Too often, Washingtonians pontificate about how one president or another would have performed in times of national crisis.
It’s entertaining and even sometimes instructive, but in reality, no one really knows for sure.
Ultimately, we only have the historical record to go on. And from this, we can indeed see that Ronald Reagan would have reacted differently to the Paris massacre than Barack Obama, who spent more time in the hours after the attack berating his political opponents over refugees from Syria than he did the terrorists who undertook the horrible carnage.
He would have made it abundantly clear of the resolve of America to fight and defeat the forces of ISIS by whatever means necessary.
Reagan would, and did, rally all the American people to his cause — often. Reagan viewed the American presidency far differently than does Obama and knew that political contests were one thing, but score settling and trading inane sound bites was quite another.
For eight years, Reagan pretty much spoke to all the American people, unifying them, rather than dividing them. He preached his vision of “a community of shared values of family, work, neighborhood, peace, and freedom.”
Reagan spoke plainly to the world, uniting it in the cause of defeating Soviet communism. He said: “Europeans who remember history understand better than most that there is no security, no safety, in the appeasement of evil. It must be the core of Western policy that there be no sanctuary for terror. And to sustain such a policy, free men and free nations must unite and work together.”
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The Gipper most likely would have given a national and international address, signaling America’s resolve and our solidarity with the West, especially our first European ally, France. And he would have reminded listeners of World War I and World War II, when America and her allies saved the world.
He would have spelled out specific humanitarian aid and — while not tipping his hand militarily like Obama, who has already publicly ruled out ground forces — would have made it abundantly clear of the resolve of America to fight and defeat the forces of ISIS by whatever means necessary. He wasn’t afraid to call them “godless Communists,” because it helped clarify who the enemy was.
When interviewing Bill Buckley years ago about Jimmy Carter, Buckley told me elegantly and damningly that the Georgian was “lost in power.” Neither Reagan, nor FDR, nor Harry Truman, nor many other presidents, could be described as such.
Barack Obama, however, is lost in power. He’s never understood the American presidency. Reagan also understood that our enemies needed to be afraid of us. No one is afraid of Obama. The mullahs of Iran were afraid of Reagan, which is why they released the American hostages they had been holding for 444 days, more than a year of the Carter presidency. In the aftermath of Paris, credible commentators of the left and the right are literally mocking Barack Obama. After he became president, few ever mocked Ronald Reagan.
Reagan was flexible in his approaches, but also resolute in his goal. And he was always chary about the Middle East.
People nowadays often misunderstand President Reagan’s views and try to find quick and easy solutions to the current complex socioeconomic issues, justifying their proposals by proclaiming, this is what Ronald Reagan would do. To understand Ronald Reagan, one first needs to be familiar with the long process of his transformation from the liberal Hollywood actor who admired FDR to the conservative-minded politician that we all remember.
All of his political and economic positions are result of a tremendous amount of reading, writing, researching, debating, listening, speaking and thinking through each and every major issue that concerned the average American.
Inspired by the nation’s founding, the Christian faith of his mother, the undeniable success of free-market economy, and two philosophical role-models — Thomas Paine and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn — Reagan fine-tuned the message that touched hearts of the vast majority of the American people, who elected him twice by landslides.
In the world of 24/7 news and 15 minutes of fame, that aspect of Reagan’s political formulation is very much given short shrift. Reagan’s political intelligence serves as a model to politicians today, demonstrating that while there are often no quick solutions to most problems, there are decisive moments, and they need to be tackled from many angles and by many players.
Reagan was flexible in his approaches, but also resolute in his goal. And he was always chary about the Middle East. He never visited the Middle East, and after his presidency he viewed the Beirut bombing as the biggest mistake of his presidency.
The terrorism Reagan encountered during his presidency had changed its form. He dealt with terrorism on several occasions showing his resolute resistance to it, including the April 15, 1986, bombing of Moammar Gadhafi’s Bab al-Azizia residence in response to the April 5, 1986, Berlin discotheque terrorist act in which many died, including U.S. service personnel. Reagan responded that way because it was a specific terrorist attack that had a clear chain of command, and the person who gave the order was the principle target.
However, the post-9/11 world is facing completely different kind of terrorism, flavored much more by the religious and ideological elements that have never been seen before. That terrorist network has many heads and cannot be destroyed by eradicating only its leadership.
Ronald Reagan, the cold warrior, was a perfect ideological wartime strategist, waging one ideological battle with Soviet Communism after another.
Ronald Reagan, the cold warrior, was a perfect ideological wartime strategist, waging one ideological battle with Soviet Communism after another. He understood perfectly how to win the war of ideologies that secured the end of the greatest security threat of his era.
Reagan used the bully pulpit often, rallying the American people and the world against the evils of communism. He used Radio Free Europe to undermine Kremlin. He formed alliances with Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II, but also with the indigenous freedom movement in Poland, Hungary, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, and the Russian dissidents.
Reagan would have helped the Kurds and any other indigenous forces willing to fight ISIS. It is not clear that Obama regards ISIS as a greater threat to America than talk radio.
ISIS, al Qaeda and radical Islam overall is a complex enemy that requires different kind of response, much like Soviet communism. It requires an ideological response, and Reagan would have understood that. Besides the religious component, radical Islam is very much a social movement, and it represents an endeavor to impose a new socio-economic global order founded on Allah’s authority, much like the Soviet communism attempted to establish the socioeconomic order of based on the authority of workers and the common ownership of the means of production. It’s not a surprise that most of majority Sunni Arab nations that are main terrorism exporters today are former socialist dictatorships like Syria, Iraq, Libya.
We are witnessing the new trend in the Middle East where it is becoming harder to separate the religious positions from the official policies. The reason for it may be that in Islam, serving God means obeying Sharia legal system, which means not just following the spiritual side of it, but also norms of the social, family, personal and every other aspect of a person’s life. And that message seems appealing to European-born immigrants of the Muslim faith, who have not assimilated, who live off welfare in isolated suburbs and are frustrated for not becoming productive parts of their societies.
Therefore, Reagan would have approached the fight against radical Islamic terrorism ideologically, the way he did with communism. He would break ISIS economically, employ heavy surveillance and espionage techniques and would go after all those who aid them (including our “allies” in Saudi Arabia, Gulf states, and Syrian “moderates”). He would then probably try to form a wide front of nations that would include both our traditional allies, the Middle East nations (and possibly today’s Christian Russia or free market China) and would try to infiltrate the radical Islamic world — and find the traitors inside who would be willing to infiltrate their ranks and do the heavy lifting.
Reagan also would commit using American military force overseas according to principles that he laid out in his autobiography:
- The United States should not commit its forces to military action overseas unless the cause is vital to our national interest.
- If the decision is made to commit our forces to combat abroad, it must be done with the clear intent and support needed to win. It should not be a halfway or tentative commitment, and there must be clearly defined and realistic objectives.
- Before we commit our troops to combat, there must be reasonable assurance that the cause we are fighting for and the actions we take will have the support of the American people and Congress.
- Even after all these other combat tests are met, our troops should be committed to combat abroad only as a last resort, when no other choice is available.
Reagan knew he had to win a struggle that had an ideological nature. He committed his entire political career to it, in addition to renewing American military strength and reviving the economy.
Why are politicians now frightened of recognizing the ideological struggle of today? They may be running away from it, but they need to be aware that all of their political careers as elected leaders will evolve around it, whether they like it or not.
Finally, his “Shining City” allegory has been badly mangled. Reagan’s Shining City did not mean allowing everybody into America who wanted to come in. Rather, we were to be a symbol to the world. They could embrace freedom like us, could make their own countries over, and become their own shining cities.
In 1987, he said, “Let us remember our heritage and, with it, our destiny — the destiny of this shining city on a hill, this beacon of freedom for all the peoples of the Earth.” A “beacon,” not a destination.
When he spoke of a Shining City, he meant the ideas and ideals of America could spread across the globe. Reagan, after eight years, left the world safer and freer. The people of the world were building and rebuilding their own countries.
Obama, nearing the end of his presidency, cannot make the same claim.
Craig Shirley, a Reagan biographer, is the author of the newly released “Last Act: The Final Years and Enduring Legacy of Ronald Reagan.”