Why Reagan would approve of Obama’s foreign policy

Getty Images

To conservatives and Republicans throughout the country, President Obama is the antithesis of President Reagan. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) says Obama has been a “weak president,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) thinks our president has “profoundly dangerous” principles and one conservative writer believes the Obama doctrine has been “a recipe for failure overseas.” However, when compared to how Reagan dealt with everything from terrorism to nuclear proliferation, Obama has a great deal in common with the GOP icon. The truth is that both the Reagan and Obama doctrines were shaped by geopolitical realities of the day, the ghosts of prior American military interventions and the need to address multiple threats at once.

While Obama’s presidency has witnessed Benghazi and the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Reagan years experienced an even greater wave of terrorism targeting Americans and similar instability in the Middle East. When suicide bombers attacked the U.S. Embassy in Beirut and killed 63 people, or when Hezbollah bombed the Marine barracks in Beirut and killed 241 Americans, Reagan decided to do what Micah Zenko in Foreign Policy refers to as “cut and run.” Reagan showed his strength, through pragmatism, by ordering the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Lebanon in 1984. Similarly, when Iraqis attacked the U.S.S. Stark in 1987, killing 37 American sailors, Reagan refused to wage a massive retaliation and even stated Iran was the “villain” in this Persian Gulf incident.

{mosads}In terms of restraint, negotiating for hostages and arming others to fight America’s battles, our current president’s policies mirror Reagan’s foreign policy. While Obama traded five terrorists for an American soldier, Reagan’s Iran-Contra scandal greatly overshadows what Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) referred to as releasing the “Taliban Dream Team.” Under Reagan, the U.S. sold over 1,500 missiles to Iran (in spite of an embargo on selling arms to Iran and only six years after the Iranian hostage crisis) and used the proceeds to fund Contra rebels in Nicaragua. According to the report by the Congressional Committees Investigating Iran-Contra, Reagan had little apprehension in negotiating with terrorist regimes:

In early December 1985, the President signed a retroactive finding purporting to authorize the November Hawk transaction. That finding contained no reference to improved relations with Iran. It was a straight arms-for-hostages finding. National security adviser [John] Poindexter destroyed this finding a year later because, he testified, its disclosure would have been politically embarrassing to the President.

Echoing this congressional Report, The Tower Commission found that “President Reagan wrote in his diary: ‘I agreed to sell TOWs [missiles] to Iran.'” As a result, Will Bunch notes that during the height of Iran-Contra, “nearly one-third of Americans wanted him to resign.” In addition, a 1987 Los Angeles Times article cites a New York Times/CBS News Poll that found 46 percent of Americans “disapproved” of Reagan’s job performance.

Like Obama, Reagan was forced to defend his decisions pertaining to hostage negotiations and dealings with Iran. In a 1986 televised address to the nation, Reagan defended his illegal arms transactions, stating “My purpose was … to send a signal that the United States was prepared to replace the animosity between [the U.S. and Iran] with a new relationship.” Unlike the Republican outrage over Obama’s recent Iran deal or his negotiations to free Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl from the Taliban, Republicans stood behind their president. Reagan also never had to contend with 47 Democratic senators writing a letter to Iran about weapons transfers or hostage negotiations.

While Cruz believes Obama is “an apologist for radical Islamic terrorists,” the Republican senator forgets that Reagan once said, in his 1988 State of the Union, that “We support the Mujahidin.” The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum website even shows the president with Afghanistan’s “freedom fighters” at the Oval Office, something unimaginable in this day and age. Reagan also declared March 2, 1982 to be “Afghanistan Day” and stated that the “freedom fighters of Afghanistan are defending principles of independence and freedom.”

According to “The Collapse of the Soviet Union and Ronald Reagan” in Stanford University’s World Association of International Studies journal, the Reagan years forged close ties with the Taliban’s forefathers by sending Stinger missiles and other military aid to fight the Soviets:

Particularly effective, though with unintended long-term side effects, was the Reagan administration’s support for the mujahideen (holy warriors) that were fighting against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan. … The war in Afghanistan cost the United States about $1 billion per annum in aid to the [M]ujahideen.

These “unintended long-term side effects” led to the rise of the Taliban, and according to Ahmed Rashid, author of Pakistan on the Brink, “When the [U.S.] walked away from Afghanistan in 1989, it left behind a seasoned group of jihadists.” Therefore, the Reagan presidency saw $1 billion per year go to the Mujahidin, 1,500 missiles sold to Iran, but Obama is reviled by conservative merely for refusing to say the words “radical Islam.”

At the latest Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) convention, former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton urged Americans to replace Obama’s “drift, decline and defeatism” with Reagan’s “peace through strength.” However, Republicans have conveniently forgotten that Reagan’s presidency began five years after the Fall of Saigon and up until the 1991 Gulf War, the ghosts of Vietnam hovered over U.S. foreign policy. The reality is that like Reagan’s policies within the prism of the Cold War, Obama’s decisions during the War on Terror reflect geopolitical constraints and the decisions of prior presidents. Obama inherited an Iraq that witnessed 19,535 terrorist attacks during the last term of George W. Bush’s presidency.

As for negotiating with America’s enemies, according to James Mann in The Los Angeles Times, “during Reagan’s second term, he met five times with [Mikhail] Gorbachev, more than any other American president had met a Soviet leader during the Cold War.” In contrast, Obama’s recent negotiations are seen as appeasement toward Iran, even though, like Reagan, Obama needed to ink a nuclear negotiation deal. What many naysayers of the Iran deal also ignore is that Iran funds Shiite militias in Iraq — the same militants who fight ISIS and the same fighters who could cause even more havoc in Iraq if Tehran remains at odds with the world community. Like Vietnam with Reagan, two costly counterinsurgency wars (from Obama’s predecessor) leading to an “overstretched” U.S. military have also factored heavily into Obama’s foreign policy decisions.

Finally, Reagan’s ability to keep American troops away from foreign wars (aside from Grenada); leave Lebanon without entering a civil war; negotiate for hostages; and work tirelessly with Gorbachev was rooted in pragmatism, not ideology. In contrast, Obama’s decision not to enter Syria’s civil war, his deal with Iran and his decision to abide by George W. Bush’s Status of Forces Agreement in Iraq are what Republicans today view as weakness. Leaving competing political ideologies aside, Ronald Reagan would approve of Barack Obama’s foreign policy, primarily because it mirrors his own in a variety of ways.

Goodman is an author and a journalist.

Tags Afghanistan Barack Obama Beirut Benghazi embassies Grenada Iran Iran–Contra affair Iraq ISIS Islamic State in Iraq and Syria John Bolton Lebanon Lindsey Graham Marco Rubio Marine barracks Mikhail Gorbachev Mujahidin Ronald Reagan Soviet Union Syria Taliban Ted Cruz U.S. embassy
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video