It will be odd for Iraqis to watch TV tonight (power cuts permitting) and hear the eulogies to freedom-loving Ronald Reagan at his state funeral. The motives behind US policy towards their country have always been a mystery, and if Iraqis sometimes explain to westerners that Saddam Hussein was a CIA agent whose appointed task was to provoke an American invasion of Iraq, it is largely thanks to Reagan's legacy.
Although Saddam was still a junior figure, it is a matter of record that the CIA station in Baghdad aided the coup which first brought the Ba'athists to power in 1963. But it was Reagan who, two decades later, turned US-Iraqi relations into a decisive wartime alliance. He sent a personal letter to Saddam Hussein in December 1983 offering help against Iran. The letter was hand-carried to Baghdad by Reagan's special envoy, Donald Rumsfeld.
Reagan liked several things about Saddam. A firm anti-communist, he had banned the party and executed or imprisoned thousands of its members. The Iraqi leader was also a bulwark against the mullahs in Tehran and a promising point of pressure against Syria and its Hizbullah clients in Lebanon who had just destroyed the US Marine compound in Beirut, killing over 200 Americans.
It is not surprising that the current international maneuvering over Iraq is treated with suspicion grounded in that history. Iraqis regard their newly appointed government with skepticism. They see the difficulty France had at the United Nations in trying to persuade the Americans to allow Iraqis a veto over US offensives in places like Falluja. They note that Prime Minister Ayad Allawi did not even ask for a major Iraqi role until the French made it an issue. Iraqis remember that Allawi and his exile organization, the Iraqi National Accord, were paid by the CIA.
Not just in Iraq but around the world, the hallmark of Reagan's presidency was anti-communist cynicism, masked by phony rhetoric about freedom. In his first press conference as president he used quasi-biblical language to claim that Soviet leaders "reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat". It was one of the most extraordinary cases of the pot calling the kettle black. What could Saddam, let alone other Iraqis, have thought when it became known two years after Rumsfeld's first visit to Baghdad that Washington had secretly sold arms to the mullahs Iraq was fighting. Who had been lying and cheating?
In the name of anti-communism everything was possible. Reagan invaded Grenada on the false premise that US students who had been there safely for months were suddenly in danger. Reagan armed thugs to overthrow the government of Nicaragua, even after it won internationally certified free elections in 1984. He made the US an outlaw by rejecting the world court judgments against its blockade of Nicaragua's coast.
Reagan armed and trained Osama bin Laden and his followers in their Afghan jihad, and authorized the CIA to help to pay for the construction of the very tunnels in Tora Bora in which his one-time ally later successfully hid from US planes. On the grounds that Nelson Mandela's African National Congress was pro-communist, Reagan vetoed US congress bills putting sanctions on the apartheid regime the ANC was fighting.
His policies towards the Soviet Union were hysterical and counter-productive. He put detente into deep freeze for several years with his insulting label "the evil empire". It led to overblown outrage over the downing by Soviet aircraft of a South Korean airliner that intruded into Russian air space. Moscow's action was inept, but if Reagan had not put the superpowers in collision, the Kremlin might have treated the wayward plane more calmly.
Moscow's policies in the developing world were no less cynical than Reagan's. In Iran and Iraq they played both sides, tilting towards Saddam Hussein, in spite of his execution of communists. They feared Iran's Islamic fundamentalism as much as Washington did. But the cold war was not mainly about ideology, and certainly not freedom. It was a contest for power. By the time Reagan took office, some independent analysts and reporters with experience in the Soviet Union were arguing Moscow's power had peaked.
The CIA was exaggerating the strength of the Soviet economy and the amount being spent on defense (shades of the recent fiasco over Iraq's WMD). The issue was hotly debated, and it was hard to reach the truth of events in a closed society. Those like myself who detected Soviet weakness had to struggle against the Kremlinological establishment, where traditional views were in a majority.
But the record of Soviet behavior suggested that, behind Brezhnev's rhetoric, Moscow had become disillusioned with its international achievements. Its Warsaw Pact allies were unreliable and had to be periodically invaded or threatened.
In the Middle East, Moscow had few allies in spite of decades of trying to win friends through the supply of arms. Egypt had moved west, Syria saw that Russia had no clout on the central issue of Israel and Palestine, the Gulf states were suspicious, and only Yemen and Iraq seemed to offer a little hope.
The Kremlin was losing heart, but its elderly leaders were too ill to draw the consequences. It took a younger leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, to start the process of international withdrawal. High oil prices after 1973 had given Moscow a decade of easy money to finance its part in the US-Soviet arms race while also developing its industrial infrastructure.
By the early 1980s the weakness of the consumer goods sector, the failure to reform agriculture, and the pressure for liberalization coming from a policy elite which had traveled abroad as diplomats, engineers and journalists was about to break the surface.
Reagan's Star Wars project did not bankrupt the Soviet Union into reform, as his admirers claim. In repeated statements as well as his budget allocations Gorbachev made it clear Moscow would not bother to match a dubious weapons system which could not give Washington "first-strike capability" for at least another 15 years, if ever.
The Soviet Union imploded for internal reasons, not least the erratic way Gorbachev reacted to the contradictory processes set in motion by his own reforms. Reagan was merely an uncomprehending bystander. His acceptance in his second term of detente was a u-turn which millions of peace activists in Europe had been demanding.
It was detente that made the end of the cold war possible, and without Reagan's blind anti-communism it could have come at least four years earlier.
· Jonathan Steele' s book 'The Limits of Soviet Power' was published in 1984
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004