Channeling Reagan: The Homeland Security Secretary Speaks

What should be Washington’s guiding light in the war on terror? According to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, supporting the spread of American values and democracy is the key.

A LIVELY debate continues to take place on the pages of The National Interest centered on how America should respond to its post-9/11 challenges. Recently, the focus of that debate turned to the legacy of Ronald Reagan. The ensuing discussion might be summed up by the question, "What would Reagan do?"

President Reagan had a powerful vision of the future for humanity. It was not a vision of humanity in permanent thrall to dictatorship and totalitarianism. It was one that was rooted in hope rather than defeatism. And Reagan had an unwavering conviction that this vision would ultimately prevail.

In 1982, speaking before the British parliament, Reagan declared that the Soviet Union "runs against the tide of history by denying human freedom and human dignity to its citizens." He pledged to "foster democratic change." As one observer remembered, President Reagan's speech rejected the cold war "as some permanent condition." And he backed up those words with action, as when he deployed upgraded Pershing missiles in Europe, despite strong demonstrations and criticism.

How did the guardians of conventional wisdom view Reagan's daring to talk about freedom and dignity? They viewed his approach as dangerously simplistic. In his contemporaneous diary entries, the late historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. had this to say about Reagan's policies: "Those who think the Soviet Union is on the verge of economic and social collapse are kidding themselves." Schlesinger went on to criticize the "Reagan people" who "want an unlimited arms race on the theory that it will either wreck the Soviet economy or result in unquestioned American nuclear superiority." He added scornfully, "These people don't seem to realize they are playing with the future of humanity."

Which of these men-Reagan or Schlesinger-was vindicated by history? The question was answered when the Berlin Wall came down.


SOME WHO have appeared on these pages have said that Ronald Reagan was motivated by a philosophy of pragmatic idealism. It is probably more precise to say that his ideas and policies were driven by a reality-based idealism. This approach embraces American exceptionalism. In this view, America is not just another country pursuing its own narrow interests, but one that is firmly anchored on its founding creed that people everywhere have fundamental rights that are not to be trampled upon by any government or person. While acknowledging that no nation is perfect, its supporters assert that to a remarkable degree, the United States has lived its creed. They cite the sheer numbers of people around the world who endorse this assessment by choosing this land over others to live, work, raise a family and call home.

Yet reality-based idealists have no illusions about how life and people sometimes operate or about the constraints imposed by circumstances. They refuse to deceive themselves about the dangers that lurk in the world. But their response to bad news is neither to sugarcoat it nor to shrug in resignation and urge a fatalistic strategy of accommodation and managed decline. Instead, idealists of this kind have the vision to "change the game" entirely, through fundamental realignment of the circumstances that appear to be so grim.

How does this concept of reality-based idealism translate to the current struggle of our new century?

First, it demands a clear-eyed view of the threat that we face. We must identify the dangers in our world in an honest and straightforward way. Like Ronald Reagan, we must not hesitate to call evil by its name.

The evil we face today is an ideology of violent Islamist extremism that declares its undying enmity against those who dare to oppose it, including most Muslims. Much like communism and fascism in the last century, this extremist ideology aspires to totalitarianism. Its goals are not constrained by concerns about liberty, nor are its adherents amenable to respectful debate or discussion.

Besides being totalitarian, this militant vision is inescapably theocratic. Islamist extremism goads its adherents to welcome death as a holy act of martyrdom, teaching them that the more lives they can take along with their own, the more successful their mission. And the terrorists who embrace this ideology do not represent mainstream Islam. In fact, they routinely target ordinary Muslims. More than two years ago in Amman, Jordan, a groom, his bride, the fathers of both newlyweds and as many as ten more relatives were among dozens of Muslims slaughtered in the middle of a wedding celebration in a triple suicide bombing ordered by al-Qaeda in Iraq. In February 2008, in Peshawar, Pakistan, forty people were killed when a homicide bomber blew himself up at a funeral for a slain police officer. And earlier that month, in Baghdad, terrorists reached a new low, strapping two mentally disabled women with explosives and blowing them up by remote control, killing them and at least twenty-seven other civilians in a busy marketplace.

Yet these extremists do more than simply violate the sanctity of human life. They seek to destroy human liberty. From the Taliban when they ran Afghanistan to al-Qaeda in Iraq, they demand absolute obedience to their wishes and they inflict extravagant punishments on those who fail to conform to their harsh edicts.

What is the ultimate aim of these extremists and their organizations? Simply put, they claim to desire a worldwide caliphate and their actions suggest they are serious.