November 13, 2003
The 43d president of the United States is the son of the 41st, and no one doubts that he loves and respects his father. But it grows increasingly clear that the president who has most influenced George W. Bush's world view is not No. 41 but No. 40 -- his father's predecessor, Ronald Reagan.
In an important address at the National Endowment for Democracy last week, Bush explicitly linked his goal of bringing democracy and freedom to the Middle East to the Reagan strategy that won the Cold War. That strategy was premised on the superiority and ultimate triumph of liberty over dictatorship. It was a conviction that Reagan voiced often -- most memorably in his speech to the British House of Commons on June 8, 1982.
"It is time that we committed ourselves as a nation to assisting democratic development," Reagan said that day. "What I am describing now is a plan and a hope for the long term -- the march of freedom and democracy which will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history as it has left other tyrannies which stifle the freedom and muzzle the self-expression of the people."
As Bush recalled last week, critics dismissed Reagan's words. "Some observers on both sides of the Atlantic pronounced the speech simplistic and naive and even dangerous. In fact, Ronald Reagan's words were courageous and optimistic and entirely correct." Now, Bush said, America is at "another great turning point" in the march of liberty: It is embarking upon the spread of democracy and decent governance to the Arab world, beginning with the reconstruction of Iraq. "This is a massive and difficult undertaking," he acknowledged, but "it is worth our effort, it is worth our sacrifice, because we know the stakes. . . . Iraqi democracy will succeed -- and that success will send forth the news, from Damascus to Teheran, that freedom can be the future of every nation."
The wisdom of Reagan's freedom strategy is obvious in retrospect. But it wasn't obvious during the 1980s, when Reagan's foes condemned his strategy and worked tirelessly to defeat it.
There was a timely reminder of that era in the days leading up to Bush's speech. On Nov. 3 and 4, Secretary of State Colin Powell visited Nicaragua, a country on the front lines of the Cold War when Powell served as Reagan's national security adviser. As he stepped off the plane in Managua, he was greeted by a Nicaraguan honor guard and a military band playing the American national anthem. It was a deeply moving moment -- one that called to Powell's mind the fierce struggle two decades ago to support the Nicaraguan freedom fighters, who had taken up arms against the country's pro-Soviet Sandinista dictatorship.
"To stand there at attention . . . hearing the Star Spangled Banner," said Powell, triggered a flashback to 1987, "when I was . . . going up to Capitol Hill every three months . . . and fighting all night long with opponents of Contra aid, to keep these guys alive and going with food and ammunition." Reagan had called the Contras "the moral equivalent of our founding fathers and the brave men and women of the French resistance" in World War II -- analogies that infuriated liberal Democrats, many of whom worked openly with the Sandinistas to undermine Reagan's policy.
But Reagan's comparisons were apt. After seizing power in 1979, the Sandinistas had quickly moved to take over Nicaragua's radio and TV stations, and to impose strict censorship on La Prensa, the leading newspaper. It arrested and tortured independent labor leaders. It vilified the Catholic church, persecuted the small Jewish community, and treated evangelical Protestants with particular viciousness. It expelled thousands of Miskito Indians from their homes, forcibly relocating them to government camps. With Cuban and Soviet aid, it launched a massive military buildup.
Like all communists, the Sandinistas were ruthless toward dissenters; by 1983, their prisons held more political prisoners than those of any Western Hemisphere nation except Cuba. The Sandinistas also produced what every communist regime produces: a flood of refugees. It was estimated in 1986 that one-10th of Nicaragua's population had fled from Sandinista repression.
Reagan's explicit support for the Contras was bitterly opposed by the left. Then-Congressman Charles Schumer of New York snorted that Reagan offered "the same exact arguments that we were hearing in the mid-60s about Vietnam"; Senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut warned that Americans would be fighting "the tide of history" if it backed the Contras -- "we will . . . find ourselves once again on the losing side."
But in the end, it was the Sandinistas and their totalitarian dreams that went down to defeat. When the junta finally agreed, under pressure from the Contras and from Washington, to hold elections in 1990, American liberals were sure the Reagan Doctrine would be discredited once and for all. Instead, the candidate of the democratic opposition, Violeta Chamorro, won in a landslide -- and another outpost of the Evil Empire gave way to freedom.
The following year, Chamorro was honored by the National Endowment for Democracy, which believed then as it does now that self-government is a universal human aspiration -- and that the world's greatest democracy has a role to play in the nurturing of democratic institutions. Reagan's vision lives on in the endowment's work, and Bush couldn't have chosen a better venue to lay out his own vision for freedom in the Middle East -- or to acknowledge his debt to the president in whose footsteps he is clearly proud to follow.