Robert Kagan’s Thursday column in the Washington Post, entitled “Musharraf and the Con Game,” is quite noteworthy, if for no other reason than it marks the most explicit (and concise) repudiation of neo-conservative doctrine as laid out by the late US ambassador to the U.N., Jeane Kirkpatrick, at the end of the Carter administration almost 30 years ago. Her November 1979 article in ‘Commentary,’ “Dictatorships and Double Standards” is said to have had a major influence on Reagan’s own thinking. He subsequently made her the highest-ranking neo-conservative to serve in his first term, with Cabinet-level status to boot.
Kirkpatrick’s thesis, which was elaborated by others at the American Enterprise Institute, including some who, like Michael Novak, are still there, was that “traditional authoritarians,” such as the Shah of Iran, or Anastasio Somoza, or, for that matter, even the neo-Nazi Argentine junta of the time, needed to be supported, rather than undermined, by naive human-rights campaigners, like Jimmy Carter, not only because they were critical allies in the global struggle against the Soviet Union and not nearly as terrible and permanent as “totalitarian” Communism, but also because, as Kagan writes, they were in fact considered “a necessary way station on the road to democracy.” Not only was this thesis highly questionable ab initio — Kirkpatrick and others always cited Spain and Portugal as proof of their argument — but, as Kagan quite rightly points out, the thesis was entirely disproved when Mikhail Gorbachev and some of his East bloc counterparts proved “actually willing to take the steps” needed to reform or dismantle their “totalitarian” regimes. That they did so was virtually inconceivable to neo-conservatives at the time, as many of them insisted to the very last moment that “glasnost and perestroika” was just another highly sophisticated Soviet propaganda campaign, a psy-war trick designed to lull Washington into a new and even more dangerous detente than the one the neo-cons and the hard-liners around Jerry Ford (like Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney) successfully derailed a decade before. Even though they were the last to recognize the sincerity of Gorbachev’s efforts, the same hawks did not hesitate to claim full credit for bringing down the “evil empire” once the Soviet Union disintegrated.
Kagan now argues that, in fact, Washington (and the neo-cons) was constantly conned by those “friendly” authoritarians and implicitly suggests that Carter — of all people — was right to move away from them. Of course, he doesn’t give Carter any credit. Instead, he cites the Philippines, El Salvador, and South Korea as examples where the Reagan administration helped undermine authoritarian regimes in ways that encouraged transitions to more democratic rule. (The Philippines? Well, kind of. But U.S.-trained military units were still massacring Catholic priests in El Salvador in 1989!!!)
In any event, Kagan’s article is definitely worth a close read both for its critique of classic neo-conservative foreign-policy ideas and, given the pretty wide-ranging debate within the Right (in the ‘Weekly Standard,’ the ‘National Review’, the editorial pages of the ‘Wall Street Journal’) over the past two weeks on how to deal with Pakistan, the clarity of his call for Bush to abandon Musharraf. On the other hand, he makes clear that, like most neo-conservatives at the moment, he thinks the answer can and must be found within the military itself. “It ought to be possible to find a general who is willing to let Pakistan return to a democratic path and meanwhile do a better job of fighting Pakistan’s real enemies,” he writes. For him, it’s a more of a personal than an institutional problem. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that Musharraf, whatever his eccentricities and ambition, actually represents the interests of the military institution he heads.