June 9, 2004

June 9, 2004 | Commentary on

The young American

Hard as it is to say goodbye to a beloved president, the celebration of the life of Ronald Wilson Reagan, taking place in the days after his death on June 5, has been overwhelming. Ronald Reagan is remembered not just a great leader, but also as a truly gentle spirit as well, someone cared deeply about the people he was elected to serve.

Asked by a reporter prior to his election in 1980 about he thought Americans would vote for him, Reagan said, "Would you laugh if I told you that I think, maybe, they see themselves, and that I am one of them? I've never been able to detach myself or think that I, somehow, am apart from them." He was right. Americans elected him in landslide elections.

In many ways, this is also the strength of our current president, George W. Bush, who in his presidency has faced challenges similar in magnitude and seriousness to those of Ronald Reagan. Both presidents have bedeviled pollsters and the Eastern liberal media, men of faith and principles. Speaking directly to the American people has been their most important asset, Reagan hailing from California, Bush from Texas. And both of course, have benefited greatly from being consistently underestimated by their opponents.

We now contemplate Ronald Reagan's place in history, as the president who led the West to victory in the Cold War. Lady Thatcher stated in a tribute to Reagan after he left office that, "President Reagan has achieved the most difficult of all political tasks: changing attitudes and perceptions about what is possible. From the strong fortress of his convictions, he set out to enlarge freedom the world over at a time when freedom was in retreat."

The question is today whether his legacy continues, and whether it translates into tangible lessons for American foreign policy. There is no doubt it does. Ronald Reagan came to office with one overriding goal in mind, rolling back the advances of the Soviet Union, which he was not content simply to contain but to consign to "the ash heap of history." It was nothing less than a revolutionary thought, after decades when containment had been the U.S. doctrine towards the Soviet Union, and it was deeply moral in its foundation.

Ronald Reagan believed in the rights of people everywhere to be free. He believed in the universality of the values on which this country, which he loved so much, was founded, and this gave his policies and speeches such resonance.

A modest man, who was hailed as the "Great Communicator," Reagan said, "I never thought it was my style or the words I used that made the difference; it was the content. I wasn't a great communicator, but I communicated great things, and they didn't spring full bloom form my brow, they came from the heart of a great nation -- from our experience, our wisdom and our belief in the principles that have guided us."

In the vast scope of the challenges of the war against terrorism and in the belief that democracy is a universal value, Mr. Bush certainly resembles Reagan. If Iraq does become a democratic state - or a version thereof - if reform does ferment in the Middle East, it will be because Mr. Bush refused to give up. This week, at Sea Island, Georgia, Mr. Bush will be discussing exactly vision for the Greater Middle East, including political and economic reform, with leaders from Japan, Russia and Europe. In his steadfastness, Mr. Bush has absorbed the positive lessons of Reagan.

But it is also true that the Bush administration needs to master a greater array of tactics in this war we are engaged in. Ronald Reagan knew you had to negotiate from a position of strength and won the Cold War without firing a shot. He sometimes chose bold tactics, as in the deployment of the U.S. Intermediate Nuclear Forces in Europe in the early 1980s and in the conception of the Strategic Defense Initiative. But he also preferred to support indigenous opposition forces in the fight against communism, in places like Afghanistan, Angola, and Nicaragua. And he boosted greatly the effort to "win hearts and minds" abroad, through the U.S. Information Agency, something the Bush administration needs badly to work on.

The real point is that, whatever the tactics, Reagan never swerved from his strategic goal. The year he departed office, Reagan had the joy of seeing the Berlin Wall come down, and soon after the Soviet Union itself. For that, he earned great honor and our profound gratitude.

Helle Dale is director of Foreign Policy and Defense Studies at the Heritage Foundation. E-mail: helle.dale@heritage.org. Her column ordinarily appears on Wednesdays.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in The Washington Times