Reagan to McCain: No, John, on Libya You Are Wrong

Despite the best efforts of the few remaining loyalists of the Bushioisie, former President George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda” – and, more specifically, its willingness to put U.S. armed forces in harm’s way absent a clear threat to U.S. vital interests – is going the way of the dodo.

This became clear at last week’s GOP presidential debate in New Hampshire, when none of the candidates on stage spoke in universal terms about the felicity of American efforts at nation building. Instead, the assembled candidates took turns challenging the propriety of Barack Obama’s undeclared war in Libya, and raising larger questions about Obama’s support for nation building abroad.

Sadly, some members of the GOP establishment still haven’t gotten the message.

Appearing on Sunday’s “ABC This Week,” Sen. John McCain revealed how shockingly little he knows about the man who reshaped his party – and the world – Ronald Reagan.

“I wonder what Ronald Reagan would be saying today?” asked McCain, challenging what he termed the “isolationism” of leading members of the GOP for daring to question Obama’s Libya engagement.

McCain then went on to answer his own question:

“He would be saying that's not the Republican Party of the 20th century and now the 21st century. That is not the Republican Party that has been willing to stand up for freedom for people for all over the world, whether it be in Grenada, that Ronald Reagan had a quick operation about, or whether it be in our enduring commitment to countering the Soviet Union.”

About which, horse feathers.

Ronald Reagan didn’t send U.S. armed forces to Grenada to “stand up for freedom” for the people of Grenada; he sent U.S. armed forces to Grenada to prevent 800 American medical students on the island from being taken hostage by communist thugs, and to remove the strategic threat posed by the military alliance previously formed between Grenada, the Soviet Union, and Cuba.

The liberation of the 110,000 citizens of Grenada was merely an ancillary benefit – a welcome benefit, most assuredly, but ancillary nonetheless.

The democratically elected government of Grenada had fallen victim to a military coup four years earlier, and the coup leader – Maurice Bishop, leader of the Marxist “New Jewel Movement” – had since entered into secret agreements with the Soviet Union and Cuba. Those agreements included understandings, among others, regarding the building of a 10,000-foot landing strip for a new international airport, capable of handling heavy Soviet bombers.

When Bishop himself was overthrown and executed by his own deputy – an even harder-core Marxist-Leninist – in late October of 1983, Reagan wasted no time in acting to protect American lives and vital strategic interests.

It was not his desire to liberate the subjugated citizens of Grenada that led to U.S. military action, it was his determination to avoid a repeat of the Iranian hostage crisis and to remove a strategic threat posed by that landing strip.

Perhaps, rather than offering his own thoughts on the subject, Sen. McCain could answer his question better by reading the words of Reagan himself, explaining his decision to send U.S. armed forces to Grenada. On the evening of October 27, 1983, just days after U.S. forces landed on the island, the President addressed the nation:

I believe our government has a responsibility to go to the aid of its citizens, if their right to life and liberty is threatened. The nightmare of our hostages in Iran must never be repeated …

We had to assume that several hundred Cubans working on the airport could be military reserves. Well, as it turned out, the number was much larger, and they were a military force. Six hundred of them have been taken prisoner, and we have discovered a complete base with weapons and ammunition stacked almost to the ceiling, enough to supply thousands of terrorists. Grenada, we were told, was a friendly island paradise for tourism. Well, it wasn’t. It was a Soviet-Cuban colony, being readied as a major military bastion to export terror and undermine democracy. We got there just in time.

These words shouldn’t have been surprising to Sen. McCain; Reagan had tipped his hand years earlier. Accepting the Republican nomination for President in Detroit on July 17, 1980, Reagan had this to say about the responsibility of the President and America’s role in the world:

It is the responsibility of the President of the United States, in working for peace, to insure that the safety of our people cannot successfully be threatened by a hostile foreign power. As President, fulfilling that responsibility will be my number one priority.

We are not a warlike people. Quite the opposite. We always seek to live in peace. We resort to force infrequently and with great reluctance – and only after we have determined that it is absolutely necessary.

So we know what Reagan had to say before he became President, and we know what he said in explaining his decision to intervene in Grenada. Could it be possible that he changed his mind after eight years in office – that wisdom gleaned from experience led him to think differently?

Not so. Consider Reagan’s thoughts as expressed in his autobiography, “An American Life:”

 … Our experience in Lebanon led to the adoption by the administration of a set of principles to guide America in the application of military force abroad, and I would recommend it to future Presidents. The policy we adopted included these principles:

1. The United States should not commit its forces to military action overseas unless the cause is vital to our national interest.

2. If the decision is made to commit our forces to combat abroad, it must be done with the clear intent and support needed to win. It should not be a halfway or tentative commitment, and there must be clearly defined and realistic objectives.

3. Before we commit our troops to combat, there must be reasonable assurance that the cause we are fighting for and the actions we take will have the support of the American people and Congress.

4. Even after all these other tests are met, our troops should be committed to combat abroad only as a last resort, when no other choice is available.

So Ronald Reagan's four-part test was simple: First, the cause must be "vital to our national interest;" second, when ordering military action, there must be a clear plan for victory; third, the cause must be supported by the Congress and the American people; fourth, overseas military action should only be used as a last resort.

No one inside the Obama Administration or out has yet made the case that a free Libya is vital to our national interest.

No one inside the Obama Administration or out has yet made the case that there is a clear plan for victory, or even what "victory" entails.

No one inside the Obama Administration or out has yet demonstrated there is public support for this action, and late last week, the House of Representatives rejected a resolution offering just such support.

No one inside the Obama Administration or out has yet shown that this military action is the last resort.

Reagan knew it wasn’t his job to send in U.S. armed forces to overthrow autocratic regimes willy-nilly, just because the people who lived under the boot yearned for freedom; it was his job to safeguard the lives of American citizens and protect U.S. strategic interests. Capturing the strategic high ground, not the moral, was his aim, and his aim was true.

I wish we could say the same for Sen. McCain and his ilk.


An abbreviated version of this piece appeared on Wednesday, June 29, 2011, in Roll Call.




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