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Democratic Activist

Reagan's other foreign policy legacy.

Jun 28, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 40 • By DAVID ADESNIK
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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).