David R. Henderson  

Reagan Learned

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My favorite paragraph I've read all week (on the aftermath of the Abel Archer exercise) is from then President Ronald Reagan, writing in his diary at the time:

He wrote in his diary on Nov. 18, 1983: "I feel the Soviets are so defense minded, so paranoid about being attacked that without being in any way soft on them, we ought to tell them no one here has any intention of doing anything like that. What the h--l have they got that anyone would want."

What's striking from this WaPost piece is that Reagan learned:
Reagan later recalled in his memoir, "Three years had taught me something surprising about the Russians: Many people at the top of the Soviet hierarchy were genuinely afraid of America and Americans. Perhaps this shouldn't have surprised me, but it did. In fact, I had difficulty accepting my own conclusion at first."

He said he felt that "it must be clear to anyone" that Americans were a moral people who, since the founding of the nation, "had always used our power only as a force for good in the world."

"During my first years in Washington," Reagan said, "I think many of us in the administration took it for granted that the Russians, like ourselves, considered it unthinkable that the United States would launch a first strike against them. But the more experience I had with the Soviet leaders and other heads of state who knew them, the more I began to realize that many Soviet officials feared us not only as adversaries but as potential aggressors who might hurl nuclear weapons at them in a first strike; because of this, and perhaps because of a sense of insecurity and paranoia with roots reaching back to the invasions of Russia by Napoleon and Hitler, they had aimed a huge arsenal of nuclear weapons at us."


It takes some real independence of thought to get from one's view that Americans, by which Reagan meant the U.S. government, "had always used our power only as a force for good in the world" to the view that not everyone in the world sees the U.S. government that way.

A lot of conservatives claim Reagan as their hero and role model. They also credit him, somewhat plausibly, for helping end the Soviet Union. But it's good to remember that many conservatives attacked Reagan in the mid-1980s for reaching out to Mikhail Gorbachev. My own gut feel is that if Reagan were in office today in his mid-70s, he would be negotiating with the Iranian government in a way similar to what Obama has done.


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CATEGORIES: moral reasoning




COMMENTS (16 to date)
E. Harding writes:

And today Iran's fears about the U.S. are infinitely more justified than Soviet fears about the same. The USSR was, after all, a large power, and capable of defending itself from the U.S. Iran is not.

Greg G writes:

I agree with you David. In the 50's and early 60's the U.S. military had a number of people who wanted to launch a first strike against the Russians. They had a good enough spy network to know that and remember it. Reagan learned that the Russian psychology was more complex than he first believed.

Likewise, even though most Americans don't remember it, we over threw a democratic regime in Iran in the early 50's and imposed the Shah. We later shot down one of their civilian airliners. Today American neocons make no secret of their desire to attack Iran.

Authoritarian regimes are almost always most dangerous right after they take power. The longer they are in power, the more their leaders get attached to the perks of power and are reluctant to risk them.

khodge writes:

I recently read a guardian article that provides a nearly identical analysis to North Korea

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/23/ask-a-north-korean-nuclear-weapons

Unfortunately, I think you are letting your pacifism get the better of your judgment with regard to Iran. While I do not have an answer for the Middle East, do you really think that realpolitik analysis is valid for radical theocrats?

Is there a reason to not take Iran at face value when they say they want to wipe Israel off the map? Is ISIS really like the Soviet Union trying to buffer itself when the ISIS leaders openly state that they want to set up a Caliphate that will take on the whole world? Does your analysis really address ISIS building international terrorist networks and appropriating western technology because they are unable to build their own?

MikeDC writes:

I don't see that Iran is unable to defend itself against the US. Yes, the US has military superiority, but it's not like we have omnipotent capability to do whatever we want.

I tend to think Reagan would have negotiated much more effectively than either Obama or Bush did with Iran. I'm not really sure what Obama has negotiated, rather than give the stamp of legitimacy to what Iran was doing anyway. It seems like we'd be better off with less easily broken bureaucratic timelines and more broad public statements from Iran's leaders loudly and consistently renouncing their prior calls to violence.

mico writes:

The situations are not very similar because the USSR already had a large nuclear arsenal whereas Iran doesn't. Reagan wanted to be sure that the USSR would not do something that they already had the power to do - like launch a first strike - out of misplaced fear that the US was going to bomb or invade them. The choice the US faces when dealing with Iran is whether to let them obtain that sort of power, or not.

The US doesn't currently need to fear that Iran would misconstrue the US's actions as a threat to them because there is nothing Iran can do to the US in retaliation for any action the US takes. Conversely attacking Iran in earnest right now may reduce the threat of a nuclear exchange over fifty years or a century.

khodge writes:

Sorry, that did not link (first time trying)


North Korea link

Scott Sumner writes:

Great post!

David R. Henderson writes:

@khodge,
Unfortunately, I think you are letting your pacifism get the better of your judgment with regard to Iran.
I’m pretty sure that’s not true, for one simple reason: I am not a pacifist.
While I do not have an answer for the Middle East, do you really think that realpolitik analysis is valid for radical theocrats?
Yes.
You asked a number of other questions, but I don’t time to answer them now.
@Scott Sumner,
Thanks.

khodge writes:

Prof. Henderson:
Sorry, I sometimes get confused about pacifists and libertarians (just came over from Cafe Hayek); Don has challenged some of my beliefs in that regard. In my mind, the other questions were appositive to the realpolitik question.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Khodge,
No problem.

Thomas Sewell writes:
My own gut feel is that if Reagan were in office today in his mid-70s, he would be negotiating with the Iranian government in a way similar to what Obama has done.
No need for a gut feel when you have evidence based on what Reagan actually did in the past. He'd negotiate, but he'd do it from a position of strength, which is essentially the opposite of the Obama/Kerry approach to Iran.

Read Reagan's speech regarding North Korea in 1983. That's typical of the tone he took in many different circumstances.

Compare how Reagan negotiated with the USSR vs. how Obama deals with Russia now. Sure, they both engaged and negotiated, but the actual approaches are polar opposites in tone and effectiveness.

Obama/Kerry/Clinton are of the "aghast at the evil empire" school of international relations. To try and compare their foreign policy approach over the last 6 years to Reagan's misses the forest for the trees. As you state, Reagan was able to understand those he was negotiating with, but what evidence is there the Obama administration understands anything about how the Iranians or Russians feel? If anything, they hide their heads in the sand while their opposite numbers run rings around them.

P.S. It is a good story about Reagan. Thanks. :)

Nathan W writes:

mico - "attacking Iran in earnest right now may reduce the threat of a nuclear exchange over fifty years or a century"

Or, it would make them, and perhaps others, ever more committed to doing precisely that over fifty years or a century.

A unilateral first strike on Iran could hardly reduce the desire for terrorism by violent radicals either.

Thomas - in which ways are Russia and Iran running rings around Obama/Kerry? The Ukraine/Crimea conflicts involve areas of 90% Russian speaking populations that would never have been part of the Socialist Republic of Ukraine had the USSR foreseen its eventual disintegration, and Russia's actions in Syria include among its targets anti-state rebels that perhaps the USA should not have armed and financed in the first place. Meanwhile, Iran has finally given in, agreeing to dismantle much of its nuclear program and get rid of most of its uranium, following a very long period of sanctions.

LD Bottorff writes:

Reagan had experience negotiating as a union boss, then as two-term governor of a left-leaning state. That was the negotiating experience that he brought to the table. What negotiating experience did Obama bring to the table?
I agree with you that Reagan would be negotiating with the Iranians, and he would disappoint some conservatives. I don't think he would have agreed to the current proposal.

Daublin writes:

It's a good read, in large part because of the "What the h--l have they got that anyone would want."

As well, I appreciate the earlier comment about it being hard to imagine other people's perspectives. Indeed, the more I learn, the more thuggish the U.S. comes off as in international domains. I don't even think Iraq is the best example; Sadaam and especially Uday were truly horribly leaders. How about Cuban history as a clearer example. I would imagine that Reagan just never thought of it that way.

Obama just doesn't come off to me as a great reader of human emotion nor as a great finder of peace, though. Every other sentence he says seems to be about how rePUBlicans are the source of everything bad in the world, and that's half of his own country he is talking about.

There's also Guantanamo, which Obama has kept open. He says he needs it because of "bad guys". This is in direct contradiction to his campaign promises. If you were sitting across the table from Barrack Obama, would you think he's going to call off his troops and play nice with you? Based on his word?

There are also the several thousand drone missiles that Obama has sent out. These didn't just head out of their own volition; American protocol is that the president signs off on a drone missile or it doesn't happen. What kind of message does that send if you are simultaneously promissing not to give out a "first strike"?

There's also the assassination of Osama bin Laden. How many world leaders did Reagan assassinate? I guess I honestly don't know, but I'm pretty sure he wasn't putting out hits on major Russian leaders. You know, a lot of people took credit for the World Trade Center attack, and bin Laden himself denied involvement for months, which is strange if it's supposed to be some sort of show of force for Al Qaeda. Was there ever any form of trial around this, with at least a proxy agent there to defend bin Laden, or did we just take the intelligence agency's word on this one? I'm not saying I know myself; it just sorta seems like the FBI provided a name and then Obama killed that person.

America is putting out a lot of torture and guns in the last decade. I don't know how this compares to Reagan per se, but it's a far cry from the behavior of a country that wants to seem non-threatening or even coherent.

Emerich writes:

Thomas Sewell, you articulated what I was thinking. Sure, Reagan would have negotiated with the Iranians. Why not?But pre-emptive concession from start to finish would not have been his MO.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Thomas Sewell,
He'd negotiate, but he'd do it from a position of strength, which is essentially the opposite of the Obama/Kerry approach to Iran.
The U.S. military and weapons arsenal is much greater than Iran’s military and weapons arsenal. The gap between the U.S. and the Soviets, though substantial, was smaller. The Soviets had the ability to annihilate us; the Iranian government doesn’t. So the U.S. position of strength vis a vis Iran is much greater than was the U.S. position of strength vis a vis the Soviet Union.

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