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The Drug War
On another front, the Reagan-Bush administration let its anticommunist obsessions interfere with its duty to protect the United States from drug traffickers.
Again while talking tough about the war on drugs, the administration obstructed congressional and criminal investigations that threatened to expose cocaine smuggling that would have implicated Nicaraguan contra forces and their allies.
In 1998, a CIA inspector generals report concluded that more than 50 contra and contra-related entities were involved in the drug trade, dating from the earliest days of the contra war in 1981 to its conclusion in 1989.
The CIA report, along with another report by the Justice Departments inspector general, also detailed how the Reagan-Bush administration frustrated investigators and withheld evidence of contra drug connections in the mid-to-late 1980s as cocaine was flooding into the United States. [See Robert Parrys Lost History for details.]
The Reagan-Bush administration did take hard stands against some adversaries, of course. U.S. forces invaded the leftist-ruled Caribbean island of Grenada in 1983 and the CIA supported anticommunist guerrillas in Angola and Nicaragua.
But it is now apparent that many of the Reagan-Bush Cold War initiatives either backfired or were compromised by spies within the U.S. government.
Winning the Cold War
Reagan's defenders argue, however, that his role in engineering the collapse of the Soviet bloc in the late 1980s and early 1990s justified whatever the costs in financial and human terms. To Reagan's supporters, any missteps must be relegated to footnotes of history and do not detract from Reagans greatness.
Many historians disagree about how much credit Reagan deserves for "winning the Cold War." They cite other factors that caused the Soviet demise, including decisions made 50 years ago that contained Soviet expansion and invested in rebuilding war-shattered Europe.
What finally pushed the Soviet Union over the edge was not U.S. support for the contras or extravagant spending on a nuclear missile shield, but the combination of Western advances in computer technology and the lure of consumer goods among young people in the former Soviet bloc, these historians believe.
Even Reagans authorized biographer, Edmund Morris, recognized the overriding importance of the Wests technological advances in forcing the Soviet Union into its perestroika and eventual collapse. Since at least the time of Brezhnev, Soviet realists had been aware that the West was computerizing itself at a rate that threatened to advance the millennium, while Russian shopkeepers in central Moscow were still using the abacus, Morris wrote in Dutch.
Former State Department official George F. Kennan, whose seminal analysis of the Soviet system in 1947 helped launch the Cold War, is among the historians who dispute the idea of that Ronald Reagan won the Cold War. In his book, At A Centurys Ending, Kennan calls this Republican claim intrinsically silly and childish.
In Kennans view, the hard-line military strategy embodied by Reagans approach delayed, rather than accelerated, the demise of the Soviet dictatorship.
The extreme militarization of American discussion and policy, as promoted by hard-line circles in this country , had the consistent effect of strengthening comparable hard-line elements in the Soviet Union, wrote Kennan. Nobody won the Cold War. It was a long and costly political rivalry, fueled on both sides by unreal and exaggerated estimates of the intentions and strength of the other side.
A final irony of the Cold War, it now appears, is that the tough-talking Reagan may have presided over some of the most serious compromises of U.S. national security in American history.
The record now shows that intelligence projects aimed at the Soviet Union Washingtons principal adversary were penetrated to such a degree that key double agents were rolled up and executed. Meanwhile, both Moscow and Beijing gained access to some of Americas most sensitive nuclear secrets and spying technologies.
In the Middle East, terrorist states were leveraging their criminal actions into deliveries of sophisticated weaponry from the United States. In South America, drug traffickers were exploiting their relations with Reagans Nicaraguan contra forces to funnel vast quantities of cocaine into the United States.
Now, nearly two decades later, the final price for these national security breaches still has not been tallied.
The new Bush administration wants to proceed with Reagans expensive dream of a nuclear shield, in part, to protect the United States from the proliferation of devices such as miniaturized nuclear warheads. In his first weeks in office, George W. Bush already has authorized new bombing against Iraq, heightening tensions in the Middle East.
And the flow of cocaine from South America, that reached tidal-wave proportions in the 1980s, continues to exact high costs both in terms of expended tax dollars and ruined lives. The United States now is embarking on a $1.3 billion plan for pacifying the Colombian countryside.
In contrast to Theodore Roosevelts old adage, Walk softly and carry a big stick, the motto of the 1980s could have been: Talk toughly, while your adversaries make off with your big stick.
Robert Parry is an investigative reporter who broke many of the Iran-contra stories in the 1980s for The Associated Press and Newsweek.