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The Reagan Regime, Part 1: The Turn Toward Ideology (Then and Now)
August 13, 2007

What a weekend: first, a viewing of No End in Sight, the incredible documentary by first-time director Charles Ferguson about how the occupation of Iraq was tragically bungled by the Bush Administration; second, Karl Rove's resignation.

One might be tempted to think a political corner has been turned. The architects of the Iraq disaster have left the White House, and cooler, more competent, less divisive and more pragmatic minds are in control.

Jumping to such a conclusion would be a grave error.

Despite all the clamor from the right that Bush has betrayed the conservative cause and the Reagan legacy in particular, a review of the dramatic sea change that occurred in foreign policy when Ronald Reagan took power in January 1981 reveals that the groundwork for much if not all of the Bush II administration's foolhardy aggression and counterproductive braggadocio had its seeds in Reagan's rejection of both Kissinger's Realpolitik and Carter's emphasis on human rights.

The Reagan administration was nothing if not ideological, and it is rightwing ideology, not mere incompetence, that lies at the root of the Iraq disaster.

Reagan Defines the World

As I noted in my Weekly commentaries for July 2nd and July 9th, in the Reagan world view the Soviet Union—not native reaction to local injustices, or homegrown rebellion against national tyrannies—was the cause of all Third World conflict, and this Soviet meddling was proof of its continued lust for world domination.

No one shared this view more enthusiastically than Alexander Haig, Reagan's choice for Secretary of State. Reagan selected Haig for this position—choosing him over both Casper Weinberger and William J. Casey—despite considerable friction with others in Reagan's inner circle: the so-called "California Mafia." (Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Deaver vowed never to let Haig visit with Reagan alone, because: "He scared the shit out of me.") Haig also ran contrary to Reagan's preference for low-key cooperative team players; in contrast, Haig was paranoid, belligerent, sensitive to the merest slights to his authority, and volatile. A colleague at the State department, quoted in William LeoGrande's Our Own Backyard, described him as follows:
He was a very fragile fellow in a lot of ways, but he got this reputation for toughness and macho. He always used to say, with disturbing frequency, that a particular event or a particular problem was or was not "a test of our manhood."
But Reagan's confidence in Haig (not without its own misgivings, as Reagan's diaries make clear) was based on the fact the former general saw the Soviet menace in the same if not even more sinister terms than the president-elect himself. (And Haig was the only senior official on the Reagan team with any substantive knowledge or experience in foreign affairs.)

The problem with the world view embraced by Reagan and Haig was that it bore little resemblance to realities on the ground.

Although the Cubans did lend support to revolutionary movements in Central America, they did so not as straw men for their Soviet overseers but in genuine solidarity against what they perceived as the threat of American and capitalist domination. In truth, the Soviets loathed the Sandinistas and had no use for them, and their support for other regional revolutionaries was largely rhetorical. Similarly, the Sandinistas rejected wholesale support for the Salvadoran rebels for fear of jeopardizing their own fledgling revolution. (For a more extensive catalogue of factual misstatements made by the neoconservatives in general and Kirkpatrick in particular, see my Weekly commentary for July 9th). In short, the picture was far more nuanced and complex than the hard-liners in the Reagan Administration would admit—but, of course, "nuance" is simply a symptom of moral confusion and vacillation—i.e., liberalism.

Haig's ignorance of regional realities was at times blatantly obvious. For example, he described the Salvadoran military as having fended off tyranny for decades, a statement so wrongheaded as to be virtually unintelligible. (As Tom Faber noted in his critique of Kirkpatrick's analysis of Central American politics—see Weekly commentary July 9th—the military had protected a "rigid autocracy" for nearly two centuries.)

Haig's ignorance of Latin American realities was not his only shortcoming. He staffed his policy team with veterans of the Vietnam disaster so closely identified with American policy failures there they were sometimes derided as "The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight." Haig chose them over members of Reagan's "movement conservative" transition team because he wanted people with actual policy experience (the transition team, in contrast, was largely comprised of campaign staffers), but he despised and distrusted the Carter Latin American bureau and purged it of its senior members almost instantly. He preferred "ambitious" and "can-do" people with operations experience, and he chose Vietnam foreign service veterans to signal the importance of Central America in Reagan's foreign policy. The fact few of these people knew anything about the region mattered little. Haig mocked those who pointed out the discrepancies between local realities and his globalist assumptions, and he began to view a lack of experience in the region as a good sign: It meant one wouldn't be prone to denigrating what American power could accomplish if unleashed. (Haig's favorite was Thomas Enders, who had directed the secret bombing of Cambodia, using maps so crude and outdated it was impossible to know if civilians were in the target zones; despite reports of civilian casualties, Enders ordered the bombings to continue.)

Haig announced that, "International terrorism will take the place of human rights" as the administration's prime concern in foreign affairs. There was no attempt to distinguish between insurgents and terrorists.

El Salvador: The Test Case

Haig was convinced that Central America, and El Salvador in particular, was where the Reagan administration should "draw the line" against Soviet aggression. Opposition by the Democrats was already partially neutered by Carter's renewal of military aid to El Salvador during his last days in office (see my Weekly commentary for July 23rd). And El Salvador looked eminently winnable. Haig expected the conflict, with increased aid to the Salvadoran military, to take no more than a few months.

Interestingly, for all his rhetoric about Soviet adventurism, one factor figuring into Haig's calculations was the relative unimportance of Central America to the Soviet Union. Even if the Soviets did amp up aid, America's supply lines were shorter. So the war was not only politically defensible and militarily winnable, it was geostrategically advantageous.

This showdown would demonstrate to the Soviets that America would meet the expansionist challenge, resulting in diminished Communist adventurism in the Third World; it would reassure Western Europe that the U.S. was once again ready for the role of world leader; and it would demonstrate to the American people that projection of American military power in the Third World was possible without being mired in another quagmire like Vietnam. This last objection was seen as particularly vital among the Reaganites, because they believed Vietnam had created an atmosphere of defeatism and cynicism that had to be reversed if America was going to aggressively stand up to the Soviet threat.

But El Salvador wasn't really Haig's obsession: Cuba was. His first plans were a military overthrow of the Castro regime, and when not just senior White House staff and Pentagon officials but a study group Haig himself had appointed decided this wasn't feasible—Cuban resistance to any invasion would be predictably protracted and fierce—he raged that their analysis was "just trash . . . limp-wristed, traditional cookie-pushing bullshit." Ultimately, a number of options were proposed, up to and including a blockade, but the options were still largely political and economic, infuriating Haig.

Others responded candidly. Referring to Haig's final plan (which he himself did not believe was tough enough), Richard Allen remarked, "It was a plan that might best and most fairly be described as folly." Or, in the words of James Baker: "If we give Al Haig his way, the next thing you know, we'll be carpet-bombing Central America."

The White Paper: "A Castle of Sand"

To justify the new El Salvador policy, Haig produced a White Paper alleging that "over the past year, the insurgency in El Salvador has been progressively transformed into a textbook case of indirect armed aggression by Communist powers." The White Paper based this claim on "captured documents" that purported to show that the Salvadoran guerrillas were receiving arms from a number of Soviet proxies—including, interestingly, Iraq (whom Reagan would subsequently embrace in its war with Iran) and the PLO—including 200 tons of weapons delivered in late 1980, with a total of 800 tons promised.

Although American allies were generally noncommittal, if not skeptical, Congress was virtually credulous. The Democrats in particular, stunned by their overwhelming defeat, had no stomach for a confrontation with Reagan, and even the staunchest liberals refused to challenge the White Paper's basic premises.

The press too made no real objection to the White Paper, though journalists who covered Central America widely disbelieved it. Reagan officials calculated correctly that newspapermen writing on deadline would not have time to fact check the various claims made in the document. This turned out to be true, with one notable exception. John Dinges, writing on behalf of Pacific News Service, was the first journalist to actually look at the captured documents at the center of the White paper's claims. He discovered by and large the documents did not support those claims at all. When he asked about these discrepancies, the State Department "declined further elaboration on its conclusions" and claimed it had stopped providing copies of the original documents. Subsequent analyses by the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal confirmed that the much of the administration's argument as represented in the White Paper was, in the words of one intelligence analyst, "a castle of sand."

In particular, the documents showed that, although the Salvadoran rebels did enjoy support from Nicaragua, Cuba, and Communist block countries, they remained a "disorganized rag-tag rebellion," not the well-oiled military machine flush with new equipment described in the White Paper. The documents also confirmed that Nicaragua was reluctant to become too deeply involved in the Salvadoran rebellion, and were leery of risking their own revolution for the sake of the Salvadorans. The documents also showed that though the FMLN received support from the Cubans, they were generally disdained by the Soviets, who at best were indifferent to their cause, and were reluctant to involve themselves in the transport of arms, let alone their provision.

(It is not merely Republicans who make their cases for war so shoddily, of course. Lyndon Johnson's White Paper on Vietnam, Aggression from the North, suffered from many of the same shortcomings Haig's did.)

Even some of the officials who worked on the Haig White Paper admitted later that it oversold the evidence, and was in essence a "selling document," not a real policy paper. But by the time its limitations were obvious, the thrust of Reagan's Central American policy had been set; the deceit had framed the debate.

The Similarities to Iraq

This narrative virtually screams for a comparison to the buildup to the current war in Iraq. Indeed, the parallels are glaring:
  • The conflict was premised on a belief that it would present an easy victory, and a test case of American strength and resolve.
  • Fabricated or misrepresented evidence made the threat appear immanent and dire.
  • A world view formed by ideological considerations rather than historical, social, economic or political realities guided policy.
  • The work of career intelligence analysts was disregarded on the grounds it was not aggressive enough, with a preference for analysis tailored more exactly to ideological preconceptions.
  • Insurgents were described as terrorists, as propaganda assumed primacy over strategy.
  • The actual nature of the conflict—a civil war—was denied, and instead characterized in globalist (and Manichean) terms, i.e., the west vs. Communism, or the west versus jihadist Islam, with insurgents being misidentified as terrorists, and all opponents of U.S. interests described as puppets or surrogates of external players (the Soviet Union, al Qaeda, Iran).
  • Policy positions were staffed with ideological fellow travelers, many of whom lacked any policy experience, instead of career civil servants.
  • Democrats deferred to a "popular president," rather than confront him.
  • The press largely bought the administration's arguments wholesale.
  • The opinions of allies were largely disregarded.

Given so many parallels, it is difficult if not impossible to believe that George W. Bush's aims and methods in pursuing the Iraq War were in any material way different from those Ronald Reagan employed in Central America. And neoconservative claims that Reagan's "success" in Central America provided a prototype for "victory" in the Middle East only brings this point all the more forcefully home. The world view and policy are all of one cloth, though there might be minor if not wholly technical disagreements over the value of "nation building."

The Revisionism Has Begun

Not that right-wing commentators aren't flocking to disavow Bush's Iraq disaster, of course.

Jeane Kirkpatrick famously disagreed with the invasion, and in a New Republic review by neoconservative commentator Edward N. Luttwak of Kirkpatrick's posthumously published Making War to Keep Peace, he attempts to distinguish between "careful" neocons like Kirkpatrick (and himself), who supposedly exert great effort analyzing and understanding the relevant historical experience and political cultures at issue in a given policy, and careless ones such as Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle. As noted above, this supposed "care" is a self-congratulatory delusion: In truth, Kirkpatrick and many of her allies routinely demonstrated a conspicuously cavalier regard for local facts in favor of ideological pieties. In particular, Kirkpatrick's late-in-life insistence that democracy is impossible without "an elite with a shared commitment to democratic procedure" flies in the face of her earlier embrace of El Salvador's uncompromising, sadistic oligarchy.

And with Karl Rove's resignation, conservative scion Richard Viguerie remarked:
How do we recover from the Rove Era? We have to reject the bribing of voters and instead build on President Reagan's legacy. We must re-establish the conservative movement (and the Republican Party, if it wishes to survive) as the movement and party of ideas, empowering people instead of government, and with a strong national defense but no more nation-building.
But the Reagan legacy is incomplete without recognition of the misrepresentations, outright lies, errors and mismanagement that his Central American policy exemplified, and which were in truth dutifully if not cynically—not to mention tragically—duplicated by George W. Bush.

And any Republican presidential candidates who try to wrap themselves in the Reagan banner should be queried long and hard on just how and why they expect to escape this legacy of blind ideological obsession at the expense of a more realistically grounded pragmatism.

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