When did Henry Kissinger get to be so cuddly? If all you know of Kissinger is the buffo character in John Adams' 1987 opera "Nixon in China" or his cameos on "The Colbert Report," you could be forgiven for thinking that the 92-year-old Kissinger is a beloved elder statesman of minor consequence.

But as historian Greg Grandin writes in "Kissinger's Shadow," the former national security adviser and secretary of state under presidents Nixon and Ford had a more significant and pernicious role in U.S. politics. He was, in Grandin's telling, the godfather of today's neoconservatives, the man who "made the neocon's radical vision of perpetual war look like a reasonable option for many of the world's problems."

Grandin acknowledges the points that Kissinger's admirers would mention, that Kissinger was responsible for "détente with the Soviet Union, opening up Communist China, negotiating arms treaties with Moscow, and his shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East." But the bulk of this well-researched book focuses on the manifestations of Kissinger's disdain for the Truman-era policy of containment toward the Soviet Union and his belief that, regarding military power, "'inaction has to be avoided' so as to show that action is possible."

The most dramatic demonstration of Kissinger's foreign policy was the secret bombing of Cambodia in 1969 and 1970 during the Vietnam War. From his basement office at the White House, Kissinger hatched the plan for the bombing and gave orders through a shadow chain of command with an authority so complete that he often overruled generals.

Kissinger continued the campaign — a ground invasion soon followed — even as "it became increasingly clear that the bombing of Cambodia would not achieve its stated effect." Among the statistics Grandin cites: More bombs were dropped on Cambodia and neighboring Laos separately than were dropped on Germany and Japan combined during World War II.

The book chronicles many other examples of Kissinger's influence. In 1975, Kissinger approved Indonesian leader Suharto's plan to invade East Timor, an action that led to the deaths of 102,800 Timorese. He implemented a policy for southern Africa with the goal of "strengthening ties with the white supremacist nations of South Africa and Rhodesia." And he advocated forceful military action against Saddam Hussein, whether or not Iraq was involved in the attacks of 9/11.

The passages that deal with events after Kissinger left the State Department are less compelling than episodes from his years in power, mainly because he is no longer a central player. And some readers may argue that Grandin gives short shrift to Kissinger's more positive accomplishments. But "Kissinger's Shadow" is an important book and an unsparing portrait of Kissinger's legacy.

Michael Magras is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, BookPage, Bookreporter, the Iowa Review and other publications.