finally, any of Trump’s four criminal trials — talk about a super-abundance of opportunity! — invites expression of moral outrage on behalf of the nation. For clearly it is wrong, as is now being proved, to pay hush money to a porn star to enhance one’s chances of winning the White House. And, clearly it is wrong to take classified documents relating to national security and put them to one’s own preferred post-presidential use. And, clearly it is wrong to muscle the secretary of state of the Georgia to find for Trump more votes than he actually got in the 2020 election. And, clearly, it is wrong to incite a rampage on the U.S. Capitol to stop the certification of one’s rightful successor.

Now is the time for all good Americans to come to the aid of their country — again and again and again.



Carla Seaquist

Our times examined via politics, culture, morality. Author, "Can America Save Itself from Decline?" (Vol. II). Playwright. Fmr. HuffPost.