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Reagan Aides See Echo Of The Gipper In Obama Diplomacy

Reagan

First Posted: 05/31/08 06:12 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 01:35 PM ET

An unexpected if not remarkable component has emerged in this still developing general election race: both candidates are, in one way or another, trying to claim the mantle of Ronald Reagan.

This past week, as the political world immersed itself in a debate over the efficacies of diplomatic engagement, Sen. Barack Obama claimed that his pledge to meet with world leaders, whether friend or foe, was more in line with the Gipper than the foreign policy of John McCain, a self-proclaimed "foot soldier" of the Reagan Revolution.

"If George Bush and John McCain have a problem with direct diplomacy," said the Senator, after Bush, not so subtly, painted him as an appeaser, "then they can explain why they have a problem with John F. Kennedy because that's what he did with [Soviet leader Nikita] Khrushchev, or Ronald Reagan, 'cause that's what he did with [Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev."

It wasn't the first time Obama had weaved this historical thread. Back in October, when his pledge to meet without preconditions with world leaders from Iran, North Korea, and the like was first made, the Senator blasted Rudy Giuliani - a critic of the pledge - for not believing in the "strong diplomacy practiced by Ronald Reagan."

All of which begs the question: in regards to the current Middle East and Iranian crises, what would Reagan do (WWRD)?

Aides to and biographers of the nation's 40th president universally note that he had a preference for one-on-one engagement. And in describing the foreign policy of their former boss (or subject) they employ language that reflects, almost point by point, much of the rhetoric coming from the Obama campaign. But when asked if he would, if he were alive and in the Oval Office today, meet with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the bag is mixed.

"I think the same strategy would apply to Iran as currently applies to say North Korea. Reagan would always indicate a willingness to talk but you'd have to have an indication of sincerity on the other party," said Richard V. Allen, Reagan's National Security Adviser. "Reagan would not negotiate with an Iran that had been implicated in the killing of servicemen in Iraq. He would want that stopped and he would use it as a means of getting a negotiation."

What Reagan acolytes and former associates do agree on is that his time in the White House was an illustration in just how effective personal diplomacy, charm, and political sternness can be when combined. And they point to his meeting in 1985 with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev -- which is repeatedly cited by Obama -- as a template of presidential leadership on the international stage.

"Conservative Republicans for fifty years had tended to denigrate the importance of personal diplomacy," said Richard Norton Smith, the former director of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, in a PBS film on the '85 summit. "It's the legacy of the Yalta Conference and they thought Franklin Roosevelt had sold us out and then we sold out China. We were all selling out someone. The sale was usually by a president who thought if only he could get in a room with his Soviet counterpart his charm and his arguments would prevail. That was the conservative position and yet Reagan clearly believed he could do that: the force of his personality of his arguments and above all of his sincerity would impress itself upon the Soviets."

Indeed, as aides note, Reagan went into that meeting with challenges more daunting than what U.S. faces in modern Iran. And the president's objective -- to back away from the brink of nuclear war while refusing to draw down America's commitment to the Strategic Defense Initiative (Star Wars) -- seemed, on the surface, to be an untenable proposition. But largely because of his personal touch, it was achieved.

"I think in terms of reaching out, Reagan went against the advice of what we would call today 'the neocons,'" said Lawrence Korb, Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration. "He took the lead in negotiating with the Soviets. He broke the impasse that a lot of people in government didn't want him to do it."

But it wasn't just with Gorbachev in which Reagan showed an inclination for personal involvement in foreign affairs. As George Schultz, Reagan's Secretary of State, wrote in a concluding section of his memoir "Understanding Ronald Reagan": "Critics said Ronald Reagan read too many letters and not enough briefing books. I often wished he would spend more time on the briefing books, mastering details more fully and following up more aggressively on the management of foreign policy. But the letters buoyed him up and also gave him a continuing sense of contact with the people."

All of which, aides and biographers say, was part of a broader decision made by Reagan that engagement, even on a non-political level, was an essential political tactic.

"He had a very strong belief in personal diplomacy." said Paul Kengor, author of "The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism." Reagan placed "enormous confidence in his personal ability to get along with other leaders. Reagan knew that he generally throughout his life got along well with people and they generally liked him."

Is Obama the inheritor of this foreign policy philosophy? It is tough to say. Kengor warned against transposing Reagan's outreach to the Soviet Union to what Obama is trying to do in the war on terror. But on a fundamental level, he and former Reagan aides acknowledge that there are historical echoes to what the Gipper pursued and what the current Democratic frontrunner proposes.

"Reagan is not the person who would say it was all black and white, he had the sense to know that there were times to bend and move and not to be naïve either," said Bruce Fein, Reagan's deputy attorney general. "I don't think as a matter of principle there would be a sudden insistence on Reagan that we could never talk at any time or anywhere. There are exceptions to every rule."

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