Mugged by Reality? Or a Right Wing Lenin?

1295884968kristol_012411_380px Adam Kirsch on Irving Kristol in The Tablet:

It was a little disingenuous for Kristol to deny that there is such a thing as a neoconservative foreign policy. After all, one of the eight sections of The Neoconservative Persuasion is titled “Foreign Policy and Ideology.” All but one of the essays in that group, however, were written during the Cold War, and it is fair to say that if neoconservatism—or Kristol himself—had a diplomatic philosophy, it was one totally shaped by America’s rivalry with the Soviet Union, with only limited application to the post-Cold War world.

Essentially, Kristol believed that America’s struggle with the USSR was the criterion by which everything else had to be judged. Anything that could hurt the United States or benefit the USSR was wrong, no matter how right it might seem on the surface. Perhaps the most uncompromising essay in the book is “ ‘Human Rights’: The Hidden Agenda,” in which Kristol totally rejects the idea of making human rights an American foreign-policy priority, as Jimmy Carter had done. His reason is that, if regimes are judged by human rights standards alone, many American allies—he is thinking particularly of right-wing regimes in South America—would come out quite badly. Rather than pick our alliances based on moral purity, Kristol writes, America should look to the differences between “authoritarian governments” and “totalitarian regimes.” The first—like, say, Pinochet’s Chile—may eventually evolve into democracies, and they pose no threat to America. The latter, like the Soviet Union, are inherently dangerous and must be opposed at all costs.

It’s true, Kristol acknowledges, that a torture victim in Chile has suffered just as much as a torture victim in Russia. But, he writes, “the perspective of the victim, whether in war or peace, is the stuff of which poetry (or perhaps theology) is made, not politics, and certainly not foreign policy.” This is probably the single sentence in The Neoconservative Persuasion that best captures Kristol’s entire worldview. Concern for victims—of war, of torture, of poverty, and of racism—is all well and good, but finally Kristol regards it as sentimentality. What really matters is power, and it would be suicidal for Americans to give up power in the name of sentiment.