Reagan's Critics

Reagan's Critics

Mini Teaser: The measure of "greatness" in American presidents is often theretrospective appreciation of their willingness to "stay the course"in the face of determined opposition from powerful opponents.

by Author(s): Stephen F. Knott

In Afghanistan, the Reagan administration enjoyed bipartisan support
for a bold covert operation to bolster the Afghan mujaheddin and
force the withdrawal of the Soviets. The foundation for Reagan's
campaign was his approval in March 1985 of National Security Decision
Directive 166, which sought the defeat and complete removal of Soviet
troops. About two billion dollars worth of aid was provided to the
freedom fighters. The key item in this aid was the Stinger
anti-aircraft missile, the arrival of which tilted the war in favor
of the mujaheddin. But it also included satellite data on Soviet
targets, intercepts of Soviet communications, the establishment of
clandestine communications networks for the mujaheddin, long-range
sniper rifles, wire-guided anti-tank missiles and a targeting device
for mortars that was linked to a U.S. Navy satellite. Seven weeks
after the Stingers made their first kill in September 1986, Mikhail
Gorbachev held a Politburo meeting in which he made clear his
impatience with the war, and in December it was announced that the
Soviets would withdraw no later than December 1988.

Many of the American skeptics who were critical of Reagan's nuclear
policies also doubted his ability to influence Soviet conduct in
Afghanistan. Newsweek reported in 1984 that "the mujaheddin can never
be strong enough to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan", andas late
as 1987 the magazine claimed that "the anti-Communist insurgents can
never hope to defeat their better equipped adversaries." Nicholas
Daniloff reported in U.S. News and World Report that "defeating the
Soviet Army is an impossible dream", while Richard Cohen in the
Washington Post wrote in 1985 that "we are covertly supplying arms to
guerrillas who don't stand the slightest chance of winning. . . .
Afghanistan is not the Soviet version of Vietnam." (Three years
later, as the Soviet collapse in Afghanistan was evident, the title
of a Cohen piece in the Washington Post read "The Soviets' Vietnam.")

Despite the skepticism in some quarters, Reagan's policies toward
Poland and Afghanistan enjoyed widespread bipartisan support. The
same cannot be said for his efforts in Central America, a region
where guilt over America's past interventions cast a shadow over any
attempt to prevent Marxist-tinged nationalist movements from
acquiring power. "We have unclean hands", declared Congressman Vic
Fazio during a 1986 debate over Contra funding.

In Nicaragua, Reagan chose once again to reverse a Carter policy that
accepted the status quo--in this instance the legitimacy of
Nicaragua's Sandinista government. As Carter administration official
Anthony Lake put it, "seeking either to overthrow the victorious new
Sandinista government or to sever completely the long-standing ties
between its leaders and their friends in Cuba seemed unrealistic."
These sentiments were echoed by Carter's Under Secretary of State
Warren Christopher, who in 1979 judged the Sandinista government to
be "moderate and pluralistic", with a very diverse leadership
desirous of "close and friendly relations" with the United States. In
December 1981, President Reagan began the process of reversal by
signing National Security Decision Directive 17, which authorized $19
million to set up a five-hundred man force designed to disrupt the
infrastructure he believed Nicaragua was using to supply guerrilla
forces in El Salvador.

In waging war covertly against the Sandinistas, Reagan was defying
the prevailing opinion in Congress, academia, and among columnists
that America was on the wrong side of history in resisting Third
World "nationalist" movements. As Senator Christopher Dodd of
Connecticut, the Democrats' main spokesman on Central American policy
argued, "the Sandinistas may not be winners, but right now we are
backing sure losers." Dodd added that the United States needed to
"move with the tide of history rather than stand against it." One of
the chief architects of President Carter's Central American policy,
Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Viron Vaky,
urged the Reagan administration to "accept what has happened in
Nicaragua as a deplorable fait accompli that it cannot reverse at an
acceptable cost." As the Boston Globe put it, "Have we grown enough
through experiences as different as losing the Vietnam War and seeing
the Third World anew through Peace Corps eyes to understand that it
is possible for the United States to get ahead of the curve of
history if we want to?"

The argument that was initially most effective in terms of weakening
public support for Reagan's policies was that Nicaragua was "the next
Vietnam", and one of the more impressive accomplishments of Reagan's
term of office was helping to disabuse the nation of the idea that
whenever America used force it inevitably headed into--the favored
term--a quagmire. The idea was given expression by, among others,
columnist Mary McGrory, who insisted that "the Great Explainer cannot
delete their [the public's] memories of Vietnam. They hate jungle
wars; they know military aid is followed by U.S. troops." During the
debates over supplying aid to the Contras Senator Jim Sasser pleaded
that "as the father of a seventeen year old son, I say Mr. President,
let's not rush blindly into that quagmire. We've done that before",
while one of his Democratic colleagues accused the president of
wanting "a Tonkin Gulf resolution for Central America." Indeed, many
members of Reagan's own party had doubts about the wisdom of the
Contra war and raised the specter of Vietnam: "I'm a conservative
who's been with them all the way, but Vietnam is a lesson",
Congresswoman Lynn Martin noted in 1983. But the core of the
opposition came from House Democrats, whose leader, Speaker Tip
O'Neill, denounced the Contras as "butchers and maimers." He added,
"I don't think the president of the United States will be happy until
U.S. troops are in there." Nonetheless, and in the face of this
emotional outpouring, Reagan publicly declared that his goal was to
"remove" the Nicaraguan government.

Reagan has been criticized by some conservatives (including Jeane
Kirkpatrick, Caspar Weinberger, William Casey, and Judge William
Clark) for not being sufficiently overt in his opposition to the
Nicaraguan regime, perhaps even resorting to a conventional assault.
But there is simply no way that Reagan, even at the peak of his
communicative skills, could have sold that option to the American

In the end, despite faltering support for efforts to destabilize the
Sandinistas on the part of the Bush administration, and a Sandinista
campaign of violent intimidation, Violeta Chamorro's forces won the
February 1990 election. Without the application of military pressure
by the Contras, the Sandinistas would have solidified their hold on
the country, and would have felt no need to engage in diplomatic
negotiations, which led, despite the best efforts of the Sandinistas,
to a relatively fair election. As Mexican author Octavio Paz noted,
"thankfully, this part of the world has finally given up Marx for
Montesquieu." Yes, but it needed a little help from Ronald Reagan.

Relegitimizing The Use of Force

While fear of another Vietnam was a constant source of criticism
against Reagan's covert campaigns, it was an even larger factor in
conflicts where American forces were engaged overtly. Though it is
now fashionable to deride Reagan's use of force against Grenada and
Libya as meaningless sideshows against third-rate powers, they were
not viewed that way at the time. Again, they were seen by many as
revealing Reagan's inability to learn the lesson of Vietnam: America
would experience only more pain and suffering from projecting force
in the Third World.

The invasion of Grenada, which came on the heels of the bombing of
the Marine barracks in Lebanon, showed that Reagan would not be
immobilized and intimidated by even a serious setback, but would move
with dispatch. His critics did the best they could by contending that
Reagan had launched the Grenada operation to erase Lebanon from the
public memory, but planning for the assault had in fact begun well
before the bombing of the Marine barracks. While the administration
had been expressing concern about the Grenadan regime's connections
to Cuba for several months, it was the overthrow of the government of
Maurice Bishop by a group of harder-line Marxists that prompted
American intervention. The Reagan administration was concerned about
the presence of American medical students on the island, and the
reaction of neighboring Caribbean states to a heightened Cuban and
Soviet presence in their region.

Once the attack was underway in the last week of October, 1983, the
barrage of criticism was steady, reflecting the anxiety that for the
first time since the Vietnam War the United States had committed
ground forces to an attack. Speaker O'Neill declared that "we can't
go the way of gunboat diplomacy. His policy is wrong. His policy is
frightening." Senator Daniel Moynihan observed that, "I don't know
how you restore democracy at the point of a bayonet", while Senator
Gary Hart argued that "we are dealing with an administration that is
not inclined to obey the law."

Foreign reaction was also highly critical; most disturbing to the
administration was that of Margaret Thatcher, who strongly condemned
Reagan's action against a member of the British Commonwealth whose
head of state was the queen. François Mitterrand described it as "a
surprising action in relation to international law", and Helmut Kohl
stated that "if we had been consulted we would have advised against
it." The UN General Assembly denounced the invasion in a 108 to 9
vote, while seven Democratic members of the House, led by Rep. Ted
Weiss, moved to impeach Reagan. For the New York Times, Grenada was
an exercise in moral equivalence, "a reverberating demonstration to
the world that America has no more respect for laws and borders, for
the codes of civilization, than the Soviet Union."

Essay Types: Essay