The Monterey County Republican Party persists in circulating web memes intended to deceive those who know very little history. It’s likely insulting even to many local Republicans.
I wrote about one a few weeks back but another, courtesy the aptly named outfit Right Wing News, was reposted on social media last week by a wag (or intern) with the local party. Over a smiling portrait of Ronald Reagan, it says if the Gipper were in the White House, “ISIS would be WASWAS.”
So clever. So simple.
Of course, if Reagan were president today, he would be 105 years old. Whether he could operate a smart phone, let alone oversee a military campaign against ISIS, is nothing but wistful thinking. The world has changed a lot since Reagan was elected in 1980.
But in GOP land, the Reagan years of 1981-88 are a golden era frozen in time, and he is the supreme founding father. His actual record in the Middle East is, however, far from golden, militarily and diplomatically.
His predecessor, Jimmy Carter, worked his tail off to achieve what no president has done — hammer out a peace treaty between an Arab state and Israel. Pick up the riveting history Thirteen Days in September by Lawrence Wright to learn what Carter, with his Christian faith and encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible, accomplished at Camp David with the reluctant leaders of Egypt and Israel.
Reagan used direct military force three times in the Middle East — in Libya, Lebanon and the Persian Gulf, fewer times than his successors, both Presidents Bush and Presidents Clinton and Obama.
Reagan launched an air raid on Libya in April 1986 as payback for a terror bombing at a West Berlin discotheque popular with American soldiers that killed three, including two U.S. servicemen. Two U.S. airmen died in the Libya raid.
Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi survived; whether he was an intended target is still debated. Gaddafi went on to mock the Reagan administration and to support acts of terror for years, including the horrific mid-air bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in the waning days of Reagan’s presidency.
Twice in the early 1980s, Reagan sent troops into Lebanon after Israel invaded the chaotic country. First, U.S. troops helped with the withdrawal of the Palestine Liberation Organization from Beirut. Secondly, and tragically, 1,800 Marines returned to Lebanon as part of a peace-keeping mission after Israeli-allied Lebanese militias massacred hundreds of unarmed Palestinians in two refugee camps.
The Marine barracks was attacked Oct. 23, 1983, by a suicide truck bomber, killing 241 Marines. It was the Corp’s single deadliest day since the World War II Battle of Iwo Jima. The Marines were withdrawn — the president said redeployed — four months later, before their presence would become an issue in the 1984 campaign.
Two days after the barracks bombing, Reagan launched a military invasion with 5,000 troops of the tiny Caribbean island nation of Grenada, population 91,000 with an army of 600. It was over in days, and was the only U.S. land war of Reagan’s presidency.
Reagan preferred Cold War proxy wars in Central America, Africa and Asia to sending U.S troops into battle. This greatly dismayed conservative thinkers like William F. Buckley and Norman Podhoretz.
Multiple hijackings, bombings and kidnappings in the Middle East during the 1980s show that Reagan (or any other president, to be fair) never found a magic solution to conflict and terrorism in the region.
To boast that Reagan could easily dispatch the “caliphate” of ISIS today, presumably by walking tall, talking tough or reinvading Iraq, based on his Mideast record begs the question: what the heck are you smoking?
A nice guy at heart, Reagan’s sympathy for families of American hostages taken in Lebanon caused his off-the-books national security staff to illegally sell missiles to Iran, funnel some profits to the Nicaraguan Contras and, in the end, consume the final years of his presidency in scandal.
An irony to the Iran arms sales is that the United States was simultaneously backing Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the long war (1980-1988) it started by invading Iran. The U.S. ensured Baghdad got billions of dollars in credits, weapons and intelligence, precursors for biological and chemical weapons, and a 1983 visit from special envoy Donald Rumsfeld. We joined the rest of the world in largely ignoring Saddam’s widespread use of chemical weapons during the war to kill thousands of Iranians and Kurds.
In the final two years of the Iran-Iraq war, U.S. Navy ships mounted the largest convoy since World War II to protect Kuwaiti oil tankers in the Persian Gulf from Iranian attack. That the waters were a tinderbox was evidenced by the accidental May 1987 Iraqi air attack on the frigate USS Stark that killed 37 American sailors.
The stalemated Iraq-Iran war, which cost a million lives, finally ended in August 1988. But a month earlier, the USS Vincennes shot down an Iranian commercial airliner, killing 290 passengers and crew, after mistaking it for an Iranian warplane. The tragic error is largely forgotten by Americans. But it remains an open wound for Iranians.
In another anti-Soviet proxy war in another Muslim country, Reagan’s CIA lavished weapons, equipment and praise on jihadists who flocked to fight the occupying Soviet army in Afghanistan. To be fair, Carter started supporting the mujahideen before Reagan greatly expanded the operation.
Guided by Cold War thinking, Reagan didn’t appreciate the potential danger of radical Islamic fundamentalism. The Soviets’ 1987-89 exit from Afghanistan gave rise to the Taliban, the first-generation of al-Qaeda, and, ultimately, the 2001 ground war mounted by the United States that grinds on today.
There are reasons to admire Reagan. Late in his presidency, he rejected hardliners in his administration and conservative circles to work with the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, to reduce the threat of nuclear war, the specter of which truly haunted Reagan. Gorbachev rebuffed his own hardliners and refused to order Soviet troops to put down popular uprisings in East Germany, Poland and other Eastern bloc countries. Both men deserve praise for doing much to end decades of Cold War tension in Europe.
But the Mideast was a different story. The Reagan administration even publicly rebuked Israel over the Lebanon invasion and its expansionist settlement program, actions that would incense prominent Republicans today.
A writer last year for the conservative Cato Institute drew a lesson from the Reagan record in the Middle East that could be summed up: use caution and keep boots off the ground.
If memes devoid from reality are necessary, here’s a tip. Use a picture of Donald Trump saying he would just fire ISIS, or kick its ass, or make them build a wall around themselves and pay for it. Problem solved fabulously.