The Magazine

Democratic Activist

Reagan's other foreign policy legacy.

Jun 28, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 40 • By DAVID ADESNIK
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A ROMANTIC. A DREAMER. An optimist. A man of conviction. In the few short days since President Reagan left this world, both his admirers and his critics have settled on a short-list of character traits that are supposed to capture his essence. Yet neither Reagan's admirers nor his critics have begun to grapple with the most romantic and optimistic of the convictions that animated his foreign policy--one that still exerts an unparalleled influence on the conduct of American foreign relations. Whenever President Bush describes democracy as a universal aspiration, capable of flourishing even in the desert wastelands of the Middle East, it is Ronald Reagan's voice that he echoes.

In his historic address to the British Parliament at Westminster in the summer of 1982, Reagan foresaw the downfall of the Soviet empire. Much less noticed was his declaration that democracy promotion must serve as the moral and strategic foundation of American foreign policy. Reporters at the time portrayed Reagan's address as an anti-Communist broadside, all but ignoring its positive agenda of promoting human freedom and self-government.

The discussion of Reagan's legacy as an American statesman has focused almost exclusively on the degree to which his diplomacy was responsible for the end of the Cold War. Without intending to do so, participants on both sides of the debate have reinforced the notion that Reagan's legacy is one of tearing down, not one of building up. If so, then Reagan has nothing to teach us about the post-Cold War era.

Yet at Westminster, Reagan was careful to note that the United States' "crusade for freedom" ought not to end once Marxism and Leninism found their place on the ash heap of history. Rather,

Democracy already flourishes in countries with very different cultures and historical experiences. It would be cultural condescension, or worse, to say that any people prefer dictatorship to democracy. . . . The task I've set forth will long outlive our own generation. . . . For the sake of peace and justice, let us move toward a world in which all people are at last free to determine their own destiny.

Here, sounding almost the same note, is President Bush, in April 2004: "There's a lot of people in the world who don't believe that people whose skin color may not be the same as ours can be free and self-govern. I reject that. I reject that strongly. I believe that people who practice the Muslim faith can self-govern." (It was this Reaganesque turn that elicited George Will's attack on "politicians who short-circuit complex discussions by recklessly imputing racism to those who differ with them.")

The inspiration for Reagan's democratic crusade was the stunning success of elections for a constitutional assembly in El Salvador on March 28, 1982. Journalists and human rights advocates had warned that impoverished and listless Salvadorans would not show much interest in the United States' stage-managed efforts to legitimize a military-dominated junta. Yet on election day, Salvadoran voters flooded the polls despite threats and gunfire from Marxist insurgents determined to discredit the election. After walking for miles to the polls, Salvadorans proudly announced to foreign observers that they were voting for peace and democracy.

Reagan's determination to fight communism and promote democracy in El Salvador remained extremely controversial, thanks in part to pervasive human rights violations by the Salvadoran armed forces. Then, in May 1984, José Napoleón Duarte-- an ardent democrat, passionate Christian, and survivor of military prisons--prevailed in El Salvador's first legitimate presidential election. Emboldened by his popular mandate, Duarte moved swiftly to rein in the military and its death squads.

Now what did the New York Times have to say about this critical episode in its 10,000-word Reagan obituary? Simply that "in El Salvador, the Reagan administration supported the government against a Marxist insurgency." This sort of small-minded interpretation of the president's motives prevailed throughout Reagan's eight-year struggle to win congressional support for his democratizing initiatives in Central America.

Reagan's own rhetorical excesses played into the hands of cynical critics. In his authoritative history of the Nicaraguan conflict, Robert Kagan writes that the president's description of the contras as "freedom fighters" and "the moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers" became a source of embarrassment in light of the contras' summary executions of prisoners and murder of pro-Sandinista civilians. Nonetheless, Reagan was dead serious when he declared in his 1986 State of the Union address, "Surely no issue is more important for peace in our own hemisphere, for the security of our frontiers, for the protection of our vital interests, than to achieve democracy in Nicaragua."

In time, Reagan's soaring rhetoric had the effect of committing his administration to preside over the disintegration of pro-American and anti-Communist dictatorships. The first to fall was the Marcos regime in the Philippines. A staunch supporter of Reagan's efforts to promote democracy in Central America, Indiana senator Richard Lugar led an American delegation to monitor the February 1986 elections in Manila. Even though the administration saddled Lugar's mission with arch-conservative supporters of the Marcos regime, Lugar did not hesitate to report that Corazon Aquino had lost only because of massive fraud. Although the White House resisted at first, the president ultimately found it impossible to withstand the mounting criticism directed at the administration not just from Democrats, but from loyal Republicans such as Lugar. Facing mass protests in the streets of Manila and the loss of American support, Marcos resigned. The next year, Chun Do Hwan stepped down as president of South Korea and Augusto Pinochet held a referendum that empowered Chileans to end his dictatorial rule. In both these cases, the Reagan administration ended up taking the pro-democracy side as a result of pressure from fellow Republicans.

Many Democrats eventually recognized that they shared Reagan's democratic aspirations in spite of their differences with Reagan himself. President Carter's campaign for human rights had prioritized the protection of individuals from arbitrary detention, torture, and summary execution, but Carter also insisted throughout his four years in office that democracy was a human right as well. Thus when Bill Clinton came to office he did not have to turn his back on Carter in order to embrace Reagan's democratic crusade. Instead, Clinton spliced together elements of Carter's and Reagan's respective approaches, resulting in the White House's July 1994 National Security Strategy of Engagement and Enlargement. National Security Adviser Anthony Lake thought of enlargement as the natural successor to the U.S. Cold War strategy of containment. Just as Reagan had at Westminster, Lake described a sort of domino theory in reverse, in accordance with which the "tide of history" would slowly but inevitably sweep away authoritarian governments.

In the summer and fall of 2000, George W. Bush's emphasis on foreign policy humility and aversion to nation-building suggested that Reagan's expansive idealism had not sunk enduring roots in the soil of the Republican party. How, then, did Bush arrive at the conclusion that our national security depends on the spread of democracy and human rights throughout the Middle East?

Without access to the president's innermost thoughts, no one can answer this question. Yet even before September 11, it became apparent that President Bush intended to govern more in the manner of the 40th president than the 41st. Bush made it known that he was an optimist and a man of conviction. His commitment to first principles rather than attention to detail informed his administration's policies. In hindsight, it should not have come as a surprise that Bush responded to the attacks on Washington and New York by calling for "moral clarity" in a Reaganesque manner. As the war in Iraq approached, Bush seemed to grasp almost instinctively, as Reagan had, that idealism and strength do not undermine, but rather reinforce one another.

Bush also resembles Reagan in his weakness. The occupation of Iraq has demonstrated that Bush, like Reagan, is at best unsure of how to implement the ambitious vision he has embraced. As was the case with Reagan and Nicaragua, Bush reiterates his ideals with a tenacity that suggests an inability to recognize his own shortcomings. Then again, there was little reason to believe in 1982 that Reagan's democratic crusade was anything more than a fanciful aspiration.

David Adesnik is a graduate student in international relations at Oxford and a coeditor of OxBlog (oxblog.com).