National Security & Defense

O = Reagan? No.

Obama in Havana, March 21, 2016 (AFP/Getty)
The difference between Reagan in Moscow and Obama in Havana

Yesterday, I wrote a post about President Obama in Cuba — specifically, his posing for pictures in front of the secret-police headquarters, with its giant mural of Che Guevara. Obama was all smiles. I regarded these pictures as unseemly, grotesque.

And then a strange thing happened: I was attacked by people on the left. This occurred on Twitter. Why was it strange? Well, I haven’t been attacked from the left in years, I’m afraid. In my world, civil war is the name of the game. Every day, I’m attacked from the right (by right-wingers who consider me insufficiently right-wing). I was beginning to think the Left had forgotten me.

What a relief!

Several of them tweeted at me a photo of Ronald Reagan, giving a speech underneath a large bust of Lenin. This was supposed to make me a hypocrite: knocking Obama while admiring Reagan, presumably. (The presumption was absolutely right.)

Ronald Reagan Library)

On the chance that some lefties will read this, let me explain something. When Reagan appeared under that bust, he was speaking to students at Moscow State University. It was May 1988. Reagan was 77 years old. He was one of the most famous and important anti-Communists in history.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Arthur Koestler — there were just a few others in his class. Reagan was practically the embodiment of anti-Communism.

He had been campaigning against that ideology since his days in Hollywood. In the third year of his presidency, 1983, he gave a speech calling the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” This caused huge consternation on the left, and among not a few conservatives, too.

At the time, Anatoly Shcharansky was in the Gulag. (After, he would become Natan Sharansky.) He and his fellow zeks heard what Reagan had done. Had the American president really called the Soviet Union an “evil empire”? Yes.

Years later, Sharansky reflected:

It was the brightest, most glorious day. Finally a spade had been called a spade. Finally, Orwell’s Newspeak was dead. President Reagan had from that moment made it impossible for anyone in the West to continue closing their eyes to the real nature of the Soviet Union.

Though it is not much remembered today, Reagan declared 1983 the “Year of the Bible.” This is the sort of thing that Americans, and many others, roll their eyes at. There was not much eye-rolling in the Gulag. For a time, Sharansky was able to study the Bible with another zek, Volodya. They called their sessions “Reaganite readings.”

(For an interview I did with Sharansky, on sundry matters, go here.)

Reagan took office in 1981, and he spent long, hard years countering the Soviet Union: by rebuilding the American military; supporting anti-Communist rebels around the world; launching SDI; refusing to bargain away SDI; and so on. The Left opposed him every step. Reagan and his allies installed cruise and Pershing missiles in Western Europe. This was unbelievably hard. The protests against this move were enormous and momentous.

When he got to Moscow State University in 1988, he was taking advantage of a thaw. And what did he use his speech for? Well, here is an annotation:

[Reagan] delivered a stirring plea for democracy and individual rights. He told the students that no nation can thrive without permitting a high degree of freedom — “freedom of thought, freedom of information, freedom of communication.”

Reagan’s speech itself? Well, I hope you won’t mind if I let the tape run for a while. Read as little or as much as you like.

. . . We’re breaking through the material conditions of existence to a world where man creates his own destiny. Even as we explore the most advanced reaches of science, we’re returning to the age-old wisdom of our culture, a wisdom contained in the book of Genesis in the Bible: In the beginning was the spirit, and it was from this spirit that the material abundance of creation issued forth.

But progress is not foreordained. The key is freedom . . .

The explorers of the modern era are the entrepreneurs, men with vision, with the courage to take risks and faith enough to brave the unknown. These entrepreneurs and their small enterprises are responsible for almost all the economic growth in the United States. . . .

And that’s why it’s so hard for government planners, no matter how sophisticated, to ever substitute for millions of individuals working night and day to make their dreams come true. The fact is, bureaucracies are a problem around the world. . . .

We are seeing the power of economic freedom spreading around the world. Places such as the Republic of Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan have vaulted into the technological era, barely pausing in the industrial age along the way. . . .

At the same time, the growth of democracy has become one of the most powerful political movements of our age. In Latin America in the 1970s, only a third of the population lived under democratic government; today over 90 percent does. In the Philippines, in the Republic of Korea, free, contested, democratic elections are the order of the day. Throughout the world, free markets are the model for growth. Democracy is the standard by which governments are measured. 

We Americans make no secret of our belief in freedom. In fact, it’s something of a national pastime. Every four years, the American people choose a new president, and 1988 is one of those years. . . . About 1,000 local television stations, 8,500 radio stations, and 1,700 daily newspapers — each one an independent, private enterprise, fiercely independent of the government — report on the candidates, grill them in interviews, and bring them together for debates. In the end, the people vote; they decide who will be the next president. But freedom doesn’t begin or end with elections. 

Go to any American town, to take just an example, and you’ll see dozens of churches, representing many different beliefs — in many places, synagogues and mosques — and you’ll see families of every conceivable nationality worshiping together. Go into any schoolroom, and there you will see children being taught the Declaration of Independence, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights — among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness . . . Go into any courtroom, and there will preside an independent judge, beholden to no government power. There, every defendant has the right to a trial by a jury of his peers, usually twelve men and women — common citizens; they are the ones, the only ones, who weigh the evidence and decide on guilt or innocence. In that court, the accused is innocent until proven guilty, and the word of a policeman or any official has no greater legal standing than the word of the accused. . . .

Freedom is the right to question and change the established way of doing things. It is the continuing revolution of the marketplace. It is the understanding that allows us to recognize shortcomings and seek solutions. It is the right to put forth an idea, scoffed at by the experts, and watch it catch fire among the people. It is the right to dream — to follow your dream or stick to your conscience, even if you’re the only one in a sea of doubters. Freedom is the recognition that no single person, no single authority or government, has a monopoly on the truth, but that every individual life is infinitely precious, that every one of us put on this world has been put there for a reason and has something to offer. . . .

Freedom, it has been said, makes people selfish and materialistic, but Americans are one of the most religious peoples on earth. . . . Democracy is less a system of government than it is a system to keep government limited, unintrusive; a system of constraints on power to keep politics and government secondary to the important things in life, the true sources of value found only in family and faith.

Etc., etc.

Now, as my tweeters pointed out, Reagan was speaking underneath a bust of Lenin. But his speech was pure anti-Leninism. Everyone in that auditorium, and everyone in the world, knew that Ronald Reagan was an anti-Communist to his very bone marrow.

About the current president — who went to Havana and posed in front of the mural of Che Guevara — we know no such thing.

My tweeters showed pictures of Reagan and the Lenin bust. (A bust in more senses than one.) They also showed pictures of Nixon and other Republicans in China. This, too, was supposed to shame me.

I certainly have had my criticisms of U.S. policy on China over the years. I have written about it steadily. But I recognize the need for a relationship with the PRC. In my view, there is no need for the normalization with the Castros that Obama has effected, certainly without concessions — without liberalization — from the dictatorship. The Soviet Union had liberalized significantly, of course, when Reagan went to Moscow.

In what Obama is doing, I see no Realpolitik element. I see him crossing off items on his rhymes-with-bucket list. (After the 2014 midterm elections, in which Republicans swept, he said he had no bucket list — but he did have “something that rhymes with ‘bucket list.’”)

If you’d like to know what I think about Obama and Cuba, please consult this column of February 22.

One more thing about my tweeters: Several of them mentioned Saudi Arabia. Their assumption was, I delight in American relations with the House of Saud while despairing of Obama’s relations with the House of Castro. Much as it pains me, my tweeters never read me. How they got a hold of the one blogpost, I don’t know.

Last month, I did a podcast with Ensaf Haidar, the wife of Raif Badawi, the most prominent Saudi political prisoner. (Go here.) (I interviewed Ensaf through an interpreter, Celine Boustani.) Furthermore, I wrote two pieces about Raif and Ensaf, the longer one of which is here.

Also last month, I interviewed George W. Bush at his center in Dallas. I wrote up that interview in five parts. In Part IV, we discuss the issue of the Saudis. Of some interest, I believe.

I invite my Twitter critics to read me. And to send me more pictures of Reagan. With or without Lenin, I enjoy seeing them.

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