The Corner

Following Reagan’s Eye on National Security

Bill Kristol and Marc Thiessen have written this week about Governor Romney’s recent assertion that James Baker related a story to him that President Reagan had decided to focus solely on fixing the economy during his first 100 days in office, even if it meant not having meetings on national security.

The anecdote immediately raised questions amongst many national-security experts because foreign policy did play an important role in Reagan’s 1980 campaign. Reagan wrote in his memoir, An American Life, that even before he decided to run for president, the Carter administration’s handling of world affairs was a reason he was contemplating throwing his hat into the ring. “I also thought the administration was a disaster in the arena of national security.” He cited Carter’s defense cuts, global gains by Communist forces, and the threat of nuclear annihilation as issues that drove him to this conclusion.

In Reagan’s acceptance speech at the 1980 Republican National Convention, he emphasized national security as much as the economy in his attack on President Carter’s record. It’s a critique that rings true about the current occupant of the Oval Office, “The Carter administration lives in the world of make-believe. Every day, drawing up a response to that day’s problems, troubles, regardless of what happened yesterday and what will happen tomorrow.” Writing later about that summer, Reagan noted that “there were many problems facing our nation: the tragic neglect of our military establishment, high unemployment and an ailing economy, the continuing expansion of Communism abroad, the taking of the hostages in Iran.”

Reagan described his first weeks in office in his memoirs, noting that even as he tackled the country’s economic problems, he also had to repair the damage done to the military during the Carter years. “I knew reversing the effects of years of neglect would be expensive and difficult. But during the campaign, the people of America had told me nothing mattered more to them than national security.” He went on to write, “I wanted a balanced budget. But I also wanted peace through strength.”

#more#A week after his inauguration, President Reagan welcomed the hostages home from Iran and held a Cabinet meeting to discuss the deal that brought them back. According to The Reagan Diaries, in the first 100 days, he received visits from officials from Jamaica, South Korea, the United Kingdom, Japan, and China, among others. The president took one foreign trip to Canada that March (he visited Mexico as president-elect). The diaries also record high-level meetings to discuss Cuban and Soviet assistance to the rebels in El Salvador; whether to remove the grain embargo against the Soviet Union; Haitian refugees; ongoing issues regarding a remaining hostage in Iran; trade issues with Japan; Cuba’s activities in Angola; several foreign plane hijackings; and arms sales to Saudi Arabia, to cite just a few of the topics he was confronted by during that period.

The diaries include an entry for Wednesday, February 11, “High spot a Natl Security Council meeting” on El Salvador. On Saturday, March 7, the diary notes that Reagan even “responded to news of the execution of a church worker in Bolivia.” On March 9, Reagan wrote about a meeting in the Situation Room where he “approved some covert operations.” On March 13, Reagan wrote, “Finished calling a number of St. Dept. Professionals appointing them to Ambassadorial posts,” which he proudly noted that “no Pres. has ever done this personally before.” On March 19. Reagan wrote that he had arranged to meet with his secretary of state, Al Haig, privately three times a week. Toward the end of the first 100 days, and after the assassination attempt on his life, President Reagan began a correspondence with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.

Even just these few highlights make clear that this was not a president focused single-mindedly on the economy while ignoring foreign policy during his first 100 days in office. Instead, these examples show a hands-on president fully engaged in the national-security aspects of his job. Indeed, Reagan even wrote in his memoirs that by taking on the responsibility of being commander in chief and controlling the nuclear launch codes, he had “taken over the greatest responsibility of my life — of any human being’s life.”

Then–secretary of state Al Haig later wrote that he clashed with James Baker (who was White House chief of staff) during this period because Baker and aide Michael Deaver “were transfixed by the problem of ending the recession and inflation Reagan had inherited from Carter.” Haig and Baker had a famously poisonous relationship, but perhaps the issue was James Baker’s priorities during that period (and perhaps now), not Ronald Reagan’s.

What is certain is that, just as in 1980, the America of 2012 faces an uncertain threat environment. In response to these threats, the current occupant of the White House has projected weakness and uncertainty, and overseen drastic defense cuts. The mantra one increasingly hears from some on both the left and the right, that the scale of our fiscal crisis means that we must put everything else on hold until we get our economy in order, is dangerous and inconsistent with historical precedent. Just as President Reagan had no choice but to make national security a priority during his first weeks and months in office, Governor Romney will have to do the same if he is chosen by the American people to be our next commander-in-chief.

Jamie M. Fly — Mr. Fly is executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative. He served in the office of the secretary of defense and on the National Security Council staff from 2005 to 2009.


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