Regan legacy reconsidered

BY PIETER LEENKNEGT

Foreigners on this campus have many reasons to question the possible motives for celebrating the HLS GOP’s recent celebration of the “Reagan legacy.” The standard explanation offered is that “many still carry their former eighties president in their hearts — as the man who won over communism.” It is even more puzzling to hear Hollywood’s Red Dawn recommended as “what probably would have happened if Ronald Reagan wouldn’t have been elected”. This embarassing cocktail of naiveté and revisionism urges us to re-analyze foreign policy during Reagan’s tenure.

For us, Reagan is hardly the hero of the end of the Cold War. The active role of the people of Eastern Europe and the inefficiencies of communist planned economies had much more to do with the demise of the dictatorial socialism practiced there than anything significantly achieved by Reagan.

Reagan’s strategy — essentially, a massive weapons buildup designed to cripple the Soviet economy — does not explain the 1.2 billion Chinese slowly abandoning their planned economy without the need of a hawkish American carrying missiles around. Besides, it sounded dramatically cynical to hear Prof. Charles Fried, speaking about the Reagan legacy last week, calling the tremendous resources involved in the arms race as “excess capacity” on the U.S. side. Maybe it would be instructive to ask the American working poor, sick and unemployed about what a wonderful economic period the eighties were. And we can ask the Russians, too, about the devastating and lasting consequences for their economy, long after they embraced capitalism.

Secondly, the inherent Russian roulette involved in driving an adversary into desperation while rooflessly building up military capacity is that you can face, at one side of the spectrum, a Gorbachev, timely addressing the inability or unwillingness to continue the race, or, at the other side, a Kim Jong Il, ready to starve his people to death in order to scale up the international confrontation. Dehumanizing “Evil Empire” imagery that treats “the Reds” as a monolithic block overlooks the real policy alternatives any regime had, at any time. Do we congratulate Reagan then, for the luck he had in facing the more reasonable of possible opponents?

Yet another part of the claimed victory over communism is to suggest that the Evil Empire left no legacy whatsoever. Some despise Jimmy Carter and members of academia for having appeased the enemy by flirting with a third way, from Sweden to Yugoslavia, and treat that as a historical error. It totally overlooks the fact that such a model of social democracy actually did take shape, and is most probably there to stay, with the support of an overwhelmingly vast majority of European states. Now is there still a clear case for a ‘winner’ of the battle over the old continent?

“Defeating communism” also meant supporting, even installing, a variety of dictatorships, especially in Latin America, where the people paid an enormous price for American intervention. Little or no weight was given to the fact that several of the overthrown elected governments had merely tried to bring about a just redistribution of means and resources to the largely unequal and dictatorial legacy of colonialism. Does anybody remember sinister Reaganite apparachiks Somoza, Videla, Noriega or Pinochet (the latter of whom would have never been there without U.S. support in the first place)?

Fortunately for Lula, the name of the game nowadays is no longer what it was, or his fate might already have been the same as Chilean former president Allende’s.

The International Film Series recently featured Coverup: Behind the Iran-Contra Affair, about a terrorist guerilla representative trained ànd financed by the Reagan administration. Little does it matter, according to Reagan’s former solicitor general Charles Fried, whether or not the president was informed — after all, the illegal support led to a massive election defeat for the “evil” Sandinista government. Strange division of roles, isn’t it: “evil communists” organizing elections, U.S. government fueling guerilla warfare.

The world at large doesn’t have much empathy for any of Reagan’s Kodak moments. For some, the trauma still runs deep. Nobody outside the U.S. has ever celebrated his foreign achievements, let alone his birthday. The concern aroused by these pro-Reagan celebrations matters now more than ever, given the prominence of recycled Reaganites in the upcoming war. To name but a few of Reagan’s old and most notorious former supporting cast that are back in the picture, John Poindexter is the new director of Total Information Awareness and Ollie North reappears in full glory at Fox News to entertain the nation about another war. Not to mention the Bush family, of course.

How serious do we have to take this neo-Reaganite administration when it talks about “removing a dictator?” It has remarkably few historical credentials to deserve our trust. Is it cynical if we look with a certain degree of skepticism at today’s case being served in an overall moral and allegedly idealistic sauce? Is it superfluous to ask the people involved to provide us with hard evidence of a genuine international threat before we join them on their expeditions? We still need to be convinced.

Ten other international students from nine different countries co-authored this column.

Comments