Ronald Reagan and the Imperial Presidency | The Nation


Ronald Reagan and the Imperial Presidency

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On October 19, stung by President Jimmy Carter's charges that he might involve the United States in a nuclear war if elected President, Ronald Reagan made a television address in which he defended his "peace through strength" doctrine and spoke of himself as a man who has a "deep and abiding hope for peace." But in his public statements over the years, Reagan has projected a consistent bellicosity that casts doubt on the authenticity of the "new Reagan" who emerged in the last days of the campaign.

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Ronnie Dugger
Ronnie Dugger is the author of The Politician, a biography of Lyndon Johnson, and other books and articles, the...

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The importance attached to the "moderate" Reagan is nowhere more evident than in the resistance the Reagan-Bush Committee offers to the reporter seeking the transcripts of the five-minute radio broadcasts Reagan has made since 1975, during the times he was not an active Presidential candidate. I have obtained a set of these transcripts covering the years 1975, 1978 and 1979, and they are a rich and revealing source of the candidate's views, for in these talks the real Reagan is speaking privately to "his people" rather than to the electorate. Other reporters have quoted from some transcripts, but I have sought here to assemble in one place the more pertinent views on foreign policy and national security issues contained in them, along with other public pronouncements Reagan has made. As Reagan has said, "I was on radio so many years with those five-day-a-week commentaries. I had a twice-a-week column in more than 100 newspapers throughout the country. How could I change my positions?" His question is his own to answer, in his own words. Revealed is a man who has reacted viscerally to a variety of foreign challenges. These reactions provide the best prognosis of how President Reagan would perform in the Oval Office.

Turning first to the Middle East, would Reagan send the United States to war for oil? He certainly advocates a U.S. military presence in the region. He has said he wants American aircraft and troops stationed in Pakistan, and the planes perhaps also in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. Last January, he suggested that the planes be manned by U.S. pilots and serviced by U.S. ground personnel. "I think this might be a very, very good time for the United States to show a presence in the Middle East...with the consent of, say, Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia to have a presence there," he said.

Would Reagan meet Soviet aggression in the Middle East with military force? The truth, he replies, "is that we don't have the force.... Now, that is a shame because the Persian Gulf is valuable to us. We can survive without it, but it is absolutely essential to our allies in Western Europe and Japan." The paramount U.S. interest in the Middle East, Reagan says, is to prevent the region from falling under Soviet domination. He sees Saudi Arabia as menaced by the U.S.S.R. and advocates using military force to prevent the country's ruling sheiks from being overthrown by an uprising from within, as well as by aggression from the outside. As he told the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco last May, the United States should send the Russians a "signal": "We should let them know that we are not going to let Saudi Arabia fall, either from trouble within or from aggression without." In June, he expanded on this "doctrine": "We should follow a course of action that would lead [the Russians] to believe that if they...decided to go in there, they would be running into the possibility--the probability--of a confrontation with us. I question whether an uprising in Saudi Arabia would be totally free of Soviet influence. I think their hand would be in there stirring the pot and they would be ready to heed a call to bring order."

Elsewhere in the region, he wrote, "Specific Arab states such as Egypt...may well be able and prepared to take a front-line position in defense of Western security interests." He believes that the United States should have aborted the Khomeini revolution in Iran just as we overthrew the Mossadegh Government there in the early 1950s. ''I believe at the time the revolution was just riots in the streets, we vacillated. We did not keep the promises we'd made to the Shah," Reagan said last fall.

He, too, would have admitted the Shah to the United States for medical treatment and, furthermore, after the hostages were taken would have given him permanent asylum in the United States. Would that not have jeopardized the hostages? He said their captors "made it plain it didn't make any difference if he was here or if we let him go." He advocated cutting off food shipments to Iran and suggested a naval blockade and the mining of Iranian harbors. Might the latter two measures endanger the hostages? He did not believe the militants would kill the hostages because of that. He favored a "date certain"--a deadline--for the hostages' release, after which the United States should take "unpleasant action," the nature of which he did not specify.

Concerning the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, Reagan proposed the United States "funnel" arms through Pakistan to the rebel Afghanis. Realizing that this language could be taken to imply U.S. aid to rebels fighting against Russia, Reagan later said that he had not meant direct shipments of U.S. arms to the rebels. He opposed President Carter's grain embargo against the Soviet Union in retaliation for the Afghan invasion, but a week later said the United States and its allies should suspend trade with Russia until its troops were withdrawn. "Why shouldn't the Western world quarantine the Soviet Union until they decide to behave as a civilized nation should?" he asked. A quarantine is a warlike act, and Reagan later said he was not recommending this, only urging that such a step be considered. This summer he carried his suggestion further, saying we should have told the Russians: "Look, don't talk to us about trade. There will be none. Don't talk to us about treaties, like SALT II," until the troops are withdrawn.

In January, he also said, about Afghanistan, "I think it's time to send signals by showing a presence, preferably in air power." By "presence," Reagan meant, according to Louis Berney in The Rutland [Vermont] Herald, "Not only would he dispatch planes to the Middle East...but he also would station a permanent naval fleet" in the area of the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean. He also, more famously, suggested blockading Cuba in retaliation for the Russian invasion. "I'm suggesting," he said, "that we might blockade Cuba and stop the transportation back and forth of Russian arms, of Soviet military." Again: "One option might well be that we surround the island of Cuba and stop all traffic in and out." George Bush, running against him, said, "That's a lot of macho." He quoted an ex-chief of naval operations saying it would "take the entire Atlantic fleet" to maintain such a blockade. And, Bush asked, "Why do you do that? Cuba didn't invade Afghanistan."

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