Sunday, December 10, 2006

In Praise of Jeane Kirkpatrick

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.

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