What hath Ronald Reagan wrought? It is the question of the moment. With its usual aplomb, the American media's effort to assess Reagan — the good, the bad and the ugly — is being lost in the soft focus of nostalgia and sympathy, on the one hand, or on the other, in the gadfly’s reflexive desire to characterize anything positive in his legacy as proof that the nation is suffering from a syndrome not unlike that which kept the late president out of the public eye for the last ten years of his life.
On foreign policy, the same shiny gloss is now being applied in many treatments. A sign should be hung on most of what’s been written in the past week: “Just Painted.” Far too much of what is passing for analysis of Reagan’s foreign policy is focusing on the subjective question of his role in bringing about the Soviet collapse. His role is undeniable, but it is important to realize that it is subordinate to that played by Mikhail Gorbachev, who set out to reform Soviet communism and wound up destroying it.
But it is far too simplistic, as the Left does, to say Reagan’s military buildup actually started under Carter (which is true, but irrelevant) or that the Soviet Union would have collapsed no matter who led the United States. Such an argument denies the role Reagan played in changing what might be called our national mojo. A hit song by the British rock band “The Kinks” at the end of the Carter years included this lyric by Ray Davies and captured the times perfectly:
“Calling on citizens all over the world, this is Captain America calling,
I bailed you out when you were down on your knees, won’t you catch me now I’m falling.”
The post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, post-JFK America was a place of deep distrust and, in Carter’s famous diagnosis, “malaise.” Reagan rightly saw much of this was a kind of clinical depression and he renewed America’s sense of mission – something Reagan exuded from every pore. Whether every American agreed with his take on that topic did not much matter. The fact is, without this attitude adjustment, Gorbachev might not have been able to make the case he did at home that continued competition with the U.S. was futile.
Yet it is equally dishonest to call Reagan the president who “won the Cold War.” In fact, Reagan inherited an American foreign policy that changed only slightly from the one Harry Truman put in place when he realized the Soviets were trying to plant a communist government in Greece in 1946.
During my time at Radio Free Europe (1990-93), I had the pleasure of meeting many of the dissidents who became leaders of their newly freed nations after 1989, and to a man each of them regarded Reagan as a man who deserved a good deal of credit for not kowtowing to the East bloc (as, for instance, German leaders did).
But Vaclav Havel, for instance, saw soft power like the beaming of Western rock n' roll across the Iron Curtain as equally important in its own way. Zhelyu Zhelev, a Bulgarian playright elected as his nation's first democratic president in 1990, told me during an interview in his unheated office that Reagan had kept the communist party bosses obsessed with security "even as western radio stations, literature and blue jeans chipped away at their control over society from below." In effect, it was a one-two punch, not merely Reagan's right cross.
Somewhat more pedantically, it is interesting to note that it was George Bush, not Reagan, who was in office in 1989 to manage the Soviet collapse and engineer the reunification of Germany. Another politically inconvenient fact: Bush and his senior foreign policy aides, almost all of them Reagan alumni, struggled mightily to help Mikhail Gorbachev to hold the Soviet Union together, fearing (reasonably perhaps) the implications of a nuclear armed state descending into civil war. But then Reagan always had a knack for undermining the Bushes. Even in death, he upstaged a Bush.
Beyond the Soviet Union things are more mixed. And it is these things, some of them enormously important, being missed in the festival of Ron running on all channels right now. Here is a quick list:
- Reagan reinvigorated the “special relationship” with Britain by offering to loan the Royal Navy an American aircraft carrier when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands. While Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher declined, she never forgot it, and her successors continue to define Britain’s interests in terms of our own.
- Reagan broke a decades-long deadlock (and American taboo) in the Middle East in 1988 by recognizing the PLO as the official representatives of Palestinians, the key element of what was to become the Oslo peace process. That his successors, and most of all, the Israelis and Palestinians, botched the peace is not his fault.
- Reagan unleashed the CIA and it did what it usually does when it gets enough rope: hung itself. Covert efforts to combat Marxist insurgencies in El Salvador, Guatemala and Colombia, and to topple Marxist governments in Angola, Namibia and Nicaragua contributed to enormous human rights abuses and atrocities. Yet in Nicaragua, Reagan aides broke the law to fund an anti-Marxist rebellion against the leftist Sandinista government, in the process paying a ransom of weaponry to the Iranian for brokering the deal and releasing American hostages held in Beirut.
- On the other side of the “stood up to the Soviets” coin, Reagan practiced an undifferentiated brand of anti-communism that protected apartheid in South Africa, built Saddam Hussein into the regional menace he became and encouraged the Saudis to think that their own brand of lunacy was just fine so long as it sprung from the Koran rather than Das Kapital.
For all this, we auditors of foreign policy need to have a little humility. Consider, for instance, how Reagan’s decision to train and arm Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan to fight the Soviet occupation might have looked like five years ago. A resounding Cold War victory, of course. Today, it looks a bit different, no?
Reagan may seem like history to some younger than I, but history is in it for the long run. The best we can do now is be honest, both about his strengths and weaknesses.
Michael Moran's Brave New World column appears weekly on MSNBC.com