Donald Trump is no Ronald Reagan

In equating President Donald Trump’s Jan. 8 “hostage video” remarks on Iran to President Ronald Reagan’s justifiably famous call on Soviet leader Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” Lindsay Graham insulted the intelligence of anyone who actually remembers the Berlin Wall speech — but this seems to be the emerging line among Trump’s surrogates.

In the Washington Post Jan. 7, Marc Thiessen made a specious and poorly-informed positive analogy between the killing of Qassem Soleimani and Reagan’s 1986 strike against Libya, often portrayed, though perhaps erroneously, as having been personally targeted against Gaddafi. A somewhat odd choice of analogy, given the Libya raid’s multiple unintended consequences, such as triggering a Libyan attack (fortunately unsuccessful) against NATO ally Italy, with the risk of wider conflict. Even Thiessen had to admit that the 1986 attack did not prevent Libya from bombing Pan Am 103 in 1988, but he embraced the guiding spirit of Reagan’s actions and argued (unconvincingly) that, in dealing with Iran, Trump simply would do a better job of tweaking and sustaining coercive actions.

Republican attempts to wrap the Reagan mantle around Trump’s shoulders are understandable, but thoroughly unfounded.

Serving as a career officer at the State Department during both Reagan administrations, I did personally question some policy choices (without allowing that to interfere with my professional responsibility to advocate effectively for said policies). It was clear, however, that Reagan was a patriot, genuinely focused on the interests of the United States rather than personal interests, and, as his negotiations with Gorbachev indicated, an open-minded individual, ready to go against his reputation as a hard-liner to advance our country’s cause and conscious of the fact that negotiation has to be a two-way street, with mutual recognition of interests.

I miss Reagan’s ability to look for the win-win solution, rather than always playing a zero-sum game — and Reagan was prepared to listen to others as part of that process.

Frankly, I also miss Reagan’s, benign, somewhat avuncular, and reassuring persona.

Trump’s inaugural address was intended to stoke fear and anger, notably with its reference to “American carnage.” In contrast, Reagan’s first inaugural address remarked on the “economic affliction of great proportions” facing the country, but he was sturdily optimistic, stressing that we had “every right to dream heroic dreams.” Reagan knew how to make a speech that was sensible, comprehensible, with a humane tone, projecting empathy. I really miss that.

And had Twitter been available, Reagan would not have used it as a bludgeon to threaten friends or enemies. (I doubt he even thought in terms of enemies.)

The Trump/Reagan analogy simply does not hold with respect to human and leadership qualities. But the problem goes deeper. The hypocrisy of trying to claim Reagan’s legacy while proudly undoing major accomplishments of the Reagan administration is truly hard to stomach.

While the Trump administration has never met an arms control agreement it likes, one of Reagan’s signal accomplishments was the U.S.-Soviet Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty of 1987. It was truly groundbreaking, in the Cold War context, to eliminate an entire class of weapons that already had been deployed, with ranges from 310 to 3420 miles. The treaty covered almost 2,700 missiles and featured an innovative, highly intrusive verification system to ensure they were in fact eliminated.

It’s also the treaty from which the Trump administration withdrew in August of last year.

The Trump administration cited very real Russian violations — but while it was actually Reagan who brought the Russian proverb “trust, but verify” into American political parlance, he was also smart enough to know that the party that actually pulls out of a treaty is the one that gets the political blame for failure.

The Reagan administration also initiated the long negotiations that led to the July 1991 U.S.-Soviet Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I), the first agreement that actually reduced, rather than just capping, strategic weapons such as intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). START I also set new standards for detailed and intrusive verification. But at a Dec. 10 meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov,  the Trump administration’s customary coolness toward renewal of the New START treaty, successor to START I, was again on display.

In many other ways as well, Reagan demonstrated an approach to governing very different from that of our current president. Reagan, among other things:

  • appointed the first woman Supreme Court justice, Sandra Day O’Connor, who proved to be an important swing voter on the Court;
  • renominated the strong and independent Paul Volcker as Chair of the Federal Reserve;
  • demonstrated genuine concern about budget deficits and signed the Gramm-Rudman deficit reduction bill;
  • worked cooperatively with the Legislative Branch on a wide range of issues;
  • on Iran-Contra, ordered full compliance with the investigation, decided to forgo any claims of executive privilege, and accepted responsibility;
  • levied economic sanctions on the apartheid government of South Africa after it declared martial law.

These are only a few examples, but they are instructive.

Although I never voted for him, I was honored and proud to serve under President Reagan. It is frankly offensive to see flacks and enablers try to put Reagan’s worthy mantle around the current president’s shoulders, employing distortions and mental gymnastics.

I can say with total conviction: Donald Trump is no Ronald Reagan.

During the Reagan Administration, Eric R. Terzuolo’s Foreign Service postings included the U.S. embassies in Beirut and in Rome. He worked both on deployment of U.S. intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) to Italy and then on implementation of the INF Treaty. Terzuolo was a foreign service officer from 1982 to 2003, and since 2010 has taught at the Foreign Service Institute, the professional development unit of the Department of State, with responsibility for West European area studies. He is currently teaching at American University’s School of International Service. The views expressed here are entirely his own.

Tags Conservatism in the United States Donald Trump Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty Iran libya Ronald Reagan Trust, but verify US airstrikes

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