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 Is Bush Another Reagan? 

June 15, 2004 
Since the eight Clinton years already seem like the good old days, we shouldn’t be amazed at the huge, Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.affectionate reaction to Ronald Reagan’s passing. Reagan himself was a symbol of the good old days even while he held office. In our nostalgia, we forget how contentious the Reagan years actually were.

President Bush is often said to model himself more on Reagan than on his own father, who alienated his conservative base by raising taxes in spite of his most memorable campaign promise: “Read my lips: No new taxes!” Bush the Son and his neoconservative supporters claim the Reagan legacy as their own.

And what is that legacy? Strong defense and standing up to evil, we are told. But Reagan, despite his earnest anti-Communist rhetoric, avoided risking war with the Soviets and negotiated an arms reduction deal that basically ended the Cold War, allowing the Soviet Union to die in peace. Reagan defended the Vietnam war as a “noble cause,” but he didn’t want another. One such noble cause was plenty.

Bush the Father, in only four years, waged two wars: against Panama (you geezers out there may recall the imminent threat posed by Manuel Noriega) and Iraq. Even Bill Clinton was more bellicose than Reagan, raining bombs on Iraq and the Balkans.

When a suicide bomber killed 241 U.S. Marines in Lebanon in 1983, Reagan had the perfect opportunity to declare “war on terrorism.” He passed. The Pentagon said emphatically that the “peace-keeping” mission was militarily futile, and Reagan yanked the U.S. forces out — to catcalls from the neoconservatives, who wanted American power to dominate the Middle East and accused him of “a failure of nerve.” But Reagan knew a no-win situation when he saw one.

Which is not to say that Reagan was a man of peace. He bombed Libya and fostered covert operations, as in Nicaragua, that might have gotten him impeached. But he also tried to maintain alliances with Arab regimes, especially Saudi Arabia, further enraging the neocons, despite his warm support for their favorite state, Israel. He may even have used the phrase “war on terrorism” — presidents declare war on so many things — but he never pursued it.

[Breaker quote: Not exactly]Fighting terrorism was only one of Reagan’s many themes. It was not a high priority. Terrorism had been making headlines since the 1970s, occurring in the Middle East, Europe, and Latin America. Few expected it to reach this country, but the government took precautions anyway, making air travel in America, during the Clinton years, more annoying than ever.

Writing in Freedom Daily, James Bovard reminds us that Reagan took many anti-terrorist measures, most of them clandestine. But some of those who received covert American aid were terrorists themselves, if the word means anything other than the enemy. In 1985 the CIA may have been behind a car bombing in Beirut near the home of a radical Islamic leader, killing 80 innocent people but missing its intended target. A few months earlier, the Washington Post reported, Reagan had authorized such measures.

And after the 241 Marines were killed, Reagan ordered a U.S. battleship to shell a Lebanese village thought to harbor terrorists, killing more innocent people. I remember my shock at that time. It was murder, and my beloved Reagan had done it!

No, Reagan was no saint. And the U.S. Government is an enormous lethal power, even if a saint is running it.

But the current war on Iraq simply wasn’t Reagan’s style. Saddam Hussein was one of the Arab rulers he notoriously favored with deadly material aid during its long war with Iran; he sent Donald Rumsfeld to do the glad-handing. Without proof that Saddam was behind the 9/11 attacks, Reagan would never have taken measures against him — especially a major war, with its attendant political risk.

Yes, Reagan was deeply affected by what the hawks disparage as “the Vietnam syndrome” — otherwise known as learning from experience. He saw Communism, not terrorism, as the great threat to the United States, but he learned to deal prudently with it, while never ceasing to condemn it in principle. Even when the Soviets shot down a Korean airliner, killing a U.S. congressman and many others, he kept his head.

Love him or despise him, Ronald Reagan had something the people claiming his mantle conspicuously lack: a bit of common sense.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2004 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
a division of Griffin Communications
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