Ronald Reagan was born on this date 102 years ago today. He died in June 2004 -- but I've written quite a bit about him in the intervening years, especially while and after I wrote a 2009 book about Reagan and his legacy called "Tear Down This Myth." Why focus so much on a man who left the Oval Office 24 years, who died nearly eight years ago?
The main and most important reason is that the modern Republican Party has warped Reagan's legacy for its own 21st century political purposes -- twisting his actual views and his official actions on everything from war to taxes into a right-wing vision that the Gipper himself probably wouldn't recognize. So it's useful from time to time to remind ourselves who Ronald Reagan really was -- and wasn't -- in order to beat back dumb ideas in the present.
Beyond that, I'm a huge fan of recalling our history, in general, because remembering where we've been can teach us a thing or two about where we are going now. As we debate reducing the federal deficit, for example, it's useful to remember that Reagan saw raising taxes -- something he did 11 times as president -- as part of the solution. The tale of how Reagan deregulated the savings-and-loan industry -- with disastrous results -- should have warned us about deregulating the banksters, even though it clearly didn't.
Let's be clear that there was quite a lot about the real, non-mythical Ronald Reagan not to like -- his encouragement of a Gordon Gekko economy that created a yawning gap between the rich and poor, his embrace of death squads and other atrocities by U.S. surrogates in Central America, and his failure to address problems from the AIDS crisis to growing homelessness. But there's one overlooked aspect of Reagan's policy that I keep coming back to, because it's so relevant in 2013: His views on addressing international terrorism -- and on using techniques such as torture, military tribunals, and military strikes to combat them.
On that score, Reagan -- for all other flaws -- did a very good job of upholding the values that once seemed to be embedded in our national DNA -- a belief in our unique system of justice, and that "American exceptionalism" only meant something if the United States wasn't a nation that tortured people or bombed far-away countries willy-nilly.
In 1988, Reagan signed the UN Convention Against Torture, which was later ratified by the Senate in 1994. It states in part: "No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture." It also bars nations from transporting prisoners to other nations knowing they'll be tortured there -- the practice that we've come to call "rendition." The George W. Bush administration would later call the treaty that Reagan signed "quaint" as both waterboarding and frequent rendition took place during the 2000s.
In addition, the Reagan administration made it very clear where it stood on the question of whether terror suspects should be tried before traditional civilian courtrooms -- or by special military tribunals or commissions. In the late 1980s, after a spate of attacks in the Middle East such as the murder of cruise ship passenger Leon Klinghoffer. America ultimately took custody of several terror suspects -- who were tried before civilian judges and juries. In a major irony, the official who articulated Reagan's policy was Paul Bremer -- later to become the first overseer of post-invasion Iraq. Bremer said: "[A] major element of our strategy has been to delegitimize terrorists, to get society to see them for what they are -- criminals -- and to use democracy's most potent tool, the rule of law against them."
The question of drone strikes gets a little trickier -- since today's sophisticated flying death robots weren't around in the 1980s, But I think it's pretty clear where Reagan would have come down on both the "shock and awe" laid down on Iraq during the Bush years and on the expansion of drone strikes -- and the collateral damage that comes with them -- under President Obama. He would have almost certainly opposed both.
Here's a passage from "Tear Down This Myth" that explains:
After the June 1985 hijacking of TWA Flight 847 by Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon, which included the death of the Navy diver [Robert] Stethem, [Lou] Cannon wrote in the Post that Reagan stunned some of his aides, such as the bellicose Patrick J. Buchanan, with his unwillingness to use force in response to terrorism. "Reagan, always more tender-hearted when dealing with real people than with abstract ideas, decided that retaliation in which innocent civilians are killed is 'itself a terrorist act' -- a view he expressed publicly at his June 18 news conference," Cannon wrote. He noted that just two days later the president had to overrule a military response to an attack on Marines in El Salvador, and he wrote that "Reagan asked [National Security Advisor Robert] McFarlane whether an attack could be carried out without killing civilians -- a yardstick that surprised Buchanan." In fact, avoiding collateral damage to civilians and their property was a cornerstone of Pentagon thinking, and Reagan's, in the 1980s.
It's true that under Reagan, America did undertake a highly dubious invasion of Grenada and did drop bombs once, in Libya, in response to a terrorist bombing that killed two U.S. soldiers in Berlin. Those actions were the exception, though. History later revealed the list of proposed military moves he rejected was much longer, such as a blockade of Cuba to stop arms shipments to Nicaragua or an invasion of Panama -- something his successor George H.W. Bush didn't have a second thought about carrying out his first year as president.
This is important to understand, because it puts our messed-up present in the proper context. Reagan, indefatigable Cold Warrior and conservative advocate for American strength, did not believe in torture, rendition, military tribunals, or in military strikes with a high risk of killing innocent civilians. This was because he was simply upholding traditional American values, as virtually everyone understood them for more than two centuries.
It is what has happened in the last dozen years that is not normal, not America as most of us -- Reagan included -- have known it. Now we have gone so far off the rails that we have a president who -- while he was in college, during Reagan's first term -- once wrote a paper called "Breaking the War Mentality" and railed against "billion-dollar erector sets," but now thinks its OK to order the death of American citizens from flying robots if they are merely suspected of terrorist ties -- "even if there is no intelligence indicating they are engaged in an active plot to attack the U.S."
Maybe I'm being naive, but I'm thinking that if Ronald Reagan were here today he's be wondering how we got to this point, this endless state of war with its slippery slope of moral justifications -- and how can we make it stop.