Ronald Reagan's 30-Year Time Bombs
The time element of “30 years” keeps slipping into American official reports and news stories about the origins of crises – the latest in “The Financial Crisis Inquiry Report” – but rarely is the relevance of the three-decade span explained, and there is a reason.
The failure to close the circle in saying who started the nation off on the path toward these disasters is because nearly everyone shies away from blaming Ronald Reagan for almost anything.
The overpowering consensus in Washington is that it’s political suicide to criticize the 40th president of the United States, whose centennial birthday on Feb. 6 will be celebrated elaborately.
It’s much safer to behave like MSNBC’s “Hardball” host Chris Matthews and simply accept that Reagan was “one of the all-time greats.”
But the truth is that Reagan’s current historical reputation rests more on the effectiveness of the Republican propaganda machine – and the timidity of many Democrats and media personalities – than on his actual record of accomplishments.
Indeed, many of today’s worst national and international problems can be traced to misjudgments and malfeasance from the Reagan years – from the swelling national debt to out-of-control banks, from the decline of the U.S. middle class to the inaction on energy independence, from the rise of Islamic fundamentalism to Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.
All of these disasters are part of the Reagan Legacy. Yet, possibly the most insidious residue from the Reagan Years was the concept of manipulating information – what some Reagan officials liked to call “perception management” – as a means of societal control.
In that endeavor, Reagan’s team took aim at two key entities – the CIA’s analytical division and the Washington press corps – with the realization that if the information produced and disseminated by those two groups could be controlled then the insider community of Washington and the broader American public could be managed.
That enabled the Reagan administration to exaggerate the threat posed by the Soviet Union (after Reagan’s CIA chief William Casey and his deputy Robert Gates purged many of the CIA analysts who correctly saw a decaying empire eager for accommodation with the West).
Similarly, well-financed right-wing operatives and administration officials worked to marginalize mainstream journalists (the “liberal press”) who raised troublesome questions about Reagan’s domestic and foreign policies.
The impact of these information strategies had deadly consequences even years later, such as when President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney essentially dictated the intelligence “analysis” on Iraq’s WMD to the CIA and the Washington press corps fell in line behind the march to war.
Even today, President Barack Obama complains that his options for addressing the nation’s growing problems are limited by what he calls the Reagan “narrative,” demonizing government. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Obama’s Fear of the Reagan Narrative.”]
A Central Narrative
The Reagan Legacy also lives on as the central narrative of the now-empowered Republican Party and its Tea Party allies. The answer to domestic problems is always to cut taxes, slash government regulations and trust the private sector, while the cure for international threats is to talk tough and to take down governments that won’t obey.
For Republicans, virtually all issues must be shoved into the straitjacket of Reagan’s orthodoxy, while the Right’s powerful media continues to build false narratives for public consumption thus guaranteeing that alternative approaches are met with unrelenting hostility.
This strategy works, in part, because progressives lack a sufficient messaging apparatus to counter the Reagan narrative and Democratic politicians know that they risk retaliation if they challenge too directly the pleasant conventional wisdom about Reagan.
So, instead of a blunt recognition of Reagan’s responsibility for crises, the 30-year reference slides in as if something mysterious about the early 1980s explains how later catastrophes originated. There is no who-done-it in these mysteries; Reagan must be kept enshrined as the genial ex-actor who revived the American spirit after those trying days of the 1970s.
However, if future historians are fair (and that is no sure thing), the reevaluation of Ronald Reagan should start with a reassessment of the “failed” presidents from the 1970s – Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. All may deserve more credit than they got for trying to grapple with problems that now bedevil the country.
For instance, Nixon, Ford and Carter won scant praise for addressing the systemic challenges from America’s oil dependence, environmental degradation, the arms race, and nuclear proliferation – all issues that Reagan essentially ignored and that now threaten the future of America and the planet.
These presidents also followed a generally moderate course on economic policies, finding bipartisan approaches to challenges like inflation and budget deficits, which were a tiny fraction of today's numbers.
Nixon – despite his ugly paranoia and noxious bigotry – helped create the Environmental Protection Agency; he imposed energy-conservation measures; he opened the diplomatic door to communist China. Nixon’s administration also detected the growing weakness in the Soviet Union and advocated a policy of détente (a plan for bringing the Cold War to an end or at least curbing its most dangerous excesses).
After Nixon’s resignation in the Watergate scandal, Ford continued many of Nixon’s policies, particularly trying to wind down the Cold War with Moscow. However, confronting a rebellion from Reagan’s Republican Right in 1976, Ford abandoned “détente.”
Ford also let hard-line Cold Warriors (and a first wave of young intellectuals who became known as neoconservatives) pressure the CIA’s analytical division (the so-called "Team-B Experiment"), and he brought in a new generation of hard-liners, including Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.
After defeating Ford in 1976, Carter injected more respect for human rights into U.S. foreign policy, a move some scholars believe put an important nail in the coffin of the Soviet Union, leaving it hard-pressed to justify the repressive internal practices of the East Bloc.
Carter also emphasized the need to contain the spread of nuclear weapons, especially in unstable countries like Pakistan.
Domestically, Carter pushed a comprehensive energy policy and warned Americans that their growing dependence on foreign oil represented a national security threat, what he famously called “the moral equivalent of war.”
However, powerful vested interests – both domestic and foreign – managed to exploit the shortcomings of these three presidents to sabotage any sustained progress. By 1980, Reagan had emerged as the Pied Piper luring the American people away from the tough choices that Nixon, Ford and Carter had defined. [See Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
With his superficially sunny disposition – and a ruthless political strategy of exploiting white-male resentments – Reagan convinced millions of Americans that the threats they faced were: African-American welfare queens, Central American leftists, a rapidly expanding Evil Empire based in Moscow, and the do-good federal government.
In his First Inaugural Address in 1981, Reagan declared that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
When it came to cutting back on America’s energy use, Reagan’s message could be boiled down to the old reggae lyric, “Don’t worry, be happy.” Rather than pressing Detroit to build smaller, fuel-efficient cars, Reagan made clear that the auto industry could manufacture gas-guzzlers without much nagging from Washington.
The same with the environment. Reagan intentionally staffed the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department with officials who were hostile toward regulation aimed at protecting the environment.
Reagan pushed for deregulation of industries, including banking; he slashed income taxes for the wealthiest Americans in an experiment known as “supply side” economics, which held falsely that cutting rates for the rich would increase revenues and eliminate the federal deficit.
Over the years, “supply side” would evolve into a secular religion for many on the Right, but Reagan’s budget director David Stockman once blurted out the truth, that it would lead to red ink “as far as the eye could see.”
While conceding that some of Reagan’s economic plans did not work out as intended, his defenders – including many mainstream journalists – still argue that Reagan should be hailed as a great President because he “won the Cold War,” a short-hand phrase that they like to attach to his historical biography.
However, a strong case can be made that the Cold War was won well before Reagan arrived in the White House. Indeed, in the 1970s, it was a common perception in the U.S. intelligence community that the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was winding down, largely because the Soviet economic model had lost the technological race with the West.
That was the view of many Kremlinologists in the CIA’s analytical division. Also, I was told by a senior CIA’s operations official that some of the CIA’s best spies inside the Soviet hierarchy supported the view that the Soviet Union was headed toward collapse, not surging toward world supremacy, as Reagan and his foreign policy team insisted in the early 1980s.
The CIA analysis was the basis for the détente that was launched by Nixon and Ford, essentially seeking a negotiated solution to the most dangerous remaining aspects of the Cold War.
In that view, Soviet military operations, including sending troops into Afghanistan in 1979, were mostly defensive in nature. In Afghanistan, the Soviets hoped to prop up a secular pro-communist government that was seeking to modernize the country but was beset by opposition from Islamic fundamentalists who were getting covert support from the U.S. government.
Though the Afghan covert operation originated with Cold Warriors in the Carter administration, especially national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, the war was dramatically ramped up under Reagan.
Reagan and CIA Director Casey also were willing to trade U.S. acquiescence toward Pakistan’s nuclear arms program for its help in shipping weaponry to the Afghan jihadists (including a young Saudi named Osama bin Laden). [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Reagan’s Bargain/Charlie Wilson’s War.”]
Making Matters Worse
While Reagan’s acolytes cite the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan as decisive in “winning the Cold War,” the counter-argument is that Moscow was already in disarray – and while failure in Afghanistan may have sped the Soviet Union’s final collapse – it also created twin dangers for the future of the world: the rise of al-Qaeda terrorism and the nuclear bomb in the hands of Pakistan’s unstable Islamic Republic.
In other words, Reagan’s over-reaction to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan created even worse long-term threats to U.S. national security. And, instead of crediting Reagan with “winning the Cold War,” it could be argued that he extended it unnecessarily – at great cost in lives and money.
Reagan’s actions elsewhere in the world also damaged long-term U.S. interests. In Latin America, for instance, Reagan’s brutal strategy of arming right-wing militaries to crush peasant, student and labor uprisings created a legacy of anti-Americanism that has resurfaced in the emergence of populist leftist governments.
In Nicaragua, Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega (whom Reagan once denounced as a “dictator in designer glasses”) returned to power. In El Salvador, the leftist FMLN won the last presidential election. Indeed, across the region, hostility to Washington is now the rule, creating openings for China, Iran, Cuba, Venezuela and other American rivals.
In the early 1980s, Reagan also credentialed a young generation of neocon intellectuals, who pioneered a concept called “perception management,” the shaping of how Americans saw, understood and were frightened by threats from abroad.
To marginalize dissent, Reagan and his subordinates stoked anger toward anyone who challenged the era’s feel-good optimism. Skeptics were not just honorable critics, they were un-American defeatists or – in Jeane Kirkpatrick’s memorable attack line – they would “blame America first.”
Under Reagan, a right-wing infrastructure took shape, linking media outlets (magazines, newspapers, books, etc.) with well-financed think tanks that churned out endless op-eds and research papers. Plus, there were attack groups that went after mainstream journalists who dared disclose information that poked holes in Reagan’s propaganda themes.
In effect, Reagan’s team created a faux reality for the American public. Civil wars in Central America between impoverished peasants and wealthy oligarchs became East-West showdowns. U.S.-backed insurgents in Nicaragua, Angola and Afghanistan were transformed from corrupt, brutal (often drug-tainted) thugs into noble “freedom-fighters.”
With the Iran-Contra schemes of 1984-86, Reagan also revived Richard Nixon’s theory of an imperial presidency that could ignore the nation’s laws and evade accountability through criminal cover-ups. That behavior would rear its head again in the war crimes of George W. Bush. [For details on Reagan’s abuses, see Robert Parry’s Lost History and Secrecy & Privilege.]
Wall Street Greed
The American Dream also dimmed during Reagan’s tenure.
While he played the role of the nation’s kindly grandfather, his operatives divided the American people, using “wedge issues” to deepen grievances especially of white men who were encouraged to see themselves as victims of “reverse discrimination” and “political correctness.”
Yet even as working-class white men were rallying to the Republican banner (as so-called “Reagan Democrats”), their economic interests were being savaged. Unions were broken and marginalized; “free trade” policies shipped manufacturing jobs abroad; old neighborhoods were decaying; drug use among the young was soaring.
Meanwhile, unprecedented greed was unleashed on Wall Street, fraying old-fashioned bonds between company owners and employees.
Before Reagan, corporate CEOs earned less than 50 times the salary of an average worker. By the end of the Reagan-Bush-I administrations in 1993, the average CEO salary was more than 100 times that of a typical worker. (At the end of the Bush-II administration, that CEO-salary figure was more than 250 times that of an average worker.)
Many other trends set during the Reagan era continued to corrode the U.S. political process in the years after Reagan left office. After 9/11, for instance, the neocons reemerged as a dominant force, reprising their “perception management” tactics, depicting the “war on terror” – like the last days of the Cold War – as a terrifying conflict between good and evil.
The hyping of the Islamic threat mirrored the neocons’ exaggerated depiction of the Soviet menace in the 1980s – and again the propaganda strategy worked. Many Americans let their emotions run wild, from the hunger for revenge after 9/11 to the war fever over invading Iraq.
Arguably, the descent into this dark fantasyland – that Ronald Reagan began in the early 1980s – reached its nadir in the flag-waving early days of the Iraq War. Only gradually did reality begin to reassert itself as the death toll mounted in Iraq and the Katrina disaster reminded Americans why they needed an effective government.
Still, the disasters – set in motion by Ronald Reagan – continued to roll in. George W. Bush’s Reagan-esque tax cuts for the rich blew another huge hole in the federal budget and the Reagan-esque anti-regulatory fervor contributed to a massive financial meltdown that threw the nation into economic chaos.
The majority report of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission blamed the banking crisis, in part, on “30 years of deregulation and reliance on self-regulation.” (Not surprisingly, the four Republicans on the commission refused to sign on, seeking to lay greater blame on government policies for encouraging home ownership.)
Republicans continue to enforce the notion that Reagan is an untouchable icon, that his memory and his policies must be revered. After the GOP gained control of Congress in 1994, the party rushed to name as many public sites after Reagan as possible, seeking to elevate their hero to the stature of martyred leaders like John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.
In that endeavor, the Republicans often had the help of Democrats who saw honoring Reagan as an easy gesture of political bipartisanship, apparently unaware of – or unwilling to contest – the larger GOP strategy of solidifying the status of Reaganism as much as Reagan.
For instance, early in Campaign 2008, when Barack Obama was positioning himself as a bipartisan political figure who could appeal to Republicans, he bowed to the Reagan mystique, hailing the GOP icon as a leader who “changed the trajectory of America.”
Though Obama’s chief point was that Reagan in 1980 “put us on a fundamentally different path” – a point which may be historically undeniable – Obama went further, justifying Reagan's course correction because of “all the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s, and government had grown and grown, but there wasn’t much sense of accountability.”
While Obama later clarified his point to say he didn't mean to endorse Reagan's conservative policies, Obama seemed to suggest that Reagan's 1980 election administered a needed dose of accountability to the United States when Reagan actually did the opposite. Reagan’s presidency represented a dangerous escape from accountability – and reality. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Obama’s Dubious Praise for Reagan.”]
Obama and congressional Democrats have continued to pander to the Reagan myth. In 2009, President Obama hailed Ronald Reagan while welcoming Nancy Reagan to the White House and signing a law creating a panel to honor Reagan’s 100th birthday on Feb. 6, 2011.
“President Reagan helped as much as any President to restore a sense of optimism in our country, a spirit that transcended politics – that transcended even the most heated arguments of the day,” Obama said.
It may take many more years before a mainstream politician or a journalist who cares about future employment dares speak truthfully about Reagan and the grievous harm that his presidency inflicted on the American Republic and the people of the Earth.
[For more on these topics, see Robert Parry’s Lost History and Secrecy & Privilege, which are now available with Neck Deep, in a three-book set for the discount price of only $29. For details, click here.]
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there.
To comment at Consortiumblog, click here. (To make a blog comment about this or other stories, you can use your normal e-mail address and password. Ignore the prompt for a Google account.) To comment to us by e-mail, click here. To donate so we can continue reporting and publishing stories like the one you just read, click here.
Back to Home Page