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Saturday, December 09, 2006

RIP Jeane Kirkpatrick

Former UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick died on December 7. I've linked to The Washington Post obituary, but you won't have to google very long to find others.

At first glance, Kirkpatrick was a political schizophrenic. As a youth, she was a Columbia-educated Marxist who became a fervent anti-communist in Washington. Though it is not a transformation of that magnitude, she also worked for Hubert Humphrey in 1968 and Ronald Reagan in 1981.

By the 1970s, Kirkpatrick was an ardent cold warrior. In 1979, she published her best-known work, a very famous piece about democratization and human rights for Commentary magazine, "Dictatorships & Double Standards." The piece offered a blistering critique of Jimmy Carter's foreign policy -- and an ideological defense of America's cold war alliances with various right-wing autocrats throughout what was then commonly called the "third world."

Though today's neocons supposedly owe Kirkpatrick a huge intellectual debt, and the administration of George W. Bush is often-said to be heavily influenced by her thinking, it seems obvious to me that the neocons and Bush people should go back and read her 1979 article:
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. Many of the wisest political scientists of this and previous centuries agree that democratic institutions are especially difficult to establish and maintain-because they make heavy demands on all portions of a population and because they depend on complex social, cultural, and economic conditions.

...Decades, if not centuries, are normally required for people to acquire the necessary disciplines and habits.
Here's another zinger from that article:
Vietnam presumably taught us that the United States could not serve as the world's policeman; it should also have taught us the dangers of trying to be the world's midwife to democracy when the birth is scheduled to take place under conditions of guerrilla war.
Despite these warnings that resonate in contemporary politics, Kirkpatrick was primarily arguing that some right-wing autocracies had eventually evolved into democracies while there were no examples at that time of a "revolutionary 'socialist' or Communist society being democratized."

This implied (a) that the U.S. could justify its alliances with right-wing autocrats because they were not necessarily permament; and (b) that the U.S. should overtly support these right-wing autocrats because they were vulnerable to pressures applied by Marxist revolutionaries. If the latter came to power, she argued, the new government would be worse than the autocracy it replaced.

In this article, the "Kirkpatrick doctrine" justifying support for right-wing autocrats did not directly begat the "Reagan doctrine," which justified American support for anti-communist insurgencies in places like Nicaragua and Afghanistan. But as the US Permament Representative to the UN for four years, Kirkpatrick certainly supported that policy. And the Commentary piece does criticize the Carter administration for its failure to attempt to undermine any communist states.

Let me note one other prominent Kirkpatrick statement. At the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas that re-nominated Ronald Reagan for president, she delivered the famous address that criticized the "San Francisco Democrats" (the party had just had its national convention in that city) that would "Blame America First" for various ills in world affairs.

In her public life, Jeane Kirkpatrick was both a skilled politico and a scholar. Not many have bridged those two worlds.

My personal experience confirms both her political skills and intellectual prowess. Ten years ago, I spent significant parts of two working days and a long evening with Kirkpatrick and a few other colleagues. Given the stark differences between her politics and mine, I was not really expecting to like her very much. However, I found her to be a very skilled advocate for her positions. She was also quite charming. And entertaining.

And maybe just a little bit flirty.

One final note: As my Duck of Minerva colleague Bill Petti has pointed out, the latest move by the neoconservative crowd is to "Blame America Last." It is clear from Kirkpatrick's 1979 critique of Carter's foreign policy that she was quite willing to place blame on America when she thought its leaders were doing a poor job and creating instability and new threats.

Thus, I'd like to think she would reject this latest twist.

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