Catching up on news from the last few days, I came across this Gingrich gem as I was following the ongoing pseudo-controversy about Obama’s handshake with Hugo Chavez at the Summit of the Americas. The interview was unremarkable FoxNews chatter, complete with calls for more domestic oil drilling, except for Gingrich’s hilariously ahistorical reference to the Carter administration as “pro-dictator.” In reality, it was the Reagan administration that was rather more obviously pro-dictator, if we must use such simplistic descriptions, and this was on balance a good thing for U.S. interests. Indeed, one of the main, largely correct criticisms of Carter from the right was that he was too willing to sell out anticommunist and other allied dictators for the sake of maintaining a foolish, self-defeating consistency on democracy promotion and human rights advocacy. In the event, those who suffered most were the Iranian and Nicaraguan peoples, and all the moralistic cant in the world didn’t make the revolutionary governments that replaced the dictatorships better at governing or at treating the population more justly. By just about every measure, the revolutions made these nations worse off.
It was no less than Jeane Kirkpatrick, who later became Reagan’s ambassador to the United Nations, who authored the famous and genuinely important article in Commentary, Dictatorships and Double Standards, in which she made this observation:
As if this were not bad enough, in the current year  the United States has suffered two other major blows–in Iran and Nicaragua–of large and strategic significance. In each country, the Carter administration not only failed to prevent the undesired outcome, it actively collaborated in the replacement of moderate autocrats friendly to American interests with less friendly autocrats of extremist persuasion. It is too soon to be certain about what kind of regime will ultimately emerge in either Iran or Nicaragua, but accumulating evidence suggests that things are as likely to get worse as to get better in both countries. The Sandinistas in Nicaragua appear to be as skillful in consolidating power as the Ayatollah Khomeini is inept, and leaders of both revolutions display an intolerance and arrogance that do not bode well for the peaceful sharing of power or the establishment of constitutional governments, especially since those leaders have made clear that they have no intention of seeking either.
Kirkpatrick’s interpretation of the revolutionary governments that were being established thirty years ago in those countries was on the whole accurate. She explicitly pointed to the counterproductive and self-defeating nature of U.S.-backed democracy promotion in states that were challenged by domestic subversion:
In each of these countries, the American effort to impose liberalization and democratization on a government confronted with violent internal opposition not only failed, but actually assisted the coming to power of new regimes in which ordinary people enjoy fewer freedoms and less personal security than under the previous autocracy–regimes, moreover, hostile to American interests and policies.
In her essay, which holds up remarkably well thirty years later despite her preference for referring to modern authoritarian governments as “autocracies,” the “pro-dictator” administration was being castigated for being unwilling to back pro-U.S. dictators. Whatever else one wants to say about the Reagan years, no one can accuse President Reagan of a consistent or intense hostility to dictatorships as such. Neither was Reagan always insistent on attempting to prop up allied dictators if their peoples were trying to compel major political change. There are times when permanent national interests and relations with other states clearly trump past working relationships with a specific ruler or regime. The Reagan administration treated different states differently, providing aid to Hussein to contain Iran and consume Iran’s attention with his aggressive war against them, but also accepting the popular repudiation of the South Korean and Filipino dictatorships. Kirkpatrick was representative of thinking popular on the right at the time, which has now been all but banished to the margins as veritably anti-American, that was extremely skeptical of the possibility of rapid and successful democratization:
In the relatively few places where they exist, democratic governments have come into being slowly, after extended prior experience with more limited forms of participation during which leaders have reluctantly grown accustomed to tolerating dissent and opposition, opponents have accepted the notion that they may defeat but not destroy incumbents, and people have become aware of government’s effects on their lives and of their own possible effects on government. Decades, if not centuries, are normally required for people to acquire the necessary disciplines and habits.
This is essentially indistinguishable from arguments made by conservative critics of the so-called “freedom agenda” and the project to work political transformation of the Near East through regime change in Iraq. These were the same arguments that the Bush administration and its defenders dismissed as “racist” condescension when they were used to cast doubt on the prospects of the grand project in Iraq.
Gingrich was just coming into national politics in the Reagan years, and he could hardly have been unaware of Kirkpatrick’s essay or the views espoused in it, because these views were quite common on the right prior to the end of the Cold War. He could not have been under the impression that the failures of the Carter administration in foreign policy were the product of excessive chumminess with dictatorships, and so this recent babbling about the “pro-dictator” Carter is simply inventing a new history of that period and completely reversing the terms of the debate back in the late ’70s and early ’80s as modern partisan need demands. By freakish political accident and bizarre ideological fixation of its foreign policy elite, the GOP has become the party of democratization and international instability and more Democrats have settled into a slightly more realist-oriented bias against regime change, whether it is imposed from within or without. As I have noted before, when it comes to this dictatorship/democracy question today’s GOP interventionists are eerily, ironically akin to Carterites on foreign policy, which shows how far from Kirkpatrick neoconservative foreign policy arguments have traveled. Framing it simply as favoring dictatorship or democracy obscures the complexities of this question, but this is how democratists have always insisted on framing it.
What is so laughable about Gingrich’s interview is that Gingrich is held up as one of the main idea men in the GOP, and he actually has a doctorate in history, so one might think he would be somewhat embarrassed to be making such obviously stupid statements on national television, but clearly he isn’t. Viewing this clip, I am reminded that this is the person to whom Mark Sanford unfortunately claimed to defer in matters of foreign policy, and it occurred to me that the most damaging thing about Sanford’s statement is that it has lent credibility to someone whose foreign policy views as as ill-informed (or deliberately dishonest) as they are dangerous and aggressive.
Update: Regarding the ludicrous pseudo-controversy, Steve Benen asks:
Since when does the GOP find it useful to promote the idea of American weakness?
I believe the changeover occurred three months ago today. From that time on, it has become extremely useful to them. Of course, if anyone were to suggest that America is no longer as relatively predominant in global affairs as it was in 1945, he would be ridiculed by the same crowd as a “declinist” and a “post-American.” What is imperative and much more important than emphasizing U.S. weakness is manufacturing foreign threats, which Obama then supposedly “fails” to confront and overcome. Having cooked up the Venezuelan menace where no significant threat exists, Obama’s critics will then decry his “appeasement” of this menace, by which they will mean that for the most part Obama does not seem interested in hysterical alarmism in the conduct of foreign affairs.
The main problem I have with the handshake with Chavez, to the extent that I have any problem at all with it, is that it might be seen as raising the profile of a weak and strategically unimportant head of state. In reality, the handshake doesn’t matter because Venezuela doesn’t matter all that much one way or the other, and it needs us to buy its oil exports a lot more than we need them to supply it, but there is potentially a problem in engaging Chavez because it reinforces the impression that Chavez is important and needs to be engaged for the sake of broader U.S. goals in the region. The problem is not that Chavez is some regional menace who threatens real American interests, but that he is and ought to be almost entirely irrelevant to how we shape Latin America policy, but for some reason he has become a central figure in Washington’s approach to the entire continent. I am hopeful that this is why Obama laughs off the meeting with Chavez and ignores the hectoring of Daniel Ortega: because neither of these leaders matters very much at all. If in the process America’s reputation and our relations with the rest of Latin America are thereby improved, so much the better.