Ronald Reagan, Warmonger

This article first appeared in the Libertarian Forum, Vol. XVII, Nos. 7–8, July–August, 1983.

The world is in very dangerous waters. The "true" or rhetorical Ronald Reagan, the second Reagan of the conservative "Let Reagan Be Reagan" slogan, has functioned only in the world of rhetoric since the beginning of his misbegotten Administration, or arguably since he embraced the Rockefeller Republicans at the convention of 1980. The rhetorical Reagan, the "Get Big Government Off Our Backs," free market, war-with-Russia stance, has been particularly eclipsed since the end of the first year of his Administration. In economics, quasi-libertarians, monetarists, and supply-siders have been elbowed aside since 1982, and replaced by the same kind of quasi-conservative Keynesians who brought us the Nixon and Ford Administrations. In foreign policy, however, while the war fanatics like Richard Allen and Richard Pipes were booted out after a year, there has recently been a recrudescence of war-hawk domination by a troika of old Reagan buddy Judge William P. Clark, national security adviser whose admitted total ignorance of foreign affairs seems especially to qualify him for a top foreign policy post; Cap Weinberger of Bechtel Corporation and the Defense Department; and neo-conservative hatchet-lady and political scientist Jeane Kirkpatrick, whose contribution to political theory was to distinguish between "good" authoritarian and "bad" totalitarian torture.

The war-hawk troika signaled its accession to power by booting out Thomas Enders (one of the people most responsible for the Vietnam War) and Deane Hinton from their key State Department posts in Central American policy, for the sin of being too dovish and soft-nosed. This was a shock to those knowledgeable in foreign affairs, since it was roughly equivalent to Hitler's firing Goebbels for being soft on the Jewish Question. Clearly, we were in for a lot of trouble. Since the rise of the troika, and the relative eclipse of the "dovish" George Shultz in foreign policy, the following events have occurred as the Reagan Administration heats up the Cold War and marches, step by step, toward World War III.

I. Reagan Breaks the Law

If there is one thing that conservatives are firm about, it is that one must never, ever break the law. No matter how unjust the law, they prate, one must never disobey it; one must only try one's best to get the law changed. But as long as a law is on the books, it must be enforced. And yet Ronnie Reagan has broken at least two laws openly, flagrantly, and defiantly. Even so, no one, least of all conservatives, has called for his Impeachment.

What are these laws? One is the Boland Amendment, in which Congress made illegal any U.S. government attempt to give covert aid to Nicaraguan rebels in order to overthrow, or, as they say these days, "destabilize," the Nicaraguan government. Yet the CIA has been giving massive aid to the Nicaraguan contras, and has even established bases for the contras in neighboring Honduras, setting up the conditions for an escalating war between the two nations. This has been perhaps the most open "covert" operation in history. For many months, the U.S. government has been using the patently lame excuse that the "covert" aid was certainly not designed to overthrow the Nicaraguan government. No, it is only to put some pressure on Nicaragua to stop sending aid to the leftist guerrillas in El Salvador. While this aid might well be there, it has been so elusive, that the best efforts of the U.S. and its satraps to prove Nicaraguan aid have so far been abject failures. Most guerrilla weapons, in the time-honored tradition, have come from the United States, either via capture of government arms or sale by corrupt government officials.

Recently, however, the Reagan Administration has felt so emboldened on the march toward war that it has allowed ultra-hawk Under Secretary of Defense Fred ("the Ick") Ikle to proclaim frankly and boldly that yes indeed the "covert" aid is designed to overthrow the Nicaraguan regime. So why isn't Reagan impeached and Ikle booted out?

The second flagrant defiance of the law was Reagan's refusal to obey the War Powers Act, by which Congress ordered the President to subject the maintenance of U.S. troops abroad to its wishes as soon as these troops become subject to actual hostilities. U.S. Marines have been killed in Beirut, and yet the President stubbornly refused to obey the War Powers Act, and only grudgingly agreed to a compromise when Congress knuckled under and ratified the Marines staying in Lebanon for at least another 18 months. Yet, amidst Congressional appeals and whines for Reagan to please, sir, obey the law, no one, of either party mentioned Impeachment. Since the brief and glorious flurry in 1974, has impeachment once again become unthinkable?

II. Deeper Into Lebanon

U.S. policy in Lebanon is a classic case of sinking deeper and deeper into a quagmire, almost deliberately escalating step-by-step into another Vietnam. We begin, seemingly innocent enough, contributing 1,300 Marines to an international "peacekeeping" force. Amidst all the right-wing jibes at the United Nations, we forget that the major problem with the UN is not its "anti-Americanism" but its being designed as an instrument for "collective security against aggression," i.e. bringing us a state of potentially permanent war in seeking the chimera of permanent peace. The trouble with the UN is that it gets us into situations like a seemingly harmless "peacekeeping" operation.

But how, after all, do soldiers "keep the peace" except through fighting and killing? And so here we are in the midst of a civil war that has raged among literally dozens of groups in Lebanon for decades. What in hell does the United States know or care about the ancient Druse people, for example, and how dare it set itself up as an arbiter of their fortunes? Originally, in Step 1 of the operation, U.S. Marines were only supposed to fire if fired upon. But then a U.S. naval force with 2,000 more men came, and began shelling Druse positions in the Shouf mountains above and south of Beirut. The excuse was that these positions were shelling Marine positions. But soon hostilities escalated further, and it turns out that the U.S. Navy began to shell the Druse not for endangering our Marines but for battling against the Christian Lebanese Army, to which the U.S. is increasingly committed to winning the civil war. I suppose that, in that logic, the Lebanese Christians become surrogate U.S. Marines, worthy of the same protection. And so it goes.

But not only is the United States presuming to intervene ever further in the Lebanese civil war, it is also coming down unerringly on the (long-run) losing side. For a steady fact amidst the confusion of forces is that "Lebanon" is not a true country but an abortion. It was carved out of Syria by French imperialism after World War I, to serve as a French client state. Furthermore, the religious proportional representation imposed since the 1930's used as a basis the census of 1932. In that year pro-French Maronite Christians along with their Christian allies, had a majority of the Lebanese population. But if current demographics, a half-century later, were ever used as a basis for quotas of power in the government, the Muslims would be dominant, since they now form about two-thirds of the population. The essence of the Lebanese struggle is an attempt by a minority of "pro-Western" Maronite Christians to dominate and bully a Muslim majority. In the long run, this system cannot work and will be overthrown, and it is in this cauldron that the United States has decided to make itself the major enemy of Islam in Lebanon. The Lebanese army, much vaunted in the U.S. media, is a Maronite Christian army, and the President of Lebanon, Amin Gemayel, is the leader of the very same Phalangist forces that massacred helpless Palestinian women and children at the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila.

American officials are engaging in a great deal of hand-wringing about their terrible dilemma in Lebanon. If we stay, we might get embroiled deeper and deeper in another Vietnam; but if we leave, the Gemayel government will fall. Tough. It is not a proper function of the United States to prop up dictators all over the world. And to those who think we have "national security" interests in Lebanon (assuming that word can be defined intelligently) it would be nice to hear exactly what they may be.

As for the cease-fire, it is nice to have it, but there have been many cease-fires in Lebanon, and how long does anyone think this one will last? Any more permanent solution is being held up by the insistence of Gemayel, a man whose power depends almost totally on U.S. military might, on conducting negotiations in his own presidential palace.

Americans must ask themselves and their government: Why die for Gemayel? Why die to impose Maronite Christian rule over Muslims? What kind of foreign policy is that? Is such a policy really necessary to protect Maine or Seattle from foreign aggression? If we don't fight the Druse in their ancestral home in the Shouf mountains, will we really have to fight them in the streets of Boston?

III. Deeper into Central America

The Central American morass is not as boldly in the headlines right now as Lebanon, but is fully as dangerous for escalating military conflict. The United States is backing an unpopular and despotic regime in El Salvador, and is building bases in Honduras in order to aid and abet the "contra" invasion of Nicaragua. All of these are inexorably losing propositions, and therefore to keep its wildly interventionist commitments, the U.S. must continue to escalate its forces and its war in Central America.

In El Salvador the much-touted "free elections" are now forgotten, as the guerrillas slowly but surely increase their power in one province after another. In this country ridden by dictatorship and by right-wing paramilitary squads murdering dissenters, government army officers refuse to go out on patrol in guerrilla country (in the words of the old joke, "you can get killed out there!") and stay confined to their base, punctuated occasionally by grand but pointless sweeps throughout the countryside. Weekends they take off to cavort amidst the fleshpots of the capital city. In Nicaragua, in contrast, the army is doing very well and the well-supplied contras are getting nowhere. For one reason, in contrast to the Salvadoran army, the Nicaraguan forces go out habitually in small patrols to encounter the enemy.

And the egregious Fred Ikle proudly proclaims that in Central America "we seek victory for the forces of democracy." These are the same "forces" that expelled the bureau chief of the Associated Press from El Salvador for telling the truth, and that are daily torturing and murdering dissenters from the right-wing dictatorial government.

IV. 007 Hysteria

Fueling all of these war escapades, softening any resistance to them in Congress and the country, adding to pressure for any and all military expenditures, is the hysteria whipped up by Reagan, the right-wing, and the Establishment media over the tragic shooting down of Korean Airliner 007 over Sakhalin island. After milking the maximum amount of propaganda from the failure of the Russians to admit shooting down the plane, or to explain the incident, for eight days, it turned out that the U.S. authorities were also engaged in telling untruths on a massive scale. For one thing, the U.S. finally and grudgingly admitted that the Soviet jet interceptors had indeed fired several warning shots at 007 before shooting it down. This after many days of hopped-up denunciations that the Soviets had neglected to fire any warning shots. Also, it took several days for the U.S. to admit that a U.S. RC-135 spy plane flew near the 007 route and that for some time the paths of the two actually coincided.

There are many unanswered questions and fuzzy areas about 007 – enough, surely, to defuse the hysteria and try to get back – or forward – to a sane approach toward the airliner and toward the Soviets generally.

1. What in hell was KAL 007 doing flying 300 miles off-course for several hours over Soviet airspace? KAL 747's are equipped with three separate, cross-checking, internal navigation systems. The pilot and crew of 007 should have known instantly that they were off course. And why were there no radio communications from 007 until fifteen minutes before it was shot down? The idea of radio failure makes no sense. Not only because they did make contact at long last, but also because 747's are equipped with five separate radios, two of which can reach anywhere in the world. Furthermore, the route flown by 007 is well-travelled; there are planes up there all the time, including another 747 twenty minutes behind that was carrying Senator Jesse Helms. Why didn't 007 contact any of these other planes and check where they were?

Moreover, all Pacific pilots are well aware, and it is marked clearly on their navigational maps, that one does not fly over Soviet airspace without advance clearance, because the planes are likely to be shot down. Why then the insouciance of the 007 pilot? Especially since a civilian KAL airliner was shot down over the Soviet Arctic in 1978? There is one crucial difference, however, between the 1978 incident and that of 1983: the 1978 airliner was a 707, with little of the sophisticated navigational systems of the 747. Its pilot could well have gotten lost; the 007 pilot could not.

Another point: 007 was supposed to report every hour to air controllers on the ground. Why didn't any of the U.S. or Japanese air controllers, also well aware of the dangers of flying over Soviet territory – especially the sensitive military installations in the Kamchatka-Sakhalin area – why didn't they ever notify 007 that it was way off course and to get back pronto?

Specifically, we know that the RC-135, our spy plane, was flying on the course that day to monitor Soviet tests. But our most capable monitor for the Soviet tests is the U.S. Cobra Dane radar at Shemya, at the tip of the Aleutians and only 450 miles from Kamchatka. The Shemya radar would have seen quickly that 007 was off course, and would have tracked it from then on. Why, then, didn't an American official at Shemya immediately pick up a phone, call 007, or call the Japanese controllers at Narita? It is no wonder that the London Sunday Times concluded from its investigation of the 007 incident that "there is now a growing conviction in military, political and aviation circles that Captain Byung was not in Soviet airspace by accident."

2. Was the 007 incursion planned, and, if so why? If KAL pilot Chung Byung was "witting," and the U.S. and Japanese air controllers were perhaps aiding and abetting, what was the point? The suggestion in the media that Chung Byung might have taken this dangerous route deliberately to save money on fuel seems idiotic; surely a hell of a risk to take for saving some gasoline. It is more plausible to look at Korean Air Lines, nearly all of whose pilots are former officers in the South Korean Air Force, and who retain high security clearance. Chung Byung himself was considered one of KAL's best pilots, as witness the fact that he was chosen to be the pilot for several 747 flights of the South Korean president to the U.S. and to various countries in Southeast Asia during 1981 and 1982. The present form of Korean Air Lines originated in 1969; before then, the Korean government was running the company. In that year, the government decided to put KAL into the hands of a private transportation company, the Hanjin Group, headed by two brothers, Cho Chong ("Harry") Hoon and Cho Chong (u2018Charlie Cho") Kun. Most KAL business is manufacturing aircraft for the Korean Air Force, which of course cements the closeness of its ties with the Korean military.

Furthermore, Fred Kaplan reports in the Boston Globe that the two brothers have close ties with the Korean CIA. A former director of Korean affairs at the U.S. State Department told Kaplan that throughout the 1970's Charlie Cho ran money back and forth between the KCIA and Japanese bigwigs. Kaplan was also told that KAL used to run money and spies in and out of Korea and assisted the KCIA in its lucrative drug smuggling.

And where the KCIA is, can the US CIA be far behind?

The Soviet Army newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda claimed, on Sept. 16, that Chung Byung had boasted to intimates that he was carrying out special tasks for U.S. intelligence, that he had placed equipment on 747's to spy on Soviet installations, and that he intended to leave KAL soon because of the high risks entailed in flying for the CIA. This could well be hokum, but it is surely suggestive in light of the evidence.

If the 007 incursion was planned by the KCIA, with or without US connivance, why did they do it? There would appear to be three possible reasons, or some combination of the three: First, the 747 could have been functioning as a spy plane. A former U.S. Air Force intelligence officer remembers being told in 1967, according to Fred Kaplan, that KAL habitually attached side-view cameras to commercial airliners capable of long-distance photography. Newt Royce of the Hearst press reported on September 4 that U.S. intelligence officials admit that civilian airliners are routinely used for spying: Aeroflot for the Russians, and Finnair and others for the U.S. The common counter-argument that the U.S. needs no such photos because of its satellites, runs against the fact that satellites fly at regular times and so can be evaded if necessary, and that photos taken at 30,000 feet can often tell more than, or at least confirm, photos from satellites.

A second, more plausible, reason was to test the quality and speed of Soviet air defenses. What they found should have gladdened their hearts, since they discovered that the Russian military are a bunch of stumblebums. There is a peculiar tendency of right-wingers, from conservatives to conservative libertarians, to look upon the Soviet Union as a mighty, super-efficient, Satanic monolith, omniscient if not omnipotent, and always ready to strike. Yet what is the Soviet Union but a giant, rigidified bureaucracy, and what is bureaucracy but a bunch of confused, ineffective stumblebums? Free market advocates should, after all, be particularly alive to this fact.

And so what we saw in the 007 incident was a Soviet air defense that didn't seem to know what was going on or what to do, that allowed a large, slow, passenger airliner to fly for two-and-a-half hours over sensitive Soviet airspace without interception, that took all of thirty minutes to get the interceptor jets off the ground. Not only that: three days after 007, several test-fired Russian ICBMs blew up over the same area! With this record, it is very possible that it took Marshal Ogarkov all of eight days to find out what in hell happened over Pacific Siberia that night.

So crummy have Soviet air defenses shown themselves to be that various press reports have U.S. intelligence authorities believing that up till the very end the Soviets were convinced that they were tracking and shooting down not a civilian 747 but an RC-135 spy plane. For one thing, Soviet interceptors may have misidentified the plane because they were always at least 2,000 feet below 007 and therefore could not make out its distinctive silhouette. Furthermore, the Soviets could have been misled by their obsolete radar equipment, and by the fact that Soviet commanders don't trust their pilots with access to radio frequencies with which they could have contacted the Korean airliner. In fact, U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Charles A. Gabriel happily concluded from the 007 incident that the Soviet air defense performance "gives us a little more confidence" in the ability of the U.S. Air Force to penetrate Soviet air space "if necessary." (New York Times, Sept. 18.) Could finding this out have been the point of the whole exercise?

One thing that the U.S. authorities acknowledge they discovered is the tense, nervous state of the Soviet air defenders. The Americans confirmed the Soviet account of nine U.S. military spy plane incursions into Soviet airspace over the Kurile Islands this year. Take frayed nerves, the deep fear that the next U.S. military air incursion might be a nuclear attack, and the Soviet penchant to punish severely any commanders who allow intruding aircraft to escape, and the stage was set for the tragedy of 007.

A third possible reason for the incursion, less plausible than the others but which should not be dismissed out of hand, is that 007 was a right-wing US/South Korean intrigue designed to provoke the Soviets into doing precisely what they did – thus heating up the Cold War and ending any possibility of dtente for a long time to come. There are various other conspiracy theories about 007 that can be dismissed tout court. One is the Bircher theory that the Soviets shot down 007 because they knew that Rep. Larry McDonald (D., Ga.), head of the John Birch Society, was on the plane. It seems to me that in the improbable event that McDonald was No. 1 on a Soviet hit list, they could have assassinated him far more easily in Washington without causing an international airplane incident in which they lose an enormous number of propaganda points. (If I were in the Kremlin and had an Americanski hit list, McDonald would scarcely be high up on it.) Even less plausible is the kooky antipodal conspiracy theory, voiced by Larry Flynt of Hustler fame, that McDonald himself was in on the disaster, along with the CIA, in order to make himself an anti-Communist martyr and heat up the Cold War. Another kooky sub-variant is that 007 was a coordinated plot by the Reagan Administration and the Russians to get rid of McDonald, since the Administration is run by Trilateralists. A hilarious "sub-sub-variant," as noted by the Menckenesque Marxist journalist Alexander Cockburn, "is that the Russians' true target was Scoop Jackson, knowing full well that news of the incident would give him a fatal heart attack." (Village Voice, September 20).

3. What are the Lessons of 007? The alleged lesson pushed by the war hawks, the right-wing, and the Reagan Administration (at least in rhetoric), and following them the bulk of the media, is that the shooting down of 007 was mass murder or even a "massacre," that this "proves" that the Soviet system is evil, and that the Soviets are barbarians and mass murderers who should be treated as such. What being treated as such really means is never fully spelled out. Oddly enough, the policy conclusions never match up to the bitter and sweeping analyses. Thus, a group of orthodox, unreconstructed Randians, centered around Peter Schwartz and his magazine The Intellectual Activist, took the trouble and the enormous expense to take out a full page ad in the New York Sunday Times (Sept. 11). The thrust of the ad was that the Soviet Union should be treated as a "well-armed" neighborhood police force would deal with murderers in their midst. The Randians proceed to spell out what they claim to be the implications of their analogy: specifically the breaking of all diplomatic relations, since one does not engage in "détente" with local murderers. Other right-wingers, pursuing the same logic, have added a call for prohibition of all East-West trade. But these logicians are acting haltingly and bizarrely on the basis of their own logic. For of course this sort of thing – ostracism, refusal to trade or negotiate – is not what neighborhood police do to a murderer. What they do is to apprehend and execute him. Following Randian and other right-wing logic, then, what the United States is supposed to do, right now, is nuke the Soviet Union.

The interesting point is: Why don't the Randians and other right-wingers see that this is their real thrust? Is their grasp on the logic of their own position that weak? In short, are they that dumb? Failing that conclusion, the Randian conservatives can have only two things in mind: either (a) they favor the immediate nuking of the Soviet Union and haven't got the guts to say so, i.e. this is precisely the hidden agenda behind their beating of the war drums; (b) something is holding them back from going all the way in whooping it up for a nuclear holocaust. If so, it would behoove them to examine what that something is, and, if they focused fully on that for a while, they might begin to reconsider their entire war-hawk perspective. Perhaps then the Intellectual Activist, which proudly proclaims its subtitle, "In Defense of Individual Rights," might begin to see that a nuclear holocaust would, to put it mildly, be a massive assault on the individual rights to life of countless millions of innocent Russians and Americans. Perhaps then they will also see that their own irresponsible rhetoric is tantamount to threatening and bringing closer a nuclear confrontation that would slaughter far more innocents than even Communist regimes have managed in ruling their own subjects. In the good old Randian phrase: Randians, "Check your premises!"

The real lessons of 007 are very different, and have gotten very little attention in the media. They can be summed up as follows:

a. Americans Are Very Selective in Their Moral Indignation.

In February 1973, the State of Israel shot down a Libyan commercial airliner over the Sinai Desert, killing 109 persons. Yet no President of the United States got on the air to denounce the "massacre," no media people claimed that this incident demonstrated the "evil nature" of the "barbaric" Israeli system, no one demanded that all trade and diplomatic relations with Israel be cut off, and no Randians took out full-page ads declaiming that Israel should be treated as local police treat mass murderers. Why not?

b. No Superpower Is To Be Trusted With High-Tech Weapons of Mass Destruction.

The major lesson of this incident is that both superpowers are paranoid and trigger-happy, and each has its finger close to the nuclear button expecting momentary assault from the other side. Both sides can unleash enormous destruction within moments. Instead of trying to keep the 007 tragedy from ballooning into a full-blown war crisis, the Reagan administration seized the opportunity to heat up the Cold War, kill all attempts at détente, and intensify arguments for any and all accumulations of nuclear weaponry. For a while, the atmosphere looked very close to the blundering into World War that marked the Guns of August, 1914. The major lesson of the 007 crisis is the desperate need for joint nuclear disarmament of the superpowers, for the permanent elimination of the nuclear button by which the super-States hold the entire human race at risk.

We might as well consider here the agitation for unilateral U.S. nuclear disarmament that has been pushed for the last couple of years by people within the left wing of the Libertarian Party. (The argument over unilateral disarmament transcends Crane Machine–anti Crane Machine boundaries. It is, as it were, trans-Machine. Thus the main advocates have been Sheldon Richman and Leslie Graves Key of the left wing of the Machine, and Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, in the anti-Machine camp. Hummel, in particular, has been an eloquent and knowledgeable spokesman for unilateral disarmament.) My own position is that while I would prefer unilateral disarmament to the monstrous status quo, these are not our only choices. For I vastly prefer mutual nuclear disarmament to unilateral; clearly the people of the world, their rights and liberties, would be far more secure under the former. The unilateralists like to think of their position as more radical than that of us mutualists; but isn't it more radical to have every superState disarm their weapons of mass destruction than only one? In fact, the shoe should be on the other foot: why wouldn't any libertarian strongly prefer mutual to unilateral disarmament? Why are our unilateralists hanging back rather than going all the way?

I remember back in the 1950's and 1960's, when the antinuclear movement was gaining strength in the United States. The all-out pacifists took the peculiar position that they would rather see the U.S. government disarm unilaterally than negotiate an agreement with Russia for joint disarmament, The reason for this odd position was not, of course, that these pacifists were secret Commies, trying to open us up for a Soviet takeover. The reason was that their idea of politics was making a moral statement rather than accomplishing results. A government that disarms unilaterally can be said to be making a purer, more heroic, moral statement than one that persuades other governments to disarm together. By extension, the pacifists themselves were making a purer, more-heroic moral statement than those in the anti-nuke movement who advocated joint nuclear disarmament. I am afraid that something like this is driving our unilateralists, who, in their desire to make purer and more heroic moral statements than anyone else, are losing sight of the fact that mutual disarmament would be a far more libertarian event, a far greater cause of rejoicing by us and by the entire human race, than unilateral disarmament. So why not go for it?

V. Conclusion: Reagan: Rhetoric and Reality

Ronald Reagan was swept into office by the conservative movement, whose leader and spokesman he had become. He made a raft of campaign promises to that movement, each and every one of which he has broken egregiously. He raised income taxes rather than lowered them, he brought us $200 billion deficits rather than balancing the budget, he entrenched fiat money rather than bringing back the gold standard, his budget is the highest absolutely and as percentage of GNP in American history, he has deregulated nothing, he has not abolished the Departments of Education and Energy, etc. The conservative movement has long been animated by three broad concerns: (a) Freeing the economy and Getting Big Government Off Our Back; (b) using government to enforce Judaeo-Christian morality (so-called "social" issues), and (c) engaging in nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Simply listing these concerns reveals that (b) and (c), the theocratic and the war-mongering, contradict the libertarian (a), to put it very mildly. The conservative movement is so constituted that in a tussle between these three, (b) and (c) always win out in their hearts and minds over the free market.

The quintessence of Ronald Reagan is that he is a master in supplying the conservative movement with the rhetoric they want to hear. In all politicians there is a gulf between rhetoric and reality, but in Ronald Reagan that gulf has become a veritable and mighty ocean. There seems to be no contact whatever between Ronnie the rhetorician and Ronnie the maker of policy. In that situation it is hard to know which one is "the real" Reagan. The conservatives, feeling betrayed but lacking any guts for a break with the Administration, persist in asserting (publicly, at any rate) that the rhetorical Reagan is the real one, and that if only his evil pragmatist advisers would "let him," this real Reagan would finally emerge. Hence, the famous right-wing slogan, "Let Reagan Be Reagan." But the problem with that slogan is the "let." What do you mean, "let"? Who picked these evil advisers, and who persists in maintaining them in power? None other than Reagan himself. So in what sense is this visible person not the "real" Reagan?

There are only two solutions to his dilemma, neither one a happy situation for conservatives. Either Reagan is a total cretin, a puppet who gets wheeled out for ceremonial speeches, and who really believes that he is putting conservative policies into effect. Or Reagan is a cynical master politician, keeping the conservatives happy by dishing out their rhetoric and his phony 3×5 card anecdotes, while keeping corporate centrists happy by pursuing the New Deal-Fair Deal-Great Society-Nixon-Ford policies that we have all come to know so well. Either way: Reagan the imbecile or Reagan the cynical manipulator, the situation is hopeless for conservatives, who yet persist in willfully not perceiving this stark reality.

Of the three conservative concerns mentioned above, Reagan has clearly and flatly sold out the free market, and also pretty much for the theocratic social issues. Unfortunately, the anti-Soviet part of the rhetoric is something that Reagan seems to believe in more firmly than the rest of the stuff, so that he has more difficulty abandoning his conservative mass base on this issue than on the others. "Unfortunately," because the more Reagan betrays conservatism on the war front (and on theocracy), the better. The drift toward war, and the ascendancy of the war-hawk troika, are ominous signposts for the future. The only silver lining in the cloud is that, despite the whipped-up hysteria, the Reagan Administration hasn't really done anything to crack down directly on the Russians. (He couldn't retaliate by banning Aeroflot in U.S., since Carter had already locked that into place when the Russians marched into Afghanistan.) His not doing anything concrete has, of course, sent conservatives up the wall, for this is by far their most emotional and most deeply felt of the three broad issues. It is a helluva note when we have to rely, for saving us from nuclear annihilation, on the likes of the Rockefellers, the Trilateralists, the Shultzes, the Kissingers, and all the rest. But that is unfortunately the way things are.

Hopefully, as rhetoric and reality clash and as we weave back and forth in the direction of the Final World War, Ronnie will be booted out in 1984, and we will all be able to leave the question of who or what is the "real" Reagan to shrinks and historians. Ronald Reagan will, then at long last, become supremely irrelevant for our time.

Murray N. Rothbard (1926–1995), the founder of modern libertarianism and the dean of the Austrian School of economics, was the author of The Ethics of Liberty and For a New Liberty and many other books and articles. He was also academic vice president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and the Center for Libertarian Studies, and the editor – with Lew Rockwell – of The Rothbard-Rockwell Report.

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