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Lawrence Korb

Lawrence Korb

Posted: February 8, 2011 04:13 PM

Recently when I appeared on CNBC to discuss the crisis in Egypt, I received an email from a listener asking how someone who served about 5 years in the Reagan administration could now work at a progressive, i.e. liberal, think tank like the Center for American Progress. I received similar emails when I headed up Barack Obama's national security group during the 2008 campaign and debated people from the Clinton and McCain campaigns.

The answer is pretty simple: Reagan was much more of a progressive than many of those celebrating his 100th birthday now admit, particularly those who supported the policies of the administration of George W. Bush. Let me give just a few examples.

Like Obama, Reagan was against dumb wars. He resisted pressure from the conservative members of his party to send some 25,000 troops to Central America to thwart what they claimed was imminent Soviet Communist expansion into that area.

But Reagan did invade other countries, did he not?

Yes, he sent military forces into Lebanon in 1982 to help stabilize that country after the Israeli incursion and invaded Grenada in 1983. But in sending forces into Lebanon, Reagan would not do so unilaterally. Going in he sought and received significant troop contributions from two of our major allies -- the French and Italians. Moreover, when the Marine barracks in Beirut were blown up in 1983, killing some 240 brave Americans (and dozens of French soldiers), Reagan did a cost-benefit analysis and realized that the potential costs of continued involvement in that nation's civil war outweighed the gains. Therefore, he strategically redeployed our forces (withdrew).

Compare this to the way in which the Bush administration went to Iraq. As Donald Rumsfeld's new memoir tells us, there was never a principals meeting to analyze the costs and benefits of the operation. As a result, this nation lost nearly 5,000 lives, 30,000 of our military people were wounded, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were killed, and we spent a trillion dollars so Iraq could have an election that necessitated Iran's intervention to form a government.

Similarly, when Reagan decided to invade Grenada, he doubled the number of troops the military said were needed to complete the mission. On the other hand, the Bush administration cut in half the number of troops the Army said was necessary to invade and occupy Iraq.

Yes, Reagan did cut taxes in his first year in office to stimulate the economy. But when those cuts, coupled with his increase in defense spending and inability to reduce non-defense spending, led to large budget deficits, Reagan raised taxes 11 times, thus undoing about half of the cuts. Moreover, in his second term, he reduced the defense budget by 13 percent in real terms as part of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit reduction plan.

Like Reagan, Bush did reduce taxes in his first year. But unlike Reagan, he never raised taxes when the budget surplus he inherited disappeared and the deficit ballooned to unprecedented proportions. Nor did Bush ever slow down the rapid rise in baseline defense expenditures, even in his second term. Thus, in his eight years in office, Bush essentially doubled the baseline defense budget and kept increasing it in real terms even as the deficit rose.

It is true that Reagan called the Soviet Union an evil empire and publicly called on Gorbachev to "tear down this wall," but this did not stop him from negotiating with the Soviets to eliminate intermediate-range nuclear weapons from Europe (a posture that led some Republicans to brand him as Neville Chamberlain) and fighting with conservatives to get the Senate to ratify that agreement. Bush tried to emulate Reagan by putting Iran on the "axis of evil." But unlike Reagan, Bush would not negotiate directly with that nation and missed several opportunities to slow down Iran's nuclear program and get their help in Afghanistan.

Reagan also tried to eliminate all nuclear weapons and even though he wanted to develop a national missile defense program, he did it within the confines of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. Bush, on the other hand, tried to develop new nuclear weapons (the bunker buster) and abrogated the ABM Treaty.

I am proud of my service in the Pentagon under Reagan and equally proud to be associated with the Center for American Progress. Were Reagan alive today, I believe he would find himself right at home in our organization, as we battle to convince the Obama administration to strategically redeploy troops from Afghanistan, cut defense spending to reduce the deficit, and reduce strategic nuclear weapons.


Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, was an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration.