Bush is No Reagan

Lawrence J. Korb
Lawrence J. Korb

President Bush and many of his advisers revel in comparing his administration's approach to foreign policy to that of President Reagan. For example, his referring to Iran, Iraq and North Korea as the axis of evil in the 2002 State of the Union address is likened to Reagan’s branding of the Soviet Union as the evil empire.

Leaving aside the issue of whether the comparison of Bush to Reagan is apt (having worked for President Reagan I believe it is overblown) if Bush really wants to emulate President Reagan, he ought to follow the former president's approach to handling foreign policy disasters. If Bush can deal with the burgeoning controversy over the specious reasons he gave for going to war in Iraq in the same quick and decisive way Reagan dealt with the terrorist attack on the Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983 and the Iran Contra scandal of 1986, his administration and the country will be better off.

On October 23, 1983, a large truck laden with the explosive equivalent of over 12,000 lbs. of TNT crashed through the perimeter of the Marine compound at Beirut International Airport, penetrated the headquarters building and detonated, destroying the building and killing 241 military personnel. Within two weeks President Reagan appointed and convened a commission to conduct a broad ranging inquiry that not only focused on the attack but also on the mission of the U.S. forces in Lebanon.

By December 20, 1983, less than two months after the attack, the five member commission, headed by retired Admiral Robert Long, and which included a high level official from the Carter administration, issued its report. It criticized the administration and the Department of Defense not only for lack of preparedness for dealing with terrorism but also called into question the mission itself, the rules of engagement for the troops, and the effectiveness of the chain of command. On December 27, 1983 President Reagan held a press conference to address questions on the report and by the first week in February, the President withdrew our forces from Lebanon and the Secretary of Defense had implemented several of the report's recommendations including rebukng the on scene commanders, and their superiors in the chain of command and providing more antiterrorism training. Some two years later, Congress used the Long Report as one of the reasons for passing the Defense Reorganization Act which enhanced the role of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the combat commanders.

The biggest foreign policy disaster of the Reagan administration was the Iran-Contra affair. But here again President Reagan acted promptly. Within 10 days after being informed by the Attorney General, on November 22, 1986, that proceeds from the arms sales to Iran were directed to the Contras in Nicaragua, the president appointed Republican Senator John Tower, former Democratic Senator, presidential candidate and Secretary of State, Edmund Muskie, and Brent Scowcroft, President Ford’s National Security Adviser to investigate the situation.

After interviewing 50 people, including President Reagan several times, and examining all the White House files, including the President's diary, the Tower Commission completed its report in three months. The report which was completed on February 26, 1987, criticized the initiative, the president’s role in it, his own management style and the conduct of several of his top officials including his chief of staff and the director of central intelligence. Within days of issuance of the report, the president named a new chief of staff and Director of Central Intelligence and spoke to the nation acknowledging mistakes and accepting full responsibility.

President Bush, on the other hand wants his commission that will investigate the alleged intelligence failures in Iraq to take a year to report and not just to examine the reasons for the disaster in Iraq but how the intelligence community has dealt with North Korea, Iran and Libya. This is too long and too broad. America's credibility and our national security are in imminent danger because of his handling of the invasion of Iraq. If Reagan could deal with Lebanon and Iran Contra within a few months, surely Bush can do the same on Iraq. If he sets a quick deadline and cooperates fully with the investigators maybe then he can really claim to be the heir of Reagan.

Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a senior adviser to the Center for Defense Information, was Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration.

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times on February 7, 2004. Reprinted with permission.