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Reviewing The Reagan Record In Light Of The War On Terror

On Dafydd Ab Hugh's blog, Big Lizards, he has an analysis comparing President Reagan's efforts against the Soviet Union with President Bush's in the War On Terror. Dafydd makes an interesting argument, one that brings up some points I had not considered.

Historically, I have often faulted Reagan's actions in regards to the rising threat of Islamist terror. In fact, I have said that Bush is having to deal with the mistakes of his four immediate predecessors, as each had opportunities to confront and deal with Islamic terrorism, and in each case chose the easier, simpler, softer approach -- decisions that led to the current state of affairs.

President Jimmy Carter was confronted with the challenge of Iran seizing our embassy in Teheran, taking our citizens hostage. By any definition, this was an open act of war and a full military reprisal would have been fully justified. Instead, Carter dithered and dawdled and fretted, reinforcing the perception of the United States as a toothless tiger.

The first President Bush did a superb job in uniting much of the Muslim world to drive Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, and in my opinion made the only choice he could when he refrained from going further and removing Saddam from power. I fault him not for that decision, but for not laying the groundwork in advance with our nominal allies in the Muslim world to commit to deposing Saddam before the fighting began.

President Clinton was not elected as a foreign policy president, and it showed. He allowed our peacekeepers in Somalia to change into a peace-making force, then denied them the weapons and equipment to succeed. The following slaughter of United States Rangers and ignominious retreat reinforced the image President Carter had fostered with his weak response to Iran's taking of our embassy.

Clinton was also either incapable or unwilling to see the rise of Islamist terrorism as a palpable threat. He treated each attack as an isolated incident, one more of a crime than an act of war. The first World Trade Center bombing, the African embassy bombings, the Khobar Towers bombing, the near-sinking of the USS Cole -- each was given to law-enforcement officials for resolution, not the intelligence or military communities.

But Reagan did far more -- both by commission and omission -- to foster the current crisis with Islamist terrorism than any other president. His arms-for-hostages deal with Iran (and its proxies, Hezbollah) established the currency for the lives of the innocent, and prolonged the Iran-Iraq war. His support for the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan gave militant Islam its first real victory against a Western power, planting the seeds for the rise of the Taliban and the genesis of Al Qaeda. (Osama Bin Laden got his first taste of violence in that war.) His sending US troops into Lebanon under absurd rules of engagement as "peacekeepers" placed far too many Americans in harm's way with no reasonable way to protect themselves, and the sudden retreat when the inevitable Hezbollah attack occurred sent the unmistakable message: if you kill enough Americans, we will retreat.

In each case, though, Reagan was handling the situation in the context of the larger conflict, the Cold War with the Soviet Union. The arms-for-hostages deal had the benefit of propping up Iran against Iraq's assault, as a badly wounded Iran would be vulnerable to an Afghanistan-style Soviet invasion, giving them direct access to the Persian Gulf and the Straits of Hormuz. The support for the Afghan resistance was a direct assault on the Soviets, hoping (and succeeding) to bleed them dry in their own Viet Nam, leaving their military demoralized and bogged down. And the Lebanon intervention was intended to show that we could intervene on behalf of Arabs and Muslims, who were quite eager to align themselves (somewhat) with the Soviets.

The Soviets were keenly aware of some of their major strategic weaknesses. One of those was access to a warm-water port. Their only one was Vladivostok, and that was on the far end of the country from the center of power. Their northern ports freeze over in the winter, the Black Sea is choked by Turkey, and the Baltics were checked by Denmark and Norway. Control of Iran -- a long-term Soviet goal -- would not only give them Iran's oil, but its access to the Indian Ocean and de facto control of the Persian Gulf at the Straits of Hormuz.

Reagan, whether consciously or not, had to choose not between the right and wrong side, but the greater immediate threat versus the lesser, building threat. Many people are too young to remember the Good Old Days when we were confronted with an enemy that possessed enough nuclear weapons to blow up the entire world 3, 4, 5 times over or more, that possessed a mighty army, a fierce (albeit limited) navy, an honest-to-goodness space program that beat us at every milestone except landing a man on the moon, and held an empire that stretched all the way from central Europe to the Pacific, with client states in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

In that context, the choice Reagan made was clear and correct: deal with the Soviet Union now, and worry about the Islamists later.

It is telling that nearly 20 years have passed since Reagan left office, and the greatest threat we face today is still by far the lesser threat than the Soviets posed -- or, for that matter, the threat the Nazis or Imperial Japan posed.

This is not a commentary on the intentions and desires of the Islamists, however. They would gladly emulate the accomplishments of those reprehensible people cited above, but merely lack the wherewithal to achieve such deeds.

They are eagerly seeking the wherewithal to do so, but thus far lack it.

Yes, in a certain sense, the current problems can be laid at the feet of Ronald Reagan. But it must be recalled that those were part of the price paid for ending the far greater threat that was the Soviet Union.

Posted by Jay Tea · 7 August 2006 07:00 AM


I believe you don't give Jimmy Carter enough due credit. He set the tone of the US being the major Western target for radical Islam. First he did nothing to support the Shaw in the face of radical Islam. Which may have been to establish an indifferent or neutral tone. But then, he basically shelters the Shaw pissing off the radicals leading them to take US hostages. Then all that hatred and zeal against the Shaw was presented with a Successor, the USA.

Then the pathetic response to what is considered an act of war helped establish the US as being weak.

In Reagan's defense, at the time of Reagan I don't believe Radical Islam was singled out as a higher priority than other source of terrorism. The belief was they were disconnected and some of it was. Reagan put a stop to the Libian sponsored terrorism. (I believe the way to address terrorism is to address the sponsers). He probably felt that Iran would be contained and preoccupied through Iraq. Reagan's mistake was relying on Saddam.

Even though Reagan was more focused on the Cold War, I believe the recognician of Radical Islam's ultimate goals were not there. I believe most everyone bought the press' meme that Iran was a popular revolts by oppressed people and after a cool off period, things would stabilize.

Posted by: jpm100 at August 7, 2006 07:30 AM

Radical Islam was and still is a New force to deal with. Radical Islam highjacked airplanes when Reagan took over the Carter tragedy. Today we have radical Islam, not only highjacking planes and crashing into buildings, BUT, Radical Islam is strapping bombs to their bodies walking into a crowd or building and blowing themselves up along with anyone else around. It is a cowardly way to fight a war.

Posted by: Zsa Zsa at August 7, 2006 07:56 AM

Over all I agree, except that Reagan also pounded Qaddafy, liberated Grenada and rebuilt the military to provide options.

Also you have to judge his actions in the context of that era. He was attacked by the (D)'s and MSMs as aggressively as Bush(43) and didn't have the advantage of so many (D)emocrat foreign policy failures to educate the public of his intentions.

Sure the Lebanon deployment was a debacle to rival Somalia... but at the time it was perhaps the best we could do.

Now, yes, we know better...

Posted by: DANEgerus at August 7, 2006 09:45 AM

There have certainly been mistakes in the past. Probably more than you have noted; and, even more egregious ones. It's important to understand that with foreign policy, as with investing, you start each day where you are that day, not where you were yesterday or last week. The value of mistakes and successes in the past are that they offer guidance as how to act now given the situations we see today.

The fact that we see many today striving for useless ceasefire agreements, that won't be kept, or useless peace accords, that also won’t be kept leads me to believe that most people misunderstand what we, as a people, face. When there is a body of people that SAY they are going to destroy us, and then they proceed to TRY, I think we should take them at their word. I don't think giving them the Sudenland, excuse me, the contested territories will work. I don't think laying down OUR arms in a show of pacific Chamberlainish, excuse me, Kerryish intents will work.

As we learned in the First World War and the Vietnam war the WILL to fight is more important than the ABILITY to fight. We should pursue policies and actions that destroy our enemy's will to fight as well as policies and actions that preserve our will to persevere. I would rather have another 60 years of Churchilian peace through victory than 2 years of Chamberlainian peace through appeasement.

Posted by: Brad at August 7, 2006 01:26 PM

reagan made huge errors on this count.
overall he was a major plus. the most major in the post war.

carter and clinton were far worse.

Posted by: reliapundit at August 7, 2006 08:48 PM

Clinton knew of and worked on the problem of international terrorism. At least, the state department under him did. As President, though, Clinton was more concerned about keeping himself and therefore the Democratic Party as popular as possible, and (it could be said) he knew that the media would turn any prolonged military action into a PR nightmare. He did what he thought he could against the terrorist organizatoins, but, as with all Democrats, he was more concerned with form over substance. He was willing and able to see Islamic terror as a palpable threat, there was just no politically expedient way for him to deal with it. This is also what we've seen with Bush. Bush has gone further than Clinton, but at great political expense. Clinton did not have the popular support to conduct military action until after his impeachment, when he suddenly became immensely popular. That's when we invaded Kosovo. The more popular a President is, the more likely they are to conduct military operations. Bush just got himself stuck in one that can't end quickly enough (not that I blame him for it. everyone was pushing for military action on Iraq. it would have been suicide, politically and realistically, not to.).

Posted by: JohnJ at August 7, 2006 08:54 PM

hilarious neo con parody. You really captured the sort of snob "respect" for reagan. and the invented clinton "facts". as if anyone knew who al queda was in 1993 when the first WTC attack occured. really tops.

jpm- so jimmy carter shold have known about islamic terrorism, but it was too early for reagan to do anything about it. got it. meanwhile, radical islam came out of most iranians hatred of the shah. You righties really like monarchs for some reason.

Posted by: lester at August 8, 2006 04:42 PM

And for some reason you lefty's have suicidal tendencies.

Posted by: d_Brit at August 9, 2006 12:03 AM

I like reagan a lot more than Carter. I'm reading his auto biography. He says some stuff about islamic fundamentalism. basically that he thinks it's a big problem on the horizon particularly in regards to getting nuclear weapons. But the book came out in 1990. and he also says basically middle east politics are insane and it's hopeless to get involved in them.

I like the economic stuff he talks about better. I think his generation looked at the middle east as trying to find "moderate" dictators to get along with israel. with no thought to the people being dictated too, no criticism of israel, and no sense of how it could affect us. Come to think of it, not much has changed!

Posted by: lester at August 9, 2006 01:36 PM