Sunday, September 20, 2009

Reading :: The Reagan Imprint

The Reagan Imprint: Ideas in American Foreign Policy from the Collapse of Communism to the War on Terror
By John Arquilla

As John Arquilla notes, many books have been written that speculate about President Reagan, seemingly open, but in practical terms one of the most private and closed presidents we have ever had. Arquilla does not set out to "crack the carapace of his psyche" (p.9), but rather to examine his strategic thinking based on foreign (not domestic) policy. And in those senses, Arquilla comes up with some surprising answers. He argues that Reagan was in many ways the pivot of presidential foreign policy, a president that has not been appreciated for his strategic insights as well as his strategic successes. "In short," Arquilla argues, "the world would be far more complicated and infinitely more dangerous had Ronald Reagan not risen to the presidency. But he did, making a favorable peace with the Russians just in time to give the United States the running room it needs to cope with a new era of complex problems and grave global challenges" (p.212).

Arquilla is, of course, most concerned with foreign policy strategy in general and military strategy in particular. I've reviewed some of his previous work on this blog, including his recent book on reforming the military to better deal with asymmetric warfare and some of his writings on netwar. In this book, he is most interested in "the Reagan imprint," the lasting influence that Reagan's strategic thinking had on the US military, US strategy, and the conduct of subsequent presidents. Arquilla's assessment is not entirely positive, but it appears thorough and searching to this lay reader.

This portrait of Reagan may be hard for some to take, given a popular perception of Reagan as driven by ideology, Christian apocalyptism, and half-remembered movie plots. But Arquilla builds a case that Reagan was "above all else a strategic thinker" (p.215). Although the entire book builds this case, I'll quote from the book's excellent summary. Arquilla singles out five ways in which "Reagan transformed American grand strategy" (p.215):
  • From containment to rollback: Up to Reagan's election, the US had taken the strategic position of containing Soviet expansion: a reactive, resistant strategy. Reagan elected to "take the initiative away from the Soviets" (p.216) by encouraging those under Soviet control to resist: "helping others help themselves," as Arquilla put it (p.216). Arquilla demonstrates that Reagan's successors (Bush, Clinton, Bush) have in their different ways followed through on these principles by "helping others free themselves" (p.216, my emphasis).

  • From deterrence to defense. Arquilla argues that up to Reagan's term, the Cold War emphasized avoiding war between the US and the USSR at all costs, because it would spiral into nuclear war. That was partially because US forces could not react quickly or forcefully enough to repel an expected Soviet invasion of Europe; war games with this scenario inevitably led to a nuclear conflagration. Reagan reasoned that building conventional forces meant opening a middle ground on which conventional warfare could be fought – making the world safe for conventional warfare, as it were – and thus making nuclear war less likely. Reagan was fond of saying that "a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought," and Arquilla argues forcefully that Reagan's statement was not merely window dressing, it was a core tenet driving his strategy. The other component was, of course, ballistic missile defense (p.217). Arquilla demonstrates that this shift in strategy has influenced each of his successors.

  • From arms racing to arms reduction. "Until Reagan came along," Arquilla argues, "statesmen and strategists generally believed the superpowers were locked into an airtight, inescapable security dilemma" (p.218). Every attempt at defense could be understood as a threat by the other side; the arms race could be slowed through limitation talks such as SALT, but not stopped or reversed. Reagan rejected this dilemma and engaged in arms reduction talks (START) (p.218).

  • From propaganda to public diplomacy. Arquilla emphasizes that Reagan was the first president to use the term "information strategy" – and the first president of the Cold War to actively pursue one. The Great Communicator rejected "the propaganda that had characterized the war of ideas before him," and in contrast, "his strategy consisted of steadily increasing presssure on our adversaries by communicating directly with those people they were oppressing" (p.219).

  • From coercion to constructive engagement. Finally, Arquilla points out the more subtle change that Reagan introduced in our engagement with dictators. Reagan, Arquilla argues, inherited "a diplomatic strategy that, in its emphasis on containment, had come to rely on cultivating friendly despots to help defend areas that might come under threat of Soviet influence or control" (p.220). But the contradiction between US tolerance of dictators and its articulated human rights policy was severe. Reagan's solution was to "buil[d] his constructive engagement concept upon [the idea that some dictators were less odious than others] and added his own flourish about all tyrannies of the mind being weak. Their inherent weakness made it possible for us to think in terms of engaging them diplomatic, for time was always on our side according to this point of view" (p.220). Again, his successors followed this principle.

Lest Arquilla be thought as a Reagan cheerleader here, he also points to the failings in Reagan's strategy, failings that have made us far less able to deal with terrorism.

  • Allowing Pakistan to develop nuclear weapons. This failure arose from Reagan's need to accommodate Pakistan as it helped to support the Afghan muhajadeen against the Soviet incursion. Yet Pakistan's nuclear development led to the rise of the AQ Khan network and North Korean proliferation, as well as the possibility of nuclear weapons being taken by terrorist networks (p.222). Unfortunately, Arquilla adds, Reagan's successors have followed his lead.

  • Turning the concept of waging a war on terror into practical policy initiatives. Here, Arquilla uses "war on terror" to mean addressing asymmetric warfare – something that the US military is not well optimized or prepared to do, since it was shaped by Reagan's Defense Secretary Cap Weinberger to fight conventional wars. Weinberger preferred to take on terrorism using conventional forces. Reagan's Secretary of State George Shultz preferred covert special operations forces – the forces that were used with such success in Afghanistan under George W. Bush's administration. "Had Reagan's choice been to launch an irregular war on terror more than twenty years ago, the odds are that al Qaeda and other networks would not have become the potent threats they are today," Arquilla argues (p.223). Again, Reagan's successors have all followed this path.

  • Reagan's revitalization of the military gave the Pentagon free reign. This "resulted in a reaffirmation of the most traditional views of strategy and warfare at a time when the need to anticipate the rise of irregular adversaries was acute" (p.225). Reagan thus built a military optimized for a type of warfare that is "ever less likely to occur," and his successors have followed suit (p.225). Forces have been too large for their jobs.

Nevertheless, Arquilla makes a compelling case for Reagan's presidency as a transformative one, a presidency that in terms of strategy was driven by ideas rather than ideology. In the main text, Arquilla goes into great detail about how Reagan's actions were essential for spurring the collapse of the Soviet Union, taking on critics who have claimed the USSR would have collapsed even without Reagan's influence; how Reagan introduced essential ideas of informational strategy, drawing on his experience in the media; and other wrinkles. For many of my readers, these arguments will go against long-held assumptions about the Reagan presidency. But Arquilla limits his claims, supports them, and evaluates the results evenhandedly. If you're interested in strategy, in asymmetric warfare, or in informational strategy (the most direct connection to rhetoric), his book is worth a read.

A personal note. Reagan was president until 1988; I graduated from high school in 1987. As a high schooler, I had a surface understanding of the foreign policy challenges at the time, and a somewhat deeper appreciation for Soviet totalitarianism once I read Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago just before my senior year. And like many who grew up in the 1980s, I was pleasantly surprised to make it through high school without being incinerated in a nuclear holocaust. Arquilla's book has given me a better understanding of the challenges we faced during that decade, and a better appreciation of the challenges we face during this current time.

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