A Study in Liberal Weakmindedness

One thing I love about liberals is how they can’t ever seem to make up their mind about whether Ronald Reagan was an ogre or a great man. This week he’s a great man, because lo and behold with regard to Iran Obama is doing exactly what the Gipper did with the Soviet Union!

Take E.J. Dionne’s column yesterday, “Obama: Reaganite on Iran,” which begins thus:

When President Ronald Reagan met Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva in November 1985, he whispered to the Soviet leader: “I bet the hard-liners in both our countries are bleeding when we shake hands.”

I’ve read all the transcripts—including the translations of the Soviet transcripts which are more complete that the State Department transcripts—of every Reagan-Gorbachev summit and one-on-one meeting, as well as most of the secondary literature about the summits, and I’ve never seen this quotation. It might be true, or it might have grown up in some secondary legend, but in any case I wonder about Dionne’s source.

But this misses the point anyway, as Dionne’s astounding revisionist history continues:

Reagan had a point. His inclination to negotiate with the Evil Empire left many of his conservative friends aghast. In an otherwise touchingly affectionate assessment of the 40th president’s tenure, my Washington Post colleague George Will said that Reagan had “accelerated the moral disarmament of the West … by elevating wishful thinking to the status of political philosophy.”

Yes, indeed, conservatives were suspicious of the 1987 INF agreement and later the START Treaty. I asked George Will about that specific comment once, and to his credit he said: “I was wrong. Ronald Reagan knew even more than I thought he did.”

Would that we could say that about Dionne and other liberals straining to bestow a Reaganite mantle on Obama.  Remember one salient fact: Reagan eventually got a deal on his terms—including vigorous on-site weapons inspections that the Soviets had previously refused—by walking away from the table in Reykjavik and hanging tough on his missile defense program. (The Soviets caved on all points within a few months.) Dionne and others conveniently forget that at the time liberals were outraged that Reagan walked away from the table, while conservatives said it was his finest hour. Exactly who was right about that matter at the time? Not Dionne and his pals. Contrary to George Will above, I’ve never heard Dionne or many other liberals admit they were wrong in their contemporaneous judgments about Reagan. (Richard Reeves is the only exception I can think of.)

Dionne tacitly admits this point in another contradictory paragraph in his column:

It’s worth remembering that Reagan’s willingness to bargain with Gorbachev weakened the hard-liners in the Soviet Union, creating the opening for its collapse. And there are parallels between the two-step approaches that both Reagan and Obama took to a problematic foe. The Gipper was very tough at the outset of his presidency, and the Soviet Union realized it could not keep up with American defense spending. Gorbachev came to the table.

Dionne gets the second half of this right—Reagan’s defense buildup and tough stance led the Soviets to recognize that they could not keep up, and that it was in their interest to reach significant arms reduction deals. But again—liberals like Dionne were outraged at Reagan’s arms buildup at the time, and uniformly blasted SDI. And the first half of this paragraph is wrong: it was Reagan’s prolonged stubbornness that weakened Kremlin hardliners: if Reagan had given in on SDI or on-site inspections, as the hardliners demanded Gorbachev get from him at Reykjavik, they would have been strengthened at home. It was precisely because Gorbachev came home empty-handed that he was able to tell his “hard-liners” that the game was up. Transcripts of post-Reykjavik Politburo meetings make this crystal clear.

Why is this relevant? Did John Kerry ever seriously consider walking away from the Vienna talks?  It will be very interesting some day to see if there were any transcripts or detailed notes taken of the negotiating sessions (though as I say, our State Department notes of these kind of meetings are very inadequate).

A related point: if you want to see the full vacuousness of the liberal mind at work, take in Nancy Pelosi’s 20-minute press briefing yesterday courtesy of C-SPAN 2. (Yes, you should make sure you’ve fully digested your latest meal first.) Here, too, Pelosi praises Reagan at Reykjavik for supposedly taking the position the peacenik group Ploughshares wanted him to take, and trying to draw Reaganite parallel to the Iran agreement. Such breathtaking revisionism gives revisionism a bad name, and it is hard to know whether stupidity or disingenuousness accounts for Pelosi, though these explanations are not mutually exclusive.

Among other howlers, after having prattled on about her concern for human rights, Pelosi pushes back at a reporter’s question about why Kerry didn’t get the four Americans that Iran is holding on trumped up charges released as part of the deal. Pelosi squirms a bit and suggests it is a separate issue: “This is a nuclear agreement,” and not a suitable forum for human rights issues.

Once again, if liberals really wanted to follow the Reagan model, they’d recall that at every summit Reagan always passed a list of specific names of political prisoners we wanted released from Soviet jails. Even at Reykjavik, amidst the tense discussions about strategic nuclear warheads, Reagan still did this. Did John Kerry ever press the issue of human rights in general, or the four American in particular, in the Vienna talks? Someone should ask the State Department and the White House this question directly.

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