ABSTRACT: Ronald Reagan’s 30-Year Time Bombs By Robert Parry 1-28-2011
Why did it take three-decades to nail Ronald Reagan for starting the nation on the path to disaster? Because almost everyone shies from blaming him for anything. It’s Washington wisdom that it’s political suicide to criticize him. It’s safer to accept him like MSNBC “Hardball” host Chris Matthews as “one of the all-time greats.”
His reputation rests on the Republican propaganda machine, timid Democrats and media, rather than actual accomplishment. Many of the worst national and international problems can be traced to Reagan-era misjudgments and malfeasance: swelling national debt; out-of-control banks; decline of the U.S. middle class; inaction on energy independence; the rise of Islamic fundamentalism; and, Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.
The most insidious residue is manipulating information – what Reagan officials called “perception management” – as a means of societal control. Reagan’s team aimed at control of two key information entities: CIA’s analytical division and Washington press corps to manage the Washington insider community and the American public.
Reagan exaggerated the threat posed by the Soviet Union (after his CIA chief William Casey and deputy Robert Gates purged CIA analysts who reported a decaying empire eager to live with the West). Well-financed right-wing operatives and the administration marginalized mainstream journalists (“liberal press”) who raised questions about Reagan domestic and foreign policies. The strategy was deadly when George W. Bush and Dick Cheney coerced CIA “analysis” on Iraqi WMD and manipulated the Washington press corps to go to war. The “Reagan narrative,” demonizing government, limits President Obama’s problem solving options. [See “Obama’s Fear of the Reagan Narrative.”]
A Central Narrative
Reagan’s Legacy is the Republican/Tea Party narrative: to solve domestic problems cut taxes, slash government regulations and trust the private sector; to fix international threat talk tough and take down governments that won’t obey. Republicans force all issues into Reagan Orthodoxy; rightwing media generates hostility to alternatives. Progressives lack media to counter the narrative and Democratic politicians risk retaliation for a challenge. Rather than admit his responsibility, Reagan is sainted.
Reevaluation of Reagan starts with reassessment of “failed” 1970s presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, who addressed systemic challenges from oil dependence, environmental degradation, arms race, and nuclear proliferation – issues Reagan ignored that now threaten life. Confronting rebellion from Reagan’s Republican Right in 1976, Ford abandoned “détente,” and let hard-line Cold Warriors (and a first wave of young intellectual neoconservatives) pressure the CIA’s analytical division (the “Team-B Experiment”), and brought in a new generation of hard-liners, including Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. Powerful vested domestic and foreign interests sabotaged progress. By 1980, Reagan was Pied Piper luring Americans away from tough choices that Nixon, Ford and Carter defined. [See Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
With a superficial sunny disposition and a ruthless political strategy of exploiting white-male resentments, Reagan convinced millions that the threats they faced were: African-American welfare queens, Central American leftists, a rapidly expanding Evil Empire based in Moscow, and the do-good federal government. In his First Inaugural in 1981, Reagan declared, “Government is the problem.”
When it came to cutting energy use, Reagan signaled auto industry to make gas-guzzlers. He intentionally staffed Environmental Protection Agency and Interior Department with officials hostile to environmental protection regulation. He pushed deregulation of industry, including banking; slashed income taxes for the wealthiest in a “supply side” economics experiment, lying that cutting rates for the rich would increase revenues and eliminate the federal deficit. Over the years, “supply side” evolved into a rightwing secular religion, but Reagan’s budget director David Stockman said it led to red ink “as far as the eye could see.” Conceding that some Reagan economic plans did not work, his defenders hail him as a great President because he “won the Cold War.”
Well before Reagan, the U.S. intelligence community believed the Cold War was winding down in the 1970s; the Soviet economic model had lost the technological race. Top CIA reported the USSR headed toward collapse, not surging to world supremacy, as Reagan and his foreign policy team insisted in the 1980s.
CIA analysis spurred détente by Nixon and Ford, seeking negotiated solution to the most dangerous remaining aspects of Cold War. In that view, Soviet military operations in Afghanistan were defensive, supporting a secular pro-communist government working to modernize a country beset by Islamic fundamentalists with covert support from the U.S. (originated by Carter’s national security adviser Brzezinski, but really ramped up by Reagan and CIA Director Casey, who traded U.S. acceptance of Pakistan’s nuclear arms program for help shipping weapons to Afghan jihadists (including a young Saudi, Osama bin Laden). [See “Reagan’s Bargain/Charlie Wilson’s War.”]
Making Matters Worse
Reaganites cite Soviet defeat in Afghanistan as key to “winning the Cold War.” It may have sped final Soviet collapse, but Reagan’s over-reaction to the Soviets in Afghanistan created worse long-term threats to U.S. national security: the rise of al-Qaeda terrorism and the nuclear bomb in unstable Islamic Pakistan.. He did not “win the Cold War,” he extended it unnecessarily – at great cost in lives and money.
Reagan damaged long-term worldwide U.S. interests. In Latin America, his brutal arming of right-wing militaries to crush peasant, student and labor uprisings created anti-Americanism that surfaced in new populist leftist governments. Hostility to Washington is now the rule, benefiting China, Iran, Cuba, Venezuela and other American rivals.
Reagan established a young generation of neocon intellectuals who pioneered “perception management” to shape how Americans saw, understood and were frightened by threats from abroad. To marginalize dissent, anger was fueled against challenges to feel-good optimism. Critics were un-American defeatists. A right-wing infrastructure took shape, linking media with well-financed think tanks churning out op-eds. Attack groups went after mainstream journalists who dared to poke holes in Reagan’s propaganda.
Reagan’s team created faux reality for the American public: civil wars in Central America between poor peasants and rich overlords became East-West showdowns; U.S.-backed insurgents in Nicaragua, Angola and Afghanistan were transformed from corrupt, brutal (often drug-tainted) thugs into noble “freedom-fighters.” Reagan’s Iran-Contra revived Richard Nixon’s imperial presidency to ignore the nation’s laws and evade accountability through criminal cover-ups. It reared its ugly head again in the war crimes of George W. Bush. [see: Robert Parry’s Lost History and Secrecy & Privilege.]
Wall Street Greed
The American Dream dimmed during Reagan’s tenure. He played the role of kindly grandfather, but his operatives divided people with “wedge issues” to deepen grievances especially of white men urged to see themselves as victims of “reverse discrimination” and “political correctness.” Even as working-class white men rallied to the Republicans (so-called “Reagan Democrats”), their economic interests were savaged. Unions were broken and marginalized; “free trade” policies shipped manufacturing jobs abroad; old neighborhoods decayed; youthful drug use soared. Unprecedented greed was unleashed on Wall Street, wrecking old bonds between owners and employees. Before Reagan, corporate CEOs earned 50 times an average worker salary. By the end of Reagan-Bush-I in 1993, it was 100 times more. At the end of Bush-II in 2000, it was 250 times more.
Other Reagan trends corrode U.S. political process. After 9/11, neocons reemerged dominant, using “perception management” to make “war on terror” a terrifying conflict between good and evil. Hyped Islamic threat mirrored the neocons’ hyped 1980s Soviet menace. Many Americans let emotions run wild, burning to invade Iraq for revenge.
Descent into this dark fantasyland that Ronald Reagan began reached nadir in the flag-waving early days of the Iraq War. Gradually, reality rose as the death toll mounted, and Katrina reminded Americans why we need effective government.
Other disasters set in motion by Reagan: G. W. Bush’s Reagan-esque tax cuts for the rich blew another huge hole in the federal budget; Reagan-esque anti-regulatory fervor led to massive financial meltdown throwing the nation into economic chaos. The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission majority blamed the banking crisis, in part, on “30 years of deregulation and self-regulation;” (the four commission Republicans refused to sign, blaming government policies encouraging home ownership.)
Republicans see Reagan as untouchable icon; memory and policies to be revered. With GOP control of Congress in 1994, the party rushed to name public sites after their hero to elevate him to the stature of martyred leaders John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. Democrats honored him as an easy gesture of bipartisanship, unaware of, or unwilling to contest the larger GOP strategy to sanctify Reaganism as much as Reagan. Early in Campaign 2008, Barack Obama positioned himself as a bipartisan figure who could appeal to Republicans, bowing to Reagan mystique, hailing him as a leader who “changed the trajectory of America,” justifying his correction because of “all the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s, and government had grown and grown, but there wasn’t much sense of accountability.” Obama later clarified that he didn’t mean to endorse Reagan’s conservative policies, but seemed to suggest that Reagan administered a needed dose of accountability when he actually did the opposite. Reagan’s presidency represented a dangerous escape from accountability – and reality. [“Obama’s Dubious Praise for Reagan.”] Obama and congressional Democrats continue to pander to the Reagan myth. In 2009, President Obama hailed Reagan and created a panel to honor his 100th birthday.
It may take years before a mainstream politician or journalist dares speak truthfully about the grievous harm Reagan inflicted on the American Republic and people of Planet Earth.
[For more, see Robert Parry’s Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth’ are also available.
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