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Beware of the Reagan Hagiographers
His overall foreign policy record is not as impressive or as world-changing as his fans have made it out to be
The Wall Street Journal indulges in some wacky revisionist history:
William Inboden could be talking about today, but he’s describing the world in 1981, when Ronald Reagan became president. “If you were to do an overall scoreboard in the Cold War at the time,” he says, “it would have looked to most objective observers like the Soviets were winning and the United States was losing. At best it’s a tie, but the previous decade had been by most standards a good one for the Soviet bloc and a bad one for the free world.”
He ticks off a list: “The Soviets had a more formidable, capable military than we did when Reagan takes office.” Beginning in the early 1970s, “on every continent in the global south of the developing world—Asia, Latin America and Africa—Soviet-sponsored communist insurgencies and revolutions are winning.” Communism “seems to be the wave of the future.”
Most of this is false or misleading. It is true that the U.S. had suffered some real defeats in the 1970s in Vietnam and elsewhere, but very few people genuinely believed that the Soviets were “winning” in any meaningful sense. Détente was a two-way street, and the USSR needed to reduce tensions with the U.S. as well. A more accurate assessment would have told you that the “scoreboard” showed that the U.S. had suffered losses in places where it had no vital interests and where it should never have been involved in the first place. A little less than eleven years after the USSR was supposedly “winning,” it ceased to exist largely because of the failings of its own system. Inboden is peddling a weird sort of hawkish defeatism to sell hardline policies again today.
His history of Reagan’s record also leaves quite a bit to be desired:
Reagan was, in Mr. Inboden’s words, the last “unequivocally successful two-term Republican president, especially on foreign policy.”
It’s true enough that Reagan was a two-term Republican president, and he did have some foreign policy successes, but his overall foreign policy record is not as impressive or as world-changing as his fans have made it out to be. The man who foolishly intervened in Lebanon, backed Iraqi aggression against Iran, ran an illegal war against Nicaragua, and stoked many ugly civil wars in countries of little strategic value was hardly an “unequivocally successful” foreign policy president. Reagan’s hagiographers have credited him with some of the successes of the president that followed him and overstated his role in bringing about the end of the Cold War. This is bad history and it is no guide for the present.
Steven Simon’s assessment of Reagan’s record in the Middle East is particularly damning:
The administration also set a new pattern of large investments of prestige and resources for puny or negative returns. There was nothing the administration attempted in the Middle East in its two terms that left the United States better off….
Reagan’s rhetoric exaggerated the U.S. stake in the region, while simultaneously overestimating U.S. capacity to secure these occasionally absurdly inflated interests. Conversely, the administration consistently underestimated the capacity of local players to secure their parochial interests either by defying Washington or by manipulating it, sometimes with comical ease.
That doesn’t sound like unequivocal success to me. One might argue that this is talking about the Middle East and the U.S. always fails there, but the Reagan record in Latin America and Africa isn’t any better and it was in some respects worse. The so-called Reagan Doctrine was mostly a bad bet of arming fanatics and criminals because they happened to have enemies that Washington also hated, and the result was bloodshed and instability. Looking back at the conclusion of the Cold War, it is clear how irrelevant most Reagan administration policies were to the final outcome.
Let’s not forget what George Kennan had to say on this subject more than thirty years ago:
The claim heard in campaign rhetoric that the United States under Republican Party leadership "won the cold war" is intrinsically silly.
The suggestion that any Administration had the power to influence decisively the course of a tremendous domestic political upheaval in another great country on another side of the globe is simply childish. No great country has that sort of influence on the internal developments of any other one.
When you take away the mythology of Reagan-as-Cold-War-victor, the rest of the record isn’t all that great. He made some of the right calls, but far too often he followed the siren song of meddling in the affairs of other states to the detriment of the affected countries and the United States. It is worth adding that throwing endless amounts of money at the Pentagon is not the answer that Reagan’s admirers think it is.
If we’re being honest, Reagan’s foreign policy record is a long list of cautionary tales and examples of what not to do with a few smart choices sprinkled into the mix. When Reagan did get things right, as he did on arms control and improving relations with the Soviet Union, he did it by ignoring hardliners and adapting to changing circumstances. In other words, he did it by not following the advice of people like Inboden.
Simon, Grand Delusion: p. 97-98.