Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Americans Without Alzheimer's 

If you look carefully you can still find, among the legions of hagiographers trotting out the eulogies they started writing a decade ago, a handful of commentators who actually remember what life under Reagan was like, and who are able to describe it without breaking into wistful sniffles. Here are four small punctures in the emerging mythology, beginning with Robert Parry on the myth that Reagan "won the cold war":
Cold Warriors Nixon and Kissinger – along with much of the U.S. intelligence community – had recognized the systemic weaknesses of the Soviet system, which was falling desperately behind the West in technology and in the ability to produce consumer goods desired by the peoples of Eastern Europe. One only needed to look at night-time satellite photos to see the disparity between the glittering city lights of North America, Western Europe and parts of Asia compared to the darkness across the Soviet bloc.

Under this analysis of Soviet weakness, the 1970s was the time for the West to accept victory and begin transitioning the Soviet Union out of its failed economic model. Not only could that approach have hastened the emergence of a new generation of Russian reformers, it would have allowed world leaders to pull back from the edge of nuclear confrontation. Third World civil wars also could have been addressed as local conflicts, not East-West tests of strength.

But American conservatives – and a new group of neoconservatives who would become the ideological backbone of the Reagan administration – saw the situation differently. They insisted that the Soviet Union was on the rise militarily with plans to surround the United States and eventually conquer it by attacking through the “soft underbelly” of Central America.

In 1976, then-CIA Director George H.W. Bush gave an important boost to this apocalyptic vision by allowing a group of conservative analysts, including a young Paul Wolfowitz, inside the CIA’s analytical division. The group, known as “Team B,” was permitted to review highly classified U.S. intelligence on the Soviet Union. Not surprisingly, Team B came up with conclusions matching its members’ preconceptions, that the CIA had underestimated the Soviet military ascendancy and its plans to gain world domination . . . .

[T]he Team B take on the military rise of the Soviet bloc and the Kirkpatrick Doctrine’s view of immutable communist regimes – guided Reagan’s foreign policy. Reagan relied on these analyses to justify both his massive U.S. military build-up in the 1980s (which put the U.S. government deeply into debt) and his support for right-wing regimes that engaged in blood baths against their opponents (especially across Latin America).
Juan Cole on the myth of Reagan's good-natured geniality:
I remember seeing a tape of Reagan speaking in California from that era. He said that he had heard that some asserted there was hunger in America [specifically, Michael Harrington's The Other America]. He said it sarcastically. He said, "Sure there is; they're dieting!" or words to that effect. This handsome Hollywood millionnaire making fun of people so poor they sometimes went to bed hungry seemed to me monstrous. I remember his wealthy audience of suburbanites going wild with laughter and applause. I am still not entirely sure what was going on there. Did they think Harrington's and similar studies were lies? Did they blame the poor for being poor, and resent demands on them in the form of a few tax dollars, to address their hunger? . . . .

Reagan's [foreign] policies thus bequeathed to us the major problems we now have in the world, including a militant Islamist International whose skills were honed in Afghanistan with Reagan's blessing and monetary support; and a proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, which the Reagan administration in some cases actually encouraged behind the scenes for short-term policy reasons. His aggressive foreign policy orientation has been revived and expanded, making the U.S. into a neocolonial power in the Middle East. Reagan's gutting of the unions and attempt to remove social supports for the poor and the middle class contributed to the creation of an America where most people barely get by while government programs that could help create wealth are destroyed.
Paul Krugman on the myth of Reagan as patron saint of tax cuts:
[H]e followed his huge 1981 tax cut with two large tax increases. In fact, no peacetime president has raised taxes so much on so many people. This is not a criticism: the tale of those increases tells you a lot about what was right with President Reagan's leadership, and what's wrong with the leadership of George W. Bush.
And lastly, because the act of linking to him gives me such a rare, transgressive frisson, Christopher Hitchens on the myth that Reagan had even the faintest clue what he was doing:
Reagan announced that apartheid South Africa had "stood beside us in every war we've ever fought," when the South African leadership had been on the other side in the most recent world war. Reagan allowed Alexander Haig to greenlight the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, fired him when that went too far and led to mayhem in Beirut, then ran away from Lebanon altogether when the Marine barracks were bombed, and then unbelievably accused Tip O'Neill and the Democrats of "scuttling." Reagan sold heavy weapons to the Iranian mullahs and lied about it, saying that all the weapons he hadn't sold them (and hadn't traded for hostages in any case) would, all the same, have fit on a small truck. Reagan then diverted the profits of this criminal trade to an illegal war in Nicaragua and lied unceasingly about that, too. Reagan then modestly let his underlings maintain that he was too dense to understand the connection between the two impeachable crimes. He then switched without any apparent strain to a policy of backing Saddam Hussein against Iran. (If Margaret Thatcher's intelligence services had not bugged Oliver North in London and become infuriated because all European nations were boycotting Iran at Reagan's request, we might still not know about this.)

One could go on. I only saw him once up close, which happened to be when he got a question he didn't like. Was it true that his staff in the 1980 debates had stolen President Carter's briefing book? (They had.) The famously genial grin turned into a rictus of senile fury: I was looking at a cruel and stupid lizard. His reply was that maybe his staff had, and maybe they hadn't, but what about the leak of the Pentagon Papers? Thus, a secret theft of presidential documents was equated with the public disclosure of needful information. This was a man never short of a cheap jibe or the sort of falsehood that would, however laughable, buy him some time.
(Don't be startled by the above; despite all the juicy invective, Hitchens, who is nothing if not reliable, jumps cleanly off the tracks in the last couple of paragraphs. Or should I say he jumps back on?)

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