Ronald Reagan and the "Islamic Bomb"

02/05/2011 02:13 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On the centennial of President Reagan's birth, he deserved to be remembered warmly for all his positive personal qualities, his optimism about the future, and his belief in this country.

But, it is dangerous to our country's future if, in deifying the man, we bow at the altar of his policies and follow his example.

Domestically, Reagan popularized the dangerous idea that we could have something for nothing -- that lowering tax rates generates increased, not decreased, revenues. That 20th century alchemy has produced a $14 trillion national debt (Reagan and the two Bushes were the only US Presidents to increase the debt/GDP ratio since WW II). Although Republicans argue that Democratic Congresses prevented Reagan from reducing spending, the simple truth is that Reagan proposed budgets totaling $7.314 trillion in his 8 years, and Congress passed budgets of $7.361 trillion, hardly enough of a difference to move the debt/GDP ratio dial at all.

Foreign policy is the singular province of a president, so there are no "the other party controlled Congress" explanations. Reagan inserted troops in Lebanon where lax security allowed the first Islamist attack against Americans, killing more than 200 marines. (He then tucked-tail-and-ran out of the country, but no one called him weak). He traded arms for hostages with Iran, but no one called him an appeaser.

Nothing, however, compares with his allowing Pakistan to develop nuclear weapons, referred to, even at the time, as the "Islamic bomb".

As noted in George Crile, Jr's, Charlie Wilson's War, General Zia al-Haq, the Pakistani dictator, made a deal with Reagan. He would allow the CIA to use Pakistani territory to supply and train the Afghan mujahedeen with increasingly sophisticated weapons (eventually shoulder-to-air, Stinger, missiles to destroy Soviet helicopter gun ships that were terrorizing the Afghan people), so long as Reagan would not interfere or object to Pakistan's ongoing development of nuclear weapons.

It is, perhaps, Monday-morning quarterbacking to criticize Reagan too strongly over his military support for the mujahedeen that led to the creation of a trained and equipped al-Qaeda. Perhaps too many subsequent events had to occur exactly as they did for al-Qaeda to have arisen from that aid to render it reasonably foreseeable. Although, the victory over the Soviet Union provided no good-will from Islamic fundamentalists for the United States, deemed just an instrument of Allah who brought them the victory, perhaps handing the Soviet Union a taste of its own "Vietnam" medicine was a necessary experience to temper its enthusiasm for military adventurism, and thus worth the consequences even if they had been foreseeable. Perhaps.

But, no hindsight is required to recognize the recklessness of providing a green-light to Pakistan's development of nuclear weapons. From the outset, it was not "Pakistan's deterrent", but the "Islamic bomb". And, it was being developed by a nation that had seen its dictator, Zia al-Haq, impose strict Islamic fundamentalist law. There was no mystery about who Zia was, and how he saw the world.

Reagan's OK was clear and unambiguous:

The dirty little secret of the Afghan war was that Zia had extracted a concession early on from Reagan: Pakistan would work with the CIA against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and in return the United States would not only provide massive aid, but would agree to look the other way on the question of the bomb.(Charlie Wilson's War, p. 463).

It was an unwritten rule of the Cold War that the two superpowers would not, publicly, have a military face-off. The Cuban missile crisis of 1962 was about all the direct military confrontation the world could survive. Thus, just as Soviet support to North Vietnam was obvious but never directly acknowledged, so US aid to the mujahedeen had to remain "covert", and the US went to great lengths to hide the chain of evidence establishing a direct link. Keeping that part of the deal secret was, therefore, standard operating procedure.

But, the reason to keep the "Islamic bomb" information secret is that both Congress and the public would have erupted, had it been known that the price for sticking it to the Soviet Union was for fundamentalist Pakistan to become a nuclear power:

Zia understood, however, that if he were ever caught red-handed, the White House could not protect him from the wrath of Congress. (Ibid)

Indeed, had the Congress known, the Solarz Amendment would have required all aid to be cut off.

The rightwing, and some others, give Reagan "credit" for ending the Cold War. The concept, I believe, is that the Soviet Union's economy could not keep pace with Reagan's defense build-up. I believe that the demise of the Soviet Union was due more to the inability of a closed economy to keep pace with personal computers and fax machines, but the matter is both debatable, and not highly relevant anymore. The implosion of the Soviet Union was inevitable, US policies since George Kennan and Harry Truman played a critical role and it was certainly not one person's, or one policy's, doing.

The Islamic bomb is.