Amid the near-unanimity of the panegyrics for Ronald Reagan emanating from both the left and the right the few dissenters stand out in their utter wrongheadedness. Christopher Hitchens, the Trotskyite-turned-warmonger, has a reputation to live up to, and his attempted demolition has about it the exhibitionistic aura of his tiresome takedown of Mother Teresa, a subject to which he devoted an entire book. (Now there was a job that really needed doing!) His latest is a screed devoted to exposing “the stupidity of Ronald Reagan,” in which he recalls his utter horror in remembering “what the Reagan years had actually been like.” A list of Reaganesque sins is mercilessly enumerated:
“Ronald Reagan claimed that the Russian language had no word for “freedom.” (The word is “svoboda“; it’s quite well attested in Russian literature.) Ronald Reagan said that intercontinental ballistic missiles (not that there are any non-ballistic missiles a corruption of language that isn’t his fault) could be recalled once launched. Ronald Reagan said that he sought a ‘Star Wars’ defense only in order to share the technology with the tyrants of the U.S.S.R. Ronald Reagan professed to be annoyed when people called it ‘Star Wars,’ even though he had ended his speech on the subject with the lame quip, “May the force be with you.” Ronald Reagan used to alarm his Soviet counterparts by saying that surely they’d both unite against an invasion from Mars. Ronald Reagan used to alarm other constituencies by speaking freely about the “End Times” foreshadowed in the Bible. In the Oval Office, Ronald Reagan told Yitzhak Shamir and Simon Wiesenthal, on two separate occasions, that he himself had assisted personally at the liberation of the Nazi death camps.”
This reads like a bill of indictment drawn up by a ridiculously petty and somewhat batty prosecutor, whose sense of self-importance is so exaggerated that he has elevated his old-maidish quirks to the status of universal principles. Let’s take these on one at a time:
The Russian Question Is it really mandatory for an American President to demonstrate a complete mastery of Russian? Given our current linguistically-challenged chief executive, who speaks incoherently in two languages, I’d be satisfied with a President who speaks American as well as the Gipper did. In any case, Hitchens, the hifalutin’ intellectual, misses what I suspect was Reagan’s larger point that the American concept of “freedom” didn’t exist in Russian political culture, and so the Russians really didn’t have a word for freedom in the distinctively Western, Anglo-Saxon sense of the term.
The Ballistic Missile Question This subdivides into two separate issues, a) The question of what makes a missile “ballistic,” and b) what Reagan meant when he said missiles could be recalled. The first question is easily cleared up by a simple Googling, which brings up a number of very specific definitions, all of which agree on one crucial point: the missile, at some point in its delivery, is unguided, and relies on the laws of ballistics to finally reach its target. As opposed to “a rocket-propelled missile whose path can be controlled during flight either by radio signals or by internal homing devices, ” otherwise known as a guided missile.
Can Smarty-Pants Hitchens be unfamiliar with Google? I always distrust a web writer who fails to utilize links, and Hitchens (who never uses them) embodies two bad traits linking tends to minimize: laziness and dishonesty. I hasten to add that these flaws are by no means confined to writers: the point is that linking is an attempt to validate, in some sense, what would otherwise appear to be an arbitrary assertion. But since Hitchens doesn’t really want to prove anything, except to show, once again, that he is merely a bundle of prejudices, it’s no wonder his Slate pieces are link-less and, certainly in this case, clueless.
As to what Reagan really meant by an offhand remark about “recalling” missiles, one can easily infer a number of reasonable possibilities: one is that he envisioned missiles launched by fighter jets. The jets, once launched on their mission, could be recalled at any time. Another possibility is that he, like the genius Hitchens, might have confused the crucial difference between ballistic and guided missiles.
We all make mistakes: the difference between Reagan and Hitchens is that the former would laughingly acknowledge his error, while the latter (lacking any but the most mordant sense of humor) wouldn’t dream of it. Just as he won’t acknowledge what a disaster the war he worked for and justified has turned out to be. I mean, let’s face it, anyone who, at this late date, is still defending Ahmed Chalabi has got to be well, just the sort of person you’d expect to write a book attacking Mother Teresa. She, after all, gave away everything, and spent her life in service to the poor and downtrodden, while Chalabi the charlatan stole everything he could lay his hands on, retailed lies at high prices, and ruthlessly betrayed his benefactors when the opportunity arose. To the Satanic Hitchens who appears to hate not only all religion, but also the very concept of human benevolence Chalabi is a saint, and Mother Teresa is the villain.
The Star Wars joke In the Hitchensian view of life, all humor that isn’t at someone else’s expense is “lame”: Reagan’s goodnatured Hollywood-ish joke about “Star Wars” is too quintessentially American and downright quaint for Hitchens, the Euro-sophisticate. What really gets his dander up, though, is Reagan’s remark that he would “share the technology with the tyrants of the U.S.S.R.” Hitchens’ neocon radar is here a bit too finely attuned to the possibility that the man who negotiated the surrender of Communism was really intent on appeasing the Kremlin. Hitchens still claims to be a man of the Left, but one wonders how long he can keep this up given that he sounds increasingly like Norman Podhoretz.
The Invasion from Mars Hitchens’ neocon sensibilities are further inflamed by Reagan’s whimsical suggestion that the U.S. and the Soviets might have united against an invasion from Mars. That he is making a big deal about this is, as far as I’m concerned, irrefutable evidence that Hitchens has gone completely around the bend: the man is completely humorless. I guess we’re supposed to welcome the Martians as our “liberators” you know, like the Iraqis were supposed to have welcomed us, at least according to what Hitchens and his friend Chalabi told us.
The “End Times” Question Ronald Reagan isn’t the only Republican President in modern times to invoke the tenets of fundamentalist Christianity to buttress his “born-again” Protestant base. George W. Bush depends almost entirely on the loyalty of the dispensationalist Rapture-believing preachers of apocalypse who mobilize their millions of followers behind the GOP and the War Party. While Hitchens, the militant enemy of all religion, was calling for a crusade to democratize and secularize the Middle East by force, Pat Robertson was calling for a holy war against the “Satanic” Saddam and pointing to the Middle East turmoil as the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. In the War Party the division of labor is such that supposedly antithetical forces can coexist, if not peacefully then certainly productively. It is the classic Marxist strategy known as the “united front”: “March separately, strike together.”
The Wiesenthal-Shamir Rumor Although Hitchens doesn’t bother to mention his source for this odd story, he is here repeating a rumor related by Lou Cannon, in his President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime, who gives a somewhat ambiguous account of the matter:
“Now, they deny, to this day Reagan wrote me a letter, Jim Baker called me. But the fact is you have two highly intelligent people and these two stories occurred five months apart. It took me a long time. It was well after the event when I heard about it and longer than that when I was able to prove it. I think it’s statistically remote that two people who were in totally different meetings would remember these stories. I go back to that because I don’t think that Ronald Reagan was consciously lying when he said those things. I think he was caught up in his story. He actually impressed Shamir, particularly, so deeply that he cared so much about the Holocaust. Now I think Reagan did care about the Holocaust. I think that there’s nobody who’s occupied that office who felt more deeply that the world had abandoned the Jews. He had seen newsreels that’s what he had confused when he was in the what was then the Army Air Corps during World War II, the newsreels of the camps after the Allies had liberated them. That was a living memory to him if you can have a memory of something that you have not experienced.”
Without bothering to cite his source, and quote what Cannon actually says, Hitchens thinks he can get away with making Reagan to be as much of a liar as, say, Ahmed Chalabi. Nor is it clear, from the context, that when Cannon says “they deny it to this day” he isn’t talking about Wiesenthal and Shamir. In any case, Cannon is the only source for this rather implausible story, and one wonders: what is Hitchens’ point? Is he saying that the onset of Alzheimer’s disease hit Reagan a lot earlier than anyone thought, or, alternatively, that he was somehow disrespecting both Wiesenthal and Shamir, and, by implication, the Holocaust?
It’s all rather murky, but the picture clears as Hitchens goes rather deeper into his Norman Podhoretz riff, berating Reagan because he “ran away from Lebanon" instead of starting an all-out war with the Arab world 20 years ago.
This is really the essence of the grudge Hitchens has against the Gipper, the same resentment that has been nursed by his fellow neocons all these years. Curiously, it is one that is not limited to neoconservative circles, but is shared by at least some on the ostensibly “antiwar” Left.
Writing on his weblog, Greg Palast, a left-wing writer and author of The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, penned a screed entitled: “Killer, Coward, Conman [sic], Good Riddance Ronnie Reagan,” that echoes the neocon “he-cut-and-ran-in-Lebanon” line:
“And when Hezbollah terrorists struck and murdered hundreds of American marines in their sleep in Lebanon, the TV warrior ran away like a whipped dog … then turned around and invaded Grenada. That little Club Med war was a murderous PR stunt so Ronnie could hold parades for gunning down Cubans building an airport.”
So invading Grenada was a crime but bombing the crap out of Beirut wasn’t? Would Palast have preferred a full scale American occupation? He also berates Reagan for being soft on the “maniac mullahs” of Iran: “Begging like a coward cockroach to Khomeini,” is how Palast describes the Iran-Contra affair: “Pleading on bended knee for the release of our hostages.” Palast, the alleged peacenik, seems to have disappeared: in his place is a snarling, ravening dog of war, straining at the leash to take a good bite out of those maniacal Iranians.
This Jekyll-Hyde transformation is hardly surprising to anyone who examines his views more closely: Palast, who opposed the war on the grounds that it was a “war for oil,” thinks we ought to have invaded Saudi Arabia, instead. That certainly wouldn’t be a “war for oil,” now would it?
Good grief, where does the Left find these people .?
The war hysteria of the past three years has had a hideously deforming effect on both sides of the political divide, as factions of the left as well as the right sought to exploit 9/11 for their own purposes. After a while, a certain convergence began to develop, and the Reagan retrospective underscored this new left-right alliance, at least in the realm of foreign policy.
“The invasion was a defining moment for the Reagan presidency, which sought to use the aftermath to push for a comprehensive Middle East peace settlement. As Lebanon’s English-language Daily Star recalled, the 88-day siege of Beirut was particularly bloody: ‘Estimates place the number killed at around 20,000, those wounded at 30,000, while approximately half a million people were made homeless.’ The violence prompted a testy exchange between Reagan and Begin, wrote a commentator in Israel’s Ha’aretz who described Lebanon as ‘a breaking point’ in U.S.-Israeli relations: ‘The bombing of Beirut is a holocaust,’ Reagan told Begin, who responded by saying, ‘Mr. President, I know very well what a holocaust is.'”
Still nursing a grudge over Reagan’s condemnation, neocons of a rightist stripe openly gripe about the Gipper’s stubborn insistence on placing American interests higher than Israel’s: Hitchens, on the other hand who still writes of “us on the left” wants to have it both ways, averring that Reagan first gave his consent (again, without offering any evidence), and only switched when the going got rough.
Palast doesn’t bother with these subtleties: Reagan was a “coward,” a “whipped dog” for “running away” and he’s only just getting started. Palast unleashes such a constant stream of epithets that his piece consists of little else. Hitchens, too, seems to take perverse pleasure in hurling abuse at such a beloved figure, so much so that he might consider contributing to the war effort by applying for a job as an interrogator at Abu Ghraib prison: I hear they have a few openings. Reagan, he writes, was “a cruel and stupid lizard,” and “as dumb as a stump.” Palast’s vitriol, while devoid of Hitchens’ sense of style, elevates the toxicity level considerably: Reagan was a “killer,” a “coward,” and a “con-man.” Nancy, he opines, is “a skull and crossbones prancing around in designer dresses,” and, in his next breath, solemnly intones that her husband was a harbinger of “the New Meanness.”
Both Hitchens and Palast seem perturbed by the hostage deal in large part because it funded some of the Nicaraguan contra groups. Both denounce Reagan’s covert effort to overthrow the Sandinista government as “illegal.” But was it any more illegal than the conquest and occupation oh, wait, I mean liberation of Iraq? Palast blames Reagan for tuberculosis in Nicaragua the economic sanctions, you know and frames Reagan’s death as payback time for the demise of the Sandinista workers’ paradise which was voted out of office, and is today a minority party. Former Sandinista President Daniel Ortega, one of the “revolutionaries” who seized power in 1979 along with a “directorate” of military commanders, had a lot more class than his American cheerleader, writing in La Prensa:
“We don’t celebrate any death, but we must be honest, we will not start saying now that President Reagan respected international law, that he treated Nicaragua well. We’re not going to lie.”
Ortega is right: thousands died in the U.S.-provoked civil war, which allowed the Marxist junta to consolidate its power and move rapidly toward a Cuban-style one-party dictatorship. No, Reagan didn’t treat Nicaragua very well: aside from killing thousands, U.S. intervention enabled the Sandinistas to claim the mantle of Nicaraguan nationalism and kept them in power far longer than they would have lasted without convenient enemies to blame for the inevitable failure of Nicaraguan state socialism.
While it is understandable for two self-described men of the Left to be embittered by the Nicaraguan adventure, rage at Reagan’s failure to take on Hezbollah and reduce Lebanon to rubble seems a mite odd. Stranger yet is that the Hitchens-Palast analysis bears more than a passing resemblance to the views of Condoleezza Rice, who told Ed Bradley on 60 Minutes the other day that the real roots of America’s problematic response to the terrorist threat can be traced back to U.S. policy during the Reagan administration. No, it wasn’t us, we were paying attention to Osama bin Laden and the threat posed by Al Qaeda, said Rice, and we’ve taken out two-thirds of their leadership:
ED BRADLEY: “But here here – here’s what I’m saying. You- you have a 30-month period leading up to 9 /11 in which you have fewer attacks than the 30 months after, is when you had this war.”
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: “Ed, I think that’s the wrong way to look at it, with – with all due respect. I think you have to look back to the ’80s, and most certainly the ’90s, when what was happening was that the terrorist attacks were getting bolder. They were getting more imaginative. They were getting more daring. These attacks were getting bolder and they were getting more daring. And that’s because the terrorists were getting a sense of inevitability of their victory. We were not aggressively going after them. They believed that they were going to win. They saw us cut and run in Somalia. They go all the way back to the fact that the Marines left Beirut after the bombing of the barracks. They believed that if we took – casualties, we would not respond. And what they’ve been surprised by is the fact that this has, this time, been a – a launching of an all-out war on them. And yet, they’re going to continue to try to attack. They’re going to succeed sometimes. But they are going to be defeated.”
In other words: Reagan was a weenie, but George the Conqueror is showing the world what we’re made of. Just you wait and see .
If the present administration had its way, U.S. troops would still be in Somalia. The Marines would never have gotten out of Lebanon, and if the neocons have their way they may yet return. In which case Hitchens, Palast, Condi, and the staff of the American Enterprise Institute can all get together and celebrate the undoing of Reagan’s “cowardly” legacy.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
Assiduous link-followers will note that I link to Palast’s piece as republished on the “Axis of Logic” site, rather than an identical version on his weblog. The reason is because Palast circulated a letter accusing Matt Drudge of launching an “attack” on his website: the attack consisted of Drudge posting a link to Palast’s dumb-ass article so that his vast audience could partake of the full flavor of the author’s asininity. Drudge directed his readers to Palast’s opinions, and, in effect, said “Judge for yourself.” This, says Palast, is an “attack,” although he doesn’t seem to be very clear on why he thinks this is so.
Good grief, if only Drudge would launch a similar “attack” on Antiwar.com! I mean, what does the 31st most popular news website have to do to get a Drudge link diss the dead?
What the technologically-challenged Palast fails to understand is that Drudge was doing him an enormous favor and, in my view, an entirely undeserved one. His server couldn’t handle the traffic, but ours sure could. In any case, that’s why I don’t link directly to Palast’s site after all, I don’t want him accusing me of launching a malicious “attack.”