WASHINGTON -- Prompted by the death last week of former United Nations Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, I looked up her essay from the November 1979 issue of Commentary magazine, "Dictatorships and Double Standards."
Ms. Kirkpatrick, then a Democrat, excoriated the Carter administration for applying a double standard in its treatment of right-wing and Communist dictatorships. The former, she argued, can eventually be coaxed into democratization (or at least made amenable to United States interests), whereas the latter, with their all-encompassing, revolutionary ideas of upending society and the very nature of humanity, are "unlikely to lead to anything but totalitarian tyranny."
Ms. Kirkpatrick's thesis was a useful framework for thinking about U.S. foreign policy in the Cold War, and with rare exception it proved right. Yet just because the Cold War is over does not mean that "Dictatorships and Double Standards" ought to be thrown into the dustbin of history along with Marxism-Leninism. A glaring example of its rightness remains today in the form of a blight on the world community: Zimbabwe, where I ventured on a journalistic assignment in August. In 1980, not long after Ms. Kirkpatrick's essay appeared, Zimbabwe transformed from a right-wing, authoritarian regime into a left-wing, totalitarian one.
Before the ascension of Robert G. Mugabe as prime minister in 1980, a small, white elite ruled the country - then called Rhodesia - in an arrangement similar to that of apartheid South Africa. Mr. Mugabe, an ardent Maoist, launched a successful civil war against the white regime, eventually bringing it to the negotiating table. Many in the West hailed Mr. Mugabe as a new kind of African leader, one who held much promise.
But only two years into his rule, Mr. Mugabe showed inklings of the totalitarian despot that he would come to epitomize. Between 1982 and 1987, he massacred about 20,000 Ndebele people in the southern region of the country. This massacre has been long forgotten and ignored because it was black-on-black violence. Only when Mr. Mugabe recently went after Zimbabwe's white population, purging productive farmers off their land and forcefully redistributing it to political hacks, did the Western media begin to make him out to be a great international rogue like Hugo Chavez.
Regardless, the radical redistribution of land has had dire consequences for Zimbabwe. Once a major exporter of agricultural products, Zimbabwe has descended into freefall with the world's highest inflation rate (more than 1,000 percent annually), oil and food shortages and increasing political violence.
Although not an explicitly communist regime like Cuba, Mr. Mugabe's Zimbabwe is nonetheless a left-wing dictatorship guided by revolutionary principles. Ms. Kirkpatrick, in her 1979 essay, wrote that such regimes "create refugees by the millions because they claim jurisdiction over the whole life of the society and make demands for change that so violate internalized values and habits that inhabitants flee by the tens of thousands." Not tens of thousands but as many as 3 million Zimbabweans (of a population of 12.2 million) have fled the country since the implementation of the land reforms. Ms. Kirkpatrick, in her essay, noted that "more than five times as many refugees have fled Guinea and Guinea Bissau [then-left-wing dictatorships] as have left Zimbabwe Rhodesia, suggesting that civil war and racial discrimination are easier for most people to bear than Marxist-style liberation."
That Africans would prefer a regime based on race discrimination to one based on Marxism may be hard for us in the West to accept, but if people "vote with their feet," there has been no better confirmation of Ms. Kirkpatrick's thesis than the case of Zimbabwe.
How else does the trajectory of Zimbabwe validate Ms. Kirkpatrick? Hardly an enthusiast for right-wing authoritarians, she wrote, "traditional autocrats tolerate social inequities, brutality, and poverty while revolutionary autocracies create them." This has certainly been the case of Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, where under the white supremacist government social inequities, brutality and poverty existed - but under Mr. Mugabe, they have reached catastrophic levels.
White Rhodesia was a morally unjust regime whose governing ethos (white privilege) was indefensible on any grounds. But Mr. Mugabe's ethos of governing - the personal enrichment of one man and a radical land-redistribution policy that has left millions starving - is no more justifiable than white racism. In Rhodesia, the government did not massacre civilians by the thousands; the black majority was not starving to death, nor was it digging in the ground for mice as a basic form of sustenance (a widespread practice that I witnessed less than 10 miles from Mr. Mugabe's presidential mansion).
A willingness to support anything in opposition to an unjust political system - especially when the alternative has the distinct possibility of being far worse - is an impulse that we would do well to guard against. That is the lesson of Zimbabwe, and the sage observance of a woman schooled in the ugly realities of the modern world.
James Kirchick is assistant to the editor in chief of The New Republic. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.