No, Putin Isn’t Following ‘Reagan Playbook’ in Ukraine–Thank God

David Ignatius (photo: CSIS)

David Ignatius

David Ignatius is a Washington Post columnist who is notable for his coziness with his sources in the CIA. So when he writes a column (4/8/14) headlined “Putin Steals the CIA’s Playbook on Anti-Soviet Covert Operations,” it’s hard to know how to take that: Is it supposed to be a criticism or a compliment?

More specifically, Ignatius writes that Putin

may in fact be taking a page out of the United States’ playbook during the Ronald Reagan presidency, when the Soviet empire began to unravel thanks to a relentless US covert-action campaign. Rather than confront Moscow head-on, Reagan nibbled at the edges, by supporting movements that destabilized Russian power in Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Angola and, finally, Poland and Eastern Europe.

Ignatius credits this view to “John Ma­guire, a former CIA paramilitary covert-action officer, who served in the Contras program in Nicaragua and later in the Middle East.” Maguire argues that what Putin is doing in Ukraine is similar to what he and his colleagues did in Nicaragua. Really?

Death squad victims, El Salvador (cc photo: John Hoagland)

What the actual “Reagan playbook” looked like (cc photo: John Hoagland)

Though this history has largely gone down the memory hole, as demonstrated by the whitewashing of Reagan’s record at the time of his death (Media Advisory, 6/9/04), the CIA-backed Contras were not just “hit-and-run guerrillas in Nicaragua,” as Ignatius describes them. They were an organized terrorist force that targeted schools, health clinics and other civilian facilities.

Their standard tactics, in the words of human rights advocate Reed Brody, were “the killing of unarmed men, women, children and the elderly” and “premeditated acts of brutality including rape, beatings, mutilation and torture.” The war left an estimated 30,000 dead.

The use of large-scale violence against civilians to achieve political goals was a hallmark of the Reagan “playbook,” employed not just in Nicaragua but in countries like El Salvador, Guatemala and Angola. If Russia has been doing anything remotely resembling this in Ukraine, the Washington Post has certainly been falling down on the job.

After the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, the United States funded guerrillas, many of them religious extremists, to fight the occupation government. If Putin was actually following Reagan’s example, wouldn’t he have responded to the US invasion of Afghanistan in a similar fashion? Yet Ignatius curiously fails to mention any signs of Russian support for the Taliban.

While there’s little evidence that Putin is following in Reagan’s footsteps, AlterNet‘s Alex Kane (4/8/14) makes a more plausible case for another world leader drawing inspiration from Reagan Era foreign policy–noting President Barack Obama’s current support for death squad-linked governments in Kenya and Honduras.

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.