She became a public intellectual, writing books on the changes in the Democratic Party, and essays for Commentary magazine. Disturbed by America’s foreign policy retreat and Soviet expansionism after Vietnam, she joined the Committee on the Present Danger and supported anti-communist Democratic Senator “Scoop” Jackson’s brief bid for the 1976 Democrat presidential candidacy. The disastrous presidency of Jimmy Carter, which saw a global epidemic of Soviet aggression, culminated in the annus terribilis of 1979, when Iran and Nicaragua, deemed insufficiently respectful of human rights by the Carter administration, were both allowed to fall to brutal, repressive regimes hostile to America’s interests. Kirkpatrick’s journey was now nearly complete, the dangers of American global retreat sharpening to urgency her personal intellectual and political development.
At this critical moment she wrote for Commentary the essay that earned her opprobrium as a fascist apologist from the left, and praise from traditional anti-communist liberals, “the signature piece of writing,” Collier writes, Kirkpatrick “would have to defend . . . for the rest of her life.” “Dictatorship and Double Standards” straightforwardly exposed the moral idiocy, delusional idealism, and self-abasement of the American foreign policy thinking that had led to the abandonment of flawed yet useful allies, and that had created openings to communist and totalitarian regimes much bloodier and more oppressive than the governments they replaced. As Kirkpatrick pointed out, autocracies can evolve into democracies, as was happening in Spain, Greece, and Portugal, but communist regimes never do so without enormous external pressure and resistance. Kirkpatrick also scorned the self-abasing double standards that condemned pro-American authoritarian regimes while history’s most murderous abuser of human rights, the Soviet Union, was given a pass. Nor did she suffer the “posture of continuous self-abasement and apology,” as she called it, “vis-à-vis the Third World,” a masochism “neither morally necessary not politically appropriate.” One has only to remember Obama’s disastrous apology tours abroad to feel the truth of Kirkpatrick’s insight.
The essay brought Kirkpatrick to the attention of Ronald Reagan, who made her his ambassador to the U.N. Her tenure at the U.N. was one of the great achievements of American diplomacy. She forcefully rejected that corrupt and venal body’s reflexive anti-Americanism and active hostility to U.S. interests, making it clear that the Reagan administration was keeping score and would remember its enemies when it came to doling out foreign aid and contributions to the U.N. budget. It wasn’t easy, particularly for a woman. She had to face resistance from her own State Department, who seemingly put the interests of the U.N. over those of the U.S. She battled the spineless European bloc, whose nations “have long since accepted their prescribed role” in the U.N., she said, and “grown accustomed to being ‘it’ in a global game of dunk-the-clown, and have opted to ‘understand’ the point of view of their Third World accusers.” She changed the way the U.S. conducted business, replacing a flabby one-world idealism with something more like “a political operation in Chicago,” Collier writes, “where tough deals cut on the basis of enlightened self-interest trumped the theater of idealistic rhetoric.” And she had no patience with the egregious double standards of the General Assembly, which, as she put it, judged the U.S. and Israel in particular “by the Sermon on the Mount and all other nations on the curve.”
Finally, Kirkpatrick was a stalwart friend of Israel, resisting the hatred heaped on that vulnerable nation, and fighting against what she called “a systematic totalitarian assault on language and meaning” that cast the Israelis as Nazis and the Palestinians as victims of genocide. Nor did she tolerate in silence a Security Council that in 60 meetings during 1981 had failed to do anything about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia, Iraq’s invasion of Iran, or Libya’s of Chad, yet still found time at 45 meetings to take up Arab complaints about Israel. Kirkpatrick’s forceful leadership at the U.N. was a major factor in the recovery of American prestige that contributed to the demise of the Soviet Union.
After internal White House politics led to her ouster from the Reagan administration, over the succeeding decade Kirkpatrick became a popular public speaker and newspaper columnist, continuing to warn against impractical idealism even when it came from her own side, and to counsel against “expansive, expensive” global projects that she believed eventually harmed American interests. This put her out of favor with the neoconservative ascendency and its program of spreading democracy, “as if,” she wrote, “democracy 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.” The sting of being summarily dismissed by the American Enterprise Institute that had long been her intellectual home was salved by the sale of her last book to HarperCollins. Unfortunately, she died in 2006, just before the publication of Making War to Keep Peace, an “inquiry into the use of the American military when vital national interests were not at stake,” Collier writes, and a “critique of the misuse of the American military in misbegotten multilateralist adventures, of internationalist power grabs of by the UN, and of futile efforts to plant democracy in barren soil.” Most of the book’s attention, however, came from its criticism of the Iraq War, which obscured the larger, more important argument.
Collier’s narrative of Jeane Kirkpatrick’s “big little life,” as she called it, is important not just for skillfully capturing the life, times, and independent mind of this quintessential American patriot, but for reminding us of a time when American foreign policy shed its internationalist infatuations, unwarranted self-abasement, and utopian nostrums, and restored to America a well-earned pride at being the greatest global force for freedom and goodness.
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