By Richard Reeves
LOS ANGELES -- Dont you think that the criticism President Bush is receiving over Iraq is the same as what they were saying about Ronald Reagan and the Soviet Union? Everyone was saying Reagan couldnt pull it off, but he did.
That question, almost word for word, has ended almost all of the conversations I have had with conservative talk show hosts as I criss-crossed the country these past weeks promoting (or defending) my book, President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination. It was the last question from Sean Hannity of Fox News Hannity and Colmes on my first day in New York, and it was the last or next-to-last one from Matt Gerson of Person to Person last Monday in Phoenix.
My answer was always, No. If I was feeling good, Id say that I had not noticed a Mikhail Gorbachev of the Mideast. If I was tired, Id say Reagan never invaded and occupied Russia or any part of the Soviet Union. If I was pushed, Id say that Reagan was a remarkably cautious man when it came to using military force. He greatly preferred talking tough to get his way, without a shot being fired.
Reagan, the name, the icon, the nucleus of modern conservatism, has become the last line of defense for those who still think Iraq is going well. He is for many Americans -- though George W. Bush is not one of them -- still the president, as Franklin D. Roosevelt was president for many liberals for decades after his death.
That Reagan, the one still running the country, is a myth, of course. As was FDR. In life, President Reagan was a man who understood that words are often more effective than deeds, a man who knew when and how to compromise, a man who knew how to ignore provocation, a man who knew how to declare victory. He built up the military, doubled the Pentagon budget and lost fewer than one thousand American fighting men and women in eight years -- the majority of them in accidents -- years in which the United States emerged as the single military, economic and moral superpower in the world.
He made horrendous mistakes in military-political situations, particularly in Lebanon, Iran and Central America, but looking back, he went a long way toward winning the big one, the Cold War, without the use of troops.
Would Reagan go into Iraq expecting to win on the cheap as American soldiers were pelted with flowers and candy? I dont think so. He was a quick-strike guy: fly planes across the world to scare the hell out of Col. Gadhafi in Libya, knock out some Iranian oil platforms, take Grenada (with 19 American deaths) and then get out of there.
The Grenada exercise in 1983 was a Reagan classic. Low military risk, high political gain to remove an annoying little Marxist government. Even then, he wanted to take no chances. When the Joint Chiefs of Staff briefed him on the exercise, he seemed to be listening until at the end of the meeting, he told them to double the number of troops they had planned to use. Why? asked the chairman of the chiefs.
Because if Jimmy Carter had 18 helicopters instead of nine in Desert One -- the mission to free American hostages in Iran -- youd be briefing him now instead of me.
Reagan made mistakes, plenty of them. But he learned from them. His worst foreign policy blunder may have been a reckless aside in a 1983 press conference saying the mission of U.S. Marines in Lebanon, part of a multinational peackekeeping force, was to train the official Lebanese army. Actually, they were there, stationed at the Beirut airport, to keep Muslims and Israelis apart.
The Lebanese army was essentially Christian, enemies of the Shiite Muslims living in the slums around the airport. America is the enemy began to blare from the mosques. On the night of Oct. 23, 1983, a suicide bomber drove a truck into the lobby of the Marine barracks, set off a huge explosion and killed 241 Marines.
Reagans response was to talk tough about staying the course, then redeploy the Marines -- safely onto American ships in the Mediterranean. Cut and run.
What would Reagan have done after 9/11? That was another regular question. My answer was that he would have focused American resources, not foreign irregulars, to track down Osama bin Laden, as he tracked Gadhafi. Then he would declare victory and get on with life.
Go into Iraq? With half the troops needed? With a shifting, contradictory mission? Maybe. But I doubt it. What was the point? What is the point now? Do what Reagan would have done if he were foolish enough to go in in the first place: Redeploy the troops, cut and run.
2006 Universal Press Syndicate