Ronald Reagan embodies the ideal to which conservatives aspire. Yet Reagan has transcended his status as simply a conservative giant and has become an American icon. On the campaign trail, Barack Obama made a point of praising Reagan as a transformative figure. Twenty-five years ago, however, Reagan was the conservative that liberals loved to hate—a veritable George W. Bush of his time. Today, with Reagan’s legacy secure, conservatives should revisit the Reagan era with a more critical eye. The challenge for us now is to understand how greatness can co-exist with profound flaws, as it did in so many of our Founding Fathers.
The case for Reagan’s greatness as commander-in-chief is simple: he led us to victory in the Cold War. As both candidate and president, Reagan challenged the conventional wisdom that America could not afford to strive for victory over the Soviet Union, or even that America must reconcile itself to an inevitable decline. In the 1990s, prominent scholars of international relations ruminated over the failure of their entire profession to anticipate the end of Cold War, let alone a nearly-bloodless American triumph. In contrast, Reagan told the British Parliament in June 1982 that the terminal crisis of communism may have already begun. He remarked,
In an ironic sense Karl Marx was right. We are witnessing today a great revolutionary crisis, a crisis where the demands of the economic order are conflicting directly with those of the political order. But the crisis is happening not in the free, non-Marxist West, but in the home of Marxist-Leninism, the Soviet Union.
Reagan looked forward to a gradual “march of freedom and democracy which will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history as it has left other tyrannies.” Did Reagan’s aggressive policies accelerate the fall of the Soviet Union? John Lewis Gaddis, the distinguished historian of the Cold War, writes that “internal developments were certainly more important than external inducements, although in what proportion may not be clear for decades.” Nonetheless, Reagan’s “hard line strained the Soviet system at the moment of is maximum weakness.” Finally, Reagan made the pivotal decision to trust Mikhail Gorbachev as a partner in peace, thus putting an end to US-Soviet antagonism.
The most troubling aspect of Reagan’s tenure as commander-in-chief, from the perspective of both inveterate critics and many sincere admirers, is the scandal that became known as Iran-Contra. Conservative celebrations of Reagan’s legacy tend to pass quickly over the scandal or dismiss it as a Democratic bid to criminalize legitimate differences of opinion. Unquestionably, Democrats sought to extract maximum advantage from the President’s vulnerability. Yet Reagan’s own failures as a leader made the scandal possible and probably inevitable. In contrast to the extraordinary insight that Reagan demonstrated with regard to the Soviet Union, his assessments of Nicaragua and Iran rested on a perilous measure of wishful thinking. Other factors played an important role, especially Reagan’s hands-off management style and hesitation to discipline his subordinates. But above all, Reagan was a man of ideas. The low points of Reagan’s tenure, just like the triumphs, are best understood through the prism of his ideas.
In the same address to Parliament where Reagan condemned Marxism-Leninism to the ash-heap of history, Reagan inaugurated “a crusade for freedom that will engage the faith and fortitude of the next generation.” El Salvador and Nicaragua were the twin grails of this crusade. Although Nicaragua was the proximate cause of the Iran-contra scandal, El Salvador is what fixated Reagan on Central America in the first place. In El Salvador, communist guerrillas were locked in combat with a right-wing, military-dominated junta. In a bid to win popular support, the junta held elections in March 1982. American liberals dismissed the elections as a farce, arguing that the Salvadoran armed forces’ pervasive and brutal human rights violations were the real issue. Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT) declared at a hearing in February, “You cannot talk about a democratic process, you cannot talk about anything unless you bring a halt to the violence.” Nonetheless, Salvadoran voters flooded the polls in defiance of the communsits’ threats of retaliation.
Reagan was instantly captivated. The elections provided precisely the kind of compelling political drama he cherished. Downtrodden peasants had risked their lives to oppose communism, proving American liberals wrong in the process. Although this was true, it was also true that the Salvadoran armed forces continued on with their murderous rampage even after the elections. Reagan refused to accept these uncomfortable facts, even though the CIA knew the names of the officers who supervised the death squads. Determined to provide Salvadoran forces with sufficient aid to defeat the guerrillas, Reagan battled the Democratic majority in the House, which controlled the purse strings for foreign aid. He even went so far as to deliver a prime-time address to a special joint session of Congress for the sole purpose of wringing more aid out of the Democrats. The struggle with Congress persisted until the spring of 1984, when a second round of Salvadoran elections resulted in the election of José Napoleón Duarte, an aggressive reformer, as president. Duarte dismantled the death squads and the civilian death toll plunged. Congress rewarded Duarte with hundreds of millions of dollars of military aid over the next several years. Had Reagan opened his eyes to the real situation in El Salvador, and applied direct personal pressure on the Salvadoran military leadership to improve its human rights record, he could have gotten what he wanted without provoking a long, bitter and intensely partisan conflict on Capitol Hill. However, the true danger of Reagan’s reality-resistant fixation on Central America would not become apparent until his focus shifted to Nicaragua.
The “Reagan Doctrine” was born on February 6, 1985, when the President declared in his State of the Union address, “we must not break faith with those who are risking their lives – on every continent, from Afghanistan to Nicaragua – to defy Soviet-supported aggression and secure rights which have been ours from birth.” Reagan was committed to this romantic notion of the contras as a movement of downtrodden peasants that had taken up arms for democracy and against Nicaragua’s Communist dictatorship, even though the CIA-appointed leadership of the movement comprised a small clique of veterans of Nicaragua’s notorious National Guard, the personal army of the right-wing dictator overthrown by the Communists in 1979. In March 1985, Reagan described the contras as “the moral equal of our Founding Fathers and the brave men and women of the French Resistance.” Soon thereafter, a flood of information emerged about the contras’ indiscriminate murder of civilians and other atrocities. Newsweek published one set of color slides that documented the execution of an old man – an alleged informer – who dug his own grave, lay down on his back and had his throat slashed. Tip O’Neill, the Democratic speaker of the House, recounted in his memoirs that when he raised the subject with the president, Reagan responded, “I saw that picture, and I’m told that after it was taken, the so-called victim got up and walked away.” Reagan’s stubborn support for the contras infuriated the Democrats on Capitol Hill, ensuring that every request for aid to the contras resulted in a bitter, partisan debate. In most cases, Reagan prevailed only by investing a tremendous amount of his time and energy to win over just enough moderate Democrats to keep some aid flowing. But Reagan didn’t always win; and one of those losses set off the chain events that generated the contra half of the Iran-Contra scandal.
What transformed the contra debate from an ugly controversy into a potential scandal was a congressional amendment that briefly outlawed all aid to the contras from late 1984 through mid-1985. During that time, Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North of the National Security Council (NSC) supervised an off-the-books covert operation to support the contras. North’s superiors at the NSC knew about the operation, but Reagan insisted after the scandal broke that he never did. What Reagan knew and when he knew is likely to remain a matter of speculation. Yet if one takes Reagan at his word, it would seem that he went to considerable lengths to prevent himself from knowing what his own staff was doing. The purpose of this self-imposed ignorance was to aid the freedom fighters whose shortcomings the President also ignored. In the hands of more competent subordinates, this artifice might have been viable. Yet Reagan also allowed himself a significant measure of wishful thinking with regard to the judgment and competence of his staff. To the President’s chagrin, he trusted the same few individuals to initiate a secret dialogue with Iran to explore the possibility of bringing home American hostages.
The Democratic Party won the 1986 elections decisively, taking control of the Senate and increasing their majority in the House. The day before the election, a small Lebanese newspaper reported that the Reagan administration had traded arms for hostages, sending weapons to Iran in exchange for the release of U.S. citizens held in Lebanon. The story quickly became headline news, since Reagan had long insisted that the United States would make no concessions to terrorists. On November 13, the President addressed the nation live from the Oval Office, saying, “The charge has been made that the United States has shipped weapons to Iran as ransom payment for the release of American hostages in Lebanon, that the United States undercut its allies and secretly violated American policy against trafficking with terrorists. Those charges are utterly false.” Four months later, the President addressed the nation live from the Oval Office once again, this time to retract his denial. Reagan explained, “A few months ago[,] I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.” Reagan’s choice of words remains a puzzle. If the facts and evidence were so clear, how could Reagan’s heart and intentions tell him otherwise? Why didn’t the advisers responsible for trading arms to Iran make it clear to Reagan what he was authorizing? In his address, Reagan suggested that his heart had gotten the better of his head. He observed, “I let my personal concern for the hostages spill over into the geopolitical strategy of reaching out to Iran.” Even though the “facts and evidence” made clear that Tehran was not interested in anything more than trading hostages for arms, Reagan persuaded himself otherwise, comparing the secret dialogue with Iran to Nixon and Kissinger’s pathbreaking mission to China. As in the cases of El Salvador and Nicaragua, Reagan held fast to his vision at the cost of considerable damage to both his agenda and the national interest. Blinding oneself to unpleasant facts is all too human, yet Reagan filtered out an extraordinary amount of data by any standard. The president claimed not to know whether any of the proceeds from the sale of arms to Iran were diverted illegally to the contras, although it later became clear that North had planned just such a diversion (with limited success). This was the strange connection that tied together the Central American and Middle Eastern threads of the NSC’s activities into a single scandal known as Iran-contra.
One can build a strong case that Reagan’s triumphs far outweighed his failures. Yet Reagan’s failures matter precisely because his triumphs have ensured that he will remain a source of inspiration. If conservatives fall prey to romanticized notions of Reagan’s greatness, they may condemn themselves to imitating Reagan rather than learning from him. After the Republicans’ decisive losses at the polls in both 2006 and 2008, this is certainly a moment for learning rather than imitation. However, the lessons to be drawn from Reagan’s legacy as a statesman may be far from self-evident. From a realist perspective, Reagan’s adventures in Central America may serve as a potent reminder of how democratic idealism can give way to rigid ideological thinking. A neo-conservative might respond that Reagan’s underlying strategy of promoting democracy in order to defeat Communism in Central America was ultimately successful, once adjustments were made.
The incompetent execution of that strategy says little, however, about its intrinsic merit. With regard to Iran, neo-conservatives might warn that aggressive engagement of a hostile regime may rapidly degenerate into bargaining with terrorists. Or was that degeneration the result of incompetent execution rather than a flawed strategy? In practice, hindsight is never 20/20. Historians still debate whether the outcome of the war in Vietnam was the result of a flawed strategy or incompetent execution. That same debate is ongoing with regard to Iraq. Revisiting Reagan’s legacy will not resolve such dilemmas. But it will prevent us from imagining that doing as Reagan did is always the best advice.
-David Adesnik is a policy analyst focusing on defense issues. He was on the McCain-Palin 2008 foreign policy staff, and blogs at Conventional Folly.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Andrew Stiles
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Kathlyn Ehl