November 24th, 2012

Who wrote this, and when?

First, a quote:

The pattern is familiar enough: an established autocracy with a record of friendship with the U.S. is attacked by insurgents…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.”…

[There is] a growing clamor for American disengagement on grounds that continued involvement confirms our status as an agent of imperialism, racism, and reaction; is inconsistent with support for human rights; alienates us from the “forces of democracy”; and threatens to put the U.S. once more on the side of history’s “losers.” This chorus is supplemented daily by interviews with returning missionaries and “reasonable” rebels.

As the situation worsens, the President assures the world that the U.S. desires only that the “people choose their own form of government”…

[T]he U.S. will have been led by its own misunderstanding of the situation to assist actively in deposing an erstwhile friend and ally and installing a government hostile to American interests and policies in the world…And everywhere our friends will have noted that the U.S. cannot be counted on in times of difficulty and our enemies will have observed that American support provides no security against the forward march of history.

Does that passage seem to describe Obama and Egypt pretty well? Actually, it’s from an article by Jeane J. Kirkpatrick that appeared in Commentary in 1979 (hat tip: Robert Stacy McCain), over thirty years ago, during Jimmy’s Carter’s administration.

Kirkpatrick was a neocon of sorts, although not the sort of neocon people often seem to be referring to today, when the word is so commonly misused to mean “warmonger who wants to wage war on dictatorships and naively thinks they will then magically turn into democracies.” Kirkpatrick was a neocon in the sense that she was a political changer, having once been a socialist and then a Democrat but ultimately becoming a conservative (in part out of dissatisfaction with Jimmy Carter’s policies as president) and serving as Reagan’s ambassador to the UN, the first woman to hold that position. She was also a neocon in that she [emphasis mine]:

…advocated U.S. support of anticommunist governments around the world, including authoritarian dictatorships, if they went along with Washington’s aims—believing they could be led into democracy by example. She wrote, “Traditional authoritarian governments are less repressive than revolutionary autocracies.”

That Commentary article was actually what originally brought Kirkpatrick to Reagan’s attention. In it, she had the following to say about the development of democracies, which she believed ordinarily occurred at a sedate pace:

In the relatively few places where they exist, democratic governments have come into being slowly, after extended prior experience with more limited forms of participation during which leaders have reluctantly grown accustomed to tolerating dissent and opposition, opponents have accepted the notion that they may defeat but not destroy incumbents, and people have become aware of government’s effects on their lives and of their own possible effects on government. Decades, if not centuries, are normally required for people to acquire the necessary disciplines and habits…

Although there is no instance of a revolutionary “socialist” or Communist society being democratized, right-wing autocracies do sometimes evolve into democracies–given time, propitious economic, social, and political circumstances, talented leaders, and a strong indigenous demand for representative government…But it seems clear that the architects of contemporary American foreign policy have little idea of how to go about encouraging the liberalization of an autocracy…

The speed with which armies collapse, bureaucracies abdicate, and social structures dissolve once the autocrat is removed frequently surprises American policymakers and journalists accustomed to public institutions based on universalistic norms rather than particularistic relations.

The failure to understand these relations is one source of the failure of U.S. policy in this and previous administrations. There are others. In Iran and Nicaragua (as previously in Vietnam, Cuba, and China) Washington overestimated the political diversity of the opposition–especially the strength of “moderates” and “democrats” in the opposition movement; underestimated the strength and intransigence of radicals in the movement; and misestimated the nature and extent of American influence on both the government and the opposition.

Kirkpatrick was writing in a Cold War context in 1979 (I omitted some of the USSR references in the article), so the re-democratization of countries such as Russia had not yet occurred. But the way it has happened after the fall of the Soviets, and the restrictive form “democracy” has taken there, only serves to underscore how difficult it is to develop a so-called liberal (as in “classical liberal”) democracy, with its guarantees of human rights and liberties.

Did the Bush administration ignore warnings such as Kirkpatrick’s when it embarked on the Iraq War? Yes and no. I think it underestimated how difficult the reconstruction would be and overestimated the stomach Americans would have for such an undertaking. But if you recall the reasons we went into Iraq, many had less to do with nation-building or democracy and more to do with weapons inspections and UN resolutions and Hussein’s continual defiance of them (here’s a post of mine that discusses this). Saddam Hussein was most definitely not the sort of autocrat Kirkpatrick describes, one who would have been interested in a slow progression of moves towards greater democracy; au contraire. So the alternative she advocates didn’t exist with him in charge.

The Shah of Iran was probably the prototype of what she was talking about—an autocrat who was essentially pro-US (unlike Saddam) but who was dealing with forces in his country that would have destroyed him and his reforms if he didn’t clamp down on them, hard. After Carter abandoned him, he was replaced by a regime far worse than his had been in human rights, and exceedingly hostile to the US as well.

Good move, Jimmy.

The dilemma faced by all US presidents in these situations is hardly a simple one, however. Support the old dictator and you’re called an enemy of the people. Help topple him (active or passively) and you often pave the way for something worse. Try to guide the reconstruction that will follow and you’re accused of being an occupying power—if you’re a Republican, that is (perhaps Obama could get away with it, but he’s never going to try).

[NOTE: I learned from Kirkpatrick’s Wiki page that one of her three sons is a Buddhist lama. Don’t know what to make of that, but I pass the information on to you.]

18 Responses to “Who wrote this, and when?”

  1. vanderleun Says:


  2. Gary Rosen Says:

    What is described is also not far off from what happened in Vietnam when JFK threw the Diems under the bus (as they say these days) shortly before his assassination.

  3. thomass Says:

    One of the down sides to all this being memory holed is that a leftist theory has been tested.. and it is working out about as well as conservatives expected it would (if anyone was stupid enough to try it out).

    The left has long argued that the US [being a right wing capitalistic / imperialistic mess that is] encouraged spreading right wing dictatorships around the globe in order to make it easier to exploit the resources (include people) in other countries for profit.

    If only the US could be made to butt out of other countries affairs they could spontaneously rebel and install their culture’s version of democracy. Because western imperialism was the cause of problems around the world… if removed the world would be a much better place.

    Well; we just tried it again thanks to Obama. The world didn’t get better.. again.

  4. DonS Says:

    Chile is a place where a would be communist dictator was removed, and a right wing dictator lead to a much better future. That is perhaps why the left hates Pinochet so much.

  5. Hangtown Bob Says:

    Unfortunately, when a nation is created by forcefully amalgamating various disparate tribal societies, the people of that nation are usually loyal not to the nation, but to their tribe. Such a nation can only be managed by a forceful autocratic leader (dictator). Such is the way in most of the ME, except for Israel, which is populated in main by only one tribe. Deposing the dictator does nothing to change the loyalties of the nation’s citizens. It only provides a chance for different tribal leader to take charge.

  6. M J R Says:

    “Recently, Obama has been re-elected for a 2nd term by an illiterate society . . .”

    “Putin could never have imagined anyone so ignorant or so willing to destroy their people like Obama much less seeing millions vote for someone like Obama.”

    Obama’s Soviet Mistake
    By Xavier Lerma
    19.11.2012 15:23

  7. suek Says:

    It seems to me that the examples of WWII indicate that for changes to be long term, the US has to hold governing power for at least a full generation. You have to govern democratically, plus ensure that the next generation – maybe even two generations – is taught democratic principles, and the old ways are minimized.

    We’ve been in Germany and Japan for some 60 some years now, and the first 20 or so we were pretty much in control. Ditto for South Korea.

    There’s no way we could influence Iraq – or Afghanistan – without governing (even if we used a “puppet government”) for at least 20 to 40 years. If we weren’t willing to do that, we probably should have just gotten in and gotten out.

  8. Gary Rosen Says:

    MJR – it’s official, Pravda is now more objective and less biased than the American MSM. Not a high bar, though.

  9. Eric Says:


    Why did we invade Iraq in 2003 and then stay to build a post-Saddam Iraq? The correct answer is ‘All of the above’.

    A compilation of items that informed my views plus my own thoughts on the Iraq mission:

    * I’ve added items and thoughts since 2004, including a law school seminar paper I wrote on the American lawfulness of OIF.

  10. Eric Says:

    suek: “We’ve been in Germany and Japan for some 60 some years now, and the first 20 or so we were pretty much in control. Ditto for South Korea.”

    I served as a “GI” in Korea, not in the war, but 50 years after the Korean War in a highly sustainable mission that barely raises a blip in the US, and only slightly more than a blip within the ROK itself.

    Our Korea mission has been so successful, it’s gone from unquestionably necessary to questionable whether it makes a difference anymore, and whether the mission could be just as well carried out with the forces now on the ground in Korea consolidated in Japan.

    I’ve been lost in Korea, fully identifiable as an American soldier, wearing BDUs, riding in an obviously American military humvee, and there was not a bit of concern for my safety – beyond the ordinary dangers of the Korean road itself.

    A sad and frustrating aspect about our withdrawal from Iraq is that the Iraq mission appeared to be on its way to transitioning to a similarly sustainable state, and Iraq’s strategic importance certainly is no less and very likely more than Korea’s strategic importance.

  11. Eric Says:

    Me: I’ve been lost in Korea, fully identifiable as an American soldier, wearing BDUs, riding in an obviously American military humvee, and there was not a bit of concern for my safety – beyond the ordinary dangers of the Korean road itself.

    ADD: I was entirely unarmed and unarmored, of course.

  12. thomass Says:

    DonS Says:

    “That is perhaps why the left hates Pinochet so much”

    Yeah, they go all JFK nutso over the whole thing. They blame the US for installing Pinochet when I’ve never heard any proof what so every we had a hand in it (the UK might have had a small role). On the other hand they deny the other guy (who died with an AK-47 in his hands) was importing weapons to overthrow the government.

  13. J.J. formerly Jimmy J. Says:

    Jean Kirkpatrick was always insightful in her analysis of foreign affairs. One of her last books, “MAKING WAR TO KEEP PEACE,” laid out the legal, moral, and practical case for going to war against Saddam and Iraq.

    Eric, in his blog, has provided links to many of the same lines of reasoning and policies followed before and during G.W. Bush’s administration that Kirkpatrick cited in her book. Thanks also to Eric for reminding me of Thomas Barnett’s theories about the Core and the Gap. To me, they made perfect sense, but that was before I realized how difficult it is to change a mind that is imbued with faith rather than reason.

    It’s clear today that a long term occupation of Iraq would have been necessary to establish some form of secular government there. It is also clear that the progressives sabotaged any chance to carry that out, just as they did in South Vietnam many years earlier.

    Would a long term occupation ala Korea, Japan, and Germany have succeeded? Possibly, but only at a very high price in blood and treasure. The Muslim world’s primary institution, Islam, is deeply hostile to secular, democratic government. Changing the hearts and minds of so many people (1.5 billion) is a job of Sisyphean labor and requires more than the steady pressure and guidance of occupation but a major perturbation inside the religion. The barbarity of the Thirty Years War brought tolerance and reform to Christianity. Some perturbance of a similar nature will be necessary for the reform of Islam.

  14. neo-neocon Says:

    J.J., you write, “It’s clear today that a long term occupation of Iraq would have been necessary to establish some form of secular government there. It is also clear that the progressives sabotaged any chance to carry that out, just as they did in South Vietnam many years earlier.”

    I am in complete agreement. When the war began, I thought we had the stomach for the task. But that was an error on my part, and it soon became abundantly clear we did not. Therefore the enterprise was doomed to fail in the sense of establishing a stable liberal democracy in the region, although it obviously succeeded in getting rid of Saddam, the original stated goal.

  15. Eric Says:

    Neo: “When the war began, I thought we had the stomach for the task. But that was an error on my part, and it soon became abundantly clear we did not.”

    Given that America has done it contemporaneously – historically speaking – at high cost to blood, treasure, political capital and over extended periods of time, your belief was well grounded. Based on our appearance of unity and shared purpose after 9/11, the conditions seemed right. We the people gave our Commander in Chief the job to cure a mestastizing malignant cancer, and he set out to fight the cancer with the means available to him.

    I firmly believe we would have had the stomach for Peace-building this time but for the betrayal of the liberal wing of the Democrats. It was a given the anti-American-hegemon Left and much of the Right (isolationists, libertarians, Cold War realists) would NOT support Bush’s liberal interventionist strategy. Bush’s strategy was definitively liberal, in line with the foreign policy championed by modern Democrat presidents up to and including President Clinton.

    The first stage of a innovative grand project is normally, costly, difficult, and uncertain – and vulnerable to skeptics. That was expected and forewarned. If liberal Democrats had been true to their own professed beliefs and supported Bush’s liberal strategy, they would have provided sufficient bipartisan support to sustain Bush’s liberal strategy through the 1st vulnerable stage of Peace-building.

    Instead, the liberal Democrats made a calculated decision to exploit the difficulty and uncertainty of the 1st stage of Peace-building to relentlessly attack Bush and the GOP for partisan parochial political gain. In other words, the Democrats sold out the national interest that had been crystalline on 9/11 for a domestic power grab.

    With the added opposition from the liberal Democrats who should have supported him, Bush did not have enough political capital to counter liberal opposition to his liberal strategy, combined with the expected opposition from the Left and Right.

    So, I reject the conclusion that we COULD NOT stomach Peace-building. What we did – what the liberal Democrats did – was CHOOSE NOT to sustain Peace-building for myopic self-interested reasons.

    I also believe it is inconclusive that our Peace-building mission in Iraq was doomed. Iraq is not Afghanistan. What I learned in Korea was that most Americans in the 1950s, especially traumatized and disillusioned Korean War vets, believed Korea was a hopelessly dysfunctional, corrupt, culturally alien country that was fundamentally incapable of developing into a functional modern nation. But we stuck it out in the ROK and they made it.

    By the close of our Iraq mission, most of our troops there viewed it as an increasingly, even monotonously, boring mission that sounded like it was in an early stage of turning into the kind of experience I had serving in Korea. Iraq seemed to finally be on a hopeful track when we left. We don’t which way it would have gone with us there.

    We could have had the stomach for staying, but the American political actors – liberal Democrats – necessary to sustain an iron stomach chose to sell out the President’s liberal strategy for a (successful) domestic power grab instead.

  16. Eric Says:


    I might look up the Kilpatrick book, though it seems less relevant to do so now. I wish I had known about it back in 03-04. Could have saved me time, maybe, as a shortcut on my learning curve on the issue.

    Given how many prominent Democrats made the same or similar arguments in the 1990s, I cannot help but believe that their vicious opposition to Bush on Iraq was part of a deliberate misinformation campaign.

    I don’t view the Iraq mission as a cookie cutter project that we would or even could have repeated across the Middle East. Our conditions for intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq (Taliban alliance with al Qaeda, decade-long continued hostilities with Iraq) were evolved and unique in their own right. In other words, there was no Domino strategy of which Iraq and Afghanistan were the first to knock over.

    However, we could have influenced regional events from within and though a reformed Iraq, due to its central cultural and geopolitical position. All the reasons Iraq is important to everyone else could have made Iraq helpful to us.

  17. neo-neocon Says:

    Eric: that’s a pretty good summary of what happened. When I said “we” didn’t have the stomach, I meant the majority of the American people. That includes the coalition of the people you mention: left, many paleoconservatives, and liberals.

  18. Eric Says:


    But that’s the thing. While those special interest political factions shape political discourse, they don’t define the American majority’s ‘stomach’ for indefinite Japan/Korea/Germany type missions.

    I believe the majority of the American people could stomach an indefinite Iraq mission *at the point* we withdrew our forces from Iraq.

    At the point we withdrew from Iraq, our soldiers serving there were describing the mission as bordering on repetitive and boring. They were also describing that the fragile sectarian political balance in Iraq depended on the US presence.

    If we assume that the trajectory with us in Iraq would have continued in the same, even if lurching, direction that existed in our last days there, I don’t see why the Iraq mission would have been any more onerous to the American people than our indefinite Asian and European deployments. (Certainly, if there came a dramatic and bloody reversal, that’s different.)

    The current opinion that the US could not stomach the Iraq mission is based on a freeze-frame of pre-Surge Iraq. However, we didn’t leave before the Surge. Post-Surge Iraq was hardly a topic of discussion in the US by the time that the Obama administration falsely claimed our exit as a foreign policy success. If Obama hadn’t screwed up negotiating the new SOFA, I think an indefinite US mission in Iraq would be taken for granted today by the majority of Americans.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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