When I was a grad student in 1979 I had two friends: Rommel, who was from Nicaragua, and Said, who was from Iran. Even though they were from opposite sides of the world, they had a lot in common: both their countries were torn by revolution and civil war. You could see the mutual understanding in their eyes whenever our group talked about the situation, something the rest of us couldn't really understand.
Those two revolutions, as far as they were from the United States, had a tremendous effect on American politics. The revolution in Iran cost Jimmy Carter his reelection, and the intertwining of Iran and the Nicaraguan counter-revolution that Reagan supported could have cost him his.
In Iran the American-backed dictator, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was overthrown by Islamic revolutionaries. The American embassy was stormed and 50-some hostages were taken. In Nicaragua the American-backed dictator, Anastasio Somoza, was overthrown by the Sandinistas, who eventually established a liberal democracy and held elections after a bitter civil war, funded in part by Reagan.
This history is important because some people's hazy memories of those days are leading them to the wrong conclusions about events in the Middle East, in particular, Libya. A recent column written by Marc Thiessen, a commentator at the Washington Post, tries to explain what a smashing success Reagan's doctrine was:
From his days as deputy CIA director during the Reagan administration, Gates knows there are options for removing a dictator short of sending in "a big American land army." In the 1980s, U.S. policymakers figured out a way to roll back Soviet expansionism without committing American ground forces to every flashpoint around the world. There were motivated people willing to fight their own wars of liberation. They did not want American soldiers to fight for them. They wanted America to provide weapons, training, intelligence and other support so they could fight and win those wars themselves. By providing such assistance, America helped resistance fighters in places such as Nicaragua and Afghanistan liberate their countries. It was called the "Reagan Doctrine," and the time has come to apply it in Libya.
Thiessen's thesis is that we should help the rebels in Libya in the same way that we helped the Taliban in Afghanistan and the right-wing death squads who killed American clergy in Nicaragua.
But a closer examination of the facts -- actually, just remembering what happened -- shows that the Reagan Doctrine caused many of the problems we face today.
When the shah of Iran, who had been installed in the 1950s by the CIA, MI6, and oil companies like BP, was overthrown the American embassy was overrun and hostages were taken. The hostages were held for more than a year, during which there was a presidential election in the United States. The hostage-taking was probably the last nail in the coffin of Jimmy Carter's presidency.
The thing Reagan's campaign feared the most was an "October Surprise," where the hostages would be released during the last phase of the campaign, and the good feeling of their homecoming would give Carter the boost he needed. That never happened.
However, there was an "Inauguration Day Surprise:" the day Reagan assumed office the hostages were freed. Coincidence? Wait and see what happens next...
During 1980 Iran and Iraq went to war. Reagan publicly supported Iraq; the US allowed war materiel to be sent to Saddam. This included chemicals that could be used for manufacturing nerve gas.
In the Iran-Contra affair, as it was known, Oliver North arranged for weapons to be sold to Iran. The proceeds of those arms sales went to finance the Contras, right-wing forces aligned with the former dictator Somoza trying to overthrow the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Congress had passed a law making it illegal to supply arms to the Contras. Ultimately the Contras and their death squads were defeated; Nicaragua remains a democracy, but the Sandinistas have been in and out of power since then. Not from Reagan's secret machinations but because of elections held by the Nicaraguan people.
Was there a quid-pro-quo involved with the arms sales to Iran? Was Reagan paying for the delay of the release of the hostages until Inauguration Day? Many people believed so, and Reagan's CIA chief apparently went to Iran in the months before the election. Did Casey make a deal with the Iranians to release the hostages after the election, to seal a Carter defeat? He's dead, he died of a brain tumor about the time people started asking the question, so we'll never know.
Oliver North went to jail over Iran-Contra, and George Bush pardoned the high-level decision makers before they were convicted, preventing embarrassing details from coming out in court, and exposing the extent of Reagan's and Bush's involvement.
But back to Saddam. Using materiel provided by the US and Europe, Saddam made nerve gas which he used on Iranian troops and Kurdish civilians -- Iraqi citizens. The US Senate passed a resolution condemning Saddam and threatened to cut off all support to Iraq. Reagan vetoed this.
During the Bush presidency Saddam stated that Kuwait was part of Iraq. The American ambassador at the time made a statement to the effect the United States had no position on Iraq's territorial claims. Saddam apparently took this as a green light to invade Kuwait, resulting in the Gulf War.
Now, this has bearing on the other part of the Reagan Doctrine because, during the war in Afghanistan, Reagan funded the Taliban and proto-Al Qaeda against the Soviet occupation. Osama bin Laden was one of the guys we supported in Afghanistan. After the Soviets left, the Taliban turned the place into a misogynistic hell hole and haven for terrorists.
Many people credit Reagan for breaking the Soviet Union, but in reality Mikhail Gorbachov deserves most of the credit. The real reasons the Soviet Union fell were his policy of glasnost and allowing Poland to escape Soviet domination. Previous Soviet regimes had invaded Hungary and Czechoslovakia under similar circumstances. The Soviet Union fell because they finally had a decent man in charge, as much as the dire state of their economy and their corrupt system.
When Saddam attacked Kuwait George Bush assembled a grand coalition against Iraq. The world beat Saddam rather quickly. One thing we did was base our troops in Saudi Arabia, in order to protect that country and improve logistics for the Gulf War. Bush stopped short of deposing Saddam because he knew that Iraq was an important counterweight to Iran (a lesson his son never understood and Cheney soon forgot).
But after the war we kept our bases in Saudi Arabia. This raised the ire of Osama bin Laden, and was the direct cause of the bombings of the embassies in Africa and ultimately 9/11. George W. Bush quietly closed the bases in Saudi Arabia during the Iraq war, finally giving bin Laden exactly what he wanted.
The lesson we can learn from this is pretty simple: all the petty machinations instigated by the Reagan doctrine -- Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran, Nicaragua -- all either backfired and gave us more death and destruction, or were contrary to democracy and peace. George W. Bush tried to extend the Reagan Doctrine with the unilateral invasion of Iraq, using lies and nonexistent threats to justify it. A trillion dollars and thousands of American lives later, can we really say we got a good deal?
We rarely get a good result when we overtly meddle in foreign countries. We used to be a lot more covert about it -- as in Iran in 1953 -- but in this day of CNN, Al Jazeera, Facebook, Twitter and Wikileaks, that's all but impossible.
Sending in "advisors," as Thiessen would have us do, was the first step we took in Viet Nam. If we send such advisors to Libya and they're killed, say by a bombing of their barracks, the way 241 Americans were killed in Lebanon in 1983, what will people like Thiessen demand Obama do? Certainly some kind of retribution, otherwise the world will perceive us as weak.
But what did Reagan do when those marines died in Lebanon? Nothing. We got the hell out of there because we had no business being there. We blamed Iranian-backed terrorists, but never did a thing about it. Perhaps because Reagan was selling missiles to the Iranians on the sly?
We should give the Libyan rebels our moral support, and lobby in the UN for international action. But charging in there on our own, setting up a no-fly zone and sending in advisors and weapons would be a colossal, Reagan/W caliber mistake.
Action against dictators can be taken and can succeed. The ejection of Saddam from Kuwait was a good example, and Clinton's bombing of Serbia -- with NATO's involvement -- deposed Slobodan Milosevic and sent him to the Hague for trial. So unified international action against tyrants is completely reasonable, and that's what we should do. Or even better yet, let the people of those countries do it for themselves, as they have in Tunisia and Egypt.
But any unilateral action taken in Libya without the consent of the Arab world is doomed to failure. Perhaps not in the next year, but most certainly in the next 20 or 30. And that's what we should be concerned about: not that gas might hit $4.00 a gallon next month.