WHY ELECTIONS MATTER - TAKE II
I do not believe in a fate that will fall on us no matter what we do. I do believe in a fate that will fall on us if we do nothing.
Elections do matter.
This is the second in a four-part American Citizen Scholar series examining the influence and impact of presidential leadership (or lack thereof) in regard to U.S. foreign policy and its outcome during tumultuous periods in our nation's history.
In recent months, two Muslim nations have partaken in the voting process for the first time in their respective histories. Participation is high, the enthusiasm even higher; many brave death simply by registering or showing up at the polls.
By contrast, less than half of the eligible American voting public participates in our national elections every two to four years. It doesn’t matter who you vote for, say the pundits, critics, and cynics. Presidents and politicians are all the same.
When referring to such trivial domestic concerns as budgetary tug of war, the daily he said/she said of Capitol Hill carping, or the routine hitting below the Beltway -- perhaps the naysayers are correct. But when it comes to major foreign policy decisions that have wide ranging and long term consequences on the world stage -- history begs to differ.
This is precisely why elections matter.
PEACE THROUGH STRENGTH
WHY ELECTIONS MATTER - PART II
How Ronald Reagan Scuttled Détente, Checkmated the Soviet Union, and Thawed the Cold War Without Firing a Shot
It is a postwar fact of life that U.S. foreign policy is now funneled through hundreds of bureaucratic channels, from the State Department to the National Security Council to the West Wing. Yet on a grand scale, its fundamental nature remains a direct extension of the top executive’s personality. And in order to best understand and interpret the decisions of such men, one must develop a basic comprehension of what makes them tick.
Richard Milhous Nixon and Ronald Wilson Reagan both inherited a world infinitely more dangerous, though in many ways less volatile, than their immediate predecessors. Thermonuclear proliferation had become the coin of the realm, offering instant Armageddon in thirty minutes or less, yet paradoxically, the brutal efficiency of such weapons had rendered their use strategically impractical, if not unthinkable. If wars are indeed fought for material or territorial gain, then a nuclear exchange, it was understood, would provide neither. "A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought," a newly-elected President Reagan assured a skittish nation, many of whom mistook his hardline rhetoric for reckless goading and deemed nuclear holocaust now at hand.
A World Gone MAD
In an era when the two remaining global superpowers held loaded guns to each other’s temples, few found comfort in the cool rationalization of deterrence appropriately labeled "Mutually Assured Destruction," or MAD. The Soviet threat may have mutated, but by no means had it become muted. Cold war tensions had thawed slightly even as cold war postures remained frozen in place. But the actions of two Republican presidents — a commonality shared in name only — would set the tone for the liquidation to follow. Their dissimilar approaches prove yet again that motivations both political and personal are irreparably entwined.
The Great Communicator
Ronald Reagan was a man of deeply held conservative convictions, dating back several decades. His trademark soaring oratory had changed barely an iota since his 1964 Republican Convention speech for candidate and friend Barry Goldwater that had put him on the political map. "You and I have a rendezvous with destiny," he spoke. "We’ll preserve for our children, this -- the last best hope of man on earth -- or we’ll sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness." Not even Reagan the former lifeguard could rescue Goldwater from the depths of a crushing electoral defeat by the still-popular LBJ, yet his performance turned enough heads in the process to ultimately launch his own gubernatorial quest.
Hail to the CREEP
Richard Nixon, by contrast, seemed to possess no particular ideology at all, save for a Machiavellian lust for influence and prestige. Harry Truman had him pegged, labeling him "one of the few in the history of this country to run for high office talking out of both sides of his mouth at the same time -- and lying out of both sides." Whatever got Nixon what he wanted — whatever would throw his personal enemies and political opponents (which rarely garnered a distinction) the biggest and loopiest curveball — was the natural course he would follow. He was the most dangerous kind of politician: one in the Vince Lombardi mold. "Finishing second in the Olympics gets you silver. Finishing second in politics gets you oblivion." Men who cannot abide electoral defeat are men who will do anything prevent its happening.
Ever the pragmatist, Nixon measured efficacy by outcome rather than by intent. As a lifelong Republican ensconced in an age of liberalism, he maneuvered to disarm his political rivals by taking up their own ideas and using them against them, promptly opening up the government’s floodgates and releasing a torrent of federal cash and regulation. But to conservatives, Nixon was no true believer and accordingly fooled no one as such.
Nixon’s continued commitment to détente (a policy of easing tension between nations) stemmed in part from his relative acceptance of the Soviet Union as a permanent force to be reckoned with in world affairs, his foreign policy resigned toward the permanence of Communist regimes and its apparent helplessness in the face of their expansion. A voracious collector of enemies both real and perceived — on a level that would make even Joe McCarthy blush — Nixon curiously regarded his international opponents with less enmity than even his self-cultivated ones at home. "Politics would be a hellava good business if it weren't for the goddamned people."
'When the President does it, that means that it's not illegal.'
Both Nixon and Secretary of State Kissinger, an equally secretive and Rasputin-like figure in his own right, actively courted unpredictability as a resource, a way to keep their adversaries guessing as to their intentions and ferment uncertainty as a tool for stability. Yet, the Soviets had been utilizing this inherent trait of their closed society for decades, notably without such stabilizing effects. Yet unlike the Communists, power for its own sake -- and not coupled with a quasi-religious ideology -- was what moved Nixon, and the essence of détente was to divorce foreign policy from ideology. Nixon longed to abandon the Cold War as an operative concept, and his diplomacy of détente was a response to his perception that the Cold War was no longer sustainable on its original terms. Using triangulation as a tactic to exploit the Sino-Soviet split between the nervous Russians and the insecure Chinese, in a way similar to how Bill Clinton would later use it in the domestic arena, Nixon and Kissinger sought to bring increased stability to a wobbly geopolitical table by adding an additional leg.
Confronting an Evil Empire
Reagan, conversely, frequently described the Cold War as a struggle between right and wrong and good versus evil, with an oft-lampooned Hollywood-bred flourish and clarity of purpose that left no doubt as to who he believed wore the white hat. Whereas Nixon had delighted in the strategic placing of chess pieces on a U.S./Sino-Soviet board, seeking a multipolar stalemate as a measure to ensure lasting peace, Reagan pushed for a bipolar checkmate. Such strategic nuances were anathema to the former screen actor, who disdained the secretive power-politics that were Nixon’s bread and butter. A born performer, Reagan instead thought and spoke in terms that conjured a global morality play. Thus, he regarded it as his primary and most important duty to restate the obvious and mention the unmentionable:
Despite its flaws, our system was intrinsically benevolent and their system was at its rotten core "the focus of evil in the modern world." Elite opinion naturally flew into an uproar over such "inflammatory" and "warmongering" rhetoric emanating from the Oval Office. Yet willing to call a spade a spade, Reagan unapologetically clarified — and in case anyone had forgotten — reasserted what America stood for, as well as what she was against.
Reagan’s view saw the buildup of nuclear weapons as not the cause but the result of this fundamental conflict between two inherently different systems. He never accepted the argument of moral equivalence between the two superpowers that even career Red-baiters like Nixon had come to accept as immutable. Well before he became president, Reagan held a much more skeptical view of the alleged omnipotence of Soviet communism. Not only was it inherently amoral, but intrinsically stupid. "How do you tell a Communist?" he often quipped. "Well, it's someone who reads Marx and Lenin." And how to tell an anti-Communist? "It's someone who understands Marx and Lenin."
Reagan intuitively arrived at the commonsense conclusion (one that pointedly seemed to have escaped the intelligentsia of the era) that any centrally-planned economic system that denied a central tenet of human nature that people will work in proportion to the reward that they receive was doomed to disastrous failure. In his ever-confident mind, the question then was not a matter of whether it would perish, but when. Even as the Soviet Union struggled to camouflage its faltering economy from the prying eyes of the world, it also had developed a highly advanced military, albeit one Reagan argued had been done by "preempting the human needs of its people," a course which, in the end, would undermine the very foundations of the Soviet system it sought to preserve.
Not content to adopt a "wait and see" attitude that had been so integral a part of containment since the fallout from the decade-long attrition of the Vietnam proxy war, Reagan alone envisioned a world in which communist expansion was not merely countenanced, but actively (and at times, surreptitiously) rolled back. If the Nixon through Carter years had shown anything, it was that détente had not panned out as a surrogate for deterrence. In a mere six years the Soviet Union through political or military coercion had absorbed ten additional countries into its communist sphere while Presidents Ford and Carter fiddled. NATO faced an overwhelming superiority in Soviet conventional forces in Europe, and despite a multiplicity of arms limitation talks, the Soviet nuclear arsenal had reached its apex.
This provided a dual impetus for a substantial American military buildup. One: To drag the Soviet military machine into even higher levels of spending and eventual insolvency, and two: To maintain a counteracting force ready, willing, and able to unambiguously dissuade any last desperate acts of a suffocating regime in the midst of its death throes. For Russian history was nothing if not replete with Orwellian examples of tyrannical regimes easing internal unrest through external distraction.
Reagan’s unwavering support of the Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI -- his grand vision of a missile shield to supplant the inherent madness of MAD -- sought to be the final dagger in the Soviet heart. What the chattering classes and critics of SDI's feasibility failed to recognize was that it mattered not whether the expensive and complex system was workable or not. What mattered was that the Soviets believed we were serious about it, and would move towards its development and deployment at the earliest possible stage. They had witnessed our best and brightest walk on the moon, and knew that very little existed outside of the American technological reach when prodded. Their lack of confidence in their own abilities (or perhaps, a rare but honest appraisal of them) forced Realpolitik reformers like Mikhail Gorbachev to wake up and smell the vodka: Either come to the bargaining table or face a new high-tech arms race that we both knew they couldn’t win. If détente was essentially game theory writ large -- a jockeying for diplomatic position -- then the one-two punch of rearmament and rollback would serve as the clinching move.
"A leader, once convinced a particular course of action is the right one, must have the determination to stick with it and be undaunted when the going gets rough."
Thus became the mantra of the Reagan Revolution, a genius which lay in its clarity of purpose. A far cry from the likes of Nixon and Kissinger, who at times seemed to relapse into the post-WWII line of thinking that Soviet belligerence existed merely out of the Russian's own security concerns. Reagan had no such illusions about communist hegemony and the subjugation it promulgated across a continent. The Soviet Union was no mere schoolyard bully with an inferiority complex, it was still an aggressor nation in the mold of Stalin and needed to be viewed and opposed as such. Time and time again, Reagan made it clear on what side of the fence America stood:
"Freedom and the dignity of the individual have been more available and assured here than in any other place on Earth. The price for this freedom at times has been high. But we have never been unwilling to pay that price. As for the enemies of freedom, those who are potential adversaries, they will be reminded that peace is the highest aspiration of the American people. We will negotiate for it, sacrifice for it; [but] we will not surrender for it now or ever."
For Nixon and Kissinger, geopolitics was exciting, a chance to accomplish great deeds requiring multi-volume memoirs; to assume the mantle of "statesmen" and secure their place at the table of history; to cement their Legacy. For Reagan, it was about people’s lives, the dignity and worth of all individuals, the prospect of liberty that he hoped to not only be able to promise them, but deliver to their doorstep. He believed these ideals to his core. The freedom of millions would be his legacy. "No weapon in the arsenals of the world is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women."
A Tale of Two Citizens
Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon both came from similar backgrounds of rural hardship and distant fathers, yet they each came away from their respective experiences with opposite outlooks on the world. One was brimming with sunny optimism, the other burning with naked ambition. Both maintained few close personal relationships, yet one genuinely believed in the inherent goodness of the American people; while the other neither liked nor was liked by many, be it friend or foe. "Those who hate you don't win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself."
One of them craved the Office to feel big; the other sought the presidency as the ultimate means to an end: as the quickest route to realizing his conservative ideals and implementing his vision for America and the free world. Put more simply, to do big things. Accepting the Republican nomination for President, Reagan cautioned against unaccountable bureaucracy run amok, and advocated a return to what had seemed a bygone era of government of the people, by the people, and for the people:
"Back in 1976, Mr. Carter said, 'Trust me.' And a lot of people did... 'Trust me' government asks that we concentrate our hopes and dreams on one man; that we trust him to do what's best for us. My view of government places trust not in one person or one party, but in those values that transcend persons and parties. The trust is where it belongs -- in the people. The responsibility to live up to that trust is where it belongs -- in their elected leaders."
Such was Ronald Reagan's gift to the nation, to future generations, and to the inalienable rights of human freedom in which he so fervently believed.
COPYRIGHT 2006 BUCK SARGENT