Reagan Could Teach Bush a Few Things About How to Win the War on Terrorism
Can Ronald Reagan teach Bush anything about winning the war on terrorism? On the face of it, their battles seem different. During the course of his public life, Ronald Reagan faced down and defeated a superpower enemy armed with nuclear weapons, a global empire, and a massive army. Today George W. Bush is grappling with an enemy that is smaller, but more difficult to find and see. And yet, there is much that we can learn from Reagan that will help us win.
One of the most remarkable things about Reagan that has been quickly forgotten is how alone he was in fighting the cold war. At almost every critical juncture, America's allies were reluctant (at best), to take a firm position. They questioned his opposition to détente and ridiculed his hard line on arms control and trade with Moscow. When he declared in 1981 that martial law in Poland was unacceptable, he was largely alone in the world, save for Britain's Margaret Thatcher. When he pushed for expelling the Soviets from Afghanistan, the European allies were skeptical.
And yet despite this opposition, Reagan went ahead anyway, imposing economic sanctions, providing financial support to freedom fighters, and dramatically boosting the defense budget. Quite simply, Reagan would not allow the lack of allied commitment deter him from doing what he believed was right.
At critical junctures he even had to buck his own Cabinet. In both 1981 and 1982, when he wanted a big boost in the defense budget to put the Soviets and notice and to force them into an arms race they could not win, a majority of his cabinet opposed him. Many believed that it would be impolitic to dramatically raise defense spending while proposing domestic cuts. Former Presidents Nixon and Ford even got involved and vigorously advised him to dramatically curtail his Pentagon budget requests. But Reagan refused and stuck to his ambitious plans.
In 1983 he ran into similar problems over the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). On the eve of his planned speech outlining his vision for a missile defense shield, he received urgent word that some senior advisors at the Pentagon were adamantly opposed to the idea. But again, Reagan ignored the advice and went on his instincts.
Reagan was even prepared to go against public opinion, if necessary. In 1984, pollsters came to Reagan with grim news. A solid majority of the American people were opposed to his foreign policy. Several advisors suggested that he tone things down, be less fervent about Central America and more open to arms talks with Moscow. Reagan said he was willing to change the tone a little bit. But as he told his aide Robert McFarlane, he would rather lose the 1984 election than change the substance of his policy toward the Soviet Union.
How remarkable it is to contemplate that if Reagan had paid too much attention to the polls, his advisers, or the allies, many of his most critical cold war-winning policies never would have been enacted. Indeed, the cold war might not have ended when it did, or at all.
So how would Reagan make decisions about the terrorism, Iraq, and other issues? He would listen patiently to the allies and to his advisers. But then he would make what he thought was the best decision — regardless of cost.
The decisions that Reagan most often made with regard to fighting the Cold War were predicated on a simple notion — -stay on the offensive.
As president he pushed for the Reagan Doctrine and launched a political and ideological offensive against Communism. If you wanted to win, fight to win, he said. It was a strategy he adopted early on, even before he entered the Oval Office. With regard to the Vietnam War, for example, his views could not be simpler. If it was a war worth fighting, it was a war worth winning. He called for the invasion of North Vietnam with an attack near Hanoi and the closing of Haiphong Harbor. If we weren't prepared to do that, said Reagan, we should get out.
Reagan wanted to stay on the offensive because he believed that the Cold War would only end when the Soviet Empire ceased to exist. By concentrating on issues like the arms race and the superpower competition in the third world, most statesmen were looking at mere symptoms — not root causes. The cause of the Cold War was the totalitarian nature of the Communist system itself. "In all of history, one can find few instances were the people have started a war," he said in a 1967 speech he wrote himself. "War is the province of government, and therefore the more autocratic government is, the more centralized, the more totalitarian, the more government can direct and control the will of the people — the greater the chance for war."
Reagan would probably apply the same analysis to terrorism today. He would insist that America stay on the offensive, recognizing that it is the nature of extremist Islam that is the real problem. Terrorism is but a grizzly symptom. Until the totalitarian nature of this ideology is destroyed, terrorism is inevitable; peaceful coexistence is simply not an option.
But Reagan was an optimist because he believed in the human spirit. He drew an important distinction between the Communist dictators and the people who lived in those countries, who he considered the first victims of Communism. When he spoke about world affairs, he was less interested in communicating with the elites behind the Iron Curtain than the masses, who he believed aspired to be free.
Perhaps the most telling instance of this was his "Evil Empire" speech. It was roundly criticized by the Kremlin and elites in the west. Anthony Lewis of the New York Times captured the mood of most in Washington and Europe when he called it "simplistic... sectarian... terribly dangerous... .primitive."
But to the people that Reagan really wanted to reach, the speech was pure music. In a lonely cell in the Soviet gulag, dissident Natan Sharansky recalls how political prisoners tapped on walls and talked through toilets to share what Reagan had said with fellow inmates. Reagan's words energized and emboldened them and offered hope. This was Reagan's real audience.
Aware that today the leadership in countries such as Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia are not capable of reform, Reagan would probably speak last to the leadership; he'd want to speak directly to the people, tapping into their desire for freedom.
When Ronald Reagan was 16 years old, he wrote a story about two boys who thwarted at act of terrorism. Two men were planning to put poison gas into the Treasury Building in Washington, D.C. to kill everyone inside. Then, donning gas masks, they expected to loot the building of all its money. But two young men overheard them plotting and got hold of a map which spelled out the grisly scheme. Risking certain death if they were caught, they followed the terrorists to their hideout and went to the police.
Written in the first person, it was clear that young Ronald Reagan admired the raw courage of the boys who not only risked life and limb but also ridicule by a potentially skeptical police. But the two heroes persevered, took supreme risks, and the terrorists were caught.
Those virtues which Reagan so admired — courage and character — are what the nearly half-century battle against Communism required most of him. Beginning in Hollywood and running through his presidency, Reagan was always willing to speak the truth about Communism. Sometimes his strong views brought physical threats against his life and family. More often, they would prompt ridicule or denunciation as a dangerous ignoramus. In either case, Reagan unflinchingly pressed on, opposed by old friends, Cabinet officers, and sometimes even members of his own family.
But as he wrote a friend in the early 1970s, he was determined to stand up to the criticism and the attacks at all cost. "But bearing what we cannot change and going on with what God has given us, confident there is a destiny, somehow seems to bring a reward we wouldn't exchange for any other. It takes a lot of fire and heat to make a piece of steel."
Perhaps the greatest advice Reagan would pass to George W. Bush is the need for unflinching courage. Reagan simply refused to change course in the case of obstacles. He would undoubtedly advise George W. Bush to do the same.
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