Paul Anderson, Tribune column, June 11 2004
I have no desire to speak ill of the dead, but I’m afraid some of the gushing obituaries of US President Ronald Reagan, who died last Saturday aged 93, have been too much to stomach.
I accept that the man was not the buffoon of leftist mythology. I’ll concede that he was good company and personally generous. I even acknowledge that his brand of right-wing anti-tax populism changed the face of American politics and indeed that the American economy and American society were irreversibly transformed (for better or worse) during his presidency, at least partly because of his policies.
But was he really the great statesman whose brilliant foreign policy won the cold war? Sorry, but Reagan’s role in the events that led to the collapse of communism in east-central Europe and then the Soviet Union was less than decisive.
True, the Reagan administration’s single-minded pursuit of the arms race during his first term made it clear at least to the more percipient members of the Soviet elite that there was not a lot of point in their trying to compete on warhead numbers and firepower because there was no way the Soviet Union could match either the level of US military spending or US technology.
True, this made much of the Soviet elite much keener on negotiating arms control treaties and settling for a new detente — so when in his second term Reagan changed track and offered the Kremlin jaw-jaw rather than war-war, he found a ready taker in Mikhail Gorbachev.
True, US funding of the resistance to Soviet imperialism in Afghanistan played an important role in forcing an unmanageable military crisis on the Soviet military that had a dramatic impact on morale in the upper echelons of the regime.
But the bigger truth is that the Soviet system collapsed and brought the cold war to a definitive end not because of anything America did but from within. “Actually existing socialism” had lost the plot long before Reagan came to power. By the time he won his first presidential election in 1980, it was profoundly sick.
In the Soviet Union itself, the optimistic expectations of prosperity and gradual political liberalisation that had characterised the late 1950s and early 1960s had long since been dashed. The economy was in a disastrous state: the only part of it that was remotely efficient was the military. Everything else was technologically backward and bureaucratically stifled. Even basic consumer needs for food, clothing and housing could barely be met. Politics was the exclusive preserve of a totalitarian gerontocracy.
In the Soviet empire, meanwhile, there was crisis. In Poland, Solidarnosc was posing the greatest challenge to Soviet hegemony in east-central Europe since the Hungarian revolution of 1956. In Afghanistan, the Red Army had marched in to save a crumbling client regime — and was already up against far more serious resistance than the US and Britain now face in Iraq.
Soviet relations with the West were at their worst since the Cuban missile crisis, partly because of Afghanistan and Poland but also because of the arms race. In Europe, Nato had responded to Soviet deployments of new medium-range nuclear missiles by promising its own nuclear modernisation.
What Reagan memorably described as the “Evil Empire” was vulnerable, and the time was ripe for a Western initiative to end the cold war by offering the Soviets aid in return for verfiable disarmament and political liberalisation — a point made by most of the European centre-left in the early 1980s.
Yet the Reagan administration rejected any such thing. It pumped cash into new nuclear arms, adopted new aggressive military strategies (including the Strategic Defence Initiative, otherwise known as Star Wars) and, most notoriously, supported the most unsavoury anti-Soviet forces in the developing world, including death squads and military dictators in Latin America, apartheid South Africa, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the most extremist Islamist opponents of the Soviet client regime in Afghanistan.
Of course, it’s possible that the Kremlin in the early 1980s would have rejected western overtures of any kind; but the option was never even tried. It is certainly to Reagan’s credit that, after five years of upping the cold war stakes, he agreed to parley with Gorbachev and signed the intermediate nuclear forces treaty.
But the preceding years of relentless confrontation were wasted years of cruelty, and their shadow still hangs over the world. In particular, al-Qaida was at least partly the product of the Reagan administration’s decision to back the extremist Islamists in Afghanistan. And you don’t get grimmer unintended consequences of your actions than that.