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Ronald Reagan's surprising legacy in the Middle East


The administration of the late U.S. President Ronald Wilson Reagan, unforeseeably and through no fault of Reagan's own, has had a disruptive and destructive legacy in the Middle East. This legacy has little to do with the major features of U.S. Middle East policy in the 1980s -- siding with Iraq against Iran, intervening in Lebanon, bombing Tripoli, trading arms for hostages, or opening a dialogue with the PLO. In a surprise, it has had more to do with a seemingly unrelated matter: the fall of the Berlin Wall.

An ideological complex has come to surround the Reagan presidency, sometimes bearing remarkably little resemblance to actual events and decisions, but generally with great fidelity to Reaganesque rhetoric circa 1983. A political movement has made of Reagan what is politely called an icon. Its idolatrous catechism teaches that Ronald Reagan, the Great Confronter, brought the Soviet Union low through uncompromising clarity of vision and decisiveness, shaming his predecessor's weakness and base appeasement.

Hearing this, one could scarcely imagine that Ronald Reagan met five times with his Soviet counterpart, extended him a hand of friendship, and negotiated and signed two far-reaching nuclear arms control treaties, effectively terminating the Cold War on peaceful terms. Nor would one be likely to suspect that his predecessor, Jimmy Carter, had initiated the great arms buildup of the 1980s, terminated the ratification of a major nuclear arms control treaty, boycotted the Moscow Olympics, and decided that America would support Afghanistan's guerillas against Soviet invaders.

This is not to say that the narrative lacks all truth. It does contain some truth. But it is a selective, blinkered reading of history that has contributed greatly to America's current plight in Iraq.

Return for a moment to 1987. As Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev were about to sign a treaty removing all nuclear missiles from Europe, Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle quietly resigned. His deputy and acting successor Frank Gaffney failed to see the writing on the wall and was dismissed from his post. Gaffney was reduced to pleading with the President not to sign the treaty, through the medium of an op-ed in the Washington Post.

Today, Perle and Gaffney are among the keepers of the Reagan flame. And Perle in particular has achieved notoriety as a cheerleader for the liberation of Iraq. These two matters are closely connected.

Some observers believe that the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989 because the Soviet system was weak; because the war in Afghanistan had sapped its strength; and because East Germans, Czechs, and Poles were eager to break out from behind the Iron Curtain and embrace their cousins in the West. These factors were specific to a historical moment. We should be proud of how American policy contributed to them, but should not exaggerate its role by claiming that it determined the outcome.

The priesthood and disciples of the cult of Reagan tell it differently. According to their teachings, the Berlin Wall fell because of Ronald Reagan's almost Nietzschean act of will. All men and women everywhere long for freedom, but some lack a champion. That being the case, tyranny can be smashed and liberty established just as easily in one time and place as in any others, if only Americans, led by a visionary American president, have the will to make it so.

Having decided to enact its will upon Iraq and the Middle East, America is now embroiled in a losing struggle there. To hear it from President George W. Bush, Iraqis love liberty just like anyone else, and any suggestions to the contrary are tainted with racism.

Still, the course of events suggests that some differences remain between Baghdad and Berlin. Iraqis do not inhabit an alienated and unredeemed section of the West. Apparently, they do not identify strongly with us or greatly aspire to join our circle of liberal-democratic nation-states. Their fractious politics revolve around extended kin groups, and their primary loyalties remain subnational. For all his viciousness and fraudulence, Saddam Hussein was a native son of Tikrit. For all our authentic goodwill and good intentions, Americans are foreigners everywhere in Iraq.


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Original text copyright by the author and MidEastWeb for Coexistence, RA. Posted at MidEastWeb Middle East Web Log at http://www.mideastweb.org/log/archives/00000269.htm where your intelligent and constructive comments are welcome. Distributed by MEW Newslist. Subscribe by e-mail to mew-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. Please forward by email with this notice and link to and cite this article. Other uses by permission.

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Replies: 5 comments

you never answered the question in your opening paragraph: what indeed is reagan's legacy in the middle east?

i understand your rejection of comparisons to the iraq war and the second world war (although remember the bush administration is trying to draw a greater parallel between iraq "as a part of the war on terror" which is then compared to ww2). but what of the legacy question? how do people in the middle east feel about reagan? and you sound like you've got some bitterness towards the carter foreign policy. can you please elaborate on this post?

Posted by anna @ 06/08/2004 01:24 AM CST

Carter's foreign policy was awful...thanks for sticking with the truth.

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