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GOP's 2016 Iran Contrarians Comically Embrace Reagan as Role Model

April 13, 2015

Every four years, Republican primary voters are treated to the predictable and pathetic spectacle of GOP presidential candidates claiming to be Ronald Reagan's heir. Left unmentioned is that Reagan's actual record as an abortion rights signing, immigration amnesty backing, tax increasing and Earned Income Tax Credit supporting Republican who tripled the national debt would make The Gipper about as welcome in today's GOP as a bout of chlamydia.
But in the wake of the Iran nuclear agreement announced last week, the 2016 GOP White House hopefuls are climbing on top of each other to proclaim themselves the latest vessel for Reagan's ghost. For example, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who previously pledged to rip up on "Day One" the deal the U.S. negotiated with its closest allies, explained this week that "the best president in my lifetime when it comes to foreign affairs was a guy who was governor of California." That's why, Walker declared, "a lot of people agree...with my sentiment on Iran." Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who in years past claimed that Iran did not represent a threat to the United States, summed up his approach to curbing Tehran's nuclear program this way:

"I believe in applying Reagan's approach to foreign policy to the Iran issue."

If so, Paul and his GOP rivals might want to rethink that talking point, and not just because Reagan at Reykjavik had offered to dismantle the entire American nuclear arsenal and denounced the Israeli raid on Iraq's nuclear reactor at Osirak. After all, while President Obama is not about to "give the Iranians nuclear weapons," President Ronald Reagan sent the mullahs in Tehran a cake, a Bible and U.S. weapons. And even before the Iran-Contra scandal that nearly brought down his presidency, Reagan was humiliated by Iran's Hezbollah proxies in Lebanon and its ally in Syria just prior to retreating in disgrace.
But before he earned the title as the U.S. president who actually negotiated with terrorists, Ronald Reagan's intervention in the Lebanese civil war was a disaster both for American policy in the Middle East and the U.S. armed services sent to implement it. And when Reagan wasn't trying to buy the release of American hostages from Iranian-backed terrorists beginning in 1986, he happily accepted the unlikely help of others in freeing U.S. captives from the Assad regime in Syria.
In October 1983, Hezbollah terrorists detonated truck bombs in the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, killing 241 Americans. As Foreign Policy noted about "Ronald Reagan's Benghazi":

Reagan never retaliated against Hezbollah or their Iranian and Syrian sponsors responsible for the bombings, a position widely endorsed by senior military officials.

Ultimately, Reagan cut and ran in February 1984. But on December 4, 1983, President Reagan ordered carrier-based jets to strike targets in Lebanon after reconnaissance aircraft protecting U.S. peacekeeping forces there were fired on. The raid was a disaster. Syrian anti-aircraft batteries downed two jets, killing one pilot and capturing another.

For Reagan and the U.S. military, it was a case of lessons unlearned. During its June 1982 invasion of Lebanon, Israel launched a devastating series of attacks on Syrian surface-to-air missile (SAM) positions in the Bekaa Valley. When the Syrian Air Force dispatched jets to protect the SAM sites, Israel downed 87 MIGs with no losses of its own. But a year and a half later, American forces weren't so fortunate. On December 4th, 1983, President Reagan ordered carrier-based bombers to attack anti-aircraft sites that had fired on reconnaissance planes protecting the U.S. peacekeeping force in Beirut. The result, as the New York Times recalled in 1989, was a disaster:

The only time the United States sent its bombers over Lebanon, as President Bush was reportedly prepared to do again this week, the mission ended in a fiasco, with two planes shot down and one damaged, one pilot killed and one crewman captured, and little to show for the effort.
The memory of that December 1983 raid, which came only six weeks after 241 American servicemen were killed in the bombing of their barracks in Beirut, remains vivid among senior officers in the Pentagon as they await the outcome of diplomatic efforts to end the current hostage crisis.

In The Reagan Diaries, the Gipper explained how he came to order the ill-fated raid:

That evening received a call from McFarlane that the Syrians had launched an anti-aircraft & ground to air missile against our unarmed reconnaissance planes during one of their routine sweeps of Beirut. Permission was needed from me for a return strike against the guilty batteries. I'd already received a call on this from Cap in Paris. I gave the order. Sunday morning got a call--we had taken out a communications center, some batteries & an ammo dump. Two of our planes (24) had been shot down. One pilot parachuted and had been recovered. The other 2 is the 2nd plane parachuted in hostile zone--we've heard one was machine-gunned but we've also hard both are prisoners. We're trying to get a confirmation & will open negotiations for their return.

That same night, Reagan wrote that he attended a Hanukah ceremony and went to a reception honoring Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Stewart, Elia Kazan, Katherine Dunham and Virgil Thompson at the JFK Center for the Performing Arts. "A posse of our Hollywood friends will be at the W.H. for the reception," President Reagan noted, adding later, "It turned out to be a wonderful evening & a great show."
Just not for the armed forces of the United States.
For his part, President Reagan complained bitterly the day after his catastrophe in the Bekaa Valley:

"Our press & TV are hostile to the point of being pro-Syrian."

As it turned out, negotiations did lead to the return of the captured American airman. But they weren't directed by President Reagan or anyone in his administration. Instead, the surviving U.S. pilot returned home only after the unsanctioned intervention of the Reverend Jesse Jackson. On January 4th, 1984, Reagan had to admit, "You can't quarrel with success." As the AP reported that day:

The United States, said Reagan, was ready to approach the problems of the Middle East "with a renewed spirit."
Reagan also applauded Democratic rival Jesse Jackson for the personal unofficial mission which gained the release of Navy Lt. Robert O. Goodman, Jr...To Jackson, the president said "it is a great day here in Washington. All Americans thank you. There have been a lot of prayers here in Washington. I have been praying for you. I couldn't be happier."

To be sure, Reagan was happier than he would be two years later, when his efforts to secure the release of American hostages held by Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon blew up in his face in the Iran-Contra scandal.
Iran-Contra, as you'll recall, almost laid waste to the Reagan presidency. Desperate to free U.S. hostages held by Iranian proxies in Lebanon, President Reagan provided weapons Tehran badly needed in its long war with Saddam Hussein (who, of course, was backed by the United States). In a clumsy and illegal attempt to skirt U.S. law, the proceeds of those sales were then funneled to the Contras fighting the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. As the New York Times recalled, Reagan's fiasco started with an emissary bearing gifts from the Gipper himself:

A retired Central Intelligence Agency official has confirmed to the Senate Intelligence Committee that on the secret mission to Teheran last May, Robert C. McFarlane and his party carried a Bible with a handwritten verse from President Reagan for Iranian leaders.
According to a person who has read the committee's draft report, the retired C.I.A. official, George W. Cave, an Iran expert who was part of the mission, said the group had 10 falsified passports, believed to be Irish, and a key-shaped cake to symbolize the anticipated ''opening'' to Iran.

As his diaries published in 2005 show, President Ronald Reagan was under no illusions about either the illegality of the scheme or that it constituted anything other than a swap of arms for hostages. On Thursday, December 5, 1985, Reagan wrote in his diary:

N.S.C. briefing--probably Bud's last. Subject was our undercover effort to free our 5 hostages held by terrorists in Lebanon. It is a complex undertaking with only a few of us in on it. I won't even write in the diary what we're up to.

Nevertheless, just two days later the Gipper wrote about that very topic. On Saturday, December 7, Reagan noted in his diary:

Day opened with "Rex" (our new dog) on our bed. I then had a meeting with Don R., Cap W. and Bud M., John P., Geo. Schultz and Mahan of C.I.A. This had to do with the complex plan which could return our 5 hostages & help some officials in Iran who want to turn that country from its present course & on to a better relationship with us. It calls for Israel selling some weapons to Iran. As they are delivered in installments by air our hostages will be released. The weapons will go to the moderate leaders in the army who are essential if there is to be a change to a more stable govt. We then sell Israel replacements for the delivered weapons. None of this is a gift--the Iranians pay cash for the weapons--so does Israel.
George S. Cap and Don are opposed--Cong. has imposed a law that we can't sell Iran weapons or sell any other country weapons for resale to Iran. Geo. also thinks this violates our policy of not paying off terrorists. I claim the weapons are for those who want to change the govt of Iran & no ransom is being pd. for the hostages. No direct sale would be made by us to Iran but we would be replacing the weapons sold by Israel.

In case there was any doubt that Ronald Reagan blessed the delivery of hundreds of advanced anti-tank weapons to Tehran, the President himself removed it with his January 17, 1986 diary entry, "I agreed to sell TOWs to Iran."
The rest, as they say, is history. Or, more accurately, rewritten history. As President Reagan told the American people in a nationally televised address on March 4, 1987:

"A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that's true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not. As the Tower board reported, what began as a strategic opening to Iran deteriorated, in its implementation, into trading arms for hostages."

Of course, the pathetic saga didn't end there. Then Lt. Colonel and now Fox News commentator Oliver North saw his Iran-Contra conviction overturned by an appellate court led by faithful Republican partisan and later Iraq WMD commissioner Laurence Silberman. And in December 1992, outgoing President George H.W. Bush offered Christmas pardons to Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and five other Iran-Contra scandal figures. Among them were John Poindexter and Elliott Abrams, men who eight years later reprised their roles in the administration of George W. Bush. (As it turns out, Abrams--one of the people who brought you the Iraq War--also served as an adviser for Mitt Romney during the 2012 presidential campaign. In that capacity, he argued that Congress should give President Obama an authorization to use force against Iran for a preventive war to destroy Tehran's nuclear program. He is now an adviser to Florida Senator Marco Rubio.)
Ultimately, there is a final irony to Republicans claiming that Ronald Reagan should be the role model for the American approach towards Iran. Echoing Dick Cheney's criticisms of President Obama's supposed weakness on the Iranian nuclear issue, many of the GOP White House wannabes signed the infamous "47 Senators" letter to the leaders in Tehran. But it was then-Congressman Dick Cheney who defended the Reagan administration actions during the Iran-Contra charges as "constitutionally protected exercises of inherent Presidential powers" not to be interfered with by Congress.
In his November 18, 1987 press conference unveiling the minority report on the Iran-Contra scandal, Cheney rejected any notion of wrong-doing by the Reagan administration. "The bottom line, however, is that the mistakes...were just that," Rep. Cheney announced to the nation, "mistakes in judgment, and nothing more."

There was no constitutional crisis, no systematic disrespect for ''the rule of law,'' no grand conspiracy, and no Administration-wide dishonesty or coverup. In fact, the evidence will not support any of the more hysterical conclusions the committees' report tries to reach.

In 1989, the future Defense Secretary and Vice President made it clear that his objection to Capitol Hill butting into the President's constitutional powers to conduct diplomacy applied to every issue and every occupant of the Oval Office. As he put it in an address to the American Enterprise Institute:
[C]ongressional overreaching has systematic policy effects. It is important to be clear at the outset that my argument is about systematic effects, not individual policy disagreements. For example, Congress' efforts to dictate diplomatic bargaining tactics, as well as the efforts by individual members to conduct back channel negotiations on their own, make it extremely difficult for the country to sustain a consistent bargaining posture for an extended time period, whomever the President and whatever the policy. [Emphasis original.]
Of course, now a Democrat sits in the White House, which means that for Republicans, anything goes. That includes sabotaging the foreign policy of the President of the United States, including an international agreement being negotiated by America, the UK, France, Germany, Russia, China and Iran. And with no realistic alternative to either the P5+1 deal or a costly war to completely eliminate the Iranian nuclear program, opponents of the deal casually speak of air strikes that will magically end Tehran's infrastructure within days. This week, Arkansas Senator GOP Tom Cotton, the man whose letter to the Islamic Republic was co-signed by his colleagues Paul, Rubio and Cruz, suggested that "several days [of] air and naval bombing against Iraq's weapons of mass destruction facilities" should do the trick.
Or as Ronald Reagan might have put it, "The bombing begins in five minutes." After all, as Ted Cruz said of him last year:

"Now there is a man who knew how to deal with the Iranians."


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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