Jeane Kirkpatrick, realist.

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Dec. 8 2006 6:42 PM

Jeane Kirkpatrick, Realist

The former U.N. ambassador's neoconservatism looks quaint today.

The Iraq Study Group's report contains the following stinging rebuke to the neoconservatives who guided the U.S. invasion and occupation of that country:

Most of the region's countries are wary of U.S. efforts to promote democracy in Iraq and the Middle East. … 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. 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.

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Ah, the tonic of foreign-policy realism. Let's deal with the world as it is, not as we might wish it to be. That has always been the view of the panel's two former secretaries of state, James Baker and Laurence Eagleburger. What a relief from the neocons' dangerous delusions about the reach of American military power and moral suasion.

Except I just tricked you. The first sentence of the passage quoted above is indeed from the Iraq Study Group's report. But the rest of it is from a magazine article that provided the theoretical framework for neoconservative foreign policy during the final years of the Cold War. Titled "Dictatorships and Double Standards," it was published in Commentary in November 1979. Its author, Jeane Kirkpatrick, died on Dec. 7. The former United Nations ambassador under President Reagan was 80.

Like a lot of neoconservative thought, "Dictatorships and Double Standards" made a categorical pronouncement about the laws governing human affairs that was later proved wrong. "[T]here is no instance of a revolutionary 'socialist' or Communist society being democratized," Kirkpatrick wrote, blissfully unaware that a decade later only a handful of Communist countries would be able to resist democratization. Nicaragua, a particular focus of Kirkpatrick's argument, would in 1990 hold elections that threw the Marxist Sandinistas out of power for the next 16 years. This was something Kirkpatrick had judged impossible. One could argue that the Soviet bloc gave way to democracy only because the Reagan administration's arms buildup forced the Soviets to spend themselves into oblivion. But if you'd asked Kirkpatrick during the 1980s whether she thought a Soviet arms buildup was something Americans should root for, she most certainly would have said "no." In her famous 1984 "they always blame America first" speech to the Republican National Convention, Kirkpatrick condemned the Carter administration for inadequate spending on defense specifically because itencouraged "an unprecedented Soviet buildup, military and political."

On the other hand, Kirkpatrick's skepticism about the United States' ability to bring democracy anywhere and everywhere in the world looks prescient today. It has also been widely ignored by Kirkpatrick's fellow neocons. As James Mann observes in Rise of the Vulcans, his 2004 group portrait of the Bush administration's Iraq hawks,

By the beginning of the twenty-first century, the neoconservative movement had come to espouse ideas directly contrary to those in "Dictatorships and Double Standards." Whereas Kirkpatrick had ridiculed the notion that it is possible to establish democracy "anytime, anywhere, under any circumstances," during the George W. Bush administration neoconservatives argued that the United States should seek democratic reforms wherever possible, from Saudi Arabia and Egypt to Pakistan and Uzbekistan. Kirkpatrick had suggested that democratizing third world countries might take decades or centuries, but by 2002 neoconservatives were seeking democratic change among the Palestinians and in Iraq within no more than a couple of years.

Writing about this doctrinal shift in April 2005, Slate's former editor, Michael Kinsley, observed, "This is quite a reversal by America's most influential group of intellectuals, yet it has received surprisingly little comment or explanation." Kirkpatrick, to her credit, never abandoned her skepticism about the ease of spreading democracy abroad, even after it became unfashionable in her set. Although she supported the Iraqi invasion, she never bought into President Bush's notion that it would cause undemocratic regimes in the Middle East to fall like dominoes. Here is what she told Nicholas Lemann of TheNew Yorker  on the eve of the invasion in 2002:

"I have myself come to believe that culture is the main determinant of successful transition to democracy," she said. "It's almost never easy. In the Middle East, the best chances would be in Jordan, and maybe Lebanon, which have some background of experience. I don't think, frankly, that it's very likely that a regime such as Saudi Arabia, which has a highly traditional culture and no tradition of democracy, can make its transition in one or two steps."

Let it be said of Jeane Kirkpatrick, on the occasion of her death, that she didn't have to wait to see an Iraq fiasco unfold to know that the invasion was wildly oversold. It's a legacy of humility that her fellow neocons would do well to consider.

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.