Think Again: Ronald Reagan

The Gipper wasn't the warhound his conservative followers would have you think.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

"Ronald Reagan Was the Ultimate Hawk."

“Ronald Reagan Was the Ultimate Hawk.”

Not so much. These days, virtually every time someone on the American right bashes President Barack Obama for kowtowing to dictators or failing to shout that we’re at war, they light a votive candle to Ronald Reagan. Former presidential candidate John McCain has called his own foreign-policy views “a 21st-century policy interpretation of the Reagan Doctrine.” His running mate Sarah Palin invokes the Gipper so frequently that some now speculate that she might launch her 2012 presidential bid in his hometown. As Dick Cheney put it a few years back, speaking for his fellow conservatives, “We are all Reaganites now.”

No, actually, you’re not. Today’s conservatives have conjured a mythic Reagan who never compromised with America’s enemies and never shrank from a fight. But the real Reagan did both those things, often. In fact, they were a big part of his success.

Sure, Reagan spent boatloads — some $2.8 trillion all told — on the military. And yes, he funneled money and guns to anti-communist rebels like the Nicaraguan Contras and Afghan mujahideen, while lecturing Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down that wall. But on the ultimate test of hawkdom — the willingness to send U.S. troops into harm’s way — Reagan was no bird of prey. He launched exactly one land war, against Grenada, whose army totaled 600 men. It lasted two days. And his only air war — the 1986 bombing of Libya — was even briefer. Compare that with George H.W. Bush, who launched two midsized ground operations, in Panama (1989) and Somalia (1992), and one large war in the Persian Gulf (1991). Or with Bill Clinton, who launched three air campaigns — in Bosnia (1995), Iraq (1998), and Kosovo (1999) — each of which dwarfed Reagan’s Libya bombing in duration and intensity. Do I even need to mention George W. Bush?

In fact, Reagan was terrified of war. He took office eager to vanquish Nicaragua’s Sandinista government and its rebel allies in El Salvador, both of which were backed by Cuba and the Soviet Union. But at an early meeting, when Secretary of State Alexander Haig suggested that achieving this goal might require bombing Cuba, the suggestion “scared the shit out of Ronald Reagan,” according to White House aide Michael Deaver. Haig was marginalized, then resigned, and Reagan never seriously considered sending U.S. troops south of the border, despite demands from conservative intellectuals like Norman Podhoretz and William F. Buckley. “Those sons of bitches won’t be happy until we have 25,000 troops in Managua,” Reagan told chief of staff Kenneth Duberstein near the end of his presidency, “and I’m not going to do it.”

Nicaragua and El Salvador weren’t the only places where Reagan proved squeamish about using military force. In February 1988, federal courts in Florida indicted Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega for drug smuggling. With the U.S. media in a frenzy over drug addiction and Noriega virtually imprisoning Panama’s elected president, Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams — backed by his boss, George Shultz — began pushing for a U.S. invasion. Reagan refused and instead tried to convince Noriega to relinquish power in return for having the charges dropped. When the deal fell through, Abrams redoubled his push for war. Reagan, however, adamantly rejected any action that would require him to “start counting up the bodies.” It was left to his supposedly “wimpy” successor, George H.W. Bush, to depose Noriega with 27,000 U.S. troops.

“Reagan Banished the Vietnam Syndrome.”

Yes, but not how you think. Reagan’s political genius lay in recognizing that what Americans wanted was a president who exorcised the ghost of the Vietnam War without fighting another Vietnam. Although Americans enjoyed Reagan’s thunderous denunciations of Central American communism, 75 percent of them, according to a 1985 Louis Harris survey, opposed invading Nicaragua. A 1983 ABC poll found that Americans opposed sending troops to El Salvador by almost 6-to-1, even if that meant letting the communists win.

So Reagan created Potemkin Vietnams. His biographer Lou Cannon calls him “shameless” in using Grenada to revive America’s Vietnam-wounded pride. The war resulted in more medals per soldier than any military operation in U.S. history. When he bombed Libya in 1986, Reagan goosed American nationalism again, declaring, “Every nickel-and-dime dictator the world over knows that if he tangles with the United States of America, he will pay a price.”

That last phrase was the key. America’s enemies would pay the price, not the American people. Americans loved Reagan’s foreign policy for the same reason they loved the 1985 blockbuster Rambo, in which the muscle-bound hero returns to Vietnam, kicks some communist butt, and no Americans die. Reagan’s liberal critics often accused him of reviving the chest-thumping spirit that had led to Vietnam. But they were wrong. For Reagan, chest-thumping was in large measure a substitute for a new Vietnam, a way of accommodating the restraints on U.S. power while still boosting American morale.

“Reagan Frightened the Soviet Union into Submission.”

Hardly. Reagan’s role in winning the Cold War lies at the core of the American right’s mythology. The legend goes like this: Reagan came into office, dramatically hiked defense spending, unveiled the Strategic Defense Initiative (his “Star Wars” missile shield), and aided anti-communist rebels in the Third World. Unable to keep pace, the Kremlin chose Gorbachev, who threw in the towel.

The problem with this story is that Reagan began abandoning his hard-line anti-Soviet stance in late 1983, 18 months before Gorbachev took power. One reason was domestic politics. Today, commentators tend to believe that Reagan’s hawkish reputation was always a political asset. But in 1983, after more than two years of epic defense spending, virulent Cold War rhetoric, and no arms-control talks, Americans were demanding détente. Public support for defense spending fell, and the U.S. House of Representatives endorsed a freeze on the production of nuclear weapons. Fearful that these dovish trends could threaten Reagan’s re-election, White House chief of staff James Baker pushed Reagan to make an overture to the Soviets, a suggestion backed by Shultz, who was eager to restart arms talks.

Their effort coincided with a change in Reagan, who had long harbored a genuine terror of nuclear war reflected in his decades-old belief — often ignored by backers on the right — that nuclear weapons should eventually be abolished. The terror had its roots, as did many of Reagan’s inclinations, in movies. According to Colin Powell, national security advisor from 1987 to 1989, Reagan had been deeply affected by the 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still, in which space aliens warn earthlings that unless they stop settling their conflicts through war, the powers that be in the galaxy will destroy their planet. (During his presidency, Reagan repeatedly invoked the prospect of an alien invasion as a reason for the United States and the Soviet Union to overcome their differences. Whenever he did, Powell would mutter, “Here come the little green men.”)

In 1983, two movies triggered Reagan’s latent anti-nuclear views: Matthew Broderick’s WarGames, which portrays a young computer hacker who almost starts a nuclear war, and ABC’s The Day After, which depicts Lawrence, Kansas, in the aftermath of one. For Reagan, who didn’t draw a sharp contrast between reality and celluloid (he once told Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir that he had visited Nazi concentration camps when in reality he had only seen them on film), the movies were chilling. Soon after viewing The Day After, Reagan attended a briefing on U.S. military procedure in the event of a Soviet attack, as if the doomsday movies were playing out before him in real life. His dread only grew by year’s end when he learned that his nuclear buildup and anti-Soviet speeches had so terrified Kremlin leaders that they interpreted a nato war game as preparation for a real attack and put their military on high alert.

This combination of electoral and psychological anxiety led Reagan, late in his first term, to begin a dramatic rhetorical shift. Declaring that “nuclear arsenals are far too high,” in January 1984 he told the country that “my dream is to see the day when nuclear weapons will be banished from the face of the Earth.” By summer, he had largely scrapped preconditions on meeting Soviet leaders, and in September Time magazine reported that he told Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko the United States “respects the Soviet Union’s status as a superpower and has no wish to change its social system.”

Reagan’s sudden infatuation with arms control didn’t initially bear fruit, mostly because Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko had one foot in the grave. But in March 1985, within hours of Gorbachev’s selection, Reagan invited him to a summit without preconditions. The same year, he overruled administration hard-liners and quietly scrapped some older submarines so the United States would not violate the never-ratified SALT II Treaty and thus anger the Kremlin. When Soviet troops in East Germany killed a U.S. soldier, giving Reagan a perfect excuse to avoid meeting his Soviet counterpart, he instead told journalists that such incidents just made him want to meet Gorbachev more.

When they did meet in Geneva, in November, Reagan whispered to Gorbachev, “I bet the hard-liners in both our countries are bleeding when we shake hands.” An initial meeting scheduled for 15 minutes lasted five hours. The following year, in Reykjavik, Iceland, Reagan and Gorbachev came within a whisker of agreeing to destroy all their nuclear weapons (a deal Reagan scuttled because he would not limit “Star Wars”). But in 1987, the two men signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the Cold War’s most far-reaching arms-reduction agreement.

By 1988, though the Soviet Union had not yet released Eastern Europe from its grip, Reagan was explicitly denying that the Soviet Union still constituted an “evil empire” and had begun calling Gorbachev “my friend.” And contrary to the conservative fable, it was this second-term dovishness that played the crucial role in enabling Gorbachev’s reforms. From virtually the moment he took office, Gorbachev was desperate to cut military spending, which by the mid-1980s constituted a mind-bending 40 percent of the Soviet budget. But within the Politburo, vast unilateral cuts would have been politically impossible; Gorbachev needed an American partner. And once he found that partner in the less-menacing second-term Reagan, Gorbachev was able to convince his Kremlin colleagues that the Soviet Union could risk losing its Eastern European security belt without fearing Western attack. In the words of longtime Soviet Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Dobrynin, “If Reagan had stuck to his hard-line policies in 1985 and 1986 … Gorbachev would have been accused by the rest of the Politburo of giving everything away to a fellow who does not want to negotiate. We would have been forced to tighten our belts and spend even more on defense.”

“Conservatives Loved Reagan.”

Not always. As early as 1982, after Reagan skirmished with Israel, declined to send U.S. troops to Central America, and refused to cut off Western loans to communist Poland, Commentary’s Norman Podhoretz declared that neoconservatives were “sinking into a state of near political despair.” New York Times columnist William Safire announced that “if Ronald Reagan fails to awake to the hard-liners’ anger at his betrayal, he will discover that he has lost his bedrock constituency.” By 1984, after Reagan withdrew troops from their peacekeeping mission in Lebanon, Podhoretz moaned that “in the use of military power, Mr. Reagan was much more restrained” than his right-wing supporters had hoped.

But that was nothing compared with the howls of outrage that accompanied Reagan’s dovish turn toward the Soviet Union. In 1986, when Reagan would not cancel his second summit with Gorbachev over Moscow’s imprisonment of an American journalist, Podhoretz accused him of having “shamed himself and the country” in his “craven eagerness” to give away the nuclear store. Washington Post columnist George Will said the administration had crumpled “like a punctured balloon.” When Reagan signed the INF Treaty, most Republicans vying to succeed him came out in opposition. Grassroots conservative leaders established the Anti-Appeasement Alliance to oppose ratification and ran newspaper advertisements comparing Gorbachev to Hitler and Reagan to Neville Chamberlain. Reagan, wailed Will, is “elevating wishful thinking to the status of political philosophy.”

Therein lay the rub. Reagan’s conservative allies were mostly pessimists. They saw conflict as the eternal reality of world affairs. But Reagan was a radical optimist who thought that every story should have a happy ending. Will wrote that he “is painfully fond of the least conservative sentiment conceivable, a statement taken from an anti-conservative, Thomas Paine: ‘We have it in our power to begin the world over again.’ Any time, any place, that is nonsense.”

But it was because Reagan could envision a dramatically better world that he could see the opportunity Gorbachev offered — and seized the chance to bring it about. His conservative critics, by contrast, were so convinced that the world was a nasty place that they blinded themselves to the possibility of radical progress, even when it was occurring before their very eyes.

“Reagan Was Tough on Terror.”

Wrong Again. George W. Bush’s administration endlessly compared its battle against jihadi terrorism to Reagan’s battle against Soviet communism. But the irony is that in Reagan’s own “war on terror,” his policies more closely resembled Obama’s than Bush’s.

For starters, Reagan was not exactly seen as tough on terror in Jerusalem. A few months into his presidency, he announced that the United States would sell AWACS surveillance planes to Riyadh, advanced aircraft that would make it harder for Israel to launch a pre-emptive military strike against Saudi Arabia (as it had done against Egypt in 1967). When Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin expressed “profound regret and unreserved opposition,” Reagan shot back that it was “not the business of other nations to make American foreign policy.”

In 1981, when Israel did strike Iraq, bombing its Osirak nuclear reactor, Reagan backed a U.N. resolution condemning the move. And in 1982, when Israel attacked West Beirut in an effort to destroy Yasir Arafat’s PLO, Reagan told Begin that Israel’s behavior constituted a “holocaust.” (Begin, whose parents and older brother were murdered by the Nazis, did not appreciate the line.)

That summer, after U.S. diplomats negotiated a cease-fire in Lebanon, Reagan sent Marines to help enforce it. They were still there on Oct. 23, 1983, when a terrorist later linked to Hezbollah detonated a truck filled with TNT outside the barracks where the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines slept, killing 241 young Americans. It was a seminal moment in the growing collision between American power and jihadi terror. Rhetorically, Reagan did his best John Wayne. “He may be ready to surrender,” Reagan barked after House Speaker Tip O’Neill proposed withdrawing the remaining Marines in February 1984, “but I’m not.” Then — just weeks later — Reagan withdrew them.

In 1985, after a U.S. Navy diver was shot in the hijacking of TWA Flight 847, Reagan once again channeled John Wayne as he vowed, “America will never make any concessions to terrorists.” But within months, he was not only making concessions, he was selling anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to Iranian “moderates” in the hope that they would use their influence to help free Americans taken hostage by Hezbollah in Beirut.

Midge Decter, Podhoretz’s wife and a noted neoconservative in her own right, declared herself “disgusted” by Reagan’s capitulation in Lebanon. But to Reagan, the mistake was having sent the Marines in the first place. Almost five years later, in his final moments as president, he told press secretary Marlin Fitzwater that “the only regret I have after eight years is sending those troops to Lebanon.” Then he saluted and walked out of the Oval Office for the last time.

“George W. Bush Was a Reaganite.”

Yes and no. In one sense, Bush did indeed carry on Reagan’s legacy. Like Reagan, and unlike most traditional conservatives, he believed that the world could be rapidly and radically improved. And like Reagan, he believed that dictators, or at least anti-American dictators, would be swept away by history’s tide.

The difference is that although Reagan was optimistic about ends, he was cautious about means. His confidence that America would eventually win the Cold War was tempered by his post-Vietnam lack of confidence that the United States could easily win hot wars. He believed that history was moving America’s way, but doubted that the 101st Airborne could speed it up.

Bush, by contrast, took office after a decade of U.S. military successes: from Panama in 1989 and the Gulf War in 1991 to Bosnia in 1995 and Kosovo in 1999. With each victory, U.S. resistance to military intervention receded. The public grew more pliant, Democrats grew more fearful of looking weak, and the generals who warned of Vietnam-style quagmires came to seem like boys crying wolf.

Of course, the 9/11 attacks gave Bush a massive jolt of popularity and sent Congress diving for cover, all of which made the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq much easier. But had 9/11 occurred on Reagan’s watch, when Vietnam still stung and even toppling Manuel Noriega seemed a monumental task, it is unlikely the United States would have invaded and occupied two distant countries within 18 months. CENTCOM, the combatant command that oversaw the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, didn’t even exist when Reagan took office in 1981. Eight years later, the U.S. ground presence in the Middle East was still restricted to a Navy supply base in tiny Bahrain and a few hundred peacekeepers in the Sinai desert. Bush’s wars were not only a response to a devastating terrorist attack; they reflected a geopolitical appetite that had grown dramatically during the triumphant 12 years after Reagan left the political scene.

“Obama Is the New Reagan.”

He could be. In a hundred ways, Obama and Reagan are different. But there are parallels between the moments in which they came to power. Like Reagan, Obama took office in an environment that severely constrains the ability of the United States to launch new military campaigns. For many contemporary conservatives, being a Reagan disciple means acting as if there are no limits to American strength. But the real lessons of Reaganism are about how to wield national power and bolster national pride when your hands are partially tied. That doesn’t mean Obama should mimic all of Reagan’s policies, some of which were deeply misguided. But Obama can, and should, be Reaganesque in his effort to project great strength at low risk.

That means understanding that America’s foreign-policy debates are often cultural debates in disguise. Reagan was a master of symbolic acts — like awarding the Medal of Honor to overlooked Vietnam hero Roy Benavidez — that made Americans feel as though they were exorcising Vietnam’s ghost without refighting the war. Obama must be equally shrewd at a time when he has no choice but to retreat from Iraq and eventually Afghanistan. That means more than ritual incantations about flag and country; it means rhetorically challenging those who unfairly attack the United States. From a purely foreign-policy perspective, publicly confronting Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez when they malign the United States, or calling out universities that ban military recruiters from campus, might seem useless. But for U.S. presidents, there is no pure foreign-policy perspective; being effective in the world requires domestic support. If Obama does not want to be Jimmy Carter, if he does not want Americans to equate his restraint with their humiliation, he must be as aggressive as Reagan in finding symbolic ways to soothe Americans’ wounded pride.

Even more importantly, Obama must rebuild U.S. economic strength. Although Reagan boosted the defense budget, he saw the contest between the United States and the Soviet Union fundamentally as a struggle between political and economic systems in which the dynamism of American capitalism was the West’s trump card. As a liberal taking office in the wake of a financial collapse, Obama is rightly concerned not only about capitalism’s dynamism, but also its stability and decency. Still, the crucial insight is that power in world affairs rests on economic strength. Obama needs to remind Americans that their most successful Cold War presidents — Reagan included — saw the conflict as a primarily economic struggle. Soviet communism threatened the United States less because the Red Army might overrun Western Europe than because, for a time at least, it represented a serious competitor for the hearts and minds of people across the globe.

In that regard, it is not jihadi fanaticism that has taken the Kremlin’s place. After all, even in the Muslim world, barely anyone really believes that al Qaeda, the Taliban, or Iran’s ruling clerics can build a society prosperous and stable enough to challenge the West. The better analogue is China’s 21st-century authoritarian capitalism, which has built a record of political stability and economic dynamism that has captured the imagination of people (and governments) throughout the developing world.

In the nascent economic and ideological struggle between the United States and China, wars that Washington cannot possibly pay for — and which leave the country more reliant on foreign central bankers — don’t make America stronger; they make it weaker. Of course, the United States and China are far more economically interdependent than were the United States and the Soviet Union. But within every interdependent relationship lies a balance of power, and Obama’s leverage over China will depend in large measure on his ability to stop hemorrhaging money, lives, and attention in the Muslim world so he can rebuild the political and economic institutions that form the foundation of U.S. national strength. Do that, and the American model can triumph again, peacefully. Ronald Reagan — if not his contemporary right-wing admirers — would understand.

Peter Beinart is senior political writer for the Daily Beast, associate professor of journalism and politcal science at City University of New York, and senior fellow at New America Foundation. This essay is adapted from his new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris.

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