Politics & Policy

Curious Namedropping

By invoking Reagan, Kerry highlights Bush's multilateralism.

John Kerry continues to invoke the name of Ronald Reagan when criticizing what he calls George W. Bush’s “go it alone” use of force. Kerry’s decision to name-drop Reagan is curious, especially in light of an event that happened nearly two decades ago this week.

On October 25, 1983, some 5,000 U.S. troops stormed the Caribbean island of Grenada, where renegade Marxists murdered Prime Minister Maurice Bishop. A violent Marxist military council trained by Cuba put itself in charge, shot and jailed Bishop’s supporters, enacted martial law, and imposed a shoot-on-sight, 24-hour curfew that threatened everyone living on the island–including roughly 1,000 Americans, most of whom (700) were students at the St. George’s School of Medicine.

Ronald Reagan dubbed Grenada a “Communist power grab.” His administration believed that the USSR and Cuba were building military installations on the island, including a landing strip, and stockpiling materiel. They later found an enormous cache of weapons, armored vehicles, and military patrol boats, enough to equip thousands of troops, reportedly as many as 10,000 to 20,000. This included 10,000 assault rifles, 4,500 submachine guns, 11.5 million rounds of ammunition, 294 portable rocket launchers with 16,000 rockets, 15,000 hand grenades, 7,000 land mines, 23,000 uniforms, and much more. During the battle, U.S. troops engaged roughly 800 Cuban soldiers.

To Reagan, Grenada posed the hazard of not only a joint military installation orchestrated by Moscow and Havana but also another full-fledged “Cuba” operating in the Western Hemisphere. Reagan was already committed to ceding “not one inch” of territory to Communism anywhere, least of all in America’s backyard, where he already feared Communism in Nicaragua and El Salvador.

The October 25 excursion became the largest U.S. military operation since Vietnam. There were remarkably few casualties, particularly when measured against what Americans had experienced a decade earlier. Only 19 died, with a little over 100 wounded. By comparison, the United States lost 58,000 in Vietnam. The commander of the task force in Grenada, Vice Admiral Joseph Metcalf III, rightly boasted: “We blew them away.”

The intervention was also an emotional victory for the post-Watergate, post-malaise, Vietnam-syndrome America: a shot in the arm to U.S. morale. A startlingly quick 30 hours after the start of the “rescue mission” (as Reagan called it), the first evacuated medical student to debark the airplane dropped to his knees and kissed the tarmac as he touched the safety of U.S. soil in Charleston, South Carolina. It was the sort of smiling military triumph that had become sadly unfamiliar to Americans.

Then, something strange happened: In a bizarre twist, the operation was so successful that liberals ridiculed its ease. Madeleine Albright, then a decade away from becoming Bill Clinton’s secretary of state, dismissively likened the operation to a football game pitting an NFL team against “The Little Sisters of the Poor.” Her words were mimicked by a future presidential candidate from Massachusetts named John Kerry, who said the invasion was like “Boston College playing football against the Sisters of the Mercy.” Kerry called Grenada “a bully’s show of force.”

As the Boston Globe notes, John Kerry has today changed his tune. “Campaigning now for president,” reports the Globe, “Kerry is rewriting that history…. Kerry often lists Grenada among the U.S. military incursions he says he has supported.” Indeed, the senator now says of the invasion: “I never publicly opposed it.”

Why has Kerry supposedly reappraised Grenada? Was it because Reagan had rejected that alleged “go it alone” tendency Kerry sees in George W. Bush?

No way. Despite his reputation as a hawk, Ronald Reagan used force only twice as president–less than Bill Clinton’s use of force (unilaterally, even) in Iraq alone. One of those two episodes took place in April 1986, when U.S. fighter pilots bombed Libya. The French were so against the strike that they refused to permit American jets to fly through French airspace.

Grenada, however, was first and foremost an example of Ronald Reagan’s virtually going it alone. To say that Reagan had less support in 1983 than George W. Bush did in going to war in Iraq 20 years later is a major understatement.

While Americans supported the Grenada attack, it was lambasted by the international community. Even Reagan’s buddy Margaret Thatcher opposed him; she shouted at him on the telephone in the most disapproving tone and language she ever directed at her friend. The vote at the U.N. Security Council was 11 to 1 against the United States, while the General Assembly vote was 108 to 9, with America joined only by El Salvador, Israel, and the six Caribbean neighbors that requested U.S. assistance in the first place.

If John Kerry is such a Reagan fan now, what’s Dubya doing so wrong? Is Kerry’s foreign policy nothing but political expediency?

Paul Kengor is the author of God and George W. Bush. He is also a professor of political science at Grove City College and a visiting fellow with the Hoover Institution.

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