"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
The death last week of Jeane Kirkpatrick — ambassador to the United Nations during Ronald Reagan’s first term and the highest-ranking neoconservative in his administration — coincided with President Bush’s rejection of the Baker-Hamilton Commission report on Iraq and his subsequent consultations with neoconservatives to entrench his belief in “victory.” But rather than providing a sobering but inspirational backdrop for Bush’s heroic stand against the foreign-policy establishment, Kirkpatrick’s passing illuminates the conflicting legacies of the ideological movement of which she was once an icon and the confusion that surrounds a president who demands certitudes.
In its obituary, the New York Times buried a surprising scoop about her last act of diplomacy, when she was sent by President Bush on a secret mission to Geneva in March 2003 to justify the invasion of Iraq to Arab foreign ministers. “The marching orders we received were to argue that preemptive war is legitimate,” Alan Gerson, her former general counsel, recalled. “She said: ‘No one will buy it. If that’s the position, count me out.’” Instead, she argued that Saddam Hussein was in violation of United Nations resolutions. Her hitherto unknown rejection of Bush’s unilateralism and extolling of international order apparently was her final commentary on neoconservatism.
“A neoconservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality,” neoconservative godfather Irving Kristol remarked in a famously cynical line. At the time of her death, Kirkpatrick was a neoconservative mugged by reality and a shadow of her former ferocious self. Once the warrior queen of neoconservatism, she ended as an unexplained skeptic, less the Valkyrie than the world-weary doubter, akin to the disillusioned Francis Fukuyama but without the tears of an apologetic manifesto. She checked out silently, leaving no equivalent of a political testament.
Norman Podhoretz, who had been her editor at Commentary, disclosed near the end of an obituary he published in the Weekly Standard that she had grown disenchanted. “She had serious reservations about the prudence of the Bush Doctrine, which she evidently saw neither as an analogue of the Truman Doctrine nor as a revival of the Reaganite spirit in foreign policy,” he wrote. “Even so, she was clearly reluctant to join in the clamor against it, which for all practical purposes meant relegating herself to the sidelines.” But Podhoretz declined to reveal more details of her disapproval. Abruptly, he assumed the pose of a commissar, praising her “brilliant service on the ideological front” and awarded her “laurels” for what she “earned in World War III,” though “what I persist in calling World War IV” failed to “tempt her back into battle.” Comrade Podhoretz’s oblique admission of her absence “on the ideological front” and the posthumous anecdote in the Times obituary are the runes of her alienation.
Jeane Kirkpatrick first came to public attention when her article “Dictatorships and Double Standards” was published in Commentary in November 1979. The Georgetown University professor’s slashing attack on the Carter administration, appearing just as the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and the Iranian hostage crisis began, became one of the principal theoretical documents of neoconservatism and platforms for the Reagan campaign. In this seminal piece, which immediately vaulted her to prominence, Kirkpatrick argued that Carter’s adherence to human rights undermined traditional authoritarian regimes allied with the United States in the Cold War. “Authoritarian” states, she posited, could slowly change into democratic ones, unlike “totalitarian” ones. “The history of this century provides no grounds for expecting that radical totalitarian regimes will transform themselves,” she wrote.
History has not been kind to most of her ideas. The opening sentence of her essay betrays it as a howling anachronism. “The failure of the Carter administration’s foreign policy is now clear to everyone,” Kirkpatrick began. But where was she going? Her devastating punch line was that Carter’s “crowning achievement has been to lay the groundwork for a transfer of the Panama Canal from the United States to a swaggering Latin dictator of Castroite bent.” It may be hard to remember that Carter’s Panama Canal Treaty was then a red-hot right-wing cause, especially seized upon by Reagan as a surrender of America’s Manifest Destiny, and that the supposed “Latin dictator” is long gone.
Kirkpatrick’s central idea that communism was implacably resistant to change was, of course, belied by the collapse of the Soviet Union. And Carter’s advancement of human rights is generally acknowledged as a contributing factor in its downfall. Kirkpatrick’s awestruck description of gathering Soviet strength, universally shared on the right, was a fundamental misreading of the symptoms of a rapidly decaying system entering its terminal crisis. But in its time her view about the perpetual survival of communism was accepted as an eternal verity.
It may also be little recalled that alongside her mocking of human rights and “moralism” as “continuous self-abasement,” Kirkpatrick ridiculed Carter for not invading Iran, even before the hostage taking. “Where once upon a time an American President might have sent Marines to assure the protection of American strategic interests, there is no room for force in this world of progress and self-determination,” she wrote.
Kirkpatrick’s record in office was as callous as her rhetoric was caustic. The barbarity of Reagan’s policies in Latin America is largely forgotten, while the sordid assault on constitutional government in the Iran-contra scandal that flowed from it is rarely discussed. Kirkpatrick was obsessively fixed on Central America as a decisive cockpit of the Cold War and helped direct the administration’s focus there. In the name of ideological struggle, she rallied support for authoritarian juntas throughout the Western Hemisphere.
On Dec. 2, 1980, a month after Reagan’s election, four Roman Catholic Maryknoll nuns, dedicated to assisting peasants in El Salvador, then ruled by a junta that had provoked a guerrilla insurgency, were murdered; independent investigations and a trial later proved that Salvadoran National Guardsmen killed them on orders from above. Two weeks after these targeted assassinations, Kirkpatrick, just named to the U.N. post, leapt to the defense of the junta. “I don’t think the government of El Salvador was responsible,” she declared. “The nuns were not just nuns; the nuns were political activists.”
Kirkpatrick was an ardent protector of the El Salvador junta, among other juntas from Guatemala (where the regime waged a genocidal war against Indian peasants) to Honduras, and from Chile to Argentina. (After the National Guard massacred more than 900 men, women and children in the Salvadoran village of El Mozote on Dec. 11, 1981, the Reagan administration sent Kirkpatrick’s closest neoconservative ally within the administration, Elliott Abrams, then assistant secretary of state for human rights, before a Senate committee to testify that the reports of slaughter at El Mozote, later proved conclusively, “were not credible.” (After pleading guilty to lying to Congress in the Iran-contra scandal, Abrams was pardoned; he is currently deputy national security advisor in charge of Middle East affairs.)
In August 1981, Kirkpatrick flew to Chile to meet with Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who had overthrown the democracy there eight years earlier. “Most pleasant,” said Kirkpatrick about their conversation. She announced that the Reagan administration’s intention was to “normalize completely its relations with Chile,” including reinstating arms sales. Two days after her visit, Pinochet used Kirkpatrick’s bestowal of legitimacy to expel the chairman of the Chilean Human Rights Commission and other prominent opposition leaders. One month later, Amnesty International issued a report noting that “torture still appears to be a systematic part of official policy.”
Kirkpatrick considered herself a special friend of the Argentine junta. On April 2, 1982, she attended a dinner at the Argentine Embassy in Washington. While she was there, the regime launched an invasion of the British-governed Falkland Islands off the Argentine coast. The Argentines took Kirkpatrick’s presence as evidence of tacit official approval. The Falklands war that followed between an authoritarian regime and a democracy, between countries led by a military strongman and a conservative prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, to whom Kirkpatrick was occasionally compared, had not been foreshadowed in Kirkpatrick’s theories. Nor did she imagine the overthrow of the Argentine junta when it lost the war.
Another war between two authoritarian regimes required the United States to choose sides. In the Iran-Iraq war, Kirkpatrick played a key part in preventing international condemnation of Saddam Hussein’s use of weapons of mass destruction. By 1983, Iraq was reeling from Iran’s human wave attacks and in danger of losing, prompting a U.S. tilt. In December, President Reagan sent a special envoy, Donald Rumsfeld, to meet with Saddam, a dictator with whom it was decided we could do business. Loans and trade deals were soon arranged. And Iraq unleashed chemical-weapons attacks against Iranian troops, contrary to international law. After both the State Department and the United Nations reported that Iraq was using WMD, Iran submitted a resolution demanding U.N. condemnation of Iraq’s violations. But U.S. ambassador Kirkpatrick lobbied against its approval, urging “restraint” in denouncing Iraqi chemical warfare. Her action succeeded in thwarting any specific censure of Iraq, leading on March 30, 1984, to a U.N. Security Council statement against the use of WMD only in general terms. Saddam Hussein was spared.
By this time, the campaign of the right to install Kirkpatrick as national security advisor had failed. Her support within came from CIA director William J. Casey and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, but Secretary of State George Shultz viewed her temperament as “not well suited to the job,” and she reached her ceiling.
From the beginning of the Reagan administration she had championed the contras as a force to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. She construed this battle as the flashpoint of the Reagan Doctrine that justified financing anti-communist guerrilla movements from Afghanistan to Central America. (Her theories did not anticipate that the funding of the mujahedin in Afghanistan would help foster the Taliban and al-Qaida.) In March 1981, she participated in the White House meeting that authorized the $19 million in covert funding that created the contras. Congress, however, passed legislation forbidding such subsidies. The Iran-contra scandal began in the illegal effort by elements of the Reagan administration to evade the ban by tapping foreign sources of money. Eventually, missiles were sold to Iran in order to finance the contra war. In June 1984, Kirkpatrick attended the secret meeting where Casey argued for going around the law. “It is an impeachable offense,” Shultz warned. But Kirkpatrick, undeterred, argued, “We should make the maximum effort to find the money.” Her good luck was not to be appointed to any position in Reagan’s second term; if she had been, she would undoubtedly have been found in the thick of the scandal.
At the 1984 Republican Convention she appeared as the keynote speaker, delivering a speech in which she railed against “the San Francisco Democrats” for “always blaming America first.” Using her identification as a nominal Democrat, her emblem as a neoconservative, she lent credence to the atavistic Cold War fear of homosexual subversion. Thus her most memorable performance was less as foreign policy mandarin than as J. Edgar Hoover in drag.
Despite the rapturous reception for her speech, it was her swan song. Conservative columnists lamented her leaving. George Will wrote, “She unites thought and action, theory and practice, better than anyone in government in this generation” and called her “the one indispensable person in government.” William Safire extolled her as “the only woman who could today be considered as a serious possibility for President of the United States.” But she received no further appointments and returned to academic life. And after the Iran-contra scandal, Reagan purged his administration of ideologues and swiftly entered negotiations with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to end the Cold War, the happy ending that Kirkpatrick had argued was an impossibility, the ultimate refutation. In 1987, spurred by her pundit fans and anxious about the dangers of Vice President George H.W. Bush’s moderate tendencies, she considering running for the Republican nomination for president, but upon receiving no support within the party, she abandoned the quixotic campaign.
Without communism, neoconservatism was an ideology lacking a political context. A peculiar variant of anti-communism, neoconservatism had its origins as a strain of Trotskyism; it was composed of cadres imbued with a Leninist mentality, it had few adherents who had participated in Democratic electoral politics (Kirkpatrick was a glaring exception), and it was dependent on the patronage of a Republican White House for its influence.
In light of the fall of communism, Kirkpatrick’s seamless dialectics were proved wrong in nearly every important respect. Her principles appeared as instruments of expedience, her strategies as polemics, and supposed evidence as sheer assertions. More than her substance, her style remained. Neoconservatives after Kirkpatrick carried on her stridency, denunciatory bullying, inflation and conflation of putative threats, fear-mongering and abuse of history, especially of the Munich analogy in which Democrats are accused of being appeasers and neoconservatives posture as contemporary Churchillians. During their post-Reagan, post-communism wilderness years, the neoconservatives tried to reorganize themselves as a movement initially in opposition to the elder Bush’s foreign policy realism and then against Clinton’s pragmatic internationalism. They considered Clinton’s emphasis on nation building, the social problems of globalization and the threat of terrorism hopelessly soft. All along they sought a new enemy on the scale of communism that would recommend their own indispensable relevance to a Republican president.
Under Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld brought them back into power, and after the jolt of Sept. 11, fixated on an invasion of Iraq, they seemed to surpass their former glory. But the post-communist version of neoconservatism was Kirkpatrickism turned on its head. Neoconservative theorists equated Saddam with totalitarians past and bundled him up with al-Qaida terrorism, cast as totalitarian as well, a rhetorical approach that evoked but twisted Kirkpatrick’s earlier work. Neoconservatism had become more an attitude than a policy, much less a doctrine. Quietly, the original godmother of neoconservatism dissented.
In their crusade to remake the Middle East in the American image, the neoconservatives mangled beyond recognition Kirkpatrick’s ideas, once the holy writ of Reaganism, and embraced the “moralism” she deplored. While her theories did not stand the test of time as applied to communism, they provide a stinging if unintended critique of latter-day neoconservatism.
In her 1979 essay, she cautioned against simplistic thinking about transforming long-settled authoritarian regimes into democracies. “Although most governments in the world are, as they always have been, autocracies of one kind or another, no idea holds greater sway in the mind of educated Americans than the belief that it is possible to democratize governments, anytime, anywhere, under any circumstances,” she wrote. “This notion is belied by an enormous body of evidence based on the experience of dozens of countries which have attempted with more or less (usually less) success to move from autocratic to democratic government.”
Even more pointedly, she predicted the chaos that could envelop a country long ruled by a dictator upon his overthrow. Her description prophesies almost precisely the blunders of the Bush occupation of Iraq and reveals the omniscience of the neoconservatives as mere naiveté. “The fabric of authority unravels quickly when the power and status of the man at the top are undermined or eliminated,” she wrote. “The longer the autocrat has held power, and the more pervasive his personal influence, the more dependent a nation’s institutions will be on him. Without him, the organized life of the society will collapse, like an arch from which the keystone has been removed … The speed with which armies collapse, bureaucracies abdicate, and social structures dissolve once the autocrat is removed frequently surprises American policymakers and journalists accustomed to public institutions based on universalistic norms rather than particularistic relations.”
This passage reads like a recent report on the blind arrogance of the neoconservatives and errors of the Coalition Provisional Authority. But the neoconservatives did not bother to reread her yellowing article, and her qualms gave them no pause as they distorted her arguments and plunged headlong toward Baghdad. In the final irony, it turns out that the regime that cannot change is Bush’s.
Sidney Blumenthal, a former assistant and senior advisor to President Clinton, writes a column for Salon and the Guardian of London. His new book is titled "How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime." He is a senior fellow at the New York University Center on Law and Security.More Sidney Blumenthal.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)