National Security Lessons of the Reagan Legacy

by PETER HUESSY October 13, 2017

In his first press conference as President, Ronald Reagan said he was against détente with the Soviet Union because it had become "A one-way street that the Soviet Union has used to pursue its own aims". His Secretary of State Al Haig echoed these views with a same-day press conference where the Soviets were accurately described as the source of much support for international terrorism, especially in Latin and Central America.

These views were certainly understandable to most informed foreign policy observers. The President and his Secretary of State both understood that according to Christopher Andrew's history of the KGB, in the eyes of the Soviets "The world was going our way" by the late 1970's.

The Soviet leadership was convinced the correlation of forces was on their side.

Reagan's views were roundly condemned the next day. Lee Lescaze of the Washington Post declared "President Reagan denounced the Soviet Union yesterday in terms reminiscent of the chilliest days of the Cold War."   

And the New York Times likewise reacted angrily declaring they could not "understand how Haig could treat the  Sandinista regime in Nicaragua as a tool of the Soviet Union and the guerrilla war in El Salvador as a global issue."

Don Oberdorfer of the Post was similarly upset, saddened by how Haig went out of his way to accuse the Russians of pursuing a conscious policy of "training, funding and equipping" terrorist activities. 

Now, nearly half a century later, although the Soviet empire was successfully defeated by President Reagan and President Bush leading a united Western coalition of states, talking and acting tough against our enemies apparently remains a "No No".  

Today, it is not preserving détente that is worrying official Washington. According to the Washington Post, the issue is the nature of how to rhetorically deal with North Korea's nuclear weapons.  The Weekly Standard complains that "reckless rhetoric is not a strategy", citing members of Congress as also firmly against such phrases as "fire and fury" describing them as "reckless" and akin to a "rhetorical grenade".

And on Iran, withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Program of Action (JCPOA) nuclear "deal" is also apparently a big "No no". Supporters of the agreement increasingly describe opposition to the JCPOA motivated not by a genuine concern over the agreements terms but as nothing less than an under the table preparation for going to war with Iran.

Just as the conventional wisdom in Washington was wrong about President Reagan in 1981, could such criticisms of the best counter and non-proliferation strategies to pursue on North Korea and Iran also be wrong?

To echo former Secretary of State Condi Rice's 2001 comment about Al Qaeda terrorists being at war with us, (but not the other way around), the Iranian regime has been at war with the United States since 1979 when our embassy was seized and the Islamic terrorists now running Iran took over.

Now it is fashionable to explain the Iranian anger at the United States as the result of the United States government support for a supposed 1953 coup in Iran. The problem there was no coup. The Iranian constitution allows the shah to replace any member of the Parliament, including the then serving Prime Minister. At issue was Prime Minister Mosedegh illegal seizure of foreign oil properties, and his cooperative work with the Soviet Union to develop what many feared would be a dangerous Soviet military presence on the Persian Gulf.

The JCPOA if examined very narrowly looks as if it is doing the job. Iran supposedly is not producing more enriched uranium than allowed nor enriching beyond a certain level. So, what possibly could be the problem? It is true most advocates of the JCPOA believe that is enough to continue the deal.

However, that is not the whole story. The problem is with the deal itself and both what it does now but also what it does not do later.

As the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies notes, there now have been "Multiple Iranian violations of the letter of the accord". Especially concerning has been the lack of "transparency in the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) reporting on Tehran's nuclear conduct", especially the "agency's failure to receive access to military sites where nuclear weaponization activities may have occurred."

Even worse, says FDD, the "Iranian refusal to grant access to suspicious locations constitutes a violation of the JCPOA" although technically "only if the IAEA formally requests such access." In this case, however, an IAEA official acknowledged that the agency had declined to issue such a request because it fears that some  "would use an Iranian refusal as an excuse to abandon the JCPOA".

After provisions in the agreement expire, especially over the next decade, the Iranians are free to leave the agreement and produce as much nuclear weapons fuel as the want. The deal is silent as to whether Iran is required to return to the boundaries of the Nuclear Non -Proliferation Treaty under which such activity would be banned.

But parallel to this flaw is simultaneously the United States and the other parties must now help Iran develop better nuclear centrifuges even as Iran's previous military activity on nuclear weaponry is not known, as any similar inspections under the "deal" are solely within Iran's discretion. The Iranians recently bragged how they were going to start working with advanced centrifuges-work which is allowed even encouraged by the JCPOA.

Why not get rid of all centrifuges as required by the denuclearization deal with Libya in 2006? .

And in addition, the agreement doesn't address Iran's ballistic missile capabilities and financing and support of terrorism. This willful blindness extends further as well-the agreement ignores the Iranian militia's murder of over 500 American soldiers in Iraq using IEDS, as well as the complicity of the Iranian regime in the 9-11 attacks, which the 9-11 Commission clearly documents.

The JCPOA simply ignores these factors as if they never occurred. That is how $100 billion or more dollars was returned to the terrorist regime with little objection---although isn't it reasonable to ask why the soldiers maimed by Iranian IED's don't deserve damages and lifetime help out of the funds we could have escrowed for that purpose?

Now what about North Korea?

Apparently, many in the foreign policy establishment believe harsh rhetoric or contemplating excessive sanctions or the use of military force against North Korea is unfortunately driving the peninsula toward war. The proximate concern is the harsh rhetoric--"fire and fury"-- used to describe how the United States would retaliate against the North should that regime use nuclear weapons against the United States or its allies. It is unclear but would a threat involving an "unbelievably small pin-prick attack" be a better alternative?  

We know however from the past 25 years that soft rhetoric and supposed "smart" diplomacy has led only to the North producing more nuclear weapons and more capable ballistic missiles.

In fact, "Leading from behind", "strategic patience" and "soft power" worked not at all, as between 2009-16 North Korea exploded 4 nuke bombs, produced as many as 60 nuclear warheads and flight-tested over 80 missiles.  

Surprisingly, a new poll in Japan says that 65% support a tough rhetorical and strategic policy as is being pursued by that country's Prime Minister. .

Both the Japanese Prime Minister and the Korean President have also endorsed tougher sanctions, more missile defenses, enhanced conventional capabilities, as well as diplomatic efforts if the subject for discussion is the denuclearization of the peninsula and the end to the North Korean nuclear threats.  

Despite the American media doubts, there has been some success such as getting tougher economic measure passed against China and North Korea than had been the case for the past 8 years, especially going after complicit Chinese banks which had also not been done previously.

Will such policies work?

They should because the strategy includes everything that makes sense. Included are economic sanctions, allied political cooperation, missile defense enhancements such as THAAD,  use of the Proliferation Security Initiative to interdict dangerous technologies, as well as threats of strong military measures to ensure deterrence holds and threatened attacks do not materialize.

And certainly, if the North decides to put a proposal for denuclearization on the table, diplomacy will be used to accomplish that.  

Now this strategy is not one of "strategic patience".

But it does reflect what we tried during the Cold War.

Reagan faced the Soviet adversary clear eyed.

He opposed the United States policy of détente and peaceful coexistence he inherited because it was a fairy tale. For a decade, the march of Soviet power advanced with country after country falling to communism, starting with Vietnam and ending with Afghanistan. That hardly could be described as "peaceful coexistence"!

And yes, Reagan's criticism of détente was jarring, especially when he described the Soviets as "the evil empire".

But while conventional wisdom at the time thought Reagan was dangerous, even reckless, what was important was that Reagan was right.

As he repeatedly explained, the United States under "détente" pretended we could live with the Soviets "peacefully" while ignoring the loss of more than a dozen countries to Soviet subversion between 1970-80.

Many in the foreign policy establishment said they were against tyranny-but then roundly condemned President Reagan when he pledged to go after communism, even going so far as to urge all Americans to get over our "inordinate fear of communism"!.

Truth telling can sound harsh. As when Reagan described the Soviets as an "Evil empire". Or when he challenged Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev to "tear down this wall".

Similarly, how can we say we oppose Iran terrorism but then write the Mullahs a check for $150 billion? 

Or explain that China is breaking international law in the South China Sea, while simultaneously describing China's power as "a peaceful rise"?

Or condemn the Russian invasion of Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine, but defining "reset" with Russia as a brilliant strategy?

Or acknowledge North Korea cheated on every one of the nuclear agreements they have signed but then incongruously push hard for another round of diplomacy leading to an endless rope a dope of dialogue?

Or say we support a strong defense, but order cut $1.2 trillion out of the defense budget?

Or support missile defenses in principle but then knuckle under to Russian and Chinese opposition to missile defense in Eastern Europe and Korea, respectively?

Tough policy requires honest and tough rhetoric.

Describing regimes as they are instead of how we hope them to be is simply realistic and facing the world with our eyes open.

Such a strategy successfully brought the Soviet empire to an end.  

Apparently the foreign policy establishment still doesn't understand this lesson.  

For example, one of Reagan severest critics, Walter Pincus,

a long time Washington Post reporter, wrote in 1983 that Reagan's push for zero INF missiles in Europe was bound to fail.

And in 2017, just this past month, Pincus writes in Cipher Brief that the United States can resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis without any military threats. Diplomacy works with North Korea, Pincus explains, just as it did with the USS Pueblo. "Restraint and diplomacy ended the crisis" he says.

The truth? In January 1968, the North Koreans illegally attacked and seized our Navy ship the USS Pueblo, and kidnapped, beat and tortured the crew. They were released 11 months later after signing false confessions.

As for Reagan's vision of a Europe and Asia free of Soviet INF missiles? On December 8, 1987, in Washington, D.C., Reagan signed a treaty getting rid of all Soviet INF missiles in Europe and Asia, just as he called for in his speech of November 18, 1981, a speech which Pincus had described at the time as "nuclear nonsense".

Peter R. Huessy is President of Geostrategic Analysis and a guest lecturer at the U.S. Naval Academy. He was formerly Senior Fellow in National Security at the American Foreign Policy Council.


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