Jeane Kirkpatrick: A Ronald Reagan Realist

Terry Jeffrey

5/17/2007 12:00:00 AM - Terry Jeffrey

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.

"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," she wrote. "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 governments. 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."

Richard Allen, top foreign policy advisor to then-candidate Reagan, gave Reagan this article. Reagan loved it, got to know Kirkpatrick and made her a key member of his foreign policy team.

Now, Kirkpatrick's final book, "Making War to Keep the Peace," has been published posthumously. It demonstrates her thinking remained consistent in the decades since "Dictatorships and Double Standards." Most importantly, it draws a line between the morally enlightened realism of President Reagan and the unrealistic moralism of President George W. Bush.

It is unrealistic to expect the U.S. military to build nations -- let alone democracies -- in cultures we know little about and where the preconditions for representative government don't exist, Kirkpatrick argues.

This is one reason she opposed the invasion of Iraq. "Iraq lacked practically all the requirements for a democratic government: rule of law, an elite with a shared commitment to democratic procedures, a sense of citizenship, and habits of trust and cooperation," she writes. "The administration's failure involved several issues, but the core concern is that they did not seem to have methodically completed the due diligence required for reasoned policy-making because they failed to address the aftermath of the invasion. This, of course, is reflected by the violence, sectarian unrest, ethnic vengeance and bloodshed we see today in Iraq."

In the final analysis, however, Kirkpatrick was not a hard-edged Kennan-style realist. She was a Ronald Reagan realist. Like Reagan, she believed U.S. foreign policy must always be guided by a thoroughgoing analysis aimed at determining what practical course would best advance the national interest. Promoting democracy, in her view, was a good thing -- when done in the right place at the right time by the right means. It could be an instrument for promoting U.S. interests, but was never a duty of U.S. policy.

"Policy under the Reagan Doctrine was established by prudential determination of the national interest in a particular context," she explained (italics in the original). "It denied that assisting in the overthrow of an existing government was always wrong. Rather, it highlighted the need to weigh the legitimacy of such acts within their political and moral context: the nature of the government, the role of a foreign force and the existence of resistance. Moreover, even if such an act were justified, the Reagan Doctrine did not dictate that such action was always wise; rather, it counseled that the long-term costs and benefits of such action should be carefully weighed before taking any steps. Because once we intervened in a given situation, we are accountable for the outcome."

Kirkpatrick did not put it this way, but I suspect it is in keeping with her thinking that a proper prudential analysis should have told us there is a vast difference between, say, supporting Roman Catholic Solidarity in Poland and actually invading a country in the Persian Gulf in anticipation that a group called the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq would help us construct a pro-Western democracy.