Twenty years ago, I took a course at Georgetown on strategic thinking in foreign policy. It was taught by professor Jeane Kirkpatrick, who had gained well-deserved fame as U.N. ambassador during President Reagan's first term.
In an early lecture, Kirkpatrick read aloud from George Kennan's "American Diplomacy."
"I see the most serious fault of our past policy formulation to lie in something that I might call the legalistic-moralistic approach to international problems," Kennan said in part of the passage Kirkpatrick quoted.
Later, in the same chapter of "American Diplomacy," Kennan (writing in the 1950s) delivered what might seem like an observation on the Iraq war. "In the old days, wartime objectives were generally limited and practical ones, and it was common to measure the success of your military operations by the extent to which they brought you closer to your objectives," wrote Kennan. "But where your objectives are moral and ideological ones and run to changing the attitudes and traditions of an entire people or the personality of a regime, then victory is probably something not to be achieved entirely by military means or indeed in any short space of time at all; and perhaps that is the source of our confusion."
When I later read Kirkpatrick's famous 1979 Commentary essay, "Dictatorships and Double Standards," I realized there was a similarity between Kennan's and Kirkpatrick's thought.
"Dictatorships and Double Standards" dissected the moralistic mindset that inspired President Jimmy Carter to turn his back on pro-United States -- yet authoritarian -- leaders in Iran and Nicaragua, when they were challenged, respectively, by Islamic and Marxist revolutions. Kirkpatrick perceived the root of Carter's failed policy to be a mistaken faith in the idea that all nations are fated to undergo a liberalizing modernization.
Within this framework, revolutions against right-wing authoritarians were not only historically inevitable but also morally desirable because they paved the way to the more democratic future that awaits us all. Left-wing authoritarians, by contrast, the Carterites believed, were on the right side of history, pushing for egalitarian modernization, and thus need not be resisted.
Kirkpatrick understood why this moralistic view was uniquely seductive to Americans, who after all, cherished their own democratic tradition. She nonetheless believed it was wrong.