What Would Reagan Do? Lessons from the Gipper

This is the summer of our discontent. The American public is finally asking hard questions about President Bush’s stewardship of the Iraq war. Although voters share Bush’s vision of a democratic Iraq and agree with his warning that failure would be devastating, they are reexamining whether the president’s “stay the course” philosophy remains practical more than two years after the fall of Baghdad. Continuing violence against American soldiers and an alarming lack of progress in the political sphere have forced voters to grope for an alternative strategy. Perhaps one can be found in the presidential record of Bush’s political model, Ronald Reagan.

In his second inaugural, Bush defended the Iraqi occupation as part of his policy to “support the growth of democratic movements . . . with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” Bush’s bold decision to commit American arms to American ideals is a continuation of Reagan’s overall Cold War strategy. In his famous 1982 speech at Westminster, Reagan argued that his aggressive stand against the Soviet Union was part of a “global campaign of freedom” that would ultimately leave communism on the “ash heap of history.”

President Bush interprets his heavy-handed Iraq policy as a sequel to his predecessor’s inspiring legacy. Through steely resolve and armed force, Bush believes he can spread freedom to Iraq and the entire Arab world — much like Reagan did in Eastern Europe.

Also, much like Reagan, Bush possesses unflinching determination. Senate Armed Services Chairman John Warner has praised Bush’s “steady and unflinching resolve” in the wake of a recent meltdown in public support. According to Gallup, the percentage of Americans who say Iraq was “not worth going to war over” has climbed to a record high of 57 percent, and approval for Bush’s handling of Iraq has plummeted to a record low of 40 percent. Between September 2004 and June 2005, the percentage of Americans favoring an Iraqi withdrawal surged from 39 percent to 59 percent — a twenty-point jump in nine months! And yet in a nationally televised speech on June 28, 2005, the president reaffirmed that “America will not leave before the job is done.”

Just in case the public’s verdict on Iraq is correct, Bush may want to study an additional Reagan trait — his remarkable flexibility in pursuit of his goals. Reagan was a hard-headed ideologue who cared passionately about freedom, but he never married himself to his policies. If something didn’t work, he ditched it. And just as importantly, Reagan understood that even as a leader’s goal remains constant, his tactics must change with events. If a leader is too inflexible, he increases the risk of failure.

Reagan’s management of the Soviet Union is a perfect example of his willingness to change tactics in pursuit of a worthy goal. During his first term, Reagan initiated the largest peacetime military buildup in American history. He abandoned détente-era rhetoric and blatantly called the USSR an “evil empire.” He became the first president since Herbert Hoover to refuse to meet with his Soviet counterpart. And yet — to the shock of everyone — Reagan’s bluster and weaponry withered away in his second term. He reduced military expenditures. He authorized the destruction of an entire class of nuclear missiles. He held a record five summits with the Soviet president in a three-year period. By adopting a more peaceful stand, Reagan was not bending to the Soviet Union’s will. He was actually breaking that will.

Why did Reagan change course? Because of the rise of Gorbachev. Unlike most establishment luminaries, Reagan understood that Gorbachev’s presence fundamentally changed the Cold War paradigm. With Gorbachev at the helm, belligerence and confrontation would be counterproductive. A peaceful, constructive approach would be more likely to achieve his goals.

Which is exactly what happened. Not surprisingly, Reagan’s tactical shift was controversial among conservatives at the time. William F. Buckley, Jesse Helms, and Pat Robertson were among the right-wing critics who scolded Reagan for going “soft” on the “Evil Empire.” But Reagan wasn’t soft. He was smart.

In contrast to Reagan’s strategic flexibility, Bush has confined himself to a narrow approach in Iraq, and he has stuck to it with remarkable consistency. It is a muddled, “compromise” approach that has an unfortunate habit of being wrong at every stage of the war. In the spring of 2003, the Bush administration launched an “occupation on the cheap,” which is where it stands today. Early on, it was apparent to most neutral observers that American forces were underequipped, undermanned, and undertrained for the task of occupying a major nation. And yet Bush refused to send more troops to Iraq to regain control of the country. Not surprisingly, an insurgency emerged to challenge our over-stretched soldiers. The insurgents grew increasingly bold and deadly in late 2003 and 2004. They continue to be a grave threat to our mission. Looking back, it’s a shame Bush didn’t use more troops to strangle the insurgency in its crib.

But that opportunity has unfortunately passed. Going forward — into 2006 and beyond — the president will need to change tactics again (although he probably won’t). It seems increasingly clear that Bush will need to set a deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. In fact, this may be the only way to salvage the mission politically.

The reason is that events have changed — again. Much like Gorbachev’s ascendancy changed the Cold War paradigm, the Iraqi election in January 2005 fundamentally redrew the Mideast landscape. Eight million brave Iraqis went to the polls and took responsibility for their country’s future. It could have been (and should have been) the greatest leap for freedom since the fall of communism.

And yet, the Bush administration — in its obsessive consistency — has not changed policy. They refuse to discuss a timetable for withdrawal — even though that’s what most Iraqis (and most Americans) want to hear. Two years after the fall of Baghdad, Iraqis genuinely want to take control of their country — and in a democratic way. The insurgency is strong enough to kill two or three Americans a day (with no end in sight), but it’s not strong enough to overcome the will of a people fighting for its future.

In the wake of the election, Iraq’s interior minister Falah al-Naquib said he expected coalition forces to leave his country within 18 months. “We are building our forces and I think we will need 18 months,” he predicted. “I think we will be able to depend on ourselves, if everything goes in the right direction.” And yet Bush reaffirmed in June 2005, “There are not going to be any timetables.”

Thus does Bush end up playing the pessimist to his own policies, suggesting the insurgency is too strong and Iraq’s democracy too weak to justify a withdrawal. He claims that a timetable will favor insurgents who will wait out the coalition and topple the Iraqi government when the coast is clear. This passes for conventional wisdom in Washington. But is it true? Couldn’t a deadline for American withdrawal light a fire under our allies and convince them to get their act together? Given human nature, this seems like a good bet.

Furthermore, it could be argued that Bush’s silence on withdrawal is crippling the confidence of the Iraqi people and emboldening the insurgents. Consider that between February and May 2005 the number of insurgent attacks went from 40 per day to 70 per day. More than 300 American soldiers were killed and more than 1,900 were wounded. The Iraqi interior minister’s recommendation — an American withdrawal within 18 months — looks prescient. His plan could substantially increase the prospects for democracy and radically undermine the insurgency. On the other hand, “staying the course” could turn the Iraqi people against us and get a lot of Americans killed in the process.

When it comes to policy choices, conservatives like to ask, “What would Reagan do?” No one can reasonably say what Reagan would do in Iraq. But if Reagan’s successful management of the Cold War is any indication, it’s safe to conclude he would have taken a more thoughtful and flexible approach to the myriad problems we’ve encountered in Iraq. It’s even conceivable that the hawkish Reagan would favor an American withdrawal — under the reasonable assumption that a carefully planned withdrawal would bring him closer to his twin goals of peace and democracy.

In ending the Cold War, the notoriously ideological Reagan took a non-ideological approach. The Gipper prized results, not process. This is a good lesson for any leader — and it seems especially appropriate for Bush’s management in Iraq.

Todd J. Weiner works at Luntz Research Companies, a political communications firm in Alexandria, Virginia.

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