She perceived early on that the collapse of the Soviet Union was not the end of history — with history defined as the long struggle between tyranny and liberty. Instead, Communism’s demise cleared the way for a different kind of totalitarianism: What Kirkpatrick metaphorically called “messianic creeds” were replaced by messianic creeds in the literal sense. She despaired when Andrew Young, Carter’s U.N. ambassador, called Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of the Iranian revolution, “some sort of saint.”
Her never-completed “big book” on foreign policy opened with the 1987 hijacking of TWA flight 847 by Hezbollah, the proxy of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The plane sat on a runway in Lebanon for days while Hezbollah terrorists negotiated to free Palestinian terrorists held by Israel. At some point, they realized that among their hostages was Robert Stethem, a 23-year-old Navy Seal. Collier writes: “They tortured and killed him in front of all the other passenger-hostages; then they dumped his body out of the rear of the plane and onto the tarmac, in a scene captured by international camera crews.”
Earlier than many analysts, Kirkpatrick recognized the existential threat that Islamist regimes, movements, and ideologies posed to Israel and to Jews. Soon after being named American ambassador to the U.N., where anti-Israelism and anti-Semitism were running rampant, “she commented to her colleague Richard Shifter: ‘I just want you to know that I think the Holocaust is possible again. I didn’t think so before I came to the U.N. But I think so now.’”
The essay that brought her to Reagan’s attention was “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” which differentiated between totalitarians and authoritarians, making the case that the latter are more corrigible than the former. That should not imply that she was comfortable with despotism in any form. Kirkpatrick was a founding board member of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the organization I helped launch in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. I sought her advice whenever possible, sometimes taking her to lunch at the Jefferson Hotel, where there was a small, elegant dining room very much to her liking. On one occasion, we were joined by the ambassador of a North African country, eager to educate us on his country’s approach to fighting terrorism. It soon became apparent that brutality and summary justice were key components of that approach. When the well-dressed, grey-haired diplomat left, Kirkpatrick turned to me and said simply, “Well dear, we needn’t do that again.”
Kirkpatrick was intensely committed to democratic values but — unlike some of her fellow neoconservatives — she did not believe such values were easily transplantable. She did not see how merely staging elections “could imbue chaotic societies and unstable governments with a respect for what we respected: the rule of law, basic human rights, and a peaceful world order.”
She opposed redistributionism, believing that growth and development are the products of free people operating within free markets. She was unabashedly patriotic, “passionately in love with my country,” and she never lost faith in “the validity of the American dream and the morality of American society.” For all these reasons, she could not abide the “blame-America-firsters” she saw gaining prominence on the Left.
Her critics called her an ideologue, and, she conceded, “they were right if by that you mean people who perceived and were willing to act on a policy of ideas and principles.” As Collier points out, she always worried that “the democracies might not have the will to persevere in the long twilight struggle” against totalitarianism. It was a valid concern during her lifetime that ended, at age 80, on Pearl Harbor Day, December 7, 2006. It will remain a valid concern for many years to come.