Rick Perry, Rand Paul, and Reagan's Foreign Policy

Rick Perry, Rand Paul, and Reagan's Foreign Policy

By Craig Shirley - July 21, 2014

Several years after leaving office, Ronald Reagan was giving a luncheon speech in Los Angeles when he was asked during the question-and-answer session about the Middle East. Reagan responded with a parable about a frog and a scorpion on the bank of a stream as the water was rising, threatening them.  

The scorpion told the frog to carry him across or he would sting him. The frog replied that he was afraid the scorpion would sting him if they crossed together. The scorpion says, “Don't be silly. If I did that, we'd both die.” 

The frog is reassured but halfway across the stream, the scorpion stings the frog anyway and astonished, the frog says, “Why’d you do that?! Now we will both die!" To which the scorpion replied, “Well, this is the Middle East.”  

In his eight years as president, Reagan was ultra-cautious in his approach to the Middle East, the only exception being the horrific murder of 241 Marines and Navy seamen in Beirut, which Reagan considered his greatest regret and failure of his presidency. 

Thereafter, he was both cagy and cautious when it came to the Middle East. In his entire presidency -- indeed, in his life -- Reagan never travelled to the region. He sold strategically important advanced-radar-equipped surveillance planes, called AWACs, to Saudi Arabia, over the loud protests of the Israelis -- and much of Congress. The sale of AWACs produced two immediate and beneficial consequences: First, the Saudis began pumping more oil and gas prices fell for the American consumer; and the Soviets’ profits on the sale of their oil dropped on the world market, weakening their Evil Empire.  

Reagan was animated by his administration's foreign policy. At the first meeting of the NSA in early 1981, he told those assembled, "I will make the decisions." In their splendid book “Reagan's Secret War,” Martin and Annelise Anderson note the focus of the Gipper's foreign policy was not the Middle East. In fact, the index of their book does not even cite "Middle East."

His mind was on the Soviets.

The 40th president’s caution calls into the question the recent assertion by Texas Gov. Rick Perry in comparing Soviet Russia and Iraq. Perry seems to be suggesting that Reagan would send troops back into Iraq if he were in the White House today. 

I believe this interpretation of Reagan's foreign policy is incorrect. For that matter, so is Sen. Rand Paul's. But in this case Perry is less correct than Paul. Reagan's foreign policy looked nothing like George W. Bush's; the only other time Reagan committed ground troops in eight years was in Grenada. But his foreign policy was not piecemeal. Reagan’s theory was that the demise of the Soviet Union would result in dominoes falling for freedom and indeed they did across much of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact and the Baltics. He also gave the Soviets frequent global tongue lashings, putting them in the dock in the court of world opinion, especially after the murderous shoot-down of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 in 1983. Reagan understood warfare took many forms. 

There is no way to quantify how much more dangerous the old Soviet Union was to the United States than Iraq is today, but it was substantial. Iraq never had thousands of intercontinental ballistic missiles aimed at America, as the USSR did for over 40 years. Meanwhile, the Soviets used subterfuge and sabotage to undermine America from within, ranging from the cretinous (creating propaganda firms to spread disinformation about Reagan in the 1970s and using prostitutes to compromise young Marines) to the dangerous and destabilizing (funding Castro and putting nuclear missiles in Cuba, backing Ho Chi Minh) in their half-century-long war against the United States.  

The Soviet Union was the sworn enemy of the U.S. and plotted every day to undermine America or defeat us in open combat, including all-out nuclear war. More worrisome than his casual comparisons between Tehran and Moscow, Gov. Perry is also apparently receiving advice from former Bush foreign policy officials and the neo-conservative establishment. Perry, a good man, is entitled to speak to whomever he wishes, but he should understand there are political and policy risks in adopting a foreign policy more Wilsonian than Reagan-like.  

As a student of history, Reagan knew that Napoleon, Caesar and others failed as occupiers of conquered countries and that the heart of the American Revolution was to be found in the hated writs used by the British to occupy private homes while consuming their foods and availing themselves to other private assets of the colonists.  

Invading armies are more often seen as just that -- invaders, not liberators -- and Reagan devised a third way, supporting indigenous, anti-Soviet, pro-freedom forces in Nicaragua, Poland, Afghanistan, Czechoslovakia, and other nations. He won the hearts and minds of millions behind the Iron Curtain because he respected their opinions as to how to throw off the shackles of Soviet communism. In the 1980s, the Reagan administration gave them moral support, arms, and other materiel, but let them fight their own fights, knowing the benefits of the pride of authorship.  

It is beneath Rick Perry to hurl around radioactive phrases such as "isolationism," which has been a political slur since Dec. 7, 1941.

At its core, Reagan's foreign policy was the projection of American power to defend American interests. It centered on bringing down the Soviet Union via economic competition, rhetorical tests of wills, and even proxy warfare. It is safe to say this approach to foreign policy was more durable, more defensible and more successful than any implemented by any president since.

Craig Shirley is the author of two best-selling books about Ronald Reagan, including “Rendezvous With Destiny” and “Reagan’s Revolution.” He is also the author of the best-selling “December 1941; 31 Days That Changed America and Saved the World” and is the president of Shirley & Banister. He is now writing several more books about Reagan, including “Last Act.” He has lectured at the Reagan Library, is the Visiting Reagan Scholar at Eureka College, and is a member of the Board of Governors of the Reagan Ranch.

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