Politics & Policy

They Said It Couldn’t Be Done

The evil empire and the axis of evil.

He’s alienating Europe! He is too bellicose! He speaks in undiplomatic language! He is motivated by an unrealistic vision of international change!

These charges have been hurled at: (a) Ronald Reagan, (b) George W. Bush or (c) both? The answer, of course, is “c.” That tells us something about both “cowboy” presidents and their critics, including Reagan and Bush scourge John Kerry. To change the world requires angering the defenders of the status quo, enunciating a clear vision and taking risks. Doubters will therefore always be able to point to diplomatic upset, to a lack of “nuance” and to the possibility of failure, respectively, when criticizing a transformational foreign policy.

An appropriate epitaph for Reagan’s historic accomplishment of winning the Cold War would be: “They said it couldn’t be done.” If Bush manages to effect his vision in the war on terror, his success will deserve to be similarly memorialized.

Reagan’s grand strategy–spending so much on defense that the Soviets couldn’t keep up–was considered literally crazy by critics at the time. It would only backfire and embolden our enemies. Opposition to Reagan’s policy was especially fierce in Europe, where millions protested his decision to place intermediate-range nuclear missiles there. Sound familiar?

There are two basic attitudes toward American foreign policy: the Reagan Way and the Vietnam Syndrome. Adherents to the Reagan Way believe in the efficacy and goodness of American power. Sufferers of the Vietnam Syndrome believe American power is tainted with corruption and arrogance and is doomed to failure. These two broad visions have informed the U.S. foreign policy debate, from Vietnam to the war on terror today.

It is no accident that Kerry opposed Reagan’s policies in terms he uses to criticize Bush now. Reagan was altogether too focused on military solutions. Kerry said the defense buildup was “without any relevancy to the threat this nation is currently facing,” and declared, “We don’t need expensive and exotic weapons systems.” He considered Reagan’s foreign policy “arrogant,” that of a “bully.”

Kerry especially fought Reagan’s Latin America policy. Reagan supported muscular U.S. assertion in the region to create a democratic revolution. Kerry counseled timidity. He denounced a U.S. embargo on Nicaragua, meant to pressure the Marxist Sandinista regime there: “This unilateral display of arrogance is unpardonable. We are treating nations of Latin America as our Eastern Europe,” then held captive by a totalitarian Soviet empire. Kerry wanted to trust the word of the Sandinistas to reform themselves, while Reagan instead pressured them militarily through the Contras.

Reagan’s vision was starkly vindicated. At the beginning of his term, Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay were military dictatorships. Nicaragua had just fallen to a Communist insurrection, and El Salvador seemed set to be next. By the end or shortly after Reagan’s term, Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay had democratized. Nicaragua held elections won by the opposition, and El Salvador became a model in the region.

The Latin American experience is instructive, because it is roughly analogous to what Bush hopes to accomplish over the long-term in the Middle East–taking a region beset by tyranny and violence (and inherently distrustful of the United States), and putting it on a better path, through military means, forceful diplomacy and a rhetoric of morality and freedom. As Reagan had his “evil empire,” Bush has his “axis of evil.” Kerry has dutifully rehearsed his old lines, denouncing the arrogance, the jingoism, the unilateralism and the implausibility of the Bush project.

It is easy to assume that the status quo will always be with us and so must be accommodated. But if prudence is a virtue in international relations, it shouldn’t be an excuse for sheer lack of imagination. The world is not infinitely plastic, as we have learned during our difficult year in Iraq. But history does move, especially when determined men give it a push, despite the carping of critics insisting that it just can’t be done.

Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years.


The Latest