Saturday, December 16, 2006

Jeane Kirkpatrick in Retrospect: Anything for the Status Quo

Jeane Kirkpatrick's primary purpose inDictatorships and Double Standards was to argue that, since revolutionary regimes are necessarily worse than "traditional" ones, we are justified in supporting any degree of repressiveness or murderousness in a friendly dictator because the alternative will, by definition, be worse.

What immediately moved her to write her article was the occurrence of two recent revolutions against friendly dictators; the overthrow of the Shah of Iran by Khomeini follower and the overthrow of Somoza in Nicaragua by the Sandinistas. In both cases, President Jimmy Carter refused to prop up a friendly dictator in the face of a popular uprising and (in Kirkpatrick's opinion) helped precipitate the revolution by asking the dictator to show greater respect for human rights. However, she did not claim that this failing was unique to Carter. In fact, she said, he was merely following a familiar pattern of refusal to prop up friendly dictators, from Chiang Kai-shek in China to Batista in Cuba to the various governments of South Vietnam to UNITA in Angola.

The pattern is familiar enough: an established autocracy with a record of friendship with the U.S. is attacked by insurgents, some of whose leaders have long ties to the Communist movement, and most of whose arms are of Soviet, Chinese, or Czechoslovak origin. The "Marxist" presence is ignored and/or minimized by American officials and by the elite media on the ground that U.S. support for the dictator gives the rebels little choice but to seek aid "elsewhere." Violence spreads and American officials wonder aloud about the viability of a regime that "lacks the support of its own people." The absence of an opposition party is deplored and civil-rights violations' are reviewed. Liberal columnists question the morality of continuing aid to a "rightist dictatorship" and provide assurances concerning the essential moderation of some insurgent leaders who "hope" for some sign that the U.S. will remember its own revolutionary origins. Requests for help from the beleaguered autocrat go unheeded, and the argument is increasingly voiced that ties should be established with rebel leaders "before it is too late." The President, delaying U.S. aid, appoints a special emissary who confirms the deterioration of the government position and its diminished capacity to control the situation and recommends various measures for "strengthening" and "liberalizing" the regime, all of which involve diluting its power.


Kirkpatrick would stand for no such nonsense. She regarded such situations as cut-and-dried with only two alternatives -- our friendly autocrat or the Communist revolutionaries. In such cases, she sees no alternative; we must support a friendly leader by any means necessary. What means are those? Well, to begin with, we should never criticize a friendly government's repressiveness or ask for any restraint. Its repressiveness is simply doing what is necessary to protect itself against threat. We should do whatever is necessary to support a besieged friendly autocrat. How much may be necessary? Well, Kirkpatrick pours scorn the liberal press for interpreting insurgency as "evidence of widespread popular discontent" and sees refusal to arm a regime to suppress such an insurgency as tantamount to "toppling" the regime in power. She is also contemptuous of Carter's unwillingness to intervene militarily to keep either the Shah or Somoza in power. And apparently in Vietnam that long-term committment of 500,000 troops and large-scale carpet bombing and defoliation was not sufficient either. These days one hears praise of Kirkpatrick in some surprising quarter because she believed it was not easy to create democracy and would not have supported George Bush's world-wide military interventions on its behalf. But she would and did support military interventions all over the world to prop up friendly despots.

And there, I believe, is Kirkpatrick's most serious moral failing. She fails to recognize that insurgencies are often, indeed, expressions of popular discontent (more on that in the next post) and therefore fails to recognize just violent "traditional" leaders may have to be to uphold the status quo. In fact, the revolutions in bothNicaragua and Iran were overwhelming popular uprisings. Somoza responded, in effect, by waging war against his own people and bombing his own cities as one would bomb an enemy country. To Kirkpatrick, this just wasn't enough, and we should have helped him hit harder. The Shah, for the most part, went down without a fight, but presumably it would have taken a similar level of force to suppress the similarly popular uprising in Iran. Just how brutal does a "traditional" ruler have to be in maintaining power before we decide that a revolution might not seem so bad by comparison?

Kirkpatrick showed more clearly just how severe human rights violation she was prepared to justify in defense of the status quo when she served in the Reagan Admistration, which followed her advice when revolution threatened in El Salvador. The government there engaged in massacres of hundreds of defenseless villagers, raped 8-year-old children, tore the babies out of pregnant women, and massacred refugees as they attempted to flee. Kirkpatrick steadfastly stood by our friends throughout regardless. Never did she explore the question of whether any degree of slaughter in defense of the status quo ceased to be justifiable. Nor did she discuss the extent to which prolonged civil war tends to brutalize participants on both sides, regardless of who wins.

Perhaps the best comment on Kirkpatrick's anything-for-the-status-quo philosophy was posted recently on Glenn Greenwald:

3000 killed in Chile to "prevent a Cuba." 15,000 killed in Argentina to "prevent a Cuba." 80,000 killed in El Salvador to "prevent a Cuba." 100,000 killed in Guatemala to "prevent a Cuba." Thousands more when you add up Uruguay, Colombia, Peru, Venezuela, Mexico, Nicaragua, Dominican Republic.... "to prevent a Cuba."

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