By Paul Kengor
“If you were going to approach the Russians with a dove of peace in one hand, you had to have a sword in the other.” – Ronald Reagan
As a Reagan scholar, I’m often asked, “What would Reagan do?” in this or that situation. I’m being asked that question a lot right now because I’ve just published a book on the principles of Reagan conservatism – and because of what’s happening with Vladimir Putin in Ukraine. Thanks to Putin – or maybe thanks to Obama – every interview on my book starts with a question about what Reagan would do with the Ukraine situation.
It’s a crucial question. I’ll address it from three angles.
First off, we need to know that Ronald Reagan engaged in a remarkable campaign of economic warfare against the Soviet Union. This was a multi-layered assault that included an aggressive targeting of Russia’s energy exports, both natural gas and oil, on which Moscow was almost totally reliant for hard currency earnings. This assault included the slowing of the construction of the Siberian gas pipeline, which was an enormous task that Reagan pulled off, despite terrible hostility from Western European allies, including Margaret Thatcher. It also involved a highly sensitive effort to spike Saudi oil production and severely cut the global price of a barrel of oil. This, too, was extremely risky and devastating to the Soviet economy, which needed high oil prices very badly, especially during a cold winter. To quote Yevgenny Novikov of the Soviet Central Committee, “The drop in oil prices was devastating, just devastating. It was a catastrophic event. Tens of billions [in hard currency] were wiped away.”
There are similar actions that President Obama might be able to pursue today to punish Russia or deter future Putin aggression – if he were willing to do so.
Second, Ronald Reagan would not deploy U.S. military force in Ukraine. Reagan used force only rarely, namely in Grenada in 1983 and in an airstrike against Libya in 1986, each of which were outside Soviet territory. In both cases, his use of force was quick and decisive.
We now know that in 1981, his first year in the presidency, Reagan and his closest advisers feared a Soviet invasion of Poland. In my book, “The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism,” I quote at length top Reagan advisers (including the late Cap Weinberger and Bill Clark) who confirm that Reagan at least considered using force in Poland. Such considerations, however, immediately gave way to painful realities. Reagan knew the United States could not counter a Red Army invasion of Poland by going to war against Russian troops.
Instead, Reagan used the pulpit of the presidency to constantly express solidarity with Poland’s freedom fighters, to trumpet their cause, to give them every ounce of moral and rhetorical support that he could muster, to identify with their struggle for freedom and to condemn Soviet and communist aggression there and elsewhere. In so doing, Reagan also upheld America as plainly exceptional, as a Shining City, as a beacon of liberty, as an exemplar of freedom to the “captive peoples” – as the world’s “last best hope.” He upheld America as the polar opposite of Moscow, its dictator and its “evil” system.
This, too, is something that Barack Obama could do. In fact, Obama should have been doing this for the last several years. He should have done so back in June 2009 when people were crying for freedom in the streets of Iran and needed the moral support of America. That Obama did not, and has not, is telling. To speak of and represent America in the way that Reagan did requires believing what Reagan believed.
That brings me to the third point: Ronald Reagan abided by core principles that guided his actions and made him predictable to friends and foes alike. Among the 11 Reagan principles in my book is peace through strength. Despite his hawkish image, crassly exaggerated by liberals who insisted he was building up the military to blow up the world, Reagan built up the military for a different kind of strength. He built up the military so he wouldn’t need to use the military. He built up weapons to deter the Russians and prod them to good rather than bad behavior.
“We will maintain sufficient strength to prevail if need be,” Reagan stated in his January 1981 inaugural, “knowing that if we do so we have the best chance of never having to use that strength.” In an October 1981 speech at Yorktown, he stated: “Military inferiority does not avoid a conflict; it only invites one and then ensures defeat. … We’re rebuilding our defenses so that our sons and daughters never need to be sent to war.”
As for the Russians in particular, Reagan later said: “[W]e had to bargain with them from strength [emphasis original], not weakness. If you were going to approach the Russians with a dove of peace in one hand, you had to have a sword in the other.”
Barack Obama approached Vladimir Putin with a dove in one hand and a bouquet of roses in the other – and with plenty of promised “flexibility” after the 2012 election. Obama showed weakness, not strength.
Reagan understood the Russians. Obama does not. We must elect leaders who understand these things.
Reagan took pride in the fact that the Soviets (and communists generally) didn’t gain “one inch of ground” while he was president. Indeed, they did not. Today, the foes of freedom are gaining ground around the world.
So, what would Reagan do right now? I’ll let readers sort through these thoughts. Obama and his advisers doubtless never read Reagan to begin with, and likely aren’t reading me on Reagan now.
Really, the lesson isn’t what Ronald Reagan would do right now, but what he would have done a lot earlier. The past matters. Past behavior and words and actions by a president matter. Obama blew the past and now deals with a messy future. The overriding lesson about the current situation with Ukraine is that you can’t let things get to this point to begin with.
Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. His latest book is “11 Principles of a Reagan Conservative.” His other books include “The Communist: Frank Marshall Davis, The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mentor” and “The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism.”