Ronald Reagan and Our War Against Terrorism

Andrew E. Busch

October 1, 2001

P>As the nation continues coping with the terrorist attacks of September 11, it is natural that Americans would look to their history for some guidance. In recent times, no president’s foreign policy was more successful than Ronald Reagan’s. At the moment he took office, it was an open question whether the democratic West or the totalitarian East was going to win the Cold War. When Reagan left office eight years later, that question had been answered in favor of freedom.

Is it possible to learn anything from Reagan’s success? The answer is yes. At least six of the principles of Reagan’s foreign policy are relevant to our current crisis:

The best defense is a good offense. Rather than remain in the permanently defensive posture dictated by containment, Reagan put together a policy that took advantage of the West’s strengths and Soviet vulnerabilities to take the fight to the foe. Suddenly it was the communists, not the democracies, who were on the defensive. Terrorists, too, must know that the United States will take the fight to them in their own homes. Terrorists who are running for their lives will find it much more difficult to execute their deadly plans.

Use all the tools at your disposal. The strategic offensive forged by Reagan was multi-faceted, putting pressure on our enemies from a variety of directions. These included economic warfare, psychological warfare (including propaganda), a buildup of U.S. military forces and occasional prudent use of those forces (as in Grenada and Libya), a technological offensive (including the Strategic Defense Initiative), effective diplomacy, and the Reagan Doctrine of giving assistance to third world anti-communist guerrillas. Terrorism is a complex and multi-faceted threat, and it, too, requires a multi-faceted response.

Go to the source. Reagan understood that no policy that left untouched the source of conflict would succeed in the long run. Consequently, his policy was aimed at the downfall of enemy regimes, including ultimately the Soviet dictatorship itself. Today, not just the terrorists, but the regimes that sponsor and nurture them, must be targeted. A U.S. response that leaves intact the Taliban in Afghanistan (and possibly the Hussein regime in Iraq) cannot be considered a success. Terrorists can exist in many countries, but they can only develop a worldwide network, train fighters, and cultivate large-scale conspiracies if they enjoy a safe haven. Those havens must be brought down.

Remember that we have friends in every land. In large measure, Reagan fashioned his Cold War counter-offensive around a recognition that tyranny, while the norm in human history, nevertheless violates the natural God-given rights of human beings and invariably provokes resentment among its victims. He hence understood that among the peoples of the Soviet Union and its satellites were counted many friends of the United States and of freedom who could be mobilized against their oppressors. Likewise, good policy can put the Afghan people on our side against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

Our allies are important, but we must do what needs to be done even if our allies lose their nerve. Reagan never forgot whose president he was, or whose safety was his responsibility. On several occasions—including the invasion of Grenada, the bombing of Libya, and the interception of an Egyptian aircraft carrying a notorious terrorist&#151he brushed aside the objections of allies to act decisively in the defense of the United States. In our present crisis, as well, coalition building must not gain precedence over pursuit of our objective. We must make it abundantly clear that the United States neither seeks nor requires the permission of others to prosecute effectively a war of self-defense.

In a long and difficult struggle, psychological combat is at least as important as real combat. Reagan provided leadership for the nation through his rhetoric, and by numerous accounts dealt a heavy psychological blow to our adversaries when he began the novel experiment of describing them accurately (remember the "evil empire" speech?). He also insisted on a big increase in U.S. propaganda efforts abroad, offering the world "a season of truth." Now we need radio and television aimed at the Middle East—not the antiseptic, journalistically-correct Voice of America but a Radio Free Europe for our time to combat the poison spread by the Islamic media in the region.

In the first three weeks of the crisis, President Bush has applied many of these lessons. Most importantly, he has indicated that he understands that a multifaceted strategic offensive, undergirded by strong rhetorical appeals to the nation, is necessary. Yet questions remain, most notably whether we will allow our allies a veto over the extent and nature of our offensive. As weeks turn into months and perhaps years of struggle, we dare not forget what our fortieth president taught us: above all, as the Romans used to say, fortune favors the brave.

Andrew E. Busch is an Adjunct Fellow of the John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs and an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Denver, where he specializes in American government and politics. Dr. Busch is the author of Ronald Reagan and the Politics of Freedom. He is also the co-author of The Perfect Tie: The True Story of the 2000 Presidential Election.