The Skeptics

Reagan Doctrine Redux?

The Reagan Doctrine appears to be alive and well—at least in the White House. Just as Reagan looked for every opportunity to fund, arm and support opposition groups in communist-dominated countries in the 1980s, Obama and his foreign-policy team are ideologically committed to helping opposition movements working to overthrow authoritarian governments in the Middle East. And like Reagan, Obama faces the same three obstacles that made effective implementation of the Reagan Doctrine impossible.

First, Reagan faced an obstructive Congress, one that remained uninterested in letting the president engage U.S. troops in civil wars waged by groups that viewed the U.S. as a necessary evil (at best) and where the most likely outcome was a changing of the guard rather than a solution to violence and unrest. The result was that Congressional opposition stopped Reagan from doing all that he would have done if given the chance. True, Obama has had some Republican support on the question of arming Syrian rebels, but he faced the same sort of opposition with the Libyan situation that Reagan did with Central America, and he is guaranteed to encourage more Congressional opposition if he starts serious discussions about helping establish a humanitarian corridor in Syria. What is unclear is whether the current opposition stems from the realization that the United States has a terrible track record of success in such cases or because members of Congress are worried that the American people do not have the stomach for long-term conflicts for what they consider low stakes.

The public, indeed, represents the second obstacle. As I wrote in my last post, the American people have opposed most of the post–Cold War efforts to protect vulnerable populations when those efforts crossed what is often referred to as the “Mogadishu Line.” When humanitarian aid mutates into taking sides in ugly civil wars and internecine political battles, Americans start getting unhappy. The potential costs to the White House rise considerably at that point, making success less likely as public opinion-induced caution discourages the president from considering the full range of policy options.

Third, as several commentators on this blog and elsewhere have noted, Obama faces the sad truth about the state of the opposition in Syria as in most of these situations: it’s a hot mess. Ironically, a key element of the Reagan Doctrine was that the existence of a well-organized opposition movement was a precondition for considering U.S. support. In reality, however, calling almost any opposition movement well organized is a fantasy. No one knows what supporting any one of the many opposition groups in Syria would mean for Syria’s future, any more than the U.S. has been able to manage tribal politics in Afghanistan or the complex domestic politics in Iraq. In the end, support for Syria’s rebels, like Reagan’s support for the contras in Nicaragua or the mujahideen in Afghanistan, will assuredly have consequences that no one can predict. Many, if not most of them, will be negative.

The fact that the Reagan Doctrine is alive and well seems inarguable. The judgment that it will be just as difficult to implement also seems difficult to escape. The question that remains is: How do we feel about this?

Many look back at the Reagan Doctrine as an inspirational strategy for a dangerous time. Instead of passively accepting the world as handed to him or letting the Soviet Union take the initiative, Reagan looked for opportunities to further the American cause of freedom and self-governance where he had at least some chance of success. Intentions, not outcomes, seem more important for many on this issue. In the future, some may look back similarly and praise Obama who, as president at a time of massive global upheaval and change, decided to roll the dice and side with those fighting for freedom from oppression. Of course, many are likely to look back at Obama and conclude that, like Reagan, he tried to do too much with American power and wound up not only expending U.S. lives and U.S. treasure but also causing new problems and loss of lives overseas. Time will have to tell us which group is bigger in the end.