Sunday, April 26, 2015


By Ronald T. Fox

Reagan and Flag

Republicans like to refer to Ronald Reagan as the model conservative-- the patron saint of the right. They seem to believe evoking his name legitimizes everything they do, however fool-hardy. Perhaps nowhere was this more on display than in their reaction to President Obama’s efforts to conclude a nuclear agreement with Iran. Ronald Reagan, they say, would have taken a tougher line, including taking out suspected nuclear sites if necessary; he was no appeaser, like that current guy in the White House.  The Gipper a tough guy? This image simply does not square with history.  Reagan was really a softie in foreign policy, far more cautious than the Bushies, Clintonians, and Obama.

Presidential aspirants Scott Walker, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz were quick to evoke Reagan’s image in criticizing Obama’s handling of the Iranian nuclear weapons problem.  Walker, who pledged to rip up the nuclear deal with Iran on “day one,” credited Reagan for his hardline stance, saying “The best president in my lifetime when it comes to foreign affairs is a guy who was governor of California.” That’s why, he declared, “a lot of people agree… with my sentiments on Iran.”

Rand Paul, who had previously said Iran was not important enough to get vexed about, also evoked the legacy of Reagan in criticizing the nuclear deal. Summarizing his approach to curbing the Iranian nuclear program, he said: “I believe in applying Reagan’s approach to foreign policy on the Iran issue.”

Ted Cruz predictably offered his two-cents. In waxing nostalgic about Reagan’s warning to the Russians that “the bombing begins in five minutes (actually Reagan said this as a joke while testing the microphone for a Saturday radio message), he mused: “now there is a man who knew how to deal with the Iranians.”

Reagan and GorbachevSay what? Which Ronald Reagan are they talking about? Certainly not the one who denounced the Israeli raid on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor outside Baghdad and who didn’t retaliate against Hezbollah or their Iranian sponsors who were responsible for bombing the marine barracks in Lebanon that killed 241 Americans. (His response to this provocation was to withdraw our troops from the country.) And, not the one who disregarded conservative opposition to the SALT II nuclear arms reduction treaty and later nearly concluded an agreement with Mikhail Gorbachev to eliminate all nuclear weapons, much to the astonishment of some of his closest national security advisers. It surely couldn’t be this Ronald Reagan.

Both Walker and Paul must have been preoccupied with childish things during the Iran-Contra affair when Reagan approved, or at least was aware of, the sale of arms to Iran in an attempt to win Tehran’s assistance in securing the release of several US hostages held in Lebanon by an Iran-backed terrorist group. His plan was to use the proceeds from the sale to fund the Contras war against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. This action violated a congressionally-imposed embargo against selling arms to Iran as well as the Boland Amendment which prohibited military assistance to the Contras.

Rewarding a state we claimed was a sponsor of international terrorism doesn’t square well with Reagan’s kick-ass legend. Nor does his sending Robert McFarlane on a secret mission to Tehran to deliver a Christian bible, a cake, and a personal handwritten note to Iranian leaders, presumably to “sweeten” the arms sale deal (what could he possibly have been thinking?). It should be noted that no hostages were released. The sordid affair became not only a first-rate scandal, but a national joke as well.

Cutting deals with terrorist states? Failing to retaliate for a deadly attack on Americans? Violating American law and the constitution? Proposing the elimination of our nuclear weapons? Surely tough-guy legends should be made of sterner stuff. Citing President Reagan as a model for toughness and resolve in foreign affairs is utter nonsense.

So is the current Republican challenge to Obama’s authority to exercise his constitutionally-protected inherent powers to conduct diplomacy without congressional interference. How quickly we forget Republican outrage when Democrats challenged President Reagan’s authority to ignore the law and illegally sell weapons to Iran and arm the Contras. No one defended the president more than Dick Cheney, who then was a Republican member of the House of Representatives. Cheney acknowledged that Reagan might have made a mistake of judgment, but nothing more. In trying to discredit any bad news that might surface from a congressional investigation, he said:

“There was no constitutional crisis, no systematic disrespect for the “rule of law,” no grand conspiracy, and no Administration-wide dishonesty or cover-up. In fact, the evidence will not support any of the more hysterical conclusions the committees' report tries to reach.”

Cheney made it clear that he objected to the Congress butting into the president’s constitutional powers to conduct diplomacy, not only with regard to Nicaragua but on any international issue a president might face. As he told the American Enterprise Institute in 1989:

“Congressional overreaching has systematic policy effects. It is important to be clear at the outset that my argument is about systematic effects, not individual policy disagreements. For example, Congress’ efforts to dictate diplomatic bargaining tactics, as well as the efforts by individual members to conduct back channel negotiations on their own, make it extremely difficult for the country to sustain a consistent bargaining posture for an extended time period, whomever the president and whatever the policy.” [My emphasis]

The difference now, of course, is that a Democrat is conducting the diplomacy—not just a Democrat, but the hated Barack Obama.

So the man who backed off from retaliating against a deadly terrorist attack, accommodated a state that sponsored terrorism, broke the law, conducted U.S. foreign policy in the dark, almost literally from the basement of the White House, showed himself as a nuclear weapons abolitionist, and was reluctant to use force abroad is the Republican model for how America should deal with Iran and generally conduct its foreign affairs.  Go figure.

Republicans also celebrate Reagan for upholding conservative principles in domestic policy, despite his tripling the national debt, signing legislation granting abortion rights, supporting amnesty for illegal immigrants, increasing taxes, and other affronts to contemporary conservative dogma. (See my 2013 post: Ronald Reagan and Contemporary Republicans.) It’s astonishing that he has been adopted as the right’s patron saint. Oh, I forgot, he fired the air traffic controllers, the most important event in Scott Walker’s lifetime.

In foreign affairs, Ronald Reagan was not a Cheney-like tough guy; his style was more akin to the cautious Dwight Eisenhower.  On the domestic front, he was not a cut, pinch and squeezer, or a moral absolutist, which would place him well outside the mainstream of contemporary conservatism.  He often employed hawkish rhetoric, but his  bark was much greater than his bite. Walker, Cruz, Ryan, Boehner and the rest of the right-wing faithful need a refresher course in American history.

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