Apr 1 2007

Reagan Revisionism

Backing off Bush, media recall a crush-worthy conservative

Jellybean Ronald Reagan (cc photo: Ryan Dickey)

Portrait in jellybeans from the Reagan Presidential Library (cc photo: Ryan Dickey)

Like many prominent pundits, Newsweek columnist Fareed Zakaria has of late expressed his frustration with the foreign policy of George W. Bush. In the magazine’s March 19 issue, Zakaria lamented that the Bush administration “began intervening directly in the domestic affairs” of Latin American countries, a move he presented as a break from the recent past: “American foreign policy toward Latin America had been on the right track for two decades. Ronald Reagan orchestrated an extraordinary turnaround, supporting human rights, democracy and free trade in several countries.”

Zakaria can be given partial credit on one point: Reagan did push on Latin America a set of policies that are referred to as “free trade,” though these policies include increased restrictions on trade in the form of tightened patent and copyright laws. The current leftward trend in the region’s politics seems in large part due to a pushback against those types of economic plans.

Celebrating Ronald Reagan’s stance on human rights and democracy in the region is another matter. Zakaria’s assessment is completely at odds with the actual policies of the Reagan administration—as illustrated by Secretary of State Alexander Haig’s declaration that “international terrorism will take the place of human rights in our concern because it is the ultimate abuse of human rights” (Time, 2/9/81), and U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick’s urging the embrace of “authoritarian” states on the grounds that they were preferable to “totalitarian” ones (Commentary, 11/79).

Totalitarian or not, the regimes Reagan and Co. embraced managed to rack up substantial body counts: The Argentine generals killed approximately 30,000, El Salvador’s death squads murdered some 75,000 and an estimated 200,000 Guatemalans were exterminated by a succession of dictators—including Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, whom Reagan proclaimed had gotten a “bum rap.”

Perhaps the most obvious example undermining Zakaria’s argument is Nicaragua; considering that the Reagan White House founded, funded and directed the Contra army, which killed roughly 20,000 civilians in an attempt to overthrow the freely and fairly elected Sandinista government, it’s hard to argue that Bush should be faulted for soiling the U.S.’s hands-off reputation by “intervening directly in the domestic affairs” of another country. When you also consider the invasions of Grenada and Panama (the latter under Bush the Elder), one could more easily argue that George W. Bush has a more laissez-faire approach to Latin America than his Republican predecessors.

A Reagan tribute of a different sort arrived on the March 26 cover of Time—“How the Right Went Wrong” was the headline, along with a doctored photo of Reagan with a tear running down his cheek. Karen Tumulty’s cover story contrasted Reagan’s visionary ideals with the Bush White House’s “scandals and . . . corruption,” alleging that “the dismay that voters expressed in last fall’s midterm election was aimed not so much at conservatism as at the GOP’s failure to honor it with a respect for law and order.”

Surely Tumulty, who was born in 1955, is old enough to remember the 20-odd top Reagan administration officials convicted of felonies in the Iran/Contra, HUD and other assorted scandals. As with Zakaria’s fond remembrance of Reagan’s benevolent foreign policy, Time is recalling a Reagan administration that never existed.

Tumulty herself noted in passing, “It’s true that Reagan didn’t live up to everything he promised: He campaigned on smaller government, fiscal discipline and religious values, while his presidency brought us a larger government and a soaring deficit.” Since that is true, why spend the time making a false contrast between Reagan and Bush-era Republicans?

The point, of course, is to suggest that even if Bush is a disaster, that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with conservatism—which is, according to the magazine, part of a “tradition [that] goes back . . . to Founding Fathers who . . . shook off a monarchy in their conviction that Big Government is more to be feared than encouraged.”

Showing that she understands the 1770s no better than she does the 1980s, Tumulty wrote that “the Boston Tea Party, as Reagan used to point out, was an antitax initiative.” In fact, the tea was thrown in Boston Harbor to protest British tax cuts designed to favor the East India Company, one of the era’s leading multinational corporations. Sam Adams was less a Grover Norquist than he was a José Bové.