Only the ideologically twisted would deny Ronald Reagan his due. He was a wildly successful president, accomplishing a remarkable amount of his agenda.
He entered office in 1980 determined to block advancement for black Americans, to halt the sluggish march towards equality for American women, to make America walk tall again by beating up tiny poverty-stricken nations, to allow insatiable greed and ruthless personal ambition to reap lavish rewards, to fire up the economy through trillions of dollars in defence expenditures, to invite industry to desecrate the environment and to legitimate a morality in which any means justified his ends.
Notwithstanding his unparalleled laziness, ignorance and immersion in fantasy, in all these areas his administration triumphed, a splendid role model for conservatism in the modern world.
The new values were never in question. This was conviction politics. One of the very first acts of the Reagan administration was to cast the only vote against the World Health Organization’s code of ethics on feeding third world babies with instant formula prepared with contaminated water.
The world was Ronald Reagan’s movie set. History will debate his role as the man who ended the Cold War. But as president, death was the Gipper’s co-pilot. Morning in America meant that the United States could aggress around the world at whim, recklessly flouting both American and international law, disdaining such outmoded liberal constraints as honesty, legality, democracy and resolutions of the United Nations. The multi-faceted immorality of the Iran-contra scandal was one direct consequence.
Under him was assembled a team of bellicose conservative cold warriors — CIA director Bill Casey, Oliver North, and an entire semi-secret team of ex-CIA agents, ex-Pentagon officials, fascist Cuban exiles, professional killers and international drug traffickers. State terrorism was the order of the day. The Reaganites organized a succession of secret wars and open attacks on very small nations who paid an appalling price for the unswerving principles of conservatism.
The first target for violent regime change was Nicaragua (population three million), in the process causing unspeakable horror as well to hundreds of thousands of Hondurans, Salvadorans and Guatemalans whose soldiers the Americans trained in the finer points of torture. He then sent the Marines to Lebanon (population three million) to demonstrate that Americans could go wherever they damn well chose; 241 of them died in a widely predicted attack on their barracks. A subsequent CIA plot to assassinate a Muslim leader allegedly linked to the attack didn’t quite work out; it missed its target but caused collateral damage to 280 dead and wounded Lebanese bystanders.
Two days after the Marines were blown up, needing to show that no one pushed the U.S. around, Reagan ordered 7000 U.S. troops to invade Grenada (population 95,000), a Caribbean island about three-quarters the size of PEI. As in Lebanon, CIA intelligence proved somewhat faulty: 19 American soldiers were killed and 115 injured, some by “friendly fire.” For this gallantry and valour, 8,612 U.S. army medals were awarded, some to soldiers who never left the States.
In besieged Angola (population eight million), Bill Casey of the CIA teamed up with the South African apartheid government he so admired and succeeded in making that country, like Nicaragua, a total basket-case, while tens of thousands of Angolans perished miserably. In the Persian Gulf, an American destroyer attacked without provocation or reason a regular commercial Air Iran flight, killing 290 people; no American apology or reparations have ever been offered.
At home too, conservatism worked its magic. Poverty bloomed. Fourteen million more Americans lived below the poverty line when he retired than when he was elected. Almost one in four American children in 1988 lived in poverty. The enforcement of civil rights for blacks in housing, voting, employment and education almost ground to a halt. Serious reactionaries were appointed to courts at every level to entrench the rights of the privileged for generations to come. The President travelled to Bitburg, Germany, to lay a wreath at the grave of SS soldiers who, he explained, were victims of the Nazis “just as surely as the victims of the concentration camps.” He was a great friend of Israel’s extremists and the powerful Jewish-American neoconservative elite adored him.
The old Gipper never lost his faith in Gipperish. Almost his last act in office was to ask Congress to increase the swollen defence budget by another $5 billion and cut the same amount from child nutrition programs and medical insurance for the aged and the poor.
His country loved him. The tributes and tears flow. His truths go marching on.
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