Reagan strategy would work for terror war

By CHRISTIAN BOURGE, UPI think tanks correspondent  |  Nov. 14, 2002 at 10:45 PM
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WASHINGTON, Nov. 14 (UPI) -- President Ronald Reagan's Cold War stance against the Soviet Union in the face of status quo opposition to his staunch policies holds valuable lessons for the current war against fundamentalist Islamic terrorism, according to a panel of conservative scholars at a Washington, D.C., think tank forum on Wednesday.

"We can use the kinds of clarity and strong conviction Reagan showed," said Newt Gingrich, a senior fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.

The forum, which was sponsored by AEI, focused on an analysis of Peter Schweizer's new book, "Reagan's War: The Epic Story of His Forty-Year Struggle and Final Triumph over Communism." The panel agreed with Schweizer's thesis that Reagan's long-held belief that communism was directly opposed to freedom was the major influence on his administration's Cold War policy toward the Soviet Union.

In his book, Schweizer, a research fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution, argues that Reagan's won the Cold War through a combination of personal determination, strength of character, and a deep, intellectual understanding of the Soviet Union. That understanding, Schweizer said, surpassed the knowledge of the so-called experts of the day and is typified by policy decisions such as the Reagan administration's defense buildup and its unflinchingly confrontational stance toward the communist superpower.

This revisionist analysis flies in the face of the more popular historical interpretation -- which some conservatives argue is the result of the influence of the liberal intelligentsia -- that Reagan was not a visionary but simply lucked into being President at a time when the Soviet Union was facing decline because of the weaknesses inherent to communist political systems.

Based upon research culled from diaries and U.S. and Russian public records from Reagan's Soviet-era and memoirs, Schweizer writes that Reagan's experience in fighting against communist influence in the Screen Actors Guild during his days as an actor in Hollywood drove his lifetime interest in fighting communism. He said that from this experience, Reagan gained a steadfast belief that such political ideology is an enemy to democracy and individual freedom.

Casper Weinberger, chairman of Forbes, Inc. and Secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration, said that Reagan's moral strength in opposing communism provides a model of how the Bush administration should develop policy to pursue terrorists.

He said that despite the prevailing belief at the time in détente, and even despite strong opposition from within his own administration, family and inner circle, Reagan steadfastly held onto his belief that an arms buildup was an effective strategy to show the Soviets that they could not compete with the United States.

"You really had to be there to realize how much opposition there was, not from Democrats or from the media but within his own family and within the administration," said Weinberger. "But he overcame that and as a result the Cold War was won."

According to Steven F. Hayward, an AEI fellow and a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy in San Francisco, the lessons of Reagan's determination can shed light on the present day debate over how to defeat al Qaida and Islamic terrorist threats.

"Reagan proved that the simplicity of Ockham's Razor is best applied to foreign policy," said Hayward. Ockham's Razor, a basic principle of scientific research, is translated from the Latin as "The simplest explanation that fits the facts."

He added that Reagan's political and intellectual courage to stick to his guns in the face of overwhelming opposition is comparable to President George W. Bush's strong stance on Iraq and the war on terror in the face of European opposition and domestic criticism of his foreign policy.

"It is a straight line between 'evil empire' and 'axis of evil' and the reaction of our allies has been remarkably similar," Hayward said.

Newt Gingrich said that Schweizer's work is important to the struggle against terrorism because it demonstrates -- through the prism of Reagan's policies -- how terribly wrong conventional thinking can be.

"I think this book is really important in helping us think about our current foreign policy challenges," said Gingrich.

He added that the unwillingness on the part of politically correct Americans to accept the real enemy the free world is facing in the war on terrorism shows the failings of conventional wisdom.

"For politically correct reasons we refuse to analyze our opponents," he said.

For example, Gingrich said that 14 of the 15 people involved in the Sept. 11 terror plot were from Saudi Arabia, but that the United States government has done nothing to address the issue with Saudi Arabia, and that Americans refuse to, "think about what this may mean."

He said the unwillingness to focus the fight against terrorists on the small segment of Islamic society that is breeding the threat to the United States is analogous to the way the United States ignored the impending Soviet threat when that country began installing KGB operatives around the world in the mid-1940s.

Nevertheless, Schweizer said that it is one difficulty in drawing a direct comparison between the war against terrorism and the Cold War is that al Qaida and related groups are not a state-level power aiming to compete with the United States.

He said that this actually makes determination and ambition even more important because of the necessity to hunt down an elusive adversary.

He added that Reagan's well thought-out idealism showed the importance of intellectual debate in defeating an idealistic threat.

"The battle of ideas is critical," said Schweizer. "Simply having a military victory in Afghanistan or an invasion of Iraq will not account for a lot if we don't back it up with ideas."

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