The Rea­gan ex­am­ple

The Washington Times Weekly - - Editorials -

As Congress weighs what ac­tions it is pre­pared to force on Pres­i­dent Bush to halt U.S. mil­i­tary in­volve­ment in Iraq, anti-war law­mak­ers find them­selves in a quandary: Al­though Congress has author­ity to make it im­pos­si­ble for a pres­i­dent to con­duct for­eign pol­icy as he sees fit, it is in­ca­pable of con­duct­ing its own for­eign pol­icy. To be sure, through its power of the purse, Congress has the abil­ity to cut off fund­ing for the war, but even the con­gres­sional Demo­cratic lead­er­ship has thus far been re­luc­tant to take such a step, for good rea­son: Do­ing so would ren­der Amer­i­can forces un­able to carry out op­er­a­tions in wartime and would leave them vul­ner­a­ble to at­tack, and their re­sult­ing in­abil­ity to func­tion would trig­ger far greater lev­els of Sunni-Shi’ite vi­o­lence than we are cur­rently see­ing.

As the pres­i­dency of Ge­orge W. Bush en­ters its sev­enth year, Demo­cratic con­gres­sional lead­ers have dif­fi­cult de­ci­sions to make about how ag­gres­sive (and de­struc­tive) they want to be in op­pos­ing his con­duct of the war, and Mr. Bush has to care­fully con­sider how he can be an ef­fec­tive wartime pres­i­dent when both houses of Congress are con­trolled by the op­po­si­tion party. Re­cent decades of­fer two pos­si­ble mod­els of what the next two years could look like: 1) the dis­grace­ful con­clu­sion of the Viet­nam War in 19741975, when a Demo­cratic Congress cut off fund­ing for the war, ren­der­ing Pres­i­dent Ford un­able to stop the blood­bath that fol­lowed in In­dochina; or 2) Pres­i­dent Rea­gan’s ex­tra­or­di­nary po­lit­i­cal come­back in 1987-88, af­ter pub­lic rev­e­la­tions of U.S. arms sales to Iran in an ef­fort to se­cure free­dom for Amer­i­can hostages.

Al­though his­tor­i­cal analo­gies are never pre­cise, in some ways our cur­rent predica­ment is anal­o­gous to the sit­u­a­tion Pres­i­dent Roo­sevelt faced in 1942 — a year which be­gan with a se­ces­sion of Al­lied losses, as one Pa­cific gar­ri­son af­ter an­other fell to the Ja­panese. While set­backs took place on the bat­tle­field, mil­i­tary lead­ers in Wash­ing­ton worked fever­ishly to cre­ate fight­ing forces ca­pa­ble of tak­ing on the Axis pow­ers. There was a sense of com­mon na­tional pur­pose, and there were no pro­longed pub­lic hear­ings staged by crit­ics of the war, no mass move­ments aimed at en­sur­ing that the U.S. mil­i­tary didn’t get “bogged down” in the Pa­cific theater or try­ing to “bail out” Great Bri­tain.

The World War II model col­lapsed in 1966-67, as Pres­i­dent Lyn­don Baines John­son poured hun­dreds of thou­sands of troops into In­dochina in an ef­fort to pre­vent South Viet­nam from fall­ing to the Com­mu­nists. Arkansas Demo­cratic Sen. J. William Ful­bright, chair­man of the Se­nate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee, be­gan hold­ing a se­ries of pub­lic hear­ings with the goal of end­ing the war. He didn’t suc­ceed in that goal, at least right away, but he helped per­suade LBJ not to seek re-elec­tion. Richard Nixon, elected pres­i­dent in 1968, fought North Viet­nam to a stale­mate, and in Jan­uary 1973 reached a cease­fire with Hanoi, end­ing largescale U.S. par­tic­i­pa­tion in Viet­nam. By the end of 1973, how­ever, Mr. Nixon was mired in Water­gate, and North Viet­nam be­gan large-scale in­fil­tra­tion of its forces into South Viet­nam. Mr. Nixon re­signed in Au­gust 1974, and fol­low­ing gains for lib­eral anti-war Democrats in the 1974 elec­tions, his suc­ces­sor, Mr. Ford, faced a hos­tile Congress which cut off funds to re­sup­ply South Viet­nam.

What fol­lowed Congress’s evis­cer­a­tion of Mr. Ford’s author­ity as com­man­der in chief was an ap­palling hu­man­i­tar­ian cat- as­tro­phe in In­dochina and a diplo­matic black eye for the United States, as Com­mu­nists cap­tured South Viet­nam, Cam­bo­dia and Laos. Hun­dreds of thou­sands of Viet­namese were sent to squalid reed­u­ca­tion camps or fled by sea in a des­per­ate ef­fort to es­cape, where they of­ten were at­tacked by sharks or pi­rates. Sev­eral mil­lion per­ished in the Cam­bo­dian geno­cide per­pe­trated by the Kh­mer Rouge, which had the back­ing of Com­mu­nist China.

In stark con­trast was Mr. Rea­gan’s sec­ond term. Af­ter news of the Iran-Con­tra af­fair broke af­ter the 1986 elec­tion, Mr. Rea­gan’s poll rat­ings plum­meted to the mid-40s, but he staged an ex­tra­or­di­nary po­lit­i­cal re­cov­ery. Some of Mr. Rea­gan’s most re­mark­able po­lit­i­cal achieve­ments took place in his fi­nal two years in of­fice, in­clud­ing Soviet Pres­i­dent Mikhail Gor­bachev’s drop­ping of his de­mands that the United States aban­don the Strate­gic De­fense Ini­tia­tive and the with­drawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. By the time he left of­fice, Mr. Rea­gan’s pop­u­lar­ity rat­ings had jumped to 64 per­cent. The chal­lenge for Mr. Bush is to have a fi­nal two years like Mr. Rea­gan’s.

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