We frequently mourn the loss of charismatic figuresfor example, John F. Kennedy, Princess Diana and now Ronald Reaganwithout really making an honest assessment of what they contributed to society and history. Although President Ronald Reagan should be mourned for being a pleasant and optimistic person who articulated many admirable American ideals, the actual policies of his administration, on balance, were harmful to the republic. That verdict is especially true in the foreign policy arena.
In the wake of Vietnam, Watergate, double-digit inflation and unemployment, and the Iranian hostage crisis, Ronald Reagan rode to the nations top office on the American publics disillusion with government. Yet upon taking office, in an Orwellian bait-and-switch, he gave us more of the same under the veil of folksy rhetoric about getting the government off the backs of the people. In foreign affairs, Reagans government activism may have done the most damage. He attained a significant accomplishmentthe greatest of his presidencyby negotiating the first arms control agreement with the Soviet Union that actually reduced the number of nuclear weapons. But Reagans wasting of billions on his Star Wars missile defense fantasy did not single-handedly topple the Soviet Union and win the Cold War, as conservative zealots would have us believe. Although Star Wars research and development and the additional Russian missiles that would have been needed to overcome the system were expensive, they were only small portions of the massive superpower defense budgets. No crash Soviet buildup to counter Star Wars was evident, and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev dismissed it by saying correctly that he could build offensive missiles faster and cheaper than the United States could build complex and expensive defenses.
Moreover, the Soviet Evil Empire was overextended many years before Reagan ever took office. The Soviet Union had been spending much more on defending the realm than its dysfunctional socialist economy could handle. The decrepit economy necessitated Gorbachevs opening of the system, but once that started, the whole creaking structure collapsed. Rather than trying to accelerate the Soviet Unions decline by driving it to match ever more profligate U.S. defense spending, a smarter and less costly U.S. strategy would have been to allow the U.S.S.R. to overreach and assume the exorbitant costs of administering ever more conquests in non-strategic areas of the Third World. In fact, Reagan did the oppositeusing the Reagan doctrine to attempt to roll back communist gains in the developing world.
Reagan is given credit for ensnaring the Soviet Union in its own Vietnam-like quagmire in Afghanistan. Although it seemed like a good idea at the time, U.S. support of the most radical Islamic jihadists against the Soviet occupier ultimately created al Qaeda, one of the few severe foreign threats to the American homeland in the history of the republic. Osama bin Laden and the jihadists have already inflicted more damage to the United States than the Soviet Union ever did.
Other unintended consequences from Reagans macho meddling in remote parts of the world were equally dangerous to American citizens and U.S. constitutional government. Reagans secret support for Saddam Hussein in his victorious war against Iran would upset the balance of power in the Persian Gulf region and lead to years of confrontation with, and now a perilous occupation of, Iraq.
The conventional wisdom is that Reagans 1986 air strikes on Muammar Qaddafis tent in Libya were in retaliation for a Libyan terror strike against a nightclub frequented by U.S. military personnel and that they cowed the Libyan leader from further acts of terror. The reality is quite different. Upon taking office in 1981, Reagan went after Qaddafi because he believed him to be a Soviet stooge and deliberately provoked him by sending the U.S. Navy into waters and air space claimed by Libya. The Libyan bombing of the nightclub on April 5, 1986 followed another massive U.S. naval incursion in late March 1986 that again downed Libyan aircraft. After the April 15, 1986 U.S. air strikes, Qaddafi initiated a secret campaign of anti-U.S. terrorist strikes. Those attacks culminated in the horrific destruction of flight Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988. Prior to 1986, Qaddafi had only attacked European rather than American targets.
During that same decade, Reagans unnecessary military intervention on the side of the Christians in Lebanons civil war resulted in retaliation by Islamic factions, which killed hundreds in bombings of the U.S. Embassy and Marine Corps barracks and resulted in the taking of American hostages.
Although Reagans public war on terror was macho, his behind-the-scenes efforts to pay ransom to Iran through arm sales to win the release of those hostages merely caused more captives to be taken. More important, the profits from those arms sales were secretly funneled to Contra fighters in Nicaragua to circumvent a congressional prohibition on U.S. government assistance toward those guerrillas battling the Sandinista government. The Iran-Contra scandal was in many ways more serious than Watergate because the illegal funding of the Contras circumvented the most important congressional check on executive powerthe power of the purse. In fact, the Iran-Contra affair may have been one of the most serious violations of the U.S. Constitution in American history.
Because of his charisma, the Great Communicator may have been one of the most effective presidents of the 20th centuryeffective at doing the wrong thing and needlessly endangering Americans and people worldwide.
Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.
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