Reaganaut Realism Should Guide Foreign Policy

This is the fourth in an occasional series of exclusive articles in which leading conservatives who served in the Reagan Administration explain how they believe the principles of Reagan conservatism ought to be applied today and in the coming years. This week, Richard V. Allen, who served as Reagan’s first National Security advisor, addresses foreign policy.

These days, as foreign policy and national security challenges become ever more threatening, complex and costly, I am often asked how I think Ronald Reagan would assess the range of problems now confronting United States. More importantly, people want to know how he would handle things were he still in office today.

Contrary to much popular opinion and journalistic lore, Reagan did not believe that the use of military power and overt force could resolve every problem, particularly the strategic problems we faced at the time.

Although Reagan had a capacity to see complex problems clearly and to explain them in understandable terms, he always reasoned with others and with himself until he came to a viable solution or practical course of action. Indeed, Ronald Reagan came to office with some clear ideas and fixed principles, but he also was willing to welcome others—friends, advisors, even adversaries—to challenge those basic assumptions.

Nearly 30 years ago, in January 1977, I visited Reagan at his home in Pacific Palisades, Calif. My trip to California was for personal reasons, as I intended to request Reagan’s help for a political contest in which I was personally involved. In his close 1976 race for the Republican presidential nomination, I had been of some minor assistance and had fully supported his candidacy against Gerald Ford. I had also drafted the complete foreign policy section of the 1976 party platform and had done my best to incorporate Reagan’s thinking.

‘We Win, They Lose’

I thought that his endorsement of my candidacy in the race would be invaluable, and as we met, I said I had come to ask him to sign fund-raising letters and to appear at a fund-raiser in my home state, New Jersey. In his study that February morning, just days after the inauguration of Jimmy Carter, I put my requests to him. He readily agreed, asking me if that was the reason I had flown from the East Coast. I indicated that it was, and he asked, simply, “Why didn’t you call me on the phone and ask me?” I responded that I thought a request of this nature should be made face to face and said that I appreciated his willingness to be of assistance.

“Well,” he said, “the answers are yes and yes, and I’ll come to New Jersey. But when are you going back to the East Coast?” I said I planned to take the red-eye flight back that night. He told me that he had all day free and asked if I would be interested in discussing foreign policy and national security matters with him. It was an extraordinary opportunity, and I readily assented. The conversation went on for about five hours.

Toward the end of the afternoon as I was about to depart for the airport, Reagan said something that would change my life: “I’d like to tell you of my theory of the Cold War. Some people think that I am simplistic, but there is a fundamental difference between being simplistic and having simple answers to complex questions.” I nodded in agreement. He went on, “So … my theory of the Cold War is that we win and they lose. What do you think of that?”

It was an amazing statement, especially to one who had so long labored in the areas of national security and foreign policy, always with the objective of somehow helping to find a way for America to “win” in the long run. I suppose I stammered my next comment: “Governor, do you mean that?” Somewhat surprised, he said, “Of course I mean it—I just said it!”

The only response I could muster on the spot was, “Well, Governor, I don’t have any idea if you’re going to run for President in four years, but if you are, I hope you’ll count me in as a member of your team.”

All the way back East that night I pondered his statement and by morning had made up my mind to give up any political race in New Jersey and to find some way to assist in Reagan’s eventual election. It would be many years before I would publicly reveal that simple statement made in his study in February 1977, but now it is firmly entrenched in the modern political lexicon and I see it constantly cited as the hallmark of a great leader, a man with a plan. Oddly, the now-famous quote never carries a date, which seems to make it all the more enduring. But the truth is that Reagan had a plan, a grand strategy, believed it would work and, once elected as the 40th President, implemented it. The rest is history.

Today the 43rd President, George W. Bush, struggles to identify and implement a winning strategy in a series of challenges to America, some as lethal in their own way as was the huge inventory of Soviet weaponry during the Cold War, and other threats and challenges far more complex.

In a way, America is slowly being isolated by a series of challenges coming from virtually every azimuth. Relations with our classical allies in NATO are tenuous, with the exception of the Bush-Blair alliance (and even it is sound only at the top). France continues to behave like France, and Germany struggles to cope with severe domestic problems and pressures from a resurgent Russia. Vladimir Putin has set a determined course for post-Soviet Russia, and it is not a friendly one: He seeks to reverse whatever democratic gains were made when the Soviet Union collapsed, is restoring the central command of the economy and plays a risky game through the use of Russia’s vast natural resources, especially hydrocarbons. The People’s Republic of China, modernizing at a breakneck pace, remains in the thrall of the Chinese Communist Party and continues to build its military power far beyond its normal requirements, as no one threatens China today. China is moving swiftly not only in the region of South East Asia, but also in other areas of the world such as Africa, and makes deals for much-needed natural resources to fuel the engine of its rapid economic growth.

In Latin America, we now have not only an adversary in the waning days of Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba, but also important challenges from unexpected places such as Venezuela and Bolivia, in the grip of leftist dictators. Mexico, at our front door, is itself riven by serious left-wing violence, endangering the progress that had been made since President Vicente Fox broke the grip of the corrupt, leftist PRI a half-dozen years ago.

Islamic Terrorism

The most chilling series of threats is also the most opaque and most difficult to understand: Islamic terrorism, which manifests itself in so many diverse ways. It is commonplace to refer to the Middle East as a “powder keg,” and America stands almost alone in its support of a strategic ally, Israel, thought by the rest of the world to be so intransigent and dangerous as it seeks to protect its people and its territory. Were it not for steadfast American support of Israel as a strategic ally (the “strategic alliance” was inked by Reagan) and as the only democracy in the region, Israel would soon fail and fall victim to the marauding extremists on its borders and in its neighborhoods. Most of the rest of the world disdains American support for Israel and believes that Israel’s inflexibility lies at the heart of the problems of the Middle East. Of course, the truth is that only the complete disappearance of Israel and Jews from the region would sate the appetite of the murderous sects and movements on Israel’s borders.

So, what would Reagan do in such circumstances? Is it fair to pluck a hypothetical Reagan from the halcyon days of 1988, as he left office, and place him in a historical situation of 2006, a hiatus of 18 years? Perhaps it is better to consider what a consistent Reagan-like foreign policy would have been through the five terms of his elected successors, because only with that perspective can we guess—or judge—what he might have done differently.

To begin with, I believe that he would not have allowed the first Gulf War of 1991 to remain unfinished. President George H. W. Bush, James Baker, Brent Scowcroft and Colin Powell all argue forcefully that to have proceeded from the success of driving Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait to invading Iraq and dealing with Hussein would have “exceeded the mandate of the United Nations.” Reagan would not have wanted to leave the job unfinished, but even had Reagan settled for leaving Baghdad intact at that time, he would not have permitted his own military commanders to allow Saddam’s troops to move freely about the Northern half of the nation, dealing with Saddam’s declared enemies in the most brutal and murderous way.

Nor do I believe that Reagan would have permitted the sham of what became a vast international conspiracy to avoid sanctions imposed upon Saddam’s regime. Had Reagan allowed Saddam to survive, even as a figurehead, he would have put Saddam in a box and put Saddam’s neighbors and our own allies on notice that if they helped him, they would face consequences from the United States. There would not have been a scandalous Oil-For-Food Program run by the United Nations.

Nor would Reagan have treated the growing phenomenon of terrorism in the 1990s as a mere law enforcement problem in the manner of Bill Clinton. Ever the realist, Reagan would have read and taken seriously the growing threat to America and its allies and would have responded with strategies and tactics to deal effectively with any prospective menace.

Perhaps the most interesting question can be posed in these terms: Given the facts of 9/11, would Reagan have behaved precisely like Bush or would he have done things differently? In truth, there is a lot of Reagan in George Bush, and Bush enthusiasts in 2000 and 2004 focused on those similarities. So, yes, Reagan would have struck at the Taliban in Afghanistan with all the might and force mustered by Bush in that successful venture.

At the time of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, I was not so certain that Reagan would have chosen to invade Iraq, even based on the intelligence at hand. It is my conclusion that Reagan would have begun an unmerciful and determined squeeze on Saddam, mustered allied support in that effort, and continued to squeeze until internal events in Iraq were arranged in such a fashion as to rid the country of his evil presence. This could not have been accomplished without the avalanche of domestic and global criticism such hard-line and realistic policies inevitably invoke, as George Bush knows so well.

A major difference between Reagan and Bush is that Reagan would have actively explained and “sold” the rationale for his actions, and in this respect, the Bush Administration is sorely lacking. Reagan knew that a leader must explain carefully and persuasively so that the public will throw its support behind even the most difficult policies. By any measure, the Bush Administration has failed badly in the arena of “public diplomacy,” to the extent that most of its activities in the field are simply disregarded. The proliferation of instant news sources, Internet activity, blogs and other forms of communication have left the public information services of the United States hopelessly lagging.

Central Beliefs

Perhaps most important, Reagan began his approach to any major policy initiatives or decision by testing it against his own central beliefs. While not willing to budge from a core belief, he had the capacity to assess and incorporate the views of others, and then reformulate his thinking and even alter its course. In the process of listening carefully, Reagan had an uncanny sense of timing, knowing when to press ahead and when to change direction in pursuit of the same goal.

America’s present problems are many and varied, but we seem not to have been gripped by the same sense of purpose that drove Ronald Reagan in his quest to bring the Cold War to a peaceful conclusion. Granted, success is much harder to accomplish in the face of numerous threats, and granted, too, that life during the days of the Cold War was essentially simpler in terms of the magnitude of the challenges. The Bush Administration often considers itself a disciple of Reagan principles, and now that it has two years of relative freedom to operate on the global scene, it would be well advised to restore a modicum of cooperation with its numerous adversaries.

What people often overlook is that Reagan was the last President to employ a genuine bipartisan approach to major foreign policy and national security problems. Many of the leading individuals in the Reagan Administration came unexpectedly from the ranks of the Democrats, primarily because they had met Reagan, understood his approach to genuinely national problems and decided to make common cause with someone whom they might have ordinarily considered a political adversary. I know how this process developed, because I was directly involved with bringing those distinguished individuals into contact with Reagan in the years preceding his presidency.

It would be a refreshing change if Bush could look to the Congress for support, but that appears to be one of his most difficult challenges in the two years ahead. Unlike Reagan, who could absorb daytime insults and taunts from such a severe partisan as Tip O’Neill and then sip an Irish whiskey with his critic after hours, George Bush seems genuinely ill at ease and unable to reach across the table. Given that Bush does not possess the public qualities of “Great Communicator” Ronald Reagan, his only choice will be to seek assistance where he can find it, and that, by and large, will be dependent upon his ability to care less about a legacy and more about policy success.

On the first morning of his presidency, Ronald Reagan placed a small brass sign on the edge of his desk, facing outward toward staff and visitors. Many ignored it, but some read it carefully and took it to heart. It read, simply, “There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit.” It’s a lesson well worth studying these days.

Ronald Reagan would not be openly criticizing his successor today, but he would not be very happy as he viewed the present parlous state of affairs.


Sign Up