Monday, June 07, 2004

Remembering Reagan
It is probably bad form to say bad things about a man at the time of his death.

However there is certainly no denying that during his life Reagan was a polarizing figure. And at least as far as his public life is concerned, there is no separating the man from his politics.

Therefore the danger is that neo-conservatives will take advantage of Reagan's death to euloglize not only the man himself, but also the politics he stood for. And since this has already begun, I believe it is important to take a critical look at Reagan's politics, lest they become overly romanticized in his death.

There are two different view points of Reagan the President. One view is the Right's view that Reagan was one of the greatest and most astute Presidents this country has ever had. However some White House staff, insiders, and white house reporters have presented a different view. This view is of a man who frequently confused movies with reality, told apocryphal stories about his own life, didn't understand his own policies, and delegated much of his responsibilities to others. Nathan Bierma did a good job of exploring some of this in this Chimes articles a few years ago.

Of course I was not present at the White House during the Reagan years, and I can't vouch for either view. I'll freely admit that my inclination towards the latter view is based solely on my liberal biases. Besides now that Reagan is dead, it probably doesn't matter now, and perhaps bringing it up now is inappropriate as a personal attack against a dead man.

EXCEPT, I think it does raise the question of how fair it is to blame Reagan personally for everything bad about his administration. But put that thought on hold for now.

One of the reasons Reagan is such a hero to the right is that he was supposedly responsible for winning the cold war and bringing about the collapse of the Soviet Union. Personally I think the Soviet Union was responsible for destroying the Soviet Union, and Reagan just happened to be in the driver's seat around the time it happened. I've always thought it was a bit of a contradiction in right wing logic to argue simultaneously that 1) Communism was a philosophy that was doomed to failure, and 2) that if it was not for Reagan, the Soviet Union would still exist.

There is also the theory that by stepping up confrontation with the Soviet Union, and with his "Evil Empire" speech, Reagan helped the hard liners within the Soviet Union, and lengthened, rather than shortened, the cold war.

And then there is Reagan's support of terrorism in Nicaragua.

I was not old enough to be politically aware during the Reagan years, but I did do my undergraduate thesis paper for my history major on Nicaragua during the 1980s. I believe what the Reagan administration did to the country of Nicaragua is unforgivable. The Contras, whom Reagan supported rhetorically as well as financially and with CIA support, committed numerous acts of terrorism against the people of Nicaragua. In order to intimidate supporters of the Sandinistas, the Contras frequently engaged in massacres of peasant villages, as well as intimidation tactics such as cutting of the arms of children. The CIA during this time also illegally mined Nicaragua's harbors.

Of course, as noted above, I guess we have to question whether it is fair to blame Reagan personally for everything the Contras and the CIA did in Nicaragua during his administration. And although his administration continued to illegally fund the Contras after Congress had forbidden it, there is the possibility that given Reagan's detatchment from some of his policies, he was actually telling the truth when he said he knew nothing about Iran-Contra.

The situation in Nicaragua during the 1980s is still a matter of debate. It shouldn't be, but it is. Reagan maintained to the end that the Contras were freedom fighters and similar to the founding fathers of America. Neo-conservatives continue to support this view. After spending a semester researching Nicaragua, I think this view is ridiculous, but I don't have time to re-hash everything on this particular post. Let us simply note that another group of Reagan's freedom fighters, the Islamic extremists in Afghanistan, are now widely agreed to have been terrorists.

Which brings me to the politics of the Middle East. I don't think there can be any debate that Reagan's support of Islamic extremists in Afghanistan (including at the time Osama Bin Laden, who received CIA funding) was a mistake. I don't think there can be any debate that supplying Saddam Hussein with weapons, and then continuing the support of Saddam even after he had used chemical weapons on his own people, was a mistake.

And that is not even mentioning the federal deficit, which (I think again there is no debate) we owe largely to Reagan.

Certainly just as it would be a mistake to say Reagan was a hero, it would be a mistake for me to say that everything the man ever did was wrong. But it is important to keep these points in mind when we hear others praising the Reagan years.

Update: Brian Bork has some intelligent thoughts on the matter as well.

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