The passing of our most beloved and revered of recent presidents, Ronald W. Reagan, is timely, coming as his incumbent successor reprised one of the Gipper’s most memorable moments: honoring the anniversary of D-Day on the beaches of Normandy.
There are the obvious similarities evoked by the trips Messrs. Reagan and Bush took 40 and 60 years, respectively, after American and Allied forces died by the thousands liberating occupied France–the speeches, the ceremonies, the wreaths laid at movingly picturesque cemeteries. What makes the parallel particularly noteworthy, however, is that President Bush today confronts in Europe much the same hostility that President Reagan experienced from the very peoples who had, only a generation or two before, been saved by American-led armies–and, in a sense, for much the same reason.
Ronald Reagan’s 1984 visit to Normandy came just six months after the deployment of intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) in five European countries. That action consummated a decision taken years before by a NATO alliance determined to counter the coercive threat posed by powerful Soviet SS-20 ballistic missiles. And it was achieved despite what was, arguably, the most sophisticated, well-financed, and determined political-warfare campaign ever waged against democratic nations, mounted by the Soviet Union and its sympathizers in Western Europe.
Today few recall the resultant intense animus toward the United States and, in particular, toward its “cowboy” president, Ronald Reagan. At the time, however, he was vilified as a man whose conduct was dangerously belligerent. European elites were convinced that the INF deployments would not merely destroy the Atlantic Alliance but risked Armageddon–a fear assiduously cultivated by the Kremlin’s propagandists. Massive demonstrations and public campaigns threatened to precipitate the toppling of several of the basing countries’ governments.
Foreign ministries on both sides of the Atlantic desperately conspired, conjuring arms-control initiatives aimed at altering the timing and size of the placement of Pershing II and ground-launched cruise missiles in Britain, Germany, Italy, Belgium, and the Netherlands–if not precluding them altogether. The USSR–hoping to fracture the Alliance, preserve its own monopoly on long-range INF weaponry, and undermine its most formidable foe in the White House since Harry Truman–brandished sticks (the continuing deployment of SS-20s) and carrots (seductive promises of agreements offering peace for our time.)
To his lasting credit, President Reagan never wavered. He recognized the strategic importance of staying the course, both in terms of denying Moscow the military hegemony it sought in Western Europe and of restoring the will, cohesiveness, and security of the NATO alliance, so badly frayed during the turbulent 1970s. Reagan made clear that, if the Soviets would not agree to destroy all their SS-20s, the INF deployment would go forward on schedule and in full.
With important help from Britain’s Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and (improbably) from France’s Socialist President Francois Mitterand, President Reagan demonstrated that it was not only possible for the Free World to defy the Kremlin, but imperative that it do so. Their actions marked the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union.
The successful deployment of INF weapons–and the larger program to rebuild American and Western defenses long neglected by previous American and allied governments–was just one response to that imperative. While Reagan and his extraordinary secretary of defense, Caspar Weinberger, deserve great credit for the tenacity with which they pursued the costly business of rebuilding a “hollow” American military, the modernization of U.S. nuclear and conventional forces alone would not have achieved the president’s goal of destroying the Soviet Union.
In fact, the Reagan strategy (as documented in several now-declassified National Security Decision Directives) was, from the outset, designed to be a multifaceted one.
It involved charging one of the most experienced and inventive men ever to hold the job of director of central intelligence, William J. Casey, with resuscitating the United States’ espionage and covert capabilities and unleashing them to help defeat Soviet aggression in Afghanistan and proxy forces elsewhere around the world.
Reagan also systematically applied economic and financial pressure aimed, for example, at: curbing Soviet access to Western credit and other investment; keeping America’s allies from supplying the Kremlin with sensitive dual-use technology; depressing oil prices, the USSR’s principal source of hard currency; and denying Moscow the leverage it sought by making Western Europe dependent on Siberian gas supplies. The USSR may well have remained a going concern for years–and perhaps to this day–had such measures not denied it the life support an inherently bankrupt Communist system absolutely required.
The final and critical ingredient in the Reagan strategy of rolling back Soviet Communism was the president’s personal commitment to undermining the enemy’s ideology and political legitimacy. From his in-their-face depiction of the USSR as the “Evil Empire,” to his refusal to tolerate moral equivalence with the Soviets, to his insistence on the revolutionary notion that he had a duty to defend America against missile attack, to his demand that Gorbachev demolish the Berlin Wall, to his determined effort to educate and enlist the American people in his anti-Communist campaigns and to expose those overseas–especially inside the Soviet bloc, and via instruments like Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty–to our commitment to their liberation, President Reagan appreciated and pursued a “war of ideas” that gave hope and inspiration to subject peoples the world over and demoralized their Communist oppressors.
The death of the 40th president in the midst of the 43rd president’s Western European pilgrimage to Normandy represents an extraordinary opportunity for President Bush to do more than make a Reaganesque speech in tribute to those who fell there, and to our fallen leader. It is a chance to remind everyone how a man now so beloved was once reviled–and how his once-derided policies, guided by a remarkably robust moral compass, freed millions and changed the world forever.
It is also a moment for George W. Bush to call to mind another insight: The comprehensive strategy and various implementing techniques employed by Ronald Reagan to defeat our Cold War foe are every bit as needed to provide victory in the current war–yet another global conflict imposed upon us by a dangerous ideology–this time known as “Islamofascism”–and its adherents and allies and the terror they wield.
Now, as then, global power projection and homeland defense must be enhanced and transformed; intelligence–especially of the human kind–must be reinvigorated and brought urgently and effectively to bear; economic, financial, technological, and energy-security tools must be employed to weaken our adversaries and disrupt their funding and operations; and, last but not least, a war of ideas must be waged aggressively to discredit those who are trying to hijack and pervert the Muslim faith for political purposes.
If President Bush not only memorializes Ronald Reagan’s moral compass and strategic vision but emulates them, both in Iraq and more generally in this global war on terror, there is reason to believe that the results for American national-security and foreign-policy interests will be every bit as salutary as were those achieved by our beloved and lamented Gipper.