Tyranny, realism and Jeane Kirkpatrick

David Rieff is the author of "At the Point of a Gun: Democratic Dreams and Armed Intervention" and "A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis," among other books.

THERE IS something at once ironic and strangely apt about the fact that Augusto Pinochet, the former Chilean dictator charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity, died within days of Jeane Kirkpatrick, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and a founding mother of neoconservatism.

Apart from her stalwart defense of the Reagan administration’s policies at the U.N. Security Council, Kirkpatrick is best remembered for her 1979 essay, “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” in which she asserted that a fundamental distinction needed to be made between communist states that were incapable of reforming themselves and could thus only be fought or contained, and right-wing authoritarian regimes that could (and often did) evolve toward democratic norms over time.

In the essay, she argued (using Iran and Nicaragua as her chief examples) that it was often acceptable -- indeed, desirable -- for the U.S. to provide aid and support to authoritarian dictators in countries “friendly” to the United States even if they violated human rights.

Gen. Pinochet’s Chile was precisely the sort of authoritarian tyranny Kirkpatrick had in mind. It was not that she denied the crimes of dictators like the general. But she insisted that over time the torture and the disappearances could give way first to liberal economics and, eventually, to liberal politics. Although Pinochet did not relinquish power until more than a decade after her article appeared, his eventual decision to do so (which, in a sense, opened the door to Chile’s return to democracy) seemed to vindicate Kirkpatrick’s argument.


Understandably, her icy calculus appalled American liberals who had opposed the Nixon administration’s support for Pinochet’s coup in 1973 (not to speak of the entirely understandable moral disgust her apologia inspired in those whose family members had been murdered, raped or tortured, or who had themselves been raped or tortured).

But Kirkpatrick and her admirers, many of whom are serving in the current administration, insisted that there was nothing immoral about tolerating friendly authoritarians like Pinochet, no inconsistency between supporting human rights in communist Eastern Europe while backing repression in Latin America because in the long run the goal in both cases was the triumph of democracy over the totalitarian left.

The ultimate rationale for supporting a Pinochet in Chile or a Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla in Argentina was because, when all was said and done, to do so was in the American national interest, in Kirkpatrick’s view.

In other words, she was propounding a form of foreign policy realism, in contrast to what people on the right viewed as the liberal-left’s wooly-headed idealism and softness.

In those days, the conservatives were the sensible, hardheaded realists who believed that to win the existential Cold War conflict you had to make unsavory compromises. To quote the old Washington quip about the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza (or “strongman” to use the old Time-Life euphemism), “he’s a sonofabitch, but he’s our sonofabitch.”

In contrast, liberals tended to be part of the proverbial “Mommy Party” (at least in Republican eyes; the historical record is far more complicated). Their sentimental hearts prevented them from seeing the world as it really was.

The irony is that today things appear to be reversed. In the aftermath of what increasingly looks like an American failure in Iraq, the same arguments are underway -- only this time, it is the liberals upholding hardheaded realism and accusing the Bush White House of having been taken over by dreamers and utopians.

Meanwhile, it is members of the Bush administration who keep insisting that we can remake the world as we believe it should be, and that we certainly need not accept it as it actually is.


What a world! The hardheaded conservatives appear to have gone soft, while liberals argue that overthrowing Saddam Hussein was utter folly given the harsh realities of Iraqi politics -- a realist calculus they would have rejected where Pinochet was concerned.

Obviously, there are profound differences between the world of 1973 and the world of 2006. But in some ways, there are similarities between the two eras -- at least where the right is concerned.

Then, as now, the real issue for conservatives is the broader, existential threat. For Kirkpatrick, the United States could not afford to alienate the Pinochets of the world because without them the Cold War might never be won. For the Bush administration, it is the global war on terror that cannot be won unless the Saddam Husseins of this world are overthrown.

Liberals, however, have changed and are today taking positions that one would not have expected. For whatever hawkish views they propounded in the past -- and obviously the party of Harry Truman, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson can scarcely be accused of lacking enthusiasm for the Cold War -- liberals historically have never been drawn to realism.


The crux of the debate over Chile was just this issue: Should we attach a stronger weight in foreign policy to power (as the conservatives suggested) or to principle (as the liberals would have liked).

By insisting on the distinction between right-wing authoritarianism and communist totalitarianism, Kirkpatrick tried to split the difference. She was wrong, of course: The transformation of China has demonstrated that conclusively. But however unconvincingly, and whatever the murderous effects of her doctrine on the people of Chile, Uruguay, Argentina and Nicaragua, at least she was making a serious effort to formulate an ethical basis for a realist foreign policy. Can liberals today say as much?

In the end, liberalism and realism are simply too uncomfortable a fit to be enduring. Yes, the Iraq debacle and the need to make sure that the United States never again attempts to impose democracy at the point of a gun and at incalculable cost in blood and money makes realism a very attractive place for liberals at the moment. But history suggests that American liberals do not have the stomach for realism. Whether this is a good or a bad thing for the United States, or the world as a whole, is, of course, another matter.