Since he began running for president six years ago, Barack Obama has hoped aloud that he would become the Democratic Ronald Reagan. Now, suddenly, Iran may offer him the chance. But if Obama wants to achieve with Hassan Rouhani what Reagan achieved with Mikhail Gorbachev, he must liberate the Gipper’s legacy from the hawks who speak in his name.
In today’s Iran debate, calling yourself a Reaganite means being open to military force and skeptical of a diplomatic deal. Which means, ironically, that today’s “Reaganites” aren’t very Reagan-like at all.
In his first term, Reagan boosted military spending, introduced the Strategic Defense Initiative and funneled aid to anti-communist rebels and regimes in a bid to increase pressure on the Soviet empire. But for Reagan, increasing pressure and going to war were radically different things.
In the early 1980s, prominent conservatives urged Reagan to consider sending the Marines to overthrow the new leftist regime in Nicaragua. William F. Buckley, the longtime editor of National Review, proposed that Congress declare war on both Nicaragua and its Cuban patron. Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz wrote that “the United States must therefore do whatever may be required, up to and including the dispatch of American troops, to stop and then to reverse the totalitarian drift in Central America.” But Reagan, who shared the public’s fear of another Vietnam, considered the invasion talk insane. “Those sons of bitches won’t be happy until we have 25,000 troops in Managua,” he told his chief of staff, “and I’m not going to do it.”
Obama’s first-term strategy of pressuring Iran via sanctions and sabotage while resisting military action fits Reagan’s approach. So does Obama’s eagerness for a diplomatic deal. For Reagan, pressure was not an alternative to negotiating with the Kremlin. It was the precondition. More than a year before the Politburo selected Gorbachev, Reagan had decided that America’s international position was strong enough for serious talks. Breaking with his earlier bellicose rhetoric, Reagan in January 1984 told Americans that “nuclear arsenals are far too high” and that Moscow and Washington should join together “to stop arms races around the world.” That September, before a meeting with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, Reagan declared that “the United States respects the Soviet Union’s status as a superpower ... and we have no wish to change its social system.” As the University of Toronto’s Beth Fischer has noted, Reagan and his secretary of state, George Shultz, wanted serious arms-control talks as early as 1984. The problem, as Reagan quipped, was that geriatric Soviet leaders such as Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko “keep dying on me.”
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