America buried one of its former presidents last Friday, June 11, 2004. After a 6000-mile trip from coast to coast, between Los Angeles and Washington D.C., Ronald Reagan’s body was finally placed to rest at his presidential library on a hilltop in Simi Valley, California in a Hollywood like finish. The sunset burial service closed the curtain on six days of remembrance. Thousands of mourners lined up on the streets, some waving flags and some waving banners, to watch the funeral motorcade and say a final farewell to the gipper.
At a funeral at the majestic Washington National Cathedral earlier in the day, current world leaders like Tony Blair, Hamid Karzai and Gerhard Schroeder came to pay their tribute. The front two rows across from the Reagan family were reserved for President George W. Bush, Vice President Cheney, and four former presidents –” Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. The audience included Britain’s Prince Charles and former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev among other dignitaries. The powerful shared the pews with the once-powerful.
Flattering eulogies that remembered Regan as a man of bedrock American values, humor and humility were delivered by leaders of the yesterdays – Margaret Thatcher (former PM of Great Britain), Bush Sr. and Brian Mulroney (former PM of Canada). Minutes after the DC service, churches across the country rang their bells 40 times for the 40th president. It was a superb show befitting the richest country on the planet and a magnificent tribute to a dead man who was once its President.
How will future measure Reagan? It is highly unlikely that it will look as rosy as it has been the past week. Very few will, however, argue about his charming personality and superb communication skills. Hollywood has prepared him well to become the best showman of his time.
I saw President Regan nearly 22 years ago when he came to receive the Columbia astronauts from their space shuttle mission at the Edwards Air Force Base, California on July 4, 1982. He observed the landing from a position not too far from me near the giant flag in the hangar door on the other side of the runway. For a 71-year old man, he appeared very handsome.
In March 1983, Reagan initiated the so-called Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), better known as Star Wars –” a wide-scale research and development effort aimed to build an antimissile defense shield. He and his supporters believed that SDI would be capable of protecting the US from the Soviet nuclear threat. He showed great interest in NASA’s space exploration program. In January 1984, during his State of the Union address, he gave official green light to the ambitious project, which envisioned permanently manned space station by 1991. Despite his unrelenting enthusiasm, this legacy faced continuous political and financial challenges.
Early in his first term as the President, Reagan issued an order that would effectively deny foreign Muslim students the privilege to earn graduate degrees in certain engineering disciplines, notably the nuclear and computer engineering. Many of these students were at the last throes of their graduate program when the order was issued. One such victim was a Bangladeshi graduate student doing a Ph.D. in Nuclear Engineering in California in the area of thermal hydraulics. His supervisor told him that he couldn’t allow him to graduate because he might one day make the “Islamic Bomb.”
I remember how the lives of many of these Muslim students were ruined forever – many returning to their home countries brokenhearted after 3 to 7 years of their studies without the coveted Ph.D. degree from American universities.
Reagan came to power at a time when the national pride was hurt by the Iranian hostage crisis. Lebanon had been wrecked by a brutal civil war for seven years when, in June 1982, Israel invaded in order to crush the PLO. U.S. troops were briefly deployed in August in Beirut to help secure a ceasefire to facilitate the withdrawal of the PLO forces to Tunisia. U.S. troops exited Beirut after the PLO withdrawal was largely completed. Then Ariel Sharon’s Israeli Defense Force committed war crimes by letting its proxy Lebanese Christian Phalangist militia to butcher nearly a thousand of residents of the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps; the militia was armed, aided, and fed by the IDF, which surrounded and blockaded the camps.
The Lebanese government appealed to President Reagan to send American troops back into Beirut as a stabilizing factor, and Reagan quickly obliged. As fighting escalated between Christians, Muslims, Syrians, and Israelis in Lebanon, the original U.S. peacekeeping mission became a sham. The U.S. forces were increasingly perceived as a pro-Christian, anti-Muslim force. On April 18, 1983 a delivery van pulled up to the front door of the U.S. embassy in Beirut and detonated, killing 46 people (including 16 Americans) and wounding over a hundred others. By late summer 1983, the resistance movement against Israeli/American/Phalangist forces grew, and Muslim snipers were targeting Marines.
On September 13, Reagan authorized Marine commanders in Lebanon to call in air strikes and other attacks against the Muslims to help the Christian Lebanese army. This further worsened the situation. On Sunday morning, October 23, 1983, a lone Muslim drove a Mercedes truck into the lobby of the Marine headquarters building in Beirut, where he detonated explosives, killing 241 marines. A second truck bomb moments later killed 58 French soldiers. Reagan quietly withdrew U.S. combat troops from Beirut in early 1984.
It was also Reagan who ushered in the age of codified racial politics that the GOP, a.k.a. the Republican Party, continues to practice by coining the phrase ‘welfare queen.’ He marginalized the Afro-American community. He vetoed twice the Martine Luther King Jr. holiday bill further alienating GOP against Afro-American interests. Despite strong protests from civil rights groups to stop doing business with the Apartheid South African regime, he continued his administration’s so-called ‘constructive engagement’ policy.
As a very religious man, Reagan opened the floodgate for evangelists, who would later control the White House. Religious references, much heard today in George W. Bush’s speeches, were a continuous thread in Reagan’s words, in public and in private. Just as Bush Jr. has fundamentalists like John Ashcroft, Condie Rice and Karl Rove in his White House, Reagan’s closest ‘prayer partners’ included Edwin Meese, William Clark and Richard Allen. The night Reagan returned to the White House after nearly being shot to death, he confided in his diary: “Whatever happens now I owe my life to God and will serve Him every way I can.” According to biographer Edmund Morris, Reagan told New York’s Roman Catholic cardinal at the time, Terence Cooke, “I have decided that whatever time I have left is for Him.”
Reagan’s supply-side economic policies (termed as “voodoo economics” by reputable economists) were based on the false premise that tax cuts would generate new revenues and wipe out deficits. The theory was incorrect resulting in skyrocketing of federal deficits while nonmilitary investments and jobs shrank. Only the rich benefited from the policy, while the average real wages for middle- and low-income Americans fell. His natural heir – Bush Jr. – would later adopt this failed policy.
Reagan’s foreign policy was initially based on a massive arms build-up to threaten the leaders in the Kremlin and their client states. The CIA was used to recruit Muslim youths, including Osama bin Laden, around the world to fight the “Jihad” against the Soviet Army that had occupied Afghanistan. In a White House reception of the Afghan mujahideen in 1985, Reagan dubbed them as “moral equivalent of America’s founding fathers.” Only 13 years later on August 20, 1998, another President, Bill Clinton, would order missile attacks against OBL. (See, my essay: Was it really a history of hatred that brought about 9/11?, Media Monitors Network, Oct. 10, 2002; Bernard Lewis and What Went Wrong?, Weekly Holiday, Dhaka, Sept. 19, 2003) And yet another 3 years later, Bush Jr. would declare an all-out war to either kill or capture OBL. What went wrong with the White House and OBL?
Reagan is much touted as the one who brought down the collapse of the “evil” Soviet Empire. The credit should probably belong to the brave Afghan and Muslim mujahideen who gave their lives to bring the Soviets down to their knees in a prolonged guerilla war that ruined Soviet economy and demoralized the nation. Afghanistan was in deed the Vietnam for the Soviets.
Reagan Administration invaded the Caribbean island of Grenada on Oct. 25, 1983 and mined the harbors of Nicaragua on Jan. 1984. He also used the proceeds from the sale of arms to Iran to aid the Contras in their guerrilla war to unseat the Sandanistas. It did not work. (Sandinistas were later defeated in a peaceful election in 1990.) The Sandinistas took their case to the International Court of Justice in the Hague (popularly known as the World Court) and won, though the administration refused in advance to recognize the court’s jurisdiction. The mining of the harbors was an example of “force against another state,” the court said; US support of the contras “amounts to an intervention of one state in he internal affairs of the other.”
In the Middle East, Reagan, in marked contrast to his predecessor and successor, did virtually nothing to promote peace, a policy that is also copied by Bush Jr. today.
In 1982, as the Iran-Iraq war began to heat up, the USA quietly took Iraq off the State Department’s list of states that supported terrorism. This allowed money to start flowing from America into Saddam’s coffers. Reagan sent Donald Rumsfeld as an envoy to Baghdad before Christmas of 1983 to meet with Saddam Hossein to pledge US support. He allowed the US to secretly arm Saddam with weapons of mass destruction (WMD), supported Iraq’s military expansion, turned a blind eye to Saddam’s use of chemical weapons against Iran and the Kurds in Halabcha. The Reagan presidency made America complicit in Saddam’s war crimes. The US forces in the Gulf actively aided Iraq during the Iraq-Iran war, sinking Iranian mine-layers and –”sweepers, speedboats, and gunboats. USS Vincennes shot down Iranian Air Bus in the Persian Gulf on July 3, 1988 killing all 290 passengers. The fact that it was in Iranian territorial waters was covered up.
Reagan ordered air strikes on Libya on April 15, 1986 in retaliation for the alleged Libyan bombing nine days earlier of a West Berlin nightclub that killed two U.S. service men. The German government, however, remained skeptic. The raid killed more than 40 Libyans, including Gaddafi’s adopted daughter.
The Reagan Administration withdrew from the UNESCO, cut off America’s contribution to the UN Fund for Population Activities, cast the single vote against a World Health Organization code for infant formula, and did not oppose the Kassebaum amendment reducing America’s contribution to the General Assembly by 25% unless the UN should amend its charter.
No administration, including the much-maligned Richard Nixon’s, was swamped in more scandals and corruption charges than Reagan’s. Some of the President’s closest allies and advisers faced serious ethics probes. More than 100 Reagan officials and appointees were caught up in indictments and convictions. A total of 14 White House officials were also indicted and 11 were convicted in connection with the Iran-Contra scandal. They included Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, later to be pardoned by President Bush Sr. in 1992. The official 1987 report depicted Reagan as confused and uninformed, and concluded that his relaxed “personal management style” had prevented him from controlling his subordinates.
Reagan’s failures need to be reevaluated as part of his legacy the same way the current Bush Administration is celebrating his success. There are already talks about having his picture on the $100 bill. If America fails to learn the lessons from his failed policies, it is doomed to repeat them, something that has already become the hallmark of the current Bush Administration. The latter is blindly mimicking the supply-side ‘voodoo’ economics, unaccountable foreign policy (pushed by such former Reagan appointees as Richard Perle and the ex-convict Elliott Abrams), and pre-emptive strikes. Many of the same ghosts, once responsible for soiling American image, have also been resurrected to take the nation into a world that is spiteful of bullish America. But would the heir to Reagan legacy listen?