Jeane Kirkpatrick is a largely forgotten figure today, but not for good reason. Starting in 1979, and continuing through much of the 1980s, she was at the forefront of advising President Ronald Reagan’s efforts to defeat the Soviet Union.
Luckily she (and her ideas) are getting a second look. Author Peter Collier is out with a new biography called “Political Woman: The Big Little Life of Jeane Kirkpatrick.” It’s a fine read that should remind Americans about this woman — who was a towering figure during the last quarter of the 20th century.
A Democrat for much of her life, Kirkpatrick and her husband were close allies of Minnesota’s Hubert Humphrey. “She had never thought she’d have anything to do with Republicans,” Collier mused during a recent chat. “She didn’t know any Republicans, and the ones she knew, she didn’t like because she thought [they] were sort of heartless.”
So how did this lifelong Democrat came to serve as an advisor to one of the greatest Republican presidents in history? “She came to the GOP from two events: The takeover of Iran by Khomeini [The Iranian Ayatollah who overthrew the Shah of Iran], and even more by the Carter administration’s enabling of the rise of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and their [the Sandinista’s] ability to act as a focal point for the Soviets in that hemisphere.”
Those two events caused Kirkpatrick to veer sharply to the right in the summer of 1979. While vacationing in France that year, she prepared the legendary article in Commentary magazine entitled “Dictators and Double Standards.” As Collier notes, it proposed the following idea: “While representative democracy may be the goal, it is better to have a pro-American authoritarian regime than a radical, totalitarian regime that is anti-American.”
This was far from a lesson in Realpolitik. Collier went on to detail the moral aspect of Kirkpatrick’s underlying theory: “[A]uthoritarian governments didn’t seek to control the totality of the human being,” he explained, “But totalitarian governments — such as that of the Soviet Union and Mao’s China — did exactly that. They wanted to do nothing less than to penetrate into the soul of the human being and society.”
After serving as an adviser to Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign, Kirkpatrick spent four years as the United States Ambassador the United Nations and was a part of Reagan’s National Security Council. William Safire called her, “The courage of Ronald Reagan’s convictions.” That’s a high — and deserved — compliment for a woman who helped change the world.
After a tumultuous year of revolution and political change — especially with the Arab Spring — Kirkpatrick’s ideas are perhaps needed as much as ever. How should the United States conduct foreign policy in this new world? Should we prefer the old bad men we believe might change — or the new bad men we know are bent on inflicting evil on the souls of men?
Those questions would be right up Kirkpatrick’s alley. And you’ll have a much greater appreciation for this after reading Collier’s book. Pick it up today.