Against Evil

Only liberals like Peter Beinart think that Ronald Reagan was a dove.

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

One could assume that the dubious straw men invented by Peter Beinart ("Think Again: Ronald Reagan" July/August 2010) are the result of innocent misconstruction. After all, Beinart was only 10 years old when Ronald Reagan became president and began the daunting task of re-establishing American pride, confidence and global leadership after Jimmy Carter’s disastrous presidency. But it is more likely yet another example of the refusal of liberals to acknowledge the success of Reagan’s Cold War policies: first, rebuilding a disastrously diminished security establishment (diplomatic and political as well as military), then challenging the Soviet Union in a way that surely hastened the demise of the "evil empire."

While Beinart is quite right when he refers to a conjured, mythic Reagan who "never compromised with America’s enemies and never shrank from a fight," it is the author, not the conservatives he disparages, who is the conjurer.

Beinart attributes to the "American right" the view that Reagan policies led the Politburo to install Gorbachev, "who threw in the towel." But he seems alone in taking this view. What many of us who served in the Reagan administration do argue is that the delegitimization of the Kremlin dictators (accomplished, in part, by what Beinart calls "virulent Cold War rhetoric"), the rebuilding of American military capabilities, and a skillful arms control strategy (that eventuated in Soviet acceptance of Regan proposals they began by categorically rejecting), led to the Western victory in the Cold War.

Recognizing none of this history, and with a thesis to propound, Beinart creates his own false, but necessary history. He writes: "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."

Thus does Beinart portray Reagan as a president forced to change policies in the face of political pressures. This is nonsense. Reagan barely took notice of what was an insignificant "demand" for détente. He regarded the nuclear-freeze proposals, which never gathered enough support to undermine his tough approach to arms control, a mere nuisance emanating from people who had not a clue how to negotiate with the Soviets. He had negotiated with the Soviets from the moment he took office, but with a subtlety that escapes Beinart completely. Reagan knew what he wanted and he knew how to achieve it. He was rock solid in defining — and sticking with — policies he believed were right. This was especially true with respect to arms control, where, often against the advice of the experts, the liberals, and much of the media, Reagan stayed the course until the Soviets gave him the agreement he wanted. 

What the article calls Reagan’s "sudden infatuation with arms control," is pure invention. Beinart refers to the failure to conclude a U.S.-Soviet arms control treaty in Iceland in 1986 and implies that Reagan, his heart and mind changed by political expediency, had abandoned the tough policies to which he had been committed. In fact, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces  Treaty vindicated Reagan’s approach to arms control. When he proposed eliminating all intermediate range missiles in 1981, he was denounced for overreaching. Indeed, he was accused of having put forward a proposed treaty for the express purpose of assuring that the talks would fail. Reagan would happily have signed the INF Treaty in 1986, but Gorbachev refused. For his success in out-waiting and out-negotiating the Soviets, Beinart and those who share his outlook, will never forgive him.

Beinart is not alone in confusing a tough, deliberate application of American power to achieve American ends with the bellicose reckless abandon that he seems to think is the essence of a "conservative" foreign policy. Indeed, it is a common liberal conceit (which Beinart swallows whole) that conservatives, like Reagan, are always spoiling for a fight, eager to launch wars and send American troops in harm’s way. In Beinart’s worldview, only liberals, relying on the United Nations, international law and multilateral diplomacy can secure U.S. interests and preserve peace in the world. But Reagan, following his own beliefs and proceeding in his own way, achieved results no liberal foreign policy has approached — or is likely to achieve.

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