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 being fought against Islamism in the 21st -- and by how little has been learned.
One example: As ambassador to the United Nations in the 1980s, Kirkpatrick was concerned about communism's spread in Central America. A high-level State Department official claimed not to see the problem. Marxist governments coming to power, he said, "wouldn't be perceived as a defeat if the U.S. didn't try to prevent it." President Jimmy Carter actually congratulated Americans for getting over their "inordinate fear" of communism.
Today, there are those at the State Department -- and on 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 supremacy and domination of one religion and members of one religious group. It 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 even after joining 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 perceived early on that the collapse of the Soviet Union was not the end of the long struggle between tyranny and liberty. Instead, communism's demise cleared the way for a different kind of totalitarianism. She despaired when Andrew Young, Carter's UN ambassador, called Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of the Iranian revolution, "some sort of saint."
A "big book" on foreign policy that she never completed 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 their hostages included 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 UN, 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 UN. But I think so now.'"
The essay that brought her to Reagan's attention was Dictatorships and Double Standards, which made the case that authoritarians are more corrigible than totalitarians. 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. On one occasion, we went for lunch with 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: "Well, dear, we needn't do that again."
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 "democracies might not have the will to persevere in the long twilight struggle" against totalitarianism. It was a valid concern during her lifetime, which ended, at age 80, on Pearl Harbor Day, Dec. 7, 2006. It will remain a valid concern for many years to come.
(Clifford May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.)