Sunday, April 26, 2009

From Colony to Superpower, Part XIX

This is the nineteenth installment in the 20 part series Rob Farley and I have commenced to review George Herring's From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1776. See the Herring Review tag below for previous entries.

This week we will discuss Herring's chapter on the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. This is one of the book's better chapters. I like Herring's analysis of both presidents. He puts Reagan in the proper context without mythologizing him. In fact, Reagan comes across looking pretty bad. As Grandpa Caligula should. Reagan certainly was an important person. He represented what Americans of the 1980s wanted to see in themselves and in doing so, he restored national pride after Vietnam and the Iran hostage situation. The Reagan administration did incredible damage to this country and the world--in foreign policy, in the War on Drugs, in attacking welfare, in cutting domestic programs, in destroying labor unions, and in ignoring the AIDS epidemic because it was considered a gay disease. But ultimately, does Reagan deserve the blame or does the American people? It's not as if these policies were unpopular. At least until Iran-Contra, Reagan had a pretty consistently high approval rating. Why did Americans have so much hate in the 1980s toward people of the world and toward minorities, gays, and the poor in this country? I'm not prepared to offer a useful answer, but it's a sad period of American history.

However, the idea that Reagan won the Cold War has no basis in reality. In fact, most of Reagan's policies were terrible. He unnecessarily ratcheted up Cold War tensions in the early 80s, accusing the Soviets of knowing the Korean Air plane they shot down in 1983 was a civilian plane (not true), pushing Star Wars, and using dangerous rhetoric. His obsession with Central America led to disastrous results for the people of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. None of these places threatened the United States, but Reagan promoted horrible policies in each of these places. That he did so illegally, at least in the case of Nicaragua and El Salvador, is even more reprehensible. Where I can let earlier presidents off the hook a bit for their Latin American policies because both parties basically treated these places the same, by the 1980s, there was clear opposition to hardcore Cold War policies in the area. Congress refused to fund aid to the Contras. And Reagan's minions went around Congress. This was a crime and Reagan should have been impeached. The invasion of Grenada was even more absurd. The idea that Grenada, an island approximately the size of my office, could become the next Cuba was completely ludicrous. Nonetheless, invading the island was really popular with Americans looking for an unequivocal victory.

Reagan's policy toward the Middle East was even worse. Sending U.S. troops into Lebanon without a clear mission was a bad idea, pulling them out after the bombing of the Marine barracks made us look as weak as we had in 1973. Demonizing Iran and then dealing with them to fund the Contras was arguably the most hypocritical move in the long sordid history of American foreign policy. Reagan did a poor job of dealing with the rising tide of Middle Eastern terrorism; bombing Quaddafi's Libya was not an effective response. Virtually nothing the Reagan administration tried here went right.

One thing I thought interesting was that in the 1980s it was still possible to have a foreign policy toward Israel that was different than yes. Reagan was pro-Israel, but Begin caused him endless headaches. I guess latent anti-Semitism, especially in the State Department, was what led to a lot of hostility in the U.S. toward Israel, but at least in the 80s you could formulate an opinion about American relations with them. Today, everyone has to fall over themselves vocalizing fealty to Israel; even pointing this out, as Walt and Mearsheimer did, is cause to be accused of anti-Semitism (or self-hatred if the person involved is Jewish). I don't see how this reflexive relationship to one nation is good for the country.

What positive characteristics we can ascribe to Reagan come from the fact that he wasn't as crazy as he sounded when dealing with the Soviet Union. Although I'd like Herring to go into a bit more detail on what caused the Soviet Union to collapse, it's clear from his narrative that Gorbachev deserved most of the credit for leadership. It was his enterprise that thawed the Cold War and liberalized eastern Europe. Reagan just happened to be there. But to the chagrin of the hard-liners in his foreign policy team like the loathsome Richard Perle, Reagan softened considerably toward the Soviets once he realized what Gorbachev was doing. He stayed out of the way for the most part, and agreed to significant deals with Gorbachev over arms control during their frequent summits. Given his harsh anti-communistic rhetoric of his first term, not only was this change in heart unexpected, but also the best thing he could have done.

As for Bush, it seems that China and Iraq are the most important areas to discuss. Yes, he was president for the fall of the Berlin Wall and the breakup of the Soviet Union, but little he did mattered to this process. He wasn't particularly prepared to deal with this sudden change, but I'm not sure that most presidents would have done better. I do think Bush faced a pretty tough situation after Tiananmen Square. It was horrible, but what was Bush supposed to do? China was too powerful to act strongly against in any meaningful way. We could have completely ended all relations with them, but I remain unconvinced that this would have accomplished much for the Chinese people. As for Iraq, it's hard to argue that we should have let Saddam Hussein take over Kuwait. You really can't sanction nations swallowing their neighbors. The question of whether to leave Saddam in place is pretty tough. Obviously, Bush Jr. taking Saddam out didn't exactly work well. On the other hand, the HW Bush foreign policy team was far more competent than W's, there were active uprisings against Saddam that we might have piggybacked upon, and, for what it's worth, the times were different and the same result might not have happened. On the other hand, this is all speculation. Regardless, promoting internal rebellions and then letting Saddam brutally crush them was pretty terrible and it fits into a long history of Americans promoting democracy and freedom through their rhetoric and then hanging the freedom fighters out to dry when they take it seriously.

Sometimes the long term effects of foreign policy decisions can't be known for years. In 1989, Congress rejected Bush's first choice for Secretary of Defense, John Tower. His second choice: Dick Cheney. Tower might have sucked and maybe Cheney would have been just as powerful in the W administration. But maybe without his term as Secretary of Defense he would have remained a more peripheral player in the latter administration. Certainly the world would be a much better place now had that happened.