Notes From the Margins…

Ronald Reagan: Man of Straw

  • July 05, 2011
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Yesterday’s unveiling of a statue of Ronald Reagan in Grosvenor Square is not so much a tribute to the ‘Special Relationship’ as it is a reminder of the almost total absence of anything resembling a moral compass amongst the political elites on either side of the Atlantic.

There is no other explanation for the posthumous glorification of a rightwing zealot who presided over one of the bloodiest periods of the Cold War.

Reagan came to power at a time when the US was still reeling from the aftershock of defeat in Vietnam, when pro-US regimes had been overthrown in Iran and Nicaragua, and others were threatened with a similar fate in Central America, Africa and the Middle East, and the CIA had been held on a leash as a result of Congressional investigations into its dirty deeds during the 60s and 70s.

In response to these developments, the Reagan administration embarked on a global strategy of ‘rollback’ and ‘proinsurgency’ which aimed at overthrowing incumbent revolutionary governments and preventing new ones from coming to power through covert warfare that was largely concealed from the American public.

This strategy unleashed a campaign of violence, cruelty and slaughter across the world that included the Nicaraguan Contras, Jonas Savimbi in Angola, the US-backed death squad regimes in Central America, the Afghan anti-Soviet jihad, or the ‘constructive engagement’ with South Africa, which enabled the apartheid regime to wage total war against the anti-apartheid ‘frontline states’ while the West ‘engaged’ with it.

Reagan also gave his support to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon that culminated in the Sabra-Shatila massacres. There is also the question of Saddam Hussein, who the US began supporting directly from 1983 onwards to prevent an Iranian victory in the Iran-Iraq war – even as it was channelling weapons to Iran.

The CIA’s covert wars were partly funded with drug profits, from heroin trade in Afghanistan (partly generated by a desire to turn Soviet soldiers into addicts) to cocaine for the Contras (which also turned thousands of Americans into addicts through the crack-cocaine boom of the 1980s).

The Reagan administration presented these efforts as a moral crusade supposedly aimed at eliminating ‘terrorism’ from the world.  But the bombings of Abu Nidal, Lockerbie and the various other terrorist atrocities of the 1980s pale in comparison with the work of the death squads of El Salvador, the maniacal violence unleashed by the Contras in Nicaragua whose targets included peasants, teachers and nurses in rural health clinics; or the massacres carried out in Mozambique by the South African puppet Renamo, one of the most violent and merciless ‘revolutionary’ organizations of the Cold War.

All this was sanctioned and supported by the president who Margaret Thatcher described in absentia yesterday as a “great President and a great man.”

There was nothing great about Reagan.  But his folksy self-deprecating charm was an ideal facade for the mayhem that was perpetrated across the world under the supervision of  Oliver North, William Casey, Dewey Claridge et al.

This was a president whose pre-election team engaged in secret negotiations in Iran which may have kept American hostages even longer in captivity in order to avoid an ‘October Surprise’ that might have derailed Reagan’s electoral chances; whose administration misled Congress and conducted foreign policy via a tiny unaccountable clique of ideological covert warriors; who should have been indicted at the Contragate hearings had it not been for the loyalty of his  subordinates and the unwillingness of the US political establishment to look at the full horror of what had been done.

Of course there are those who think that such behaviour is precisely what constituted Reagan’s ‘greatness’ but that is not what we heard yesterday.

The dominant narrative was summed up by the statue’s erroneous claim that Reagan ‘won the Cold War without firing a shot’.

The Cold War was not won, but lost,  because the fossilised remnants of Stalinism finally imploded, and because of arms reduction initiatives undertaken by Gorbachev that initially took the US by surprise and went entirely against the grain of the remilitarisation programme undertaken by Reagan.

The sleazy and corrupt tributaries of counterterrorism, drug money, and jihadism of the 1980s are also part of Reagan’s legacy, but no one mentioned that either when they talked about how great Reagan was.

Some things, to paraphrase the philosopher Wittgenstein, cannot be said or spoken about.

But one thing Thatcher said yesterday cannot be disputed. With his indefatigable devotion to the interests of the wealthy, and his willingness to embrace even the most ruthless and amoral forms of violence to protect these interests, Reagan really was a “true leader for our times.”

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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