Ronald Reagan the peacemaker

Ronald Reagan’s crowning achievement as President was his masterly negotiation with Mikhail Gorbachev to bring about an end to the Cold War.

He avoided pitfalls which most people in his place would have fallen into.  When negotiations began, Reagan demanded proof of Gorbachev’s sincerity; he did not simply accept Gorbachev’s proposals because the Soviet leader came to him with an olive branch.  But once Gorbachev showed that he really wanted peace, Reagan was willing to grant it.  He defied criticism from the militaristic wing of his own party.

Moreover, in his negotiations with Gorbachev, Reagan somehow kept the confidence of the anti-Communists of eastern Europe.  Nobody doubted that Reagan still thought of the Soviet Union as an evil empire (which it was). The Solidarity movement in Poland never thought Reagan abandoned them.  Nor had he.

This took considerable skill.  I’m not sure anybody else could have done it.

Reagan’s present-day admirers say he brought the Soviet Union to its knees through his commitment to the unworkable Star Wars missile defense program.  Supposedly Gorbachev realized that the Soviet Union could never afford to pay for a counter program, and so gave up.  Gorbachev himself has denied this was ever a factor in his calculations; this seems believable, because the Star Wars threat was bluff.

The Reagan policy that did most to undermine Soviet Communism was very different.  It was the U.S. government’s arming of the mujahideen fighers with advanced weapons, including Stinger anti-aircraft missiles.  Gorbachev’s image in the West is that of a benign liberal democrat, but he unleashed the Red Army to wage war against the population of Afghanistan on scale and with a brutality unequaled by anything U.S. forces did in Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan.  The story is told in George Crile’s Charley Wilson’s War, which I recently read.

The Soviet defeat was more crippling and demoralizing than the U.S. defeat in Vietnam, and Gorbachev, whose goal after all was to make the Communist system work, might not have sued for peace when he did if the Red Army had been victorious.  Crile’s book shows that the impetus for arming the mujahideen came more from an odd coalition of liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans in Congress than from the Reagan administration, but Reagan sanctioned it, and so gets credit for the victory.

Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev

Another of Reagan’s good qualities was his ability to make course corrections in the face of facts.  In 1983, a terrorist suicide bomber killed 241 U.S. Marines and other servicemen who were part of an international peacekeeping force in Beirut, Lebanon.  Reagan decided that the U.S. had nothing to gain by remaining in Lebanon, and pulled U.S. forces out.  Someone with a more fragile ego would have doubled down on his original decision in order to avoid admitting a mistake.

Unfortunately, right after that decision, he ordered the invasion of Grenada, which had the effect of diverting attention from Lebanon.  The attack on Grenada, and the bombing of Libya, set a pattern, which continued in subsequent administrations, of casual acts of war against small countries.  The boasting that followed the Grenada invasion reminded me of this quote by G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936):

It may be said with rough accuracy that there are three stages in the life of a strong people. First, it is a small power, and fights small powers. Then it is a great power and fights great powers. Then it is a great power, and fights small powers, but pretends they are great powers, in order to rekindle the ashes of its ancient emotion and vanity.

Reagan spoke of making democracy and human rights the cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy, but his love of liberty did not go beyond anti-Communism.  His administration provided military aid to Jonas Savimbi’s guerrillas in Angola and the Contra terrorists in Nicaragua against Marxist governments, without looking too carefully into their democratic credentials.  He supported the Marcos regime in the Philippines and the Duvalier regime in Haiti right up until their collapse.  And the result of U.S. support of the mujahideen fighters resulted in the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

Reagan replaced President Carter’s policy of sanctions against white-ruled South Africa with a policy of “constructive engagement.”  He characterized the African National Congress as terrorists.  When Prime Minister P.W. Botha said in 1986 that white South Africans would never accept a one-person, one-vote system, Congress voted sanctions.  Reagan vetoed the sanctions, and Congress passed them over his veto.  The African National Congress came to power a few years after Reagan left office, and it is fortunate for the United States that Nelson Mandela put reconciliation above revenge.

President Reagan’s shortcomings were outweighed by the INF Treaty, eliminating medium-range nuclear weapons from Europe, and the START I Treaty, reducing U.S. and Soviet strategic nuclear weapons.  Perhaps someone of lesser anti-Communist credentials could not have obtained ratification of these treaties by the U.S. Senate.  A nuclear war with the Soviet Union was, and is, the only present threat to the existence of the United States as a nation. It is thanks to Gorbachev and Reagan that this threat is only a remote possibility and not still a strong long-range probability.

Unfortunately, President Reagan’s legacy to his followers is not the same as his main positive accomplishment.  His neo-conservative admirers do not urge President Obama to negotiate with the Iranian ayatollahs or the Venezuelan president as Reagan negotiated with the rulers of the Soviet Union.  The way they follow in Reagan’s footsteps is by advocating continued spending for the unproved missile defense system, support for friendly dictators and military strikes at small countries.


Click on Think Again: Ronald Reagan for an article on Reagan’s foreign policy by Peter Beinart in Foreign Policy magazine.

Click on Revising Ronald Reagan: Was the 40th President a Peace-Loving Moderate? for an article by Dennis McCarthy in Reason magazine.

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