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December 10, 2006

In Praise of Jeane Kirkpatrick

(Posted by John.)

I'd like to preface the following with a disclaimer that I have not studied the late Ambassador's career that closely, so I can't comment with any kind of authority.  That said, I was kind of intrigued when CNN described Kirkpatrick as "the first Neo-con."  My understanding was that modern neocons rejected the amoral calculus inherent in her career.  Kirkpatrick, after all, denied the existence of human rights abuses in Latin America during the Reagan Administration, and most importantly wrote "Dictatorships and Double Standards", which contains a bracing rebuke of the modern neoconservative movement:

Although most governments in the world are, as they always have been, autocracies of one kind or another, no idea holds greater sway in the mind of educated Americans than the belief that it is possible to democratize governments, anytime, anywhere, under any circumstances. This notion is belied by an enormous body of evidence based on the experience of dozens of countries which have attempted with more or less (usually less) success to move from autocratic to democratic government.

Imagine - formulating foreign policy on such ethereal concepts as "evidence" and "history".  This kind of clarity is almost bracing today.  Which says nothing at all about Kirkpatrick and quite a bit about the psychopaths running the US government today.

I certainly don't want to get sloppy in my respect for Kirkpatrick, who I think was wrong about far too many foreign policy questions in her career.  Most recently, she seems to have joined the pro-war bandwagon, though notably with no mention about a pro-US democracy replacing Saddam.

This is the one element I want to applaud from "Dictatorships and Double Standards":  the acknowledgment that yes, America needs to make choices in it's foreign policy.  Kirkpatrick at least recognized that it was not possible to replace the governments of Latin America with universally pro-US free-market democracies.  Confronted with the impossible, Kirkpatrick's response was simple:  Don't bother.  I find her benevolent assessment of the Shah of Iran repugnant, but her ends and mine are totally different - there's no wonder we would advocate different means.

Compare and contrast Kirkpatrick's wrong-headed honesty with the wrong-headed dishonesty of the current crop of neocons, and I think you'll get an idea of why I'm willing to give her at least some grudging respect:  The promises that Iraq would, liberated from Hussein, be a strong ally for the US and Israel, pump oil out of the ground faster than the Saudis could react, be a strong bulwark against Al Qaeda, and do all of these things merely by virtue of democratic governance were insane but nevertheless repeated by the President and those serving him.  Embodied in all those promises - and the willingness of people to believe them - was the explicitly stated belief that America need not choose between it's objectives.

This is what is hobbling American foreign policy today.  Bush doesn't want to do something as radical as talk to Tehran or Pyongyang, but nevertheless wants them to stop the actions that America objects to.  America wants Iran to help end the violence in Iraq, but refuses to countenance Iran's nuclear program.  At a certain point, you need to choose.  Is Iran's nuclear program a threat to the US - so much so that the threat of a unilateral military strike is necessary?  If so, then you can't expect Iran's help.  If not, then the US needs to find some way to bargain here.

Perhaps Ambassador Kirkpatrick would disagree with me.  Perhaps I'm being far to charitable in my reading of her work.  Nevertheless, the recognition that America's options are sometimes limited in unpleasant ways - especially when there are long-term strategic interests to take in to account - is something that seems wholly foreign to the modern neoconservative, and something that America needs to bring back to the fore.

December 10, 2006 | Permalink


Keep in mind that neoconservatism has changed a little since her time (the end of the Cold War freed them up a little). And her statements about the difficulty of moving autocracies to democracies was not evidence of a less moralistic belief system than the modern neocons like Wolfowitz, but rather just the opposite. You have to place it in context: Kirkpatrick believed that such political intransigence in the Communist bloc was the reason why the Soviet threat was evil on an unprecedented scope. That article she wrote is what attracted Reagan to her, and it was an inspiration for the "Evil Empire" framing (oh so similar to "Axis of Evil" amongst neocons today). In addition to inflating (and conflating) threats like a true-blue neocon, Kirkpatrick also shared her successors' obsession with appeasement (see just about anything Wolfowitz or Perle have written for their deep hatred of Chamberlain and their hero-worship of Churchill). Kirkpatrick argued that the United States should not shy from supporting right-wing authoritarian regimes vying against Communist totalitarianism - failing to overcome our natural repulsion towards propping up dictators would result in the ultimate appeasement, because once Communism had taken hold, it would be permanent (and oh so much more evil). In that sense, Kirkpatrick raised the dread of appeasement to a new level for neoconservatives. Appeasement of Communism was not the moral equivalent of Munich; it was worse. When the “worms at Munich” finally turned, Hitler was defeated. In Kirkpatrick’s opinion, there would be no such second chances in the Cold War. Her worldview is in so many ways the progenitor of the modern neocon worldview that led us into Iraq. And let's not forget, Kirkpatrick was a Democrat before she became a standard-bearer for the Reagan Doctrine of roll-back. Like so many other neocons, she believed herself to be a liberal who was mugged by reality.

Posted by: Jesse | Dec 10, 2006 3:10:09 PM

Kirkpatrick herself supported, & worked to start, the Iraq War, & didn't represent this as a change from her former views.

Posted by: KH | Dec 10, 2006 5:21:57 PM

I'd go further than Jesse - I think the end of the Cold War has been almost the undoing of the neoconservatives, who were marked, as Kirkpatrick was, by an organizing principle to foreign affairs around opposing the Soviet Union. Once that was gone, they floundered, Kirkpatrick especially. Like other Reaganite neocons, she was not especially keen on the Bush family, and seriously toyed with the idea of running against George in 1988 in the primaries (there was considerable interest in her doing this). Although she did help the current Bush Administration, she was not supportive of the notion of the "Bush Doctrine" preemptive war theory (see her NY Times obit), and despite a lot of linkages in her memorials to Bolton, there's no clear indication that she was an especially strong supporter of his nomination.

I think time has been, and will continue to be, kind to Kirkpatrick; as the first woman to serve in such a senior National Security role, she showed tremendous skill and smarts. She may not have been as broadly versed in international affairs as she could have been, but what she knew, she knew well. And she knew how to work with foreign allies and to, as the original post says, make the best of bad situations (support for the Shah is a complex discussion, not easily resolved). One only needs to look at how the current group of folks have failed so spectacularly to realize just how good she was.

Posted by: weboy | Dec 10, 2006 8:38:40 PM

A few things about "mean Jeane" (i don't know if that's her nickname, my beinng alive and her career at teh UN never overlapped). One, John, is that comparing Kirkpatrick to the neocons is hardly a compliment, i mean, I'm a better runner than stephen hawking sans wheelchair, but that doesn't make me fast. Secondly, she was just wrong about so much. 1. That there was a choice between right wing autocracies and crazy soviet totalitarianism. OFtentimes it was a choice between ELECTED socialists and reactionary military regimes (Chile and Iran being good examples). 2. Her idea that soviet or communist societies were unchangable was just flat out wrong, even before the post coldwar transition to relatively stable democracy in eastern and central europe happened. She could have seen the pragmatism and market friendliness of Deng Xiaoping and the revolutions against Soviet rule in 56 and 68. Her biggest problem was he manichean approach to international relations, a "one percent doctrine" of soviet influence, if you will. For her and her ilk, if there was a one percent chance that a government could be soviet friendly or even implement socialist like policies, it should be treated as a certainty that this country was new Soviet satellite. Of course, this was wrongheaded and was responsible for our support of the Contras, El Salvadorian death squads, the Shah etc etc. Though I appreciate the simplicity and general accuracy of "neo con bad anti neo con good" in the case Kirkpatrick we can hopefully lay to rest the worst parts of right wing foreign policy since WWII...now if only Kissinger could make his date with the devil soon...

Posted by: Matt Z | Dec 10, 2006 8:47:01 PM

Kirkpatrick was absolutely a neoconservative. The term 'neo-conservative' was coined by Michael Harrington to describe his friends and comrades that defected from the Liberal/Left camp and joined the Right (e.g. Bayard Rustin, Tom Kahn, et al). Kirkpatrick was part of that generation and participated in that shift from left to right.
Properly used, neoconservatism describes a political trajectory, not a specific ideology. That being said, neoconservatives tend to use left-ish language about democracy and human rights to justify their policies.

Posted by: Adrian | Dec 10, 2006 11:44:01 PM

Even in light of the the huge clusterfuck that is our current Neoconservative leadership, you have to consider if Kirkpatrick was instead worse than the current Neocons.

The whole point of "Dictatorships & Double Standards" was the DEFENSE of right-wing autocracies. It's premise is a response to would be do gooders to reform these autocratic states that A: Efforts to liberalize autocratic governments have a poor track record, B: The consequences of such undertakings is to usher in an even worse government with an additional anti-American reactionary bent, C: How come these would be do gooders finger wagging at her beloved right-wing thugs don't similiarly focus their ire on Left oriented totalitarian states, which were arguably worse?

As such, Kirkpatrick was much more realist (although quite prejudicial) than what we would consider Neoconservative today. You can argue whether foriegn policy should really include a moral dimension, but it's clear her foreign policy view didn't have one.

"Of course, this was wrongheaded and was responsible for our support of the Contras, El Salvadorian death squads, the Shah etc"

The Shah, was before her time but are you arguing that the Sandinistas and the FMLN were not economically aided by Cuba & The USSR?

Posted by: DRR | Dec 11, 2006 1:57:48 AM

I got into trouble on an Internet message board a couple days ago (both with the other board posters and with my own conscience) because I utterly attacked Jeane Kirkpatrick. In that attack, I kind of said that she wont be missed. Others interpreted that to mean that I was saying that Kirkpatrick deserved to die.

Of course, I spoke out of anger and took back my comments. Is it so wrong to think of Kirkpatrick's ideology (whatever it was) as being amoral and that she was amoral for trying to put it into practice? That is a question that I can't answer.

Posted by: Joshua | Dec 12, 2006 1:23:17 AM

Is it so wrong to think of Kirkpatrick's ideology (whatever it was) as being amoral and that she was amoral for trying to put it into practice? That is a question that I can't answer.

Yes you can, by reference to that famous example of her providing cover for the Salvadoran murderers of those "activist" nuns who were "running a roadblack."

That stench hangs over all of her admitted sharpness and resolution against the soviet threat -- her amorality was itself another form of evil even if doing battle with evil.

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