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."