By Anthony Salvia Anthony T. Salvia was Special Advisor to the Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs under Ronald Reagan, and director of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Moscow bureau.
RussiaInsider The Donald’s Russia policy builds on Reagan’s cold war achievement.
There are two prevalent views of Ronald Reagan and his legacy in today’s GOP. The National Review’s Rich Lowry says it is time the party got over its inordinate attachment to Reagan and devised new policies to expand the party’s base. (But then Donald Trump is already doing this, which is why he is winning.)
Then there are those who still lovingly invoke Reagan’s name nearly a quarter of a century after he left office. Says Senator Rubio: it is “time for the children of the Reagan Revolution to assume the mantle of leadership.” By this he means, of course, people like himself, and not his nemesis Donald Trump who has a history of supporting Democrats, and can therefore be assumed not to be a “movement conservative,” and therefore, not a Reaganite.
In any case, the “children of the Reagan Revolution” revile Trump for his opposition to the things they love the most — open borders, fast track trade deals, and military intervention overseas, which they habitually imply Reagan would have supported.
Well, I served for eight years under President Reagan as one of his appointees in the Departments of State and Defense; I know what I am talking about: Reagan stood for none of those things. Moreover, far from Trump having no claim to the Reagan mantle, he has a better claim to it than most other candidates.
Reagan and Trump are very different as personalities. The former was suave, the latter often brusque. But that should not obscure the fact that they have a lot in common:
Both were Democrats before switching parties. Both were media personalities. Reagan was an entertainer who became a corporate spokesman (for General Electric); Trump is a businessman who became an entertainer (appearing for years on a program for NBC, which, when it first aired, was a subsidiary of General Electric.)
Reagan, like Trump, divorced and re-married (Reagan once, Trump twice). He was the first divorcee to occupy the White House. He made much of religion and its role in public life, but rarely went to church. Nevertheless, he won lots of Evangelical votes, just as Trump is doing in the primary. As Governor of California, he signed one of the most liberal abortion laws in the nation, although later embraced the cause of life. He campaigned actively for John F. Kennedy in 1960 only to ardently support Barry Goldwater in 1964. Trump’s views on social issues and politics have also evolved in similar kinds of ways.
Neither had Washington experience; both were considered interlopers by the power elite. Although both were gifted communicators and more than adept at using the media, the media had no use for either of them (apart from the revenue their popularity generated.)
Both led insurgencies against the GOP establishment, which loathed them. Reagan was branded lazy, too old, not terribly bright, a warmonger and a danger to the Republic in an effort to bring him down. Trump is also the object of much scurrilous commentary generated by well-paid establishment spin doctors specialized in character assassination.
Both had a penchant for loose rhetoric that would get them in trouble (Reagan compared the New Deal to Fascism, said trees cause pollution, and was accused of racism for denouncing “Cadillac-driving welfare queens”). It is hard not to see the roots of Trump’s explosive debating style in Reagan’s legendary “I’m-paying-for-this microphone” moment that left his future vice president tongue-tied in Nashua.
Both were “big picture” guys who did not pretend to be policy mandarins. The U.S. presidency combines the roles of head-of-state and head-of-government in one office. Reagan was always more plausible as King than Prime Minister; he always had strong chiefs of staff who managed the day-to-day affairs of government while he set the strategic direction and engendered public support for it. Trump, I suspect, would govern in much the same way.
Trump’s mantra about open borders – “either we have a country, or we don’t” – echoes Reagan’s “a nation that cannot control its borders is not a nation.” Both called for the abolition of the Department of Education (with any luck, Trump will actually do it); both supported free trade, but neither was dogmatic about it: Reagan did not hesitate to protect American workers under threat; he imposed trade barriers to protect Harley Davidson, which remains a going concern to this day.
The pro-war wing of the GOP (it’s more than a wing; it’s the thing itself) loves to suggest Reagan would have endorsed its militarized foreign policy.
But he went to war only once – in Grenada in 1983 – in what was really a police action to rescue U.S. medical students from the clutches of Cuban construction workers. He rarely “sent in the Marines” (although he did so in Lebanon, and promptly withdrew them following a terrorist attack that killed hundreds of our finest soldiers in their sleep).
If Reagan revamped and expanded the U.S. military, it was not because he sought what the Washington war party some years later would call “global strategic predominance,” or “benevolent global hegemony,” or “full-spectrum dominance” – all euphemisms for empire, which the libertarian-inclined Reagan had no interest in at all — but because he saw an expanded military as a requirement of national defense, and as vital to ending the Cold War in a peaceable manner.
His ending of the Cold War was a protean achievement, in my view, his finest, which is why it is so shocking to see those who claim to be his heirs fanning the flames of conflict with Moscow. His subtle and sophisticated diplomacy – backed not by the use of military force, but the implied threat to use it – constituted something of a master class in the conduct of foreign policy.
Strolling arm-in-arm through Red Square with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, he declared an end to the Cold War – much to the consternation of the “neo-conservatives.” He negotiated the joint removal of U.S. and Soviet intermediate-range missiles from Europe, sought the elimination of strategic nuclear weapons at the Reykjavik summit, and, recognizing that the unilateral deployment of an anti-ballistic missile system would destabilize the “balance of terror,” offered to share ABM technology with the Soviets (yes, the Soviets).
The forerunners of the current war party in Reagan’s midst hit the roof. The last thing they wanted was peace (which is the last thing they want now). Some had the temerity to pen articles reading him out of the conservative movement he founded.
Reagan’s “peace dividend” would have allowed us to put our financial house in order and commence rebuilding the country, but was promptly squandered by his successors in their ill-starred quest for global dominance.
Too bad, because with the demise of the repressive, atheistic Soviet regime, Europe faced the happy prospect of finally putting an end to the continental civil war that broke out in 1914, and of laying the groundwork for an entente cordiale embracing all of the Northern Hemisphere. That would have redounded to the peace and prosperity of the United States and the world — not to mention the revival of Christendom, which is very much in our interest.
With the exception of Mr. Trump, there are no takers for a policy of peace and prosperity in the GOP of now: one candidate says he wants to “punch the Russians in the nose.” Another declared, with an air of great self-satisfaction, that if elected, she would refuse to meet with Vladimir Putin. Yet another calls Putin who, whatever his faults, has brought his country back from the brink of dissolution and made it a formidable player on the world stage, a “gangster” and a “thug” (whereas such language is never used to describe the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Turkey or Ukraine to whom it is applies more aptly.)
Several want to impose a no-fly zone over Syria, a great way to provoke a Third World War – this time with a nuclear armed power (the Russian Federation). All want to sanction Moscow so as to prevent any rapprochement between Russia and Germany, and thereby reinforce the division of Europe Reagan moved heaven and earth to overcome.
Such mindless bellicosity is standard fare in Washington these days. It betrays a stunning failure of vision. And the myopia is not limited to Russia policy. Some candidates for president lament the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, then insist Assad – their resolute protector — must go. They seem blissfully unaware of the contradiction (that Assad protects his Christian population).
Donald Trump, meanwhile, is getting some important things right: he says, if the goal is to wipe out ISIS, al Qaeda, al-Nusra and other jihadists, Americans should welcome Russia’s efforts to at least stabilize Syria and bring an end to the civil war. How true. He says he can talk to Vladimir Putin and arrive at understandings. Good, it is high time.
Oddly enough, these are mature positions that outclass those of several of his opponents who love to pose as policy heavyweights but have a penchant for taking childish approaches to serious matters. As such, Trump is very much in the spirit of Reagan: if Reagan buried the hatchet with Moscow while it was still the capital of international Communism, surely it is not outlandish that we should negotiate with Putin as Russia is busy re-Christianizing at such a rapid clip?
The establishment is in a dither lest the rebellion Trump is leading presage the end of everything it holds most dear — open borders (paving the way for the disappearance of the old United States and its replacement by the world’s “first universal nation,” in the phrase of the late publicist Ben Wattenberg), our endless series of optional, illegal wars that bear scant relation to any discernible U.S. interests, the subversion and overthrow of foreign governments, including secular ones in Moslem countries that protect Christian minorities, and wretched trade deals that enrich the oligarchy while leaving the rest of the nation in the lurch.
Meanwhile, sovereign debt is $20 trillion and we have $200 trillion in unfunded liabilities.
Memo to Rich Lowry: the GOP’s problem is not Reagan and his legacy — it is the parlouspolicies it became wedded to after his departure from office, and which he would never have countenanced.
Still less is the party’s problem Donald Trump — our only political leader who understands that we cannot go on like this.
In focusing like a laser on establishment policies millions of Americans find intolerable — open borders, fast track and endless wars — Trump has become the people’s tribune. That is why he is winning. And that is why I suspect that if my old boss Ronald Reagan were with us now, he would not be averse to the prospect of a Trump victory in November.