Nuclear Détente

What Ronald Reagan Can Teach Barack Obama About Dealing With Iran

To make a deal with Iran, Obama must pay close attention to Reagan’s real legacy—not the hawks who call themselves Reaganites, says Peter Beinart.

Bob Galbraith/AP

Since he began running for president six years ago, Barack Obama has hoped aloud that he would become the Democratic Ronald Reagan. Now, suddenly, Iran may offer him the chance. But if Obama wants to achieve with Hassan Rouhani what Reagan achieved with Mikhail Gorbachev, he must liberate the Gipper’s legacy from the hawks who speak in his name.

In today’s Iran debate, calling yourself a Reaganite means being open to military force and skeptical of a diplomatic deal. Which means, ironically, that today’s “Reaganites” aren’t very Reagan-like at all.

In his first term, Reagan boosted military spending, introduced the Strategic Defense Initiative and funneled aid to anti-communist rebels and regimes in a bid to increase pressure on the Soviet empire. But for Reagan, increasing pressure and going to war were radically different things.

In the early 1980s, prominent conservatives urged Reagan to consider sending the Marines to overthrow the new leftist regime in Nicaragua. William F. Buckley, the longtime editor of National Review, proposed that Congress declare war on both Nicaragua and its Cuban patron. Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz wrote that “the United States must therefore do whatever may be required, up to and including the dispatch of American troops, to stop and then to reverse the totalitarian drift in Central America.” But Reagan, who shared the public’s fear of another Vietnam, considered the invasion talk insane. “Those sons of bitches won’t be happy until we have 25,000 troops in Managua,” he told his chief of staff, “and I’m not going to do it.”

Obama’s first-term strategy of pressuring Iran via sanctions and sabotage while resisting military action fits Reagan’s approach. So does Obama’s eagerness for a diplomatic deal. For Reagan, pressure was not an alternative to negotiating with the Kremlin. It was the precondition. More than a year before the Politburo selected Gorbachev, Reagan had decided that America’s international position was strong enough for serious talks. Breaking with his earlier bellicose rhetoric, Reagan in January 1984 told Americans that “nuclear arsenals are far too high” and that Moscow and Washington should join together “to stop arms races around the world.” That September, before a meeting with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, Reagan declared that “the United States respects the Soviet Union’s status as a superpower ... and we have no wish to change its social system.” As the University of Toronto’s Beth Fischer has noted, Reagan and his secretary of state, George Shultz, wanted serious arms-control talks as early as 1984. The problem, as Reagan quipped, was that geriatric Soviet leaders such as Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko “keep dying on me.”

When Gorbachev took power in March 1985, Reagan responded with none of the cynicism that today’s “Reaganites” now express toward Rouhani. Within hours of Gorbachev’s selection, long before he had begun his radical reforms, Reagan invited the new Soviet leader to meet without preconditions. He dispatched Vice President George H.W. Bush to meet Gorbachev at the funeral of his predecessor, Chernenko, with talking points urging that “we should strive to eliminate nuclear weapons from the face of the earth. We should seek to rid the world of the threat or use of force in international relations.” Later that year, Reagan overruled administration hardliners and quietly scrapped some older submarines so that America would not exceed the limits of the never-ratified SALT II agreement and thus anger the Kremlin. When Soviet troops in East Germany killed a U.S. soldier, giving Reagan an excuse to cancel his first summit with Gorbachev, Reagan instead told journalists that incidents like these just made him want to meet his Russian counterpart more. That November, when the two leaders finally met, a one-on-one meeting scheduled for 15 minutes ended up lasting five hours. At one point, Reagan leaned over to Gorbachev and whispered, “I bet the hardliners in both our countries are bleeding when we shake hands.”

By his final years in office, Reagan’s rhetoric toward the Soviet Union had changed utterly. “Do you still think you’re in an evil empire, Mr. President?” asked a reporter while Reagan strolled with Gorbachev through Red Square in March 1987. “No,” replied Reagan. “I was talking about another time and another era.” That December, in the most ambitious arms-reduction deal of the Cold War, Reagan and Gorbachev agreed to eliminate intermediate-range nuclear missiles.

In the Reagan myth that conservatives have constructed since the Cold War’s end, all this never happened. It’s as if Reagan jacked up defense spending, called the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” hatched the Strategic Defense Initiative, sent some guns to the Contras and mujahideen, and poof, the Soviet empire dissolved. But without Reagan’s dovish turn, it’s unlikely he and Gorbachev would have ended the Cold War. Gorbachev wanted to slash military spending and end Moscow’s costly hold over Eastern Europe in order to revive the Soviet economy. But to disarm and retrench, he had to convince Kremlin hard-liners, long fearful of a Western attack, that the United States would not prey on Moscow’s weakness. By jettisoning the aggressive rhetoric and cutting U.S. nuclear stockpiles, Reagan helped Gorbachev win at home. “If Reagan had stuck to his hard-line policies in 1985 and 1986,” wrote longtime Soviet ambassador to the U.S. Anatoly Dobrynin, “Gorbachev would have been accused by the rest of the Politburo of giving everything away to a fellow who does not want to negotiate. We would have been forced to tighten our belts and spend even more on defense.”

We don’t yet know how serious Rouhani, and his boss, Ali Khamenei, are about making a meaningful nuclear deal. But Reagan didn’t know either when Gorbachev took power in 1985. Even so, he met Gorbachev’s overtures not with reserve but with exuberance. And in so doing, he helped Gorbachev overcome domestic resistance and build momentum for further reform.

That’s what Obama must do now. Sure, there’s some risk that if he offers Rouhani too much too early, Obama won’t ultimately strike the toughest deal for the United States. But at a moment like this, when Iran is clearly hurting and its leadership appears eager, even desperate, for a deal, the greater risk is that American timidity and small-mindedness extinguish the political oxygen Rouhani and his fellow reformers need at home.

In any case, I doubt that being duped by Iran is what Obama officials worry about most. Talk to people close to the administration, and you get the sense that their greater fear is being clobbered in Washington. If Obama cuts a deal with Iran that requires any American compromise at all, “Reaganites” will label him an appeaser hoodwinked by an Iranian regime that hasn’t really changed at all. As usual, Benjamin Netanyahu is leading the way, having already called Rouhani a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

But the same “Reaganites” who will bash Obama for compromising with Rouhani once bashed Reagan for compromising with Gorbachev. As late as December 1987, Charles Krauthammer was writing that “the fundamental misconception about Gorbachev is that he has somehow broken the ideological mold.” Until virtually the day the Soviet empire collapsed, Rep. Dick Cheney was calling glasnost a fraud. In 1988 George Will accused Reagan of having “accelerated the moral disarmament of the West ... by elevating wishful thinking [about Gorbachev] to the status of public policy.” When Reagan brought the intermediate missiles deal to Congress for ratification, a right-wing group called the Anti-Appeasement Alliance took out newspaper ads comparing Reagan to Neville Chamberlain.

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Yes, those political struggles were easier for Reagan because he hailed from the political right. But that wasn’t the only reason he triumphed over the “Reaganites” who now take his name in vain. He triumphed because he had the moral imagination to envisage a relationship beyond confrontation and war. Musing in late 1987 about the opponents of his nuclear deal, Reagan declared that “some of the people who are objecting the most ... whether they realize it or not, those people basically down in their deepest thoughts have accepted that war is inevitable.” Because Reagan refused to accept what others considered inevitable, he achieved one of the greatest successes in the history of American foreign policy. Now it’s Obama’s turn to imagine a future that his critics cannot and to have the guts to make it real.