Jeane Kirkpatrick, Reagan's U.N. ambassador, dies at 80

First woman to hold post was known for toughening U.S. image in '80s

December 09, 2006|By Johanna Neuman | Johanna Neuman,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, a staunch Reagan-era anti-Communist who infused American foreign policy with firm conviction as the first woman to serve as U.N. ambassador, has died. She was 80.

Mrs. Kirkpatrick died late Thursday in her sleep at her home in Bethesda, according to an announcement yesterday on the Web site of the American Enterprise Institute. The conservative think tank, where Kirkpatrick worked for several decades after she left office, called her "a great patriot and champion of freedom."

The Associated Press quoted Mrs. Kirkpatrick's assistant there as saying she had been suffering from heart disease, though no cause of death was announced.

At the U.S. mission at the United Nations in New York, U.N. Ambassador John Bolton announced the news at a senior staff meeting, requesting a moment of silence in her memory. "It really is very sad for America," he said. "She will be greatly missed."

At the White House, President Bush said Mrs. Kirkpatrick "influenced the thinking of generations of Americans on the importance of American leadership in advancing the cause of freedom and democracy around the globe."

After Mrs. Kirkpatrick gained entry into the male purview of foreign policy, Madeleine K. Albright and Condoleezza Rice followed in her footsteps, serving in high-profile national security positions for the Clinton and Bush administrations, respectively. Yesterday, Secretary of State Rice called her a role model, "an academic who brought great intellectual power to her work."

A political scientist who received a doctorate from Columbia University and studied at the Institut de Sciences Politiques in Paris, Mrs. Kirkpatrick came to the attention of Ronald Reagan after writing an article for the neo-conservative Commentary in 1979.

Called "Dictatorships and Double Standards," the piece argued that utopian thinking (under the Carter administration) had moved U.S. foreign policy to destabilize friendly, anti-Communist regimes like Anastasio Somoza's in Nicaragua and Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi's in Iran - only to find them replaced by unfriendly totalitarian ones.

"Traditional authoritarian governments are less repressive than revolutionary autocracies," she wrote.

The article caught the attention of Richard V. Allen, one of President Reagan's foreign policy advisers. He sent the article to the president, who called Mrs. Kirkpatrick, a lifelong Democrat, in for a meeting. Hesitant to take a job in a Republican administration, Mrs. Kirkpatrick was swayed by President Reagan's commitment and his remark "I was a Democrat once, you know."

In February 1981, she went to New York as President Reagan's ambassador to the United Nations, an institution she had little use for and compared to "death and taxes." Eager to restore U.S. prowess in the wake of defeat in Vietnam and the capture of American diplomats as hostages in Iran, she vowed to do battle against Marxists, Communists and anyone else who mistook U.S. policy mistakes for weakness.

"We were concerned about the weakening of Western will," she later told an interviewer. "We advocated rebuilding Western strength, and we did that with Ronald Reagan, if I may say so."

President Reagan thought so too, once telling her, "You're taking off that big sign that we used to wear that said `Kick Me.'"

When nations opposed U.S. policy, she made sure Congress - with its power of the purse to underwrite the U.N. budget - knew their names. She argued for El Salvador's right-wing junta and against Nicaragua's left-wing Sandinista government. She defended Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the American invasion of Grenada in 1983. Perhaps her most dramatic moment at the United Nations came in 1983, when she presented a film of the Soviet downing of a South Korean passenger plane, KAL 007, that had strayed into Soviet airspace. All 269 passengers and crew aboard, including a U.S. congressman, were killed.

An icon to many conservatives, Mrs. Kirkpatrick was for most of her life a Democrat. Her husband, Evron, head of the American Political Science Association, was an adviser to liberal Minnesota Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey. But she said later that they were "chronically dismayed" by the party's drift toward the left after 1972. A "serious Christian," over the years she also talked about her discomfort with leftist counterculture and with same-sex marriages.

Though she did not officially change parties until 1985, Mrs. Kirkpatrick had lasting impact on the political labeling of Democrats as weak on foreign policy. In 1984, Democrats held their convention in San Francisco, nominating former Vice President Walter F. Mondale. At the subsequent Republican Convention in Dallas, where President Reagan was re-nominated, Mrs. Kirkpatrick denounced the "San Francisco Democrats" she said had driven her away from her party.

"When Marxist dictators shoot their way into power in Central America, the San Francisco Democrats don't blame the guerrillas and their Soviet allies," she said. "They blame United States policies of 100 years ago. But then they always blame America first."

In an interview with The Washington Times in May, she called President Bush's foreign policy "a little too interventionist for my taste, frankly," urging skepticism about any foreign campaign that turns into nation-building. "It is extremely difficult for one nation to seriously remake another nation," she said, adding that she was "very much in favor of his actions in Afghanistan and have not opposed them in Iraq."

Mrs. Kirkpatrick is survived by two sons. A third, Douglas, died this year, according to the Associated Press. Her husband of 40 years, known as "Kirk," died in 1995.

Johanna Neuman writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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