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Rating Reagan: A Bogus Legacy
Published on Monday, June 7, 2004 by Consortiumnews.com
Rating Reagan: A Bogus Legacy
by Robert Parry
 

The U.S. news media’s reaction to Ronald Reagan’s death is putting on display what has happened to American public debate in the years since Reagan’s political rise in the late 1970s: a near-total collapse of serious analytical thinking at the national level.

Across the U.S. television dial and in major American newspapers, the commentary is fawning almost in a Pravda-like way, far beyond the normal reticence against speaking ill of the dead. Left-of-center commentators compete with conservatives to hail Reagan’s supposedly genial style and his alleged role in “winning the Cold War.” The Washington Post’s front-page headline – “Ronald Reagan Dies” – was in giant type more fitting the Moon Landing.

Yet absent from the media commentary was the one fundamental debate that must be held before any reasonable assessment can be made of Ronald Reagan and his Presidency: How, why and when was the Cold War “won”? If, for instance, the United States was already on the verge of victory over a foundering Soviet Union in the early-to-mid-1970s, as some analysts believe, then Reagan’s true historic role may not have been “winning” the Cold War, but helping to extend it.

If the Soviet Union was already in rapid decline, rather than in the ascendancy that Reagan believed, then the massive U.S. military build-up in the 1980s was not decisive; it was excessive. The terrible bloodshed in Central America and Africa, including death squad activities by U.S. clients, was not some necessary evil; it was a war crime aided and abetted by the Reagan administration.

One-Sided Debate

That debate, however, has never been engaged, except by Reagan acolytes who chose to glorify Reagan’s role in “winning the Cold War” rather than examining the assumptions that guided his policies in the 1970s and 1980s. Although it’s largely forgotten now, Reagan’s rise within the Republican Party was as a challenge to the “détente” strategies pursued by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger – before the Watergate scandal forced Nixon from office – and later by Gerald Ford. Détente was, in effect, an effort to ease the Cold War to an end, much as finally occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Cold Warriors Nixon and Kissinger – along with much of the U.S. intelligence community – had recognized the systemic weaknesses of the Soviet system, which was falling desperately behind the West in technology and in the ability to produce consumer goods desired by the peoples of Eastern Europe. One only needed to look at night-time satellite photos to see the disparity between the glittering city lights of North America, Western Europe and parts of Asia compared to the darkness across the Soviet bloc.

Under this analysis of Soviet weakness, the 1970s was the time for the West to accept victory and begin transitioning the Soviet Union out of its failed economic model. Not only could that approach have hastened the emergence of a new generation of Russian reformers, it would have allowed world leaders to pull back from the edge of nuclear confrontation. Third World civil wars also could have been addressed as local conflicts, not East-West tests of strength.

But American conservatives – and a new group of neoconservatives who would become the ideological backbone of the Reagan administration – saw the situation differently. They insisted that the Soviet Union was on the rise militarily with plans to surround the United States and eventually conquer it by attacking through the “soft underbelly” of Central America.

In 1976, then-CIA Director George H.W. Bush gave an important boost to this apocalyptic vision by allowing a group of conservative analysts, including a young Paul Wolfowitz, inside the CIA’s analytical division. The group, known as “Team B,” was permitted to review highly classified U.S. intelligence on the Soviet Union. Not surprisingly, Team B came up with conclusions matching its members’ preconceptions, that the CIA had underestimated the Soviet military ascendancy and its plans to gain world domination.

Along with the Team B analysis came the theories of academic Jeane Kirkpatrick, who made a name for herself with an analysis that differentiated between “authoritarian” and “totalitarian” governments. In Kirkpatrick’s theory, right-wing “authoritarian” governments were preferable to left-wing “communist” governments because authoritarian governments could evolve toward democracy while communist governments couldn’t.

Dark Vision

These two factors – the Team B take on the military rise of the Soviet bloc and the Kirkpatrick Doctrine’s view of immutable communist regimes – guided Reagan’s foreign policy. Reagan relied on these analyses to justify both his massive U.S. military build-up in the 1980s (which put the U.S. government deeply into debt) and his support for right-wing regimes that engaged in blood baths against their opponents (especially across Latin America).

As far back as the late 1970s, for instance, Reagan defended the Argentine military junta while it was engaged in the use of state terror and was “disappearing” tens of thousands of dissidents. Those tactics included barbaric acts such as cutting babies out of pregnant women so the mothers could then be executed while the babies were given to the murderers. [See Consortiumnews.com's "Argentina's Dapper State Terrorist."]

In the 1980s in Guatemala, Reagan aided military regimes that waged scorched-earth campaigns against rural peasants, including genocide against Indian populations. Reagan personally attacked the human rights reports describing atrocities inflicted on hundreds of Mayan villages. On Dec. 4, 1982, after meeting with Guatemalan dictator Gen. Efrain Rios Montt, Reagan hailed the general as "totally dedicated to democracy" and asserted that Rios Montt's government was "getting a bum rap." [For details, see Consortiumnews.com's "Reagan & Guatemala's Death Files."]

Tens of thousands more people died at the hands of right-wing security forces in El Salvador and Honduras, while in Nicaragua, Reagan funneled support to the contras, who behaved like a kind of death-squad-in-waiting, committing widespread atrocities against Nicaraguan civilians while funding some operations with cocaine trafficking to the United States. [For details, see Robert Parry's Lost History.]

It followed, after all, that if the Soviet Union were on the verge of world conquest and if that would mean permanent slavery, then desperate measures were required. But the problem with the Team B analysis and the Kirkpatrick Doctrine was that both were wrong.

The evidence is now clear that by the 1970s, the Soviet Union was in sharp decline both economically and militarily. Rather than some grandiose strategy for world conquest, Moscow was in a largely defensive posture, trying to hold in line countries near its borders, such as Eastern Europe and Afghanistan. The Helsinki Accords for human rights also were putting the Soviet Union under greater pressure as dissident movements, such as Poland’s Solidarity, took shape within Moscow’s sphere of influence. [For more on the doctored intelligence of the Reagan-Bush era, see Consortiumnews.com's "Lost in the Politicization Swamp."]

Besides greater personal freedoms, Soviet bloc residents wanted the higher-quality consumer goods available in the West. Even a bigger threat to Moscow's power was the growing chasm between Western technological advances and Soviet backwardness. By the late 1970s and 1980s, the reletively modest assistance that Moscow handed out to friendly Third World regimes, such as Cuba and Nicaragua, was more show than substance.

The Soviet Union had become a national Potemkin village, a hollowed-out economy and bankrupt political system with nuclear weapons. Along with the miscalculations of Team B's strategic analysis, the Kirkpatrick Doctrine failed to stand the test of time. Democratic governments sprouted across Eastern Europe and the Sandinistas conceded defeat in Nicaragua – not as contras marched into Managua – but following a lost election.

Indeed, if the Soviet Union had been what the American conservatives claimed – a nation marching toward world supremacy in the early 1980s – how would one explain its rapid collapse only a few years later? After all, the Soviet Union wasn’t invaded or conquered. Its troops did suffer losses in Afghanistan, but that would no more have brought down a true superpower than the Vietnam defeat could have caused the United States to collapse.

Bogus History

Despite these facts, the right wing’s historical take on how the Cold War was “won” has been broadly accepted within the elite opinion circles of the United States: Reagan’s hard-line stance toward the Soviet Union caused the communists to crumble. Given how powerful the right-wing media machine had gotten by the early 1990s, liberals largely chose to cede the Cold War debate to the conservatives and tried to shift the public’s focus to future U.S. domestic needs.

So, instead of a soul-searching examination of the unnecessary loss of blood and treasure, the nation got a feel-good history. Gone was any reassessment of the alarmist views associated with Ronald Reagan and his ideological cohorts. Gone were any questions about whether the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars on new weapons systems was justified or whether the U.S. government should be held accountable for the brutal excesses of counter-insurgency wars in Central America.

The unpleasant history was shunted aside or covered up. When declassified U.S. government documents led to a judgment by a Guatemalan truth commission that the Reagan administration had aided and abetted genocide, it was a one-day story. When a CIA inspector general confirmed that many contra units had engaged in drug trafficking and were protected by the Reagan administration, the mainstream press only grudgingly acknowledged the story. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Lost History.]

Another little-noticed part of Reagan’s legacy was his credentialing of a generation of neoconservative operatives who learned the importance of manipulating intelligence from Team B and about managing the perceptions of the American people from the Nicaraguan contra war. As Walter Raymond, Reagan’s chief of public diplomacy, was fond of saying about how to sell the Nicaraguan conflict to the American people: the goal was to “glue black hats” on the leftist Sandinistas and “white hats” on the contras.

George W. Bush’s strategy for rallying the American public behind the War in Iraq – with hyped intelligence about military threats and extreme rhetoric about the evil of U.S. adversaries – follows the game plan drawn up by Ronald Reagan’s national security team in the 1980s. [For more details on the decline of the CIA's analytical division, see Consortiumnews.com "Why U.S. Intelligence Failed."]

Arguably, too, another troubling part of Ronald Reagan’s legacy is the press corps’s stultifying version of recent American history, a superficiality richly on display in the media paeans to Reagan following his death.

In the 1980s, while with the Associated Press and Newsweek, Robert Parry broke many of the stories now known as the Iran-Contra Affair. He is currently working on a book about the secret political history of the two George Bushes.

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