BY ANY STANDARD imaginable, Jeane Kirkpatrick was a terrific choice to receive an honorary degree from Brandeis University.
Former UN Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick
No wonder she has been a perennial on Brandeis's short list of candidates for honorary degrees.
Yet when the president and trustees of the university invited Kirkpatrick to attend commencement exercises this month and be designated Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, a small but noisy campus claque launched a fusillade of invective and vilification.
Twenty-three faculty members voted for a resolution urging that the degree not be awarded; 30 more signed a letter opposing the honor. Some 80 students staged an anti-Kirkpatrick rally.
What the protesters lacked in numbers -- Brandeis has a faculty of 340, and nearly 4,000 students -- they made up for in venom.
"We oppose the degree," barked one professor, "because she was the intellectual architect of Reagan administration policies that supported some of the Latin-American regimes with the most repressive records."
"She supported the most vulgar kind of American foreign policy," snapped another.
And from a third: "She has played a heinous role in American foreign policy."
Even allowing for the exotic varieties of idiocy that bloom in the groves of academe, those charges are scurrilous. Kirkpatrick has never been soft on dictatorships or anything less than fierce in her concern for human rights, as her voluminous paper trail of books, articles, and speeches attests.
Unlike many leftists, however, she does not confuse intentions with results, nor lesser evils with greater ones.
Just such confusion, she argued in her famous November 1979 essay "Dictatorships and Double Standards," underlay the failure of Jimmy Carter's foreign policy. Intending to promote human rights in Nicaragua and Iran, the Carter administration washed its hands of Somoza and the shah. The result was to deliver those countries to dictators who were far worse: the Sandinistas and Khomeini.
An effective human rights policy for the United States, Kirkpatrick concluded, would not simply abandon authoritarian regimes struggling against radical insurgencies. Nor would it pour down wrath on petty dictators who were essentially our friends, while ignoring the more terrible crimes committed by communist dictators who were unmistakably our enemies.
Critics loathed Kirkpatrick for noticing that right-wing autocrats tend not only to be less repressive than Marxist totalitarians, but also more capable of changing into liberal democracies. They mocked her prediction:
"At the moment, there is a far greater likelihood of progressive liberalization and democratization in the governments of Brazil, Argentina, and Chile than in the government of Cuba; in Taiwan than in the People's Republic of China; in South Korea than in North Korea . . .
"It is not impossible that US policy could effectively encourage this process of liberalization and democratization, provided that the effort is not made at a time when the incumbent government is fighting for its life against violent adversaries, and that proposed reforms are aimed at producing gradual change rather than perfect democracy overnight."
That was the cornerstone on which Reagan's approach to Latin America was built. In 1981, reasonable people could debate whether it would work. In 1994, the debate is over. It did work. Spectacularly.
When Reagan (and Kirkpatrick) took office in 1981, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, and Urugay were all dictatorships. Today, they are all democracies. Communist Cuba -- as Kirkpatrick foretold -- is still in chains.
There is no rational way to square such successful results with the ugly slanders hurled against Kirkpatrick at Brandeis. But then, what is really going at Brandeis is profoundly irrational -- a pathological inability to accept the fact that Reagan's and Kirkpatrick's ideas about freedom were the correct ones. It was their vision and commitment that won the Cold War, ushering in one of the greatest expansions of democracy and liberty in history.
In Latin America, the Reaganistas were right. For that, the left can't forgive them.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)