THE BLOG
11/14/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Would Ronald Reagan's Jeane Kirkpatrick Have Voted for Barack Obama?

Speaking for anyone from the grave carries risks -- especially if one portends to represent the views of the late Jeane Kirkpatrick, Ronald Reagan's "combative" representative to the United Nations. Still, Jeane Kirkpatrick was a writer, a professor, and an intellectual of the first magnitude. She would have preferred, I believe, that her views extend beyond her mortal life and be put forth, as best once can surmise (and I knew them as well as anyone) even at the risk of getting them wrong.

Her core belief was that words matter, and that competence and integrity crosses party lines. She believed in the role of international law, although with the caveat that America should never shy away from its own views, even while showing a decent respect for the opinion of mankind. When in 2003 President George W. Bush sent her as his chief envoy to the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva (I was there with her), she balked at his instructions to advance the doctrine of preemptive self-defense as justification for the war. "I won't sell it; it won't sell", she said of the new theory which would have legitimated the use of force way beyond anything the UN Charter contemplated. Instead, she chose to defend the US entry into the Iraq war on grounds that it was really not a new war at all, but merely a continuation of the first Iraq war, which had resulted in a UN negotiated ceasefire with Saddam Hussein, which he repeatedly breeched. Did that make a difference in garnering diplomatic support for the war? Most assuredly. Without the baggage of "preemptive war" as the new international norm the US was able to narrowly avoid condemnation by the Arab League and others which would have dealt an enormous diplomatic blow to U.S. efforts at the outset of the war.

When, early in her tenure at the UN post, Reagan's State Department instructed Jeane Kirkpatrick to vote to condemn Israel for "aggression" in its 1981 bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak, she refused. "Aggression", she said, has serious legal consequences and should never be used without appreciation of provocation.

Today, she would have seen the proclivity to careless use of words rear its head once again. On the first significant foreign policy issue to come before the two candidates -- Russia's intrusion into Georgia -- Obama would have gotten high marks, and McCain a low grade. That is because she knew that the H-word in the diplomatic lexicon -- "aggression" -- should only be used sparingly. McCain used that word twice in his acceptance of the presidential nomination to describe Russia's entry into Georgia, and has since repeatedly made that charge. Obama, by contrast, has taken a much more nuanced approach, mindful of the reality of a Russia that we need to deal with on other important issues, and the complexities presented by diverse claims to the two breakaway provinces even though their autonomous status has been favored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

She would have been torn by this election. Senator McCain was an old dear friend, as well as political ally, and she would have sided with him early on. But, more than anything else, his choice of Sarah Palin as running mate would have troubled her. After all, above all else Kirkpatrick valued thoughtfulness, intellect, and courage. Palin's qualities as a political woman would have attracted her in the beginning, but in the end she would have found that Sarah Palin is no Ronald Reagan in the rough. Ronald Reagan may not have been an intellectual, but he valued intellect. He served two full terms as governor of California, America's most populous state. Caution was his hallmark, including his choice of the words "evil empire" to characterize, when appropriate, the Soviet Union.

Of course, there is much about Obama that would have rankled her: his rise to power in Chicago; his absentee style in the Illinois Capitol; his choice of friends and gurus; his thin to bare record of achievements; and, above all, his decision to not support the surge in Iraq. The latter would have been seen as lacking in presidential judgment, perhaps courage. Yet, on balance, she would have attributed to his candidacy a presumption of measured thoughtfulness, which if coupled with the courage of one's convictions, is the hallmark of any great president.

In her posthumously published book, Making War to Keep Peace, she derisively characterized the Bush administration's foreign policy stance as one of "swagger". She could not have helped but notice elements of that in McCain's proclivity to the intemperate. Style influences policy. By contrast, as we had written in a piece co-authored for a Council on Foreign Relations publication, the Reagan Doctrine reflected Reagan's truly conservative nature. "Although ready to express solidarity with the struggle for democracy, [the Reagan Doctrine] was never ready to commit US force to implement it." Rather, the use of force was viewed as a last resort if the United States or an ally is thought to be under an attack or an imminent attack that cannot be repelled by other means.

As an educator and professor devoted to the classroom, Jeane Kirkpatrick taught that intellect and the courage to match it were the essential ingredients of inspired leadership. I believe -- or perhaps I should say that I would like to believe -- that if alive today she would have come to the difficult decision that the time has come to pass the torch to another generation, to Barack Obama, with all the uncertainties that it entails.

Allan Gerson, former Counsel to Ambassador Kirkpatrick, practices international law in Washington, D.C.