A recent commentary by Brent Scowcroft (“Iran deal is a moment the U.S. can’t miss,” first published by the Washington Post and reprinted at StarTribune.com on Aug. 25) hardly came as a shock. Scowcroft had already previewed his support to several columnists this month. More surprising was his attempt to link the Obama administration’s diplomacy to President Ronald Reagan’s arms control efforts with the Soviet Union. While both resulted in agreements with longtime enemies, even a cursory review of the Reagan record highlights how little resemblance his approach bears to Obama’s. Focusing on the superficial similarities, rather than the stark differences, risks obscuring far more than it illuminates.
Just consider the irony: Reagan actually came to office trashing the SALT II nuclear deal that Jimmy Carter had negotiated with the Soviets. Like today’s Republican presidential candidates, Reagan openly urged Congress to reject what he considered a bad deal that would undermine our security.
Once in office, Reagan embarked on a massive arms buildup. He waited more than a year before entering talks on strategic nuclear forces. At those, as well as the negotiations on intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) in Europe, he put forward maximalist demands that Moscow rejected. The majority of arms control experts attacked Reagan’s positions as dangerous, delusionary, even a prelude to war. A massive protest movement emerged demanding that the administration adopt a “nuclear freeze.” In the face of the Kremlin’s threat to break off talks, Reagan went ahead with the deployment of nuclear missiles in Europe. Moscow walked. The chattering classes trembled.
But there’s more. Even with negotiations underway, Reagan relentlessly waged ideological warfare against the Soviet system. In June 1982, he warned that “freedom and democracy … will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history.” Less than a year later, he doubled down, labeling the Soviet Union “the focus of evil in the modern world.” Pundits were aghast. But Reagan plowed ahead. Weeks later, he unveiled his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a vision aimed at rendering offensive nuclear weapons — as well as the doctrine of mutual assured destruction — obsolete. The Soviets howled, condemning SDI as destabilizing, a reckless plot to give the United States a first-strike capability. Most U.S. experts concurred.
What else? As a centerpiece of his foreign policy, Reagan had a doctrine — the Reagan Doctrine — to provide lethal support to forces fighting Soviet aggression. In Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Angola and beyond, U.S. aid to anti-communist insurgencies was systematically used to kill Russians and their proxies. It didn’t matter whether arms control talks were on or off. Reagan knew that simultaneously fighting Soviet expansionism and negotiating nuclear deals was not only possible but also essential to advancing U.S. interests.
When Mikhail Gorbachev emerged and proposed a resumption of nuclear talks, Reagan was certainly open to it. Nevertheless, at the 1986 Reykjavik summit, with a historic deal to reduce offensive nuclear forces at hand, Reagan didn’t hesitate to collapse the negotiations when Gorbachev sought to extract a last-minute concession to kill SDI.
It didn’t take long for Reagan’s toughness to pay off. A little more than a year later, an INF Treaty eliminated a class of nuclear missiles in Europe — the so-called zero option that had been Reagan’s opening gambit and which most arms controllers had universally derided as unrealistic. Major progress was also made on a framework to reduce strategic nuclear forces, which President George H.W. Bush and Scowcroft — his national security adviser — brought to a successful conclusion with the 1991 START agreement. SDI was left untouched.
Even as U.S.-Soviet relations made progress on arms control, Reagan never strayed from his strategic purpose of weakening the “evil empire.” As much as he admired Gorbachev, it didn’t stop him from going to Berlin in 1987 to demand that the Soviet leader “tear down this wall” — to the rapture of almost all Central European dissidents and the tut-tutting of the American cognoscenti.
The results of Reagan’s approach? Nuclear deals consistent with America’s red lines, of course. But that was the least of it. Within a few years of Reagan’s tenure, the Soviets were out of Afghanistan and in retreat across the developing world. The Berlin Wall collapsed. Central Europe was free. The Soviet Union disintegrated and the Cold War won.
As for Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran? An agreement intended to dismantle Iran’s enrichment capability will now authorize it to grow without limit in 15 years. Last-minute Iranian demands to remove restrictions on conventional weapons and ballistic missiles were met with concessions, not rejection. Under cover of the talks, Iranian aggression across the Middle East escalated without meaningful U.S. resistance. America’s regional allies feel abandoned and demoralized, while Iranian reformers who took to the streets in 2009 to protest the regime’s oppression languish today with nary a word of U.S. encouragement.
There’s certainly a lot you can say about Obama’s brand of diplomacy. Perhaps you can even argue that it’s in the best interests of the United States. What you can’t really do, not with a straight face, is ever call it Reaganesque.
John Hannah, senior counselor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, was national security adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney. He wrote this article for the Washington Post.