Rea­gan still the yard­stick for Repub­li­cans

The China Post - - COMMENTARY - BY IVAN COURONNE

Barack Obama is weak and Pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan ex­uded power, the op­po­si­tion Repub­li­can Party says. But while con­ser­va­tive White House hope­fuls re­vere the 1980s pres­i­dent as a for­eign­pol­icy icon, over­sim­pli­fy­ing Rea­gan­ism may mask nu­ances of his diplo­macy.

Ap­pre­ci­a­tion f or the ex­pres­i­dent, who died in 2004, is noth­ing new. But­tons and posters bear­ing his coun­te­nance are com­mon at con­ser­va­tive gath­er­ings.

Nos­tal­gia peaks at the launch of each pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, as can­di­dates jostling for prime po­si­tion in­voke his popular le­gacy.

Rea­gan is the most ad­mired Repub­li­can leader of the post-Sec­ond World War pe­riod. Ac­cord­ing to poll­ster Gallup, 61 per­cent of re­spon­dents in 2013 rated him as out­stand­ing or above av­er­age, be­hind only Demo­crat John F. Kennedy who re­ceived 74 per­cent.

“Rea­gan’s elec­tion and my grand­fa­ther’s al­le­giance to him were defin­ing in­flu­ences on me po­lit­i­cally. I’ve been a Repub­li­can ever since,” wrote Marco Ru­bio, who last Mon­day launched his pres­i­den­tial cam­paign along themes em­blem­atic of the man long known as “the Gip­per.”

“Ron­ald Rea­gan was ... ar­guably one of the best pres­i­dents for for­eign pol­icy,” opined Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walker who is ex­plor­ing a White House run.

Ex-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who could be­come the third Bush to win the White House, said when he cut his po­lit­i­cal teeth in the 1980s it was the Rea­gan doc­trine of “peace through strength” that dom­i­nated.

Bush, Ru­bio, Walker and 2016 can­di­dates sen­a­tors Ted Cruz and Rand Paul all use — and some­times over­play — the Rea­gan card, call­ing for a re­turn to the “shin­ing city on a hill” that Rea­gan in­voked a gen­er­a­tion ago.

Un­con­cerned with sound­ing anachro­nis­tic, they say they want to counter Iran, push back against Rus­sia and de­feat the Is­lamic State ex­trem­ist group much like Rea­gan brought the Soviet Union to its knees.

Ne­go­ti­at­ing with the En­emy

The Rea­gan who en­tered the White House dur­ing the Cold War was an un­re­pen­tant anti-Com­mu­nist.

He pledged a strong mil­i­tary, sweep­ing aside the “de­tente” strat­egy em­braced by pre­de­ces­sors in or­der to re­pel the Soviet threat in na­tions like Nicaragua and Afghanistan, where his ad­min­is­tra­tion fi­nanced the Con­tras and the mu­ja­hedeen, re­spec­tively.

But af­ter his 1984 re­elec­tion, Rea­gan changed.

He met with Soviet leader Mikhail Gor­bachev and ne­go­ti­ated a his­toric U.S.-USSR agree­ment to re­duce nu­clear ar­se­nals.

“He was in­flex­i­ble about ends, but flex­i­ble about means,” Philip Hughes, briefly a mem­ber of Rea­gan’s Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil, told AFP.

“De­spite his de­cep­tively sim­ple ex­te­rior, Ron­ald Rea­gan is a very com­pli­cated fig­ure,” he added.

“Ron­ald Rea­gan isn’t a reli­gion,” and can­di­dates should not claim the “de­fin­i­tive in­ter­pre­ta­tion” of the man.

It would also be danger­ous to com­pare the 1980s to 2015, Hughes warned.

The monolithic Soviet men­ace was dif­fer­ent from the cur­rent na­ture of mul­ti­ple and de­cen­tral­ized threats, of­ten tinged with Is­lamist rad­i­cal­ism.

Repub­li­can can­di­dates have mostly re­jected the in­ter­na­tional nu­clear ac­cord Wash­ing­ton and other pow­ers are ham­mer­ing out with Iran, blast­ing Obama for yield­ing ex­ces­sive con­ces­sions.

They pro­mote a Rea­ganesque al­ter­na­tive: boost mil­i­tary spend­ing enough to in­tim­i­date the Ira­ni­ans into ac­cept­ing U.S. pre­con­di­tions for ne­go­ti­a­tions.

“One of the things that th­ese Repub­li­can can­di­dates are miss­ing is that Ron­ald Rea­gan al­ways be­lieved that even though the Soviet Union was our en­emy, we could ne­go­ti­ate with them, we could re­solve is­sues like the nu­clear is­sue while other is­sues we still dis­agreed on,” said John Bradshaw, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Net­work, a Demo­cratic-lean­ing think-tank.

When Rea­gan of­fi­cials started ne­go­ti­at­ing with the Sovi­ets, “neo­con­ser­va­tives ... were hor­ri­fied,” he said.

Rea­gan also differed from the cur­rent crop of con­ser­va­tive can­di­dates in a key way.

The for­mer Cal­i­for­nia gover­nor no­tably en­tered the White House in early 1981 ac­com­pa­nied by an ex­ten­sive net­work of ad­vi­sors, ex­perts and of­fi­cials ready to im­ple­ment his poli­cies from Day 1.

Ac­cord­ing to Hughes, none of the dozen cur­rent Repub­li­can con­tenders has such a Rolodex; only top Demo­crat Hil­lary Clin­ton has a com­pa­ra­ble net­work.

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