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Kirkpatrick Was Right By: Richard Cohen
Washington Post | Thursday, May 08, 2003


At the 1984 Republican National Convention, Jeane Kirkpatrick, then the Reagan administration's U.N. delegate, gave a speech on foreign policy that has stuck with me. She blasted the Democratic Party's approach to foreign affairs, repeating the phrase "the blame America first crowd." I hated the speech at the time, but have recently reread it. It has aged better than I have.

Kirkpatrick's mantra -- blame America first -- mostly applied to the Cold War and the United States' attempt to contain and then roll back communism. But the appellation could just as aptly be applied to some of those -- note the modifier "some" -- who opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and almost everything else the United States has done.

A case in point is a recent article in the Nation, a liberal magazine, by Wayne S. Smith, who was chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Cuba from 1979 to 1982. It begins by characterizing the swift execution of a trio of ferry hijackers and the jailing of scores of dissident journalists and writers as "deplorable." I would have used a stronger word, but okay.

The article goes on to blame this judicial murder and unconscionable jailing of human rights activists on the United States. "Why the crackdown?" Smith writes. "In part it was in reaction to growing provocations on the part of the Bush administration." And what were those provocations? Foremost among them were the activities of the chief U.S. diplomat in Cuba, James Cason, who opened his home to meetings with the dissidents.

"In fairness, let us imagine the reaction of the attorney general and the director of homeland security if the chief of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington was holding meetings with disgruntled Americans and announcing that the purpose was to bring about a new form of government -- a socialist government -- in the United States. He would have been asked to leave the country faster than Tom Ridge could say 'duct tape.' "

Maybe. But that is not what happened in Cuba. Instead, the dissidents were sentenced to incredibly long jail sentences -- 27 years in some cases. As for those poor souls who tried to hijack a domestic ferry and flee to Florida, they were summarily shot. The attempt at equivalency here doesn't merely fail, it's repellent. What Smith's article utterly lacks is outrage at the jailing of people -- neither spies nor traitors-- who want nothing more than a modicum of civil rights in their own country.

That same tendency to blame America for the moral shortcomings of others unfortunately permeates the left and the Democratic Party. I wish it were otherwise, but I got the first whiff of it after Sept. 11 when some people reacted to the terrorist attacks here by blaming U.S. policy -- in the Middle East specifically but around the world in general.

Had we not supported Israel, had we not backed the corrupt Saudi monarchy, had we not been buddies with Egypt, had we not been somehow complicit in Third World poverty, had we not developed blue jeans and T-shirts and rock music and premarital sex, the World Trade Center might still be standing and the Pentagon untouched.

But this was the mass murder of innocents -- pulled off, incidentally, by non-poor young men who had not spent their lives scavenging for food scraps. The attacks were not in self-defense, or even in revenge for something America had done, but a fanatical, insane and futile blow directed at modernity.

The same sort of reasoning -- if it can be called that -- surfaced before and during the war with Iraq. Although I supported the war, I could always understand some of the arguments against it. But I could not understand those who said the war was about oil or empire or reconstruction contracts and who seemed to think that Saddam Hussein was the lesser of two evils -- the United States being the greater, of course.

Below the surface of this reasoning seethes a perplexing animosity toward the United States -- not the people but the government and the economic system. Possibly it has its roots in the Great Depression, when capitalism seemed kaput and socialism so promising, and the government an adjunct of moneyed interests. At the same time, of course, governments on all levels -- federal, state and local -- were unabashedly racist.

Almost none of that still applies -- although money still talks. Yet the impulse to blame America first lingers, an atavistic reflex that jerks the knees of too many on the left and has cost the Democratic Party plenty over the years. Jeane Kirkpatrick, a former Democrat, put her finger on it 19 years ago. It's about time the Democrats listened to what she had to say.




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