Jeane Kirkpatrick spent her life studying — and fighting — totalitarianism. Reading Peter Collier’s illuminating new biography, Political Woman: The Big Little Life of Jeane Kirkpatrick, I was struck by how closely the war against Communism in the 20th century mirrors the war against Islamism in the 21st — and by how little we’ve learned.
To take just one example: As ambassador to the U.N. and a member of President Reagan’s cabinet in the 1980s, Kirkpatrick was concerned about the spread of Communism in Central America. A high-level State Department official claimed not to see the problem. The coming to power of Marxist governments, he said, “wouldn’t be perceived as a defeat if the U.S. didn’t try to prevent it.” President Carter actually congratulated Americans for getting over their “inordinate fear” of Communism.
Today, of course, there are those at Foggy Bottom — and on the campuses and in the media — who view Islamism similarly, arguing that Americans should accept and even assist “legitimate Islamism.” That ignores what ought to be obvious: Islamism is an ideology based on the notion that one religion and members of one religious group are superior and must rise to dominance. Islamism is hostile to and incompatible with any reasonable conception of freedom and human rights.
Kirkpatrick’s story is quintessentially American: Born in rural Oklahoma, raised by a dollar-a-day roughneck during the Great Depression, she became — by dint of brains and hard work — an “action intellectual,” a woman pioneering the corridors of political power, a maker of global policy and history.
She was raised a Democrat, and she retained that affiliation throughout her tenure in the Reagan administration. But she was a Democrat in the mold of Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, and Scoop Jackson — a withering wing of the party even then. She was appalled by Carter’s acceptance — if not embrace — of American decline. She opposed the “isolationist narcissism” of the New Left and its disdain for American values and interests. Such views anchored her right of center. “It is true that I am a convert to what are known today as conservative associations,” she said in a speech in 1985. “Like many converts, I do not find the experience easy. I would rather be a liberal.”
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.
— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism and Islamism.