by Jim Lobe
(IPS) WASHINGTON -- As Ronald Reagan's body lay in state beneath the Capitol Rotunda, Washington was seeing an explosion of affection and praise for the 40th U.S. president.
Even liberal Democrats, who fought Reagan tooth and nail during both his governorship of California in the late 1960s and early 1970s and then his presidency from 1981 to 1989, were eulogizing "the Great Communicator" for his supposed warmth, geniality and civility, his optimistic vision of the country -- and even his idealism as a man who allegedly wanted but failed to abolish nuclear weapons from the face of the Earth.
Those purported qualities, of course, stand in stark contrast to those of the current incumbent, George W. Bush, a man whose policies, however, distinctly reflect those of Reagan himself.
The main difference is that the younger Bush, in his pursuit of those policies, has faced different enemies and is seen as more extreme in his tactics.
As noted by political analyst William Rivers Pitt, "virtually every significant problem facing the American people today can be traced back to the policies and people that came from the Reagan administration."
Indeed, Reagan, who died last weekend at 93, largely paved the way for Bush, in part, observers say, because his tenure both weakened moderate Republicans in the party and strengthened right-wing extremists.
One can begin with the fiscal crisis that the United States currently faces. Due in major part to a sharp rise in the U.S. military budget under Bush, the U.S. government now faces the biggest deficit in its history -- $500 billion this year -- with no sign of improvement over the next several years. Of course, in his day, Reagan's own military build-up, justified by the alleged threat posed by the Soviet Union, helped pile up record deficits, although, unlike Bush, he tried to temper them somewhat through a series of tax increases that have been largely forgotten by his followers. As Vice President Dick Cheney reportedly said when Bush was trying to determine how deeply he should cut taxes, "Reagan proved deficits don't matter".
Similarly, Reagan, breaking with the Wall Street Republicanism of the Eisenhower era, fuelled 'class warfare" in the United States, much as Bush appears to be doing today.
"Slashing taxes on the rich, refusing to raise the minimum wage and declaring war on unions by firing air traffic controllers during their 1981 strike, Reagan took aim at the New Deal's proudest creation: a secure and decently paid working class," according to Harold Meyerson of 'The American Prospect' magazine. In this respect, Bush has been a loyal follower who has eliminated the estate tax, provided far-reaching tax relief to corporations, and stacked the National Labor Relations Board and the federal judiciary with political appointees overtly hostile to organized labor.
While both presidents gave strong rhetorical support to civil rights and equality of the races, they both alienated blacks to a degree that has been unprecedented in the post-World War II era.
"Reagan was a polarizing figure in black America," Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP, told the 'Washington Post' Wednesday.
He pointed to Reagan's hostility to affirmative action and his appointments of judges who not only were similarly hostile, but who actively supported "states rights", a code word for curbing the power of the federal government to enforce civil rights laws. Bush has not only opposed affirmative action, but has also favored the appointment of members of the states-rights-oriented Federalist Society.
And on questions of women's rights, Reagan's staunch opposition to abortion and the equal rights amendment to the U.S. Constitution -- positions that were shunned by moderate Republicans -- have become a kind of litmus test for Republicans under Bush, who has moved to expand federal bans on any kind of aid for abortions or reproductive health programs that were originally imposed by Reagan.
In the international arena, Reagan's offhand attitude toward international law and the United Nations anticipated the younger Bush by 20 years. The Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA) mining of harbors in Nicaragua was found by the World Court to be an "unlawful use of force", a judgement which Reagan refused to recognize.
Similarly, when his staunch support for Israel and apartheid South Africa provoked increasing frustration among members of the UN General Assembly, it was one of Bush's chief diplomats at the world body who suggested that the United Nations relocate.
"We will put no impediment in your way and we will be at the dockside bidding you a farewell as you set off into the sunset," said Ambassador Charles Lichenstein, a prominent neo-conservative.
Indeed, Reagan was the first president to empower neo-conservatives in a serious way. It was under his administration that Washington forged a "strategic consensus" with Israel, stopped criticizing Israeli settlements in the occupied territories as "illegal" under international law, and gave the green light and assistance to Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which was fatal for some 15,000 Arabs.
Reagan also created the precedent for "off-the-books" operations by the CIA and other parts of the national-security bureaucracy to carry out covert policies in violation or beyond the scrutiny of Congress, the most famous of which became the 'Iran-contra affair'.
This refers to the effort to circumvent Congressional restrictions on aid to the Nicaraguan 'contras' by covertly selling arms to Iran and using the proceeds to fund the 'contras'. In pursuit of its policies, the Reagan administration also used such techniques as cooking intelligence, press manipulation and disinformation -- such as accusing the Soviet Union of the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II or alleged Soviet clients of using chemical warfare -- "yellow rain" -- that were deployed under Bush's own "parallel government" based in the Pentagon and Cheney's office in the run-up to the Iraq war.
That some of the same individuals were involved in this work and Iran-contra in both administrations is no surprise to insiders.
These methods were all directed against the Soviet Union -- or, as Reagan called it, the "evil empire" -- the inspiration for Bush's "axis of evil" and his frequent references to "evil-doers" who, in his case, are a vague mixture of Islamist extremists and Arab nationalists, rather than communists.
It is of course, highly ironic, that Reagan's CIA director, William Casey, was responsible for enlisting extremists, including Osama bin Laden, from throughout the Muslim world to join the 'jihad' against the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. Reagan's "freedom fighters" have become the new evil.
It is similarly ironic that Reagan's belief in the private sector and "magic of the marketplace", which transformed the policies of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and other development-related institutions, as well as the "Reagan Doctrine" that fueled bloody civil wars in Central America, Africa, and South and South-east Asia, played a key role in the creation of "failed states."
Even the Bush administration now concedes that these failed states have become breeding grounds for terrorists.
Before Reagan left office, many of his views, particularly on foreign policy, had become somewhat more moderate.
This was due to the rise of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev as a self-proclaimed reformer who clearly appealed to Reagan's more optimistic and idealistic side, and to the growing influence of key advisers, notably Secretary of State George Shultz, Treasury Secretary James Baker, and Vice President George H W Bush at the expense of hardliners, a number of whom fell victim to Iran-contra or, in Casey's case, to death.
Whether the realistic drawdown in fighting in Iraq Bush Junior has ordered in recent weeks portends a similar trajectory remains to be seen.
June 9, 2004 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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