Like the morning sun rise in the east, it never fails. At every foreign policy fork in the road, conservatives faithfully ask, WWRD--What Would Reagan Do? When President Obama urged U.S. strikes against the Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons in Syria, right-wing politicians and pundits laughably looked to The Gipper for guidance. And with this week's meeting of the United Nations General Assembly and Friday's Obama-Rouhani phone call raising the possibility of a thaw in U.S-Iranian relations, Ronnie's reanimators (for example, here and here) predictably mocked "Obama's tough talk" compared to "Reagan's tough actions."
Unfortunately for his hagiographers, Americans don't have to speculate about what Ronald Reagan would have done about Syria and Iran. We know what he actually did. That is, after his disastrous intervention in the Lebanese civil war resulted in hundreds of U.S. casualties at the hands of Syria and its proxies, President Reagan turned tail and retreated in humiliation. As for the mullahs in Tehran, Ronald Reagan didn't send a message to Iran, but instead a cake, a bible and American weapons.
The Iran-Contra scandal, 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. And 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.
The rest, as they say, is history. After the revelations regarding his trip to Tehran and the Iran-Contra scheme, a disgraced McFarlane attempted suicide. (That would be the same Bud McFarlane whose endorsement Newt Gingrich touted during a reecent GOP debate.) After his initial denials, President Reagan was forced to address the nation on March 4, 1987 and acknowledge he indeed swapped arms for hostages (video here):
"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 sad 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 the President the authorization to use force against Iran for a preventive war to destroy Tehran's nuclear program.)
As for Syria's weapons of mass destruction, Reagan's defenders protested that he used his September 26, 1988 address to the United Nations General Assembly to decry Saddam Hussein's gassing of his own citizens at Halabja. But President Reagan never called for international retaliation against Saddam's weapons programs. His sheepishness over Saddam's WMD wasn't just because "we still have some of the receipts." After Reagan's humiliation by the Syrians and their allies in Lebanon five years earlier, military action was simply no longer an option.
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 Ronald Reagan ordered carrier-based bombers to attack anti-aircraft sites that had fired on reconnaissance planes protecting the U.S. peacekeeping force in Lebanon. 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 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."
Thirty years later, many Republicans are using pretty much the same language to slander Barack Obama and the media. And why not? After all, that's just what Reagan would do.