Now that Ernest Lefever is no longer with us, in a political sense, now that he has withdrawn as the president's nominee for the State Department's human rights post, now that all that has happened, maybe the time has come to say something in his behalf: He was right.
He was not right, of course, in aligning himself so closely with the Nestle Corp., which insists on selling baby formula to mothers in the Third World who need it like the proverbial hole in the head. And he was not right in saying, as his brothers reported it, that blacks are genetically inferior to whites. There was, in fact, much that Lefever was wrong about and not the least of it was the way he handled himself before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
But in a much larger sense, he was right in saying that the political left has been harder on right-wing authoritarian regimes than it has been on left-wing regimes, including that most notorious of all leftwing regimes, the Soviet Union itself. This was the position of Lefever's patron in the State Department, U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, who set out this argument in a by-now famous article in Commentary magazine.
But you do not need to be a Jeane Kirkpatrick to see that there is truth to this argument. American liberals have long had a double standard by which to judge other nations. North Vietnam, for instance, is simply not talked about the same way that Argentina, and now Chile, is. There are some good reasons for this, not the least of them being that North Vietnam is not Argentina or Chile. But none is a blooming, liberal democracy where dissent is cherished.
The same could be said for Cuba. You need only recall the recent boat migration and the way those people were handled by Cuban authorities to see that Cuba treats her enemies either no better or only slightly better than do some other nations. The same is true, in spades, for such countries as Cambodia and China and the Soviet Union.At one time or another, all of these nations have been described in flattering terms by American liberals and even when these countries strayed from the true path, what you heard from the liberal community was excuses and the cliche that you need to break some eggs in order to make an omelette. A person, though, is not an egg.
The Lefever episode proves that this sort of emotional disregard for the facts, this need to explain and rationalize and excuse, is not limited to the political left. It took Lefever to show that the political right is afflicted with the same willingness to overlook the facts in an almost emotional attempt to see the best in right-wing regimes and the worst in leftwing ones.
In the Lefever episode, it took the course of an attempt to discredit Jacobo Timerman, the exiled Argentine newspaper editor who was jailed, tortured, and then kept under house arrest for 30 months before finally being kicked out of his own country. Lefever himself said little about Timerman, but Lefever's allies went after the Argentine exile with a vengence.To them, what seemed to matter was Timerman's politics or his former associates and not the fact that he was tortured.
With other conservatives, the attempt to distinguish between a thug regime of the left and the thug regime of the right, led to the creation of two distinct categories of thugs -- totalitarian thugs and authoritarian thugs. Authoritarian thugs were not as bad as totalitarian thugs because they were our allies. This has to be a distinction without a difference to those people who are being tortured.
In the end, both the political right and the politicall left respond to the same stimuli: each other. If the left adopts a regime, the right will abhor it and if the right adopts one, the left will abhor it. It was this sort of immature, your-father-is-one-too sort of thinking that led the Reagan administration in the end to stick with Lefever himself. It was not that the president so admired him and it was not the intellectual brilliance of Lefever's position. It was simply that Lefever's enemies were the president's enemies: liberals.
So in a way Ernest Lefever is a walking, breathing example of judging either a man or a country by the enemies he or it keeps. if his case proves anything, it is that it pays to examine both countries and people on their own merits.
When it comes to individuals, what matters is who they are, not the enemies they have. Lefever, for one, had, for conservatives, the right enemies. But he was the wrong man.