Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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June 14, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

MY LAST REAGAN POST....Although many of the standard storylines about Ronald Reagan are more myth than reality, there's at least one of them that's fundamentally true: he really did win the Cold War. Maybe it didn't happen in quite the way his fans would like to believe, and maybe it wouldn't have happened at all without Mikhail Gorbachev, but still: Reagan's defense buildup and his quixotic insistence on pursuing an unworkable missile defense shield really did help to bring down the Soviet Union. When I say this, it's not because I especially want to believe it, but because the historical record seems to show that it really happened.

But for Reagan's supporters there's a paradox at the heart of the standard story of how he won the Cold War. On the one hand, they are unable to admit that the Soviet Union was fatally weakened by the time Reagan took office, because to do so would diminish his accomplishment. Conversely, though, they can hardly admit that the Soviet economy was humming along nicely since that would be a tacit admission that a communist economy can perform as well as a capitalist one.

As it happens, though, the historical record is pretty clear on this question too: by 1980 the Soviet Union was dying. And despite some historical revisionism to the contrary, nobody really knew it at the time, including Reagan. The Committee on the Present Danger routinely made predictions of vast Soviet arms buildups and Reagan and his advisors believed every word of it. In fact, they were convinced that our own defense buildup was necessary merely to catch up to the Soviets, not to overtake them.

As it turned out, though, none of this was true. Although Reagan's unyielding stance really did hasten the downfall of the Soviet Union, it worked only because the Soviet economy was in terminal disarray and they were desperate to make peace. When Reagan finally offered it to them, they snapped it up.

This might all be of only academic interest except for one thing: the Reagan mythology is a critical part of the worldview that informs current conservative reaction to the war on terror. Rather than acknowledging that Soviet weakness played a big part in the story, they have convinced themselves that the Soviet Union fell solely because of Reagan's unyielding stance toward communism, and they take this as a universal lesson: an aggressive posture is a winning posture. If you just stand tall your enemies will slink off.

Now, ignore for the moment that despite his bellicose rhetoric Reagan never actually authorized any large scale military action against either the Soviet Union or its satellites. Ignore for a moment the fact that communist China remained standing at the same time the Soviet Union was dying in fact, was cracking down on dissenters at Tiananmen in the same year that the Berlin Wall fell. Instead, just ask this: is it true that if you simply take a forthright, aggressive posture against your enemies, they will eventually back down?

Hitler thought so in 1938 and he was right for a couple of years. But in the end he wasn't. Douglas MacArthur thought so in 1950 and insisted on moving his troops ever northward despite clear warnings from Red China. Needless to say, the Chinese didn't back down: they counterattacked and we ended up in an unwinnable quaqmire for the next three years. Arabs tried an aggressive posture against Israel in 1967 and 1973 and met with a notable lack of success. The Israelis have tried the opposite ever since and have been equally unsuccessful.

But this is not something that hawks like to see. If liberals sometimes have a blind spot that prevents them from seeing that credible threats of force are ever effective despite plenty of evidence and common sense that says they are conservatives have a blind spot that prevents them from seeing that aggressive use of force isn't always the answer. But al-Qaeda is not the Soviet Union and Iraq is not Normandy Beach.

We're going to have a hard time in the war on terror until both sides see through their respective blind spots and understand that credible force and credible peace are flip sides of the same coin. I wonder what, if anything, it will take to make that happen?

UPDATE: Since Reagan's "victory" in the Cold War is the subject of most of the comments, it's worth noting that (a) no, of course he didn't win it by himself, (b) he built on the accomplishments of many previous presidents, and (c) whether it justifies the rest of his presidency is, of course, a matter of opinion. However, I don't think there's much doubt that his defense buildup, his support of SDI, and his bellicose rhetoric all things I hated while he was actually doing them along with the olive branch he eventually held out in his second term, really did deliver the coup de grace to the Soviet Union. Fred Kaplan has a pretty good, nuanced explanation of all this in Slate if you're unconvinced.

Kevin Drum 1:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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