EVERYTHING I EVER NEEDED TO KNOW I LEARNED IN 1983
OR HOW TOO MANY REAGAN-ERA RETREADS MAY SPOIL DUBYA'S REELECTION
You know, I finally figured out why George W. Bush thinks he can spin his colossal foreign policy failures into a 2004 victory: Because Reagan did it. Sure, everyone cringed when Bush started calling Kim Jong-Il a midget, and talking about the Axis of Evil. But nobody really liked it when Reagan called the Soviet Union "The Evil Empire," either.
Most folks knew that, like it or not, we had to live with the Soviets. Insults just didnt seem like sound diplomacy, but come election time, nobody seemed to care. Between his bizarre obsession with Central America where, to the Presidents delight, the C.I.A-trained Contras led terrorist attacks against the Democratically elected Sandinista Government, and his largely inexplicable Middle East policies Reagans awful record as both a diplomat and a military leader rivals Dubyas. But Ronnie was reelected. Its appearing more and more likely that Dubya will follow in the great family tradition of one-term presidents.
Remember the Civil War in Lebanon? Virtually every political faction in Beruit had its own militia. The PLO was heavily involved. Israel, never a country to shy away from a land grab, took over in the south, presumably to counter any PLO activity. Reagan -- for reasons nobody, not even the President himself, could fully articulate -- sent in the Marines. 1,500 Marines to be exact.
The allegedly neutral "peace keeping" force hunkered down in the Beruit Airport and spent much of their time dodging artillery, with very little success. There werent enough Marines to accomplish anything other than giving the more militant Lebanese factions a virtually helpless target. And, while the U.S. was supposed to be neutral, battleships hammered rebel troops, making the poor Marines an even more tempting target. Hundreds of Americans were killed before Reagan, without fully justifying U.S. involvement, pulled out. Our accomplishment? We got a lot of kids killed for no good reason.
Strangely enough, Americas Lebanese adventure was NEVER an issue in Reagans campaign for re-election. What was an issue? The U.S.s more successful military involvement in Grenada, thats what. It was billed as a "rescue mission," though it was really just another example of Americas ongoing containment policies. After the Communist-friendly Prime Minister of Grenada, a British Commonwealth nation, was deposed and executed by an even more Communist-friendly group of rebels, Reagan sent 1,900 Marines in to set things right.
A new Government was established, all Cubans were ordered off the island, and the Soviet Embassy was shut down. Of course it pissed off the Brits, who had been having a little love affair with the U.S. since wed voiced our approval of their Falkland Island invasion a year and a half earlier. That little exercise in military overkill had been over nothing but old-fashioned British nationalism, hardly what one would call a just war. But, until Grenada, the U.S. and Britain had been thick as thieves, as they say. Reagan didnt wreck the alliance, but he strained it significantly.
The effect of Grenada on Anglo-American relations NEVER become an issue in the 1984 election either. Rather it was viewed as a classic example of Americas commitment to keeping the world free, and safe from Communism. Besides, who cares what the Brits think, right?
So in terms of foreign policy, what did Reagan have to show for himself in 1984? His massive arms buildup prompted an in-kind response from the Soviets who re-committed themselves to the development of chemical and biological weapons. Clearly, the world was not a safer place. His involvement in Lebanon had been nothing sort of a deathtrap for U.S. Soldiers, and his Grenada invasion had been a prime example of hunting ants with an elephant gun. But boy howdy, did it look good on video.
What did Reagan have that George Bush doesnt have? To begin with, he was articulate, and for unknowable reasons credible. His administrations duplicity wouldnt be an issue for three more years, and even that couldnt stop George Bush the elder from winning the White House. Due to lies about his military service (check bio A Charge to Keep
), misstatements concerning Iraq, Medicare, and job creation, George W. Bushs credibility hangs by the slimmest of threads. And even in his best, fully scripted moments his thick-tongued stammering cant come close to matching Reagans charming certainty. And then there is simple inertia.
President Johnson was branded as the man who turned Vietnam into a quagmire, and his Civil Rights victory, an unqualified triumph for human rights, was nothing short of political suicide. Empowering blacks did very little to impress an establishment weaned on Jim Crow. Nixon gave us Watergate, and a new reason to hate and mistrust the government. For all of his good intentions Carter was both a foreign, and domestic disaster. And although it's difficult to show that Reagans first term was in any way an improvement, at least the great entertainer knew how to keep the countrys spirits high. He was funny, and genuinely upbeat. "Reagan or The Apocalypse" wasnt his campaign slogan.
Unlike Dubya, Reagan really did inherit a recession. And while he didnt do much in his first term to turn things around, he didnt do much to make things worse either. Bush inherited from the Democrats a slowing, but still strong, economy that wouldnt peak until 2001. All of his plans to stimulate the job market have failed, and a huge budget surplus has swiftly been transformed into the greatest deficit in American history.
Culturally speaking, things have changed quite a bit since Reagan, and quite a bit more since Johnson. Americans under 40 cant remember the time before Civil Rights, so once divisive cultural issues lack the teeth they once had. If anything, they only serve to single out who the would-be oppressors really are. The Internet and other alternative means of accessing news and information have helped to keep our politicians honest, and have kept important issues alive that previously might have washed out in a single news cycle.
If Bush had only concentrated on Afghanistan and done the job right he might walk away with this election in spite of a crappy economy. It would have been his Grenada, only grander, bolstered by a genuine sense that justice had been served. But he had to get into Iraq, his Lebanon. And then he had to get into democracy-building, which flies in the face of tried-and-true Cold War containment policies which hold that a manageable dictator is always preferable to a democracy inclined to elect an enemy of American freedom.
And unlike Lebanon, which came with more than its share of lies and misstatements, Iraq caught the American fancy. Heck, with all that shock and awe business, how could it not? Sadly, for both him, and the American people, now greatly diminished in the eyes of the world, George W. Bush, proved he was no Reagan. He didnt know when to get the hell out.
No doubt the many Reagan-era advisors with whom George W. Bush has surrounded himself whisper, "Dont worry, little George, weve all been in this situation before, everythings gonna be just fine." Then again, Reagan was, for reasons still unknowable, both trusted and popularly elected. So its pretty obvious they havent been in this situation before. And as far as the election is concerned, everything isnt going to be just fine.