Barack Obama and all the president’s men have made a few lame attempts to portray the O Force and Ronald Reagan as soul brothers. It’s hard to find anything in common between the socialist-leaning Democrat and the late Republican who remains one of the most heroic anti-government crusaders of all time, but reality rarely gets in the way of political sloganeering. As George Orwell, who became more skeptical of bureaucratic power the longer he lived, wrote, “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful, and murder respectable and to give the appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Chalk up a few Big Brother points for the current White House.
The goal of the Obama administration’s Gipper spin is to try to channel the strong qualities of a brave principled leader who took on the establishment to do what is right. There are a few hitches to this press plot. For instance, President Reagan targeted government power instead of aggrandizing it, and Reagan had the public behind him where Obama doesn’t. However, there is some room for sympathy for the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. After all, what respectable Democratic president in memory could he liken himself to in a positive way? The impeached philanderer Bill Clinton? Jimmy Carter, probably the biggest loser to ever sit in the Oval Office? Lyndon Johnson, mired in the Vietnam war, or an assassinated JFK? Few remember any Democrats before Jack Kennedy, so Barack has no viable modern options for presidential inspiration within his own party. Enter the Reagan reinvention.
The ongoing power struggle in Egypt does offer one case study in which there are superficial similarities between the actions of the 40th and 44th presidents, but conjuring up this ghost from the past isn’t flattering to Mr. Obama. The scene is the early 1980s in the Philippines. Ferdinand Marcos had been president since 1965 and ruled without opposition since declaring martial law and instituting a police state in 1972. Like Egypt, the Philippines was an important strategic lynchpin in a volatile area and had been occupied as a colonial possession in the past. The government in Manila was propped up by Washington to such a degree that Marcos was derisively referred to as “America’s boy,” a somewhat unfair branding given that every Philippine election in the postwar period before him was marked by active CIA involvement, including presidential campaign funding.
A decade of martial law and increasingly brazen official corruption (remember Imelda’s thousands of shoes?) wore down Filipinos. When exiled opposition leader Sen. Benigno (Ninoy) Aquino Jr. - father of current Philippine President Noynoy Aquino - was assassinated at Manila airport trying to return home, the masses hit the streets demanding the ouster of America’s boy like some Egyptians targeted U.S.-backed strongman Hosni Mubarak in recent weeks. Reagan froze. Many dominos had fallen in Southeast Asia, and Marcos was a reliable anti-communist ally. The Gipper refused to take action, not wanting to be seen shamefully throwing a friend overboard as Carter had done to the Shah of Iran.
Competing principles were in play. Reagan was the greatest liberator of the 20th century for taking on communism as evil and defending freedom everywhere. His instinct was to support legitimate democracy movements, but loyalty and realistic political costs had to be part of foreign-policy calculations. In the Cold War, it was risky to gamble stability to back a mob, which many times was no more than agitprop choreographed by underground communist cells. Like today, conflicting messages were leaking out of the State Department and the White House while the world sat on pins and needles wondering what America would do as the scene in the archipelago grew precarious, with tanks facing down protesters. Eventually Reagan’s advisers, led by Secretary of State George Shultz, prevailed on the president that Marcos‘ removal was necessary to avoid massive bloodshed.
There are shades of the early 1980s in today’s scenario in the Middle East. In both cases, there was fear of radicalism spreading across the region, America was criticized as an imperial puppet master, a Washington-backed military regime was tottering, and - ultimately - a U.S. president sacrificed allegiance to an ally amidst an uprising. But that’s where the analogy ends. The historic moments are quite different.
Philippine People Power was a democratic movement supported by the Catholic Church, not an Islamist revolution instigated by the Muslim Brotherhood. The Reagan administration didn’t sanction the Philippine revolt until after it had been joined by Gen. Fidel Ramos, the armed forces chief of staff, and Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile. These leaders - who attended West Point and Harvard respectively - had strong U.S. ties, but equally as important, having the military command on board guaranteed a new government wouldn’t turn in the wrong direction. There is no such guarantee in Cairo. Likewise, there is no real comparison between a bold Reagan and a feckless Mr. Obama.
Brett M. Decker is editorial page editor of The Washington Times and author of “Global Filipino” (Regnery, 2008).
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Brett M. Decker, former Editorial Page Editor for The Washington Times, was an editorial page writer and editor for the Wall Street Journal in Hong Kong, Senior Vice President of the Export-Import Bank, Senior Vice President of Pentagon Federal Credit Union, speechwriter to then-House Majority Whip (later Majority Leader) Tom DeLay and reporter and television producer for the legendary Robert ...
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