Wilkerson and Parry on Reagan Centennial: Many of today’s catastrophes traced to Reagan’s presidency
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. On February 6, the United States and many parts of the world will celebrate the hundredth anniversary of Ronald Reagan, the champion and victor, we are told, of the Cold War. Now joining us to talk about Reagan and his foreign policy is Larry Wilkerson. Larry is a retired Army soldier and former chief of staff of Colin Powell. He’s now an adjunct professor at the William and Mary College, where he teaches courses on national security. And also joining us is Bob Parry. Bob is an investigative journalist that broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s. He’s the author of Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, and he directs ConsortiumNews.com. Thanks for joining us.
ROBERT PARRY, INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALIST: Thank you.
JAY: So, Bob, let me read a little quote of something you wrote. “[T]here’s a growing realization that the starting point for many of the catastrophes confronting the United States today can be traced to Reagan’s presidency.” Now, this is not the narrative we are hearing about Ronald Reagan. Why do you say this?
PARRY: Well, basically because it’s true. If you look back at even some of the reports coming out now, there’s always this reference that this problem started 30 years ago. People often don’t make the connection that 30 years ago was also the start of the Reagan presidency. We saw this recently even with the economic financial crisis report, which talks about that problem starting 30 years ago. But in foreign policy, we saw–instead of the narrative being that Reagan won the Cold War, the reality was–and this was perceived by people at the CIA at the time, including people in the analytical division–was that the Cold War was pretty much winding down, it had been pretty much won or prevailed upon by the early ’70s. And this led to the idea of detente that President Nixon and Secretary of State [Henry] Kissinger pushed, and then President Ford. And that idea was that the Cold War had been pretty well resolved in the West’s favor. The Soviets had failed with their economic model, they’d fallen behind in technology, and therefore we could start moving out of that phase. Reagan sort of revived the Cold War. He wanted to insist that the Soviets were much more powerful, they were on the march. So we saw in the early ’80s the beginning of the politicization of the CIA, which is a problem that’s come back to haunt us more recently. And in part that was the idea of taking the analytical division, where you had criminologists who were seeing this problem, Soviet collapse or coming collapse, and they were basically weeded out and replaced by people who would say what the White House wanted, which was that the Soviets were on the march, 10 feet tall, about to take over the world, and requiring a major pushback, more military, a whole more aggressive approach. So that’s what we got with Reagan. And the effects have been pretty much disastrous as we go forward. In part, we spent much too much money on building up a military when the threat was declining. Secondly, some of the policies, like going into Afghanistan and supporting the mujahideen against the Soviet forces there, led to the growth of Islamic fundamentalism.
JAY: Now, to be fair, on Afghanistan the policy really begins with Carter and [Zbigniew] Brzezinski.
PARRY: Correct. The first stages of it do begin with Brzezinski pushing the sort of Cold War approach on Afghanistan under Carter. But it gets escalated far–by many times when Reagan comes in.
JAY: Well, let me bring Larry in. The basic headline “Reagan is the winner of the Cold War” is not a deserved mantle and was actually more a rationale for an expansion of projecting US military power.
LAWRENCE WILKERSON, FMR. CHIEF OF STAFF TO COLIN POWELL: I think in the American mind the president who’s president when an event occurs usually gets the moniker, whether it’s a disaster or whether it’s a triumph. I think that’s more the reason Ronald Reagan gets that title, if you will, than anything else. I disagree with some of what was just said. For example, Kissinger and Nixon were not really convinced that the Soviets were fading from the scene. They were more convinced–and if you read Henry’s [Kissinger’s] memoirs, though they are somewhat misleading, in this sense they’re not. And one of the reasons Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld take great exception to Henry and worked to move him out of Ford’s administration is that he thought US power was in decline. Vietnam had damaged our prestige considerably. We had spent beyond even Keynesian economics of trying to maintain the Great Society and war at the same time. If you want to find a place where our fiscal problems begin, it’s with LBJ, if you don’t take the broad sweep like I do. And here’s my real answer to your question. The broad sweep is that state-building in the post-World War II world was–as Michael Hogan has said quite eloquently in his book A Cross of Iron, which comes from Eisenhower’s ’53 speech, was essentially building a national security state. And building a national security state while attempting to maintain a reasonably well-run democratic federal republic is a real challenge, especially if you have people, like was just suggested, bringing threats up to a level that causes spending to go off the charts.
JAY: Well, isn’t this part of what Bob’s argument–I guess I can ask you, Bob–but that this is what was really driving Reagan’s policy, more than a real Soviet threat? It’s more about building this national security state and strengthening and expanding [inaudible]
WILKERSON: Well, it’s true, but it begins with–the greatest increase in American military spending in our history was with Truman. NSC 68 became the bible of the Cold War. Eisenhower was so frightened by it he held the Solarium Project and tried to calm things down a little bit. But we went from about $13 billion–and /noUrs/, Truman’s budget director at the time, trying to convince Truman, and not having to do too much, because Truman was of this mind himself, that $13 billion or $14 billion was too much for the damned Armed Forces. And then all of a sudden NSC 68 gets articulated, we get the Korean War, and we go to about $54 billion to $60 billion, depending on whose figures you look at. I mean, we just lept into the national security state with both feet and both hands, and it’s been that way ever since. And World War II gave us the reasonable way to deal with this for a time, and that was Japan. Japan–people talk about China. China–pfft. China just last year surpassed Japan in buying our debt. There was this deal, you know, that was concocted, and Japan would get its way out of its mess with export-driven economic measures. It did so. We were the principal consumer. We’ve been borrowing from the Japanese and trading them the nuclear umbrella and security in general for 35 years.
JAY: If–I mean, if you don’t think Reagan deserves this moniker as the victor of the Cold War, does he deserve the villain either? I mean, is he just a continuation of US policy, whether it’s Republican or Democrat? Or is there something specific about Reagan?
PARRY: I think he escalated it back up. I mean, Larry’s correct that there was this–there has been this historical buildup in the United States for a national security state in the post-World War II era, going through the Cold War. But there was this period in the ’70s when the American government was beginning to pull back from that and trying to work out various deals with the Soviets on controlling weapons, the various–the SALT treaties and so forth. And this idea of detente, detente was essentially scrapped in 1976 by Ford, because Reagan was challenging him for the Republican nomination, and out of fear that this was costing Ford too much support among the conservative Republicans, Ford banned the word. He also allowed–because of the Reagan pressure, he allowed the so-called “Team B” experiment to go on at the CIA, which was the first real effort by the neoconservatives and the right to pollute the relative integrity of the CIA analytical process, when they came in and they said the Soviets were making a much bigger buildup, when the CIA was saying, no, the Soviet Union military is not growing in that way. So you had that happening back in ’76. By the time Reagan comes in in ’80, the pressure’s enormously placed on the CIA and the analytical division. It was essentially restructured to get rid of some of the criminologists who were pointing to the Soviet decline, which would have meant less need for a military buildup. Reagan wanted the buildup, and so did the people around him. So they were–they essentially politicized the CIA to make it provide the intelligence that the White House wanted. And that was a major change. And if you talk to people like Mel Goodman–I’ve talked to CIA people in not just the analytical side but on the operations side who were saying that they were getting from their best spies in Moscow information about the coming Soviet decline, which was well known inside the Soviet government. But the pretense had to be maintained by Reagan that the Soviets were on the march, they’re about to take Central America, they’re making all these moves around the world, and that the United States needed to respond aggressively. And that’s how he revived the Cold War, even when it was, in the ’70s, on the decline and being phased out.
WILKERSON: No, I don’t disagree with that, but I still say it comes in and takes a snapshot. You know, I can go back to Kermit Roosevelt and the overthrow of Mossaddegh in 1953 in Tehran, I can go to Guatemala in ’54, I can go to any number of operations and–.
JAY: Yeah, but I don’t think the point is that Reagan started something new, but it’s this–
WILKERSON: Did Reagan give new impetus to it? Yes.
JAY: –this idealization of Reagan as a hero. Like, and you get it not just from the Republicans but from the Democrats, this whole narrative of Reagan as one of the great presidents.
WILKERSON: Well, you get it from the Democrats because the Democrats are so weak on national security, so to speak, and Reagan wasn’t, and so they have to find someone that they can claim was, you know, a strong person in this regard for whom they can have some respect.
JAY: But Bob is saying that there’s a specific–like, the quote I read earlier, that a lot of the catastrophes we’re facing now have their origins in Reagan policy.
WILKERSON: In terms of deregulation, in terms of what Cheney did par excellence, turn every regulatory commission in the United States government over to lobbyists or chief executive officers from the industry they were regulating, yes, Reagan started that, no question about it. And–but what I’m saying is I think our fiscal policy in general has roots all the way back in this state-building process that begins when we become the new Rome after World War II. And you can take any president and you can show how he managed those tensions between what we were and what we’ve become fairly well or how he didn’t manage it at all or particularly poorly. I can go after Eisenhower in both regards, but basically positive. I can go after JFK in both regards, but basically positive. I can go after LBJ and be basically negative. I can go after Reagan and be basically negative. I can go after George W. Bush and say the worst administration in American history.
PARRY: But the point I’m just trying to make was that in some cases, for instance with the case of Pakistan, for instance, Pakistan was interested in building a nuclear bomb at this point. Reagan took a position in 1980 during the campaign that nuclear nonproliferation was not a big issue. It was Carter’s issue; it was not Reagan’s. And so when Reagan comes in and he wants to ratchet up the war in Afghanistan as a way to pressure the Soviets on that front, he cuts deals with the Pakistanis, and basically in exchange for them delivering the weapons to the mujahideen, and ultimately people like Osama bin Laden, who was working with the mujahideen coming from Saudi Arabia, the deal is that the US government will look the other way as Pakistan develops its nuclear bomb. And there have been many cases. People in the CIA were purged over this because they were warning that the Pakistanis are moving forward. The White House did not want to hear it. Those people were pushed out and silenced. Pakistan went ahead with getting the nuclear bomb. This was a major national security mistake on the behalf of the United States. The one thing that everybody agrees to today about the situation in that region is that the real national security fear is that the Pakistani nuclear bombs will fall into the wrong hands. And that, I think, people on the left or the right or the center would agree would not be a particularly great thing to happen. And that was allowed to happen because Reagan put the battle with the Soviets in Afghanistan ahead of all other issues. And we’re dealing now with the consequences of that mistake.
JAY: There’s another part to it, too, which is, if Nicaragua and other examples in Latin America–that this exaggeration of the Cold War and the strength of the Soviet Union was kind of a cover for what in fact was a fight against national liberation movements and various attempts of different countries to break free from American control of–start with Latin America. Is that a fair critique?
WILKERSON: You have to go case by case, I think. You have to look at each incident, each–whether you’re talking about Kissinger and Nixon in Chile and [Rene] Schneider and Allende. We may have been complicit in Schneider’s death, the latest scholarship shows. Four weapons were found that the CIA had furnished, and two of the weapons, as I understand it, had serial numbers matching the serial numbers of the weapons that were used to kill Schneider. He was the chief of staff of the Chilean armed forces who refused to obey the CIA instructions to overthrow his government. He wanted to be a good military man. So, I mean, you can take any one of these incidents or time frames and find what he’s talking about and basically be accurate. My only point is it’s much bigger, broader, and deeper, and therefore going to be a hell of a lot more difficult to fix, if we can fix it, than simply saying, let’s don’t have any more Reagans or let’s don’t have anymore LBJs, or even let’s don’t have any more wars, though that’d be my first wish.
JAY: I understand. Tell–given that we are talking about Reagan, I take your point. This–the Reagan presidency was not an anomaly. It’s a systemic–it’s a product of a systemic [inaudible]
WILKERSON: I agree with you that it exacerbated it mightily. It exacerbated the situation on war.
JAY: And it was a very important comeback from Vietnam War, where it was very difficult for the United States to get anything going in terms of projecting military power around the world. Reagan helped reverse a lot of that public opinion.
WILKERSON: I served a man for eight years who told me story after story, vignette after vignette, about how Ronald Reagan resurrected the Armed Forces from their malaise post-Vietnam.
PARRY: I mean, that was very intentional. I mean, also, if you go back over the documents that came out during the Iran-Contra scandal, what you see is that there was an obsession on the part of the Reagan administration to get rid of what they call the “Vietnam syndrome”. And the Vietnam syndrome was their sense that the American people would not support more foreign adventures. And they had to get them back into line there. So there were various strategies used. One was to go after the CIA analytical division and make sure they didn’t provide information that undercut the White House propaganda. They went after the Washington press corps very aggressively to make sure there weren’t too many, you know, Sy Hershes out there that would cause them trouble. They also then began to work the American people back into this idea that war could be kind of fun. It wasn’t a mistake that we started off with something like Grenada, which was an easy war. I happened to be down there with Dick–I was down there with–.
WILKERSON: It started off with a disaster in 1982 and ’83 in Lebanon.
PARRY: Well, okay. But in terms of getting the American public back into this game, it was Grenada, which actually came right after the disaster in Lebanon, partly to cover it up in some ways. But–so you had this idea that war could be fun, it was easy, it was relatively safe. And that led through what we saw later with Bush I, where he began to move the country further into that line with Panama and the first Persian Gulf War, where he–his–first words out of President George H. W. Bush’s mouth after the 100-hour ground war was we kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all. So this was an obsession they had. They also looked at how do you control the press, how do you control the message. And they had people from the CIA, someone like Walter Raymond Jr., a top intelligence officer in terms of propaganda, they put him over at the National Security Council and put him in charge of an interagency task force to figure out: how do you make these things happen? How do you control the perceptions of the American people in this regard? So there was a lot of things that we now have to take sort of for granted, in terms of how the public is manipulated with information, that you can trace back to those early Reagan years. Yes, it wasn’t original to all this, there are aspects of this you can trace back, you know, centuries if you like, but Reagan really made an effort to push that, or at least his people around him did, and they were very effective, and they changed the nature of how the US government deals with its public, where you bring in much more sophisticated propaganda into play, and ultimately getting the public back into line behind the idea of foreign intervention.
WILKERSON: Let me just say one thing. You missed one of the most important things, and this is one of the things that–and this was Nixon, but Reagan certainly loved it–galls me even to this day–is the modern voluntary military, the fact that we abolished conscription–almost abolished the selective service system, but thought better of it and kept it in place, at least. But we have a foreign legion now, and we have a foreign legion whose enlisted ranks, which after all is the predominant number of people in it, are determined primarily by socioeconomic or for socioeconomic reasons. And it makes it–
JAY: Your point being?
WILKERSON: –it makes it so much easier for the president to go to war. And we have a Congress that’s as pusillanimous as the day is long, that Nixon–Nixon, not understanding what was happening, actually vetoed it, and they passed it over his veto. The War Powers Resolution, the public law that implements it now, is an abdication by Congress of its constitutional responsibility vis-a-vis war.
PARRY: But it became also very difficult for people to criticize US foreign policy. You were not just treated as some kind of an honest person trying to, you know, make your country better; you were treated as disloyal. There was the famous line from Jeane Kirkpatrick at the ’84 convention in Dallas, where she says people who criticize the US government blame America first. And that became a refrain: you blame America first. So you weren’t just someone saying, hold it, the US government makes mistakes, we do things wrong, we need to try to fix that; you were some kind–almost a traitor. And so that demonization of people who were becoming critics of some aspects of the foreign policy of the United States were marginalized during this era, and that included people in journalism and in politics.
WILKERSON: So much so that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel became patriotism is the first refuge of a scoundrel.
JAY: Now, you can’t talk about President Reagan foreign policy without talking about Iran, Contragate. Quickly remind people and some of our younger viewers who don’t know the story.
PARRY: Well, I was working on that for the Associated Press, and mostly our focus was on the Contra side. We were looking at Oliver North and his secret operations, which were being lied about by the White House at the time. He was like–.
JAY: Start really quickly from the very beginning for people that don’t know the story.
PARRY: Basically, the Congress of the United States, when it was actually showing a little bit more spine, said that the policy in Nicaragua was something that they could not stand for, which was the idea of overthrowing a government that was recognized by the United Nations and the international community, the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua.
JAY: And what year are we in?
PARRY: This was the early 1980s. The effort by the CIA was to support a group called the Contras who’d been actually organized by the Argentines, but the CIA took them over, in Honduras mostly. And they were starting to attack, engaging in acts considered terrorism by many people, violent attacks on civilians, as a way to sort of destabilize the Nicaraguan government.
JAY: Which was a left-wing government, the Sandinistas.
PARRY: Which was a left-wing government. Right. And which had alliances with Moscow. They were trying to get aid from Moscow. So the US–so the Reagan administration intervened there. Congress said, you can’t do it that way; you can’t try to use violence in supporting an insurgent military force in that way. So they basically banned US assistance to the Contras, military assistance.
JAY: And said, we ain’t going to pay for this.
PARRY: Right. Then Reagan–and this is the beginning also of the return of the imperial presidency, which we saw a lot of under George W. Bush, the idea that the president cannot be constrained by Congress, that his foreign policy can be whatever he wants it to be. What Reagan did is he signed the law saying, okay, we won’t give any aid to the Contras, and then just ignored them. He set up this secret sub rosa operation run by one of his aides, Oliver North from the National Security Council, and they worked with people in the CIA and elsewhere to bring weapons to the Contras fighting the Sandinistas. Now, that paralleled an operation that was also going on in secret, where Reagan was negotiating with the Islamic regime in Iran, providing them weapons for their war with Iraq, supposedly to get them to help out with some American hostages in Lebanon. And some of the profits from those sales, which were mostly going through Israel–not to make this too complicated, but they did their best–but that money, some of the profits were then run back to help the Contras. So when this becomes exposed, finally, in the fall of 1986 and the connection is discovered, it becomes known as the Iran-Contra affair. But what it really was was the assertion by President Reagan and Vice President Bush that they could do what they wanted, that the imperial presidency was back intact, that Article 2 superseded Article 1 of the US Constitution, that under the idea that when–in the case of foreign policy or war, the president has all power. And that was then moved to a higher stage under George W. Bush. But as I say, you can trace that problem, again, back to the Reagan administration.
WILKERSON: And, incidentally, the man who wrote the dissenting opinion to the ultimate ruling on Iran-Contra, the Tower Commission report, the man who wrote the dissenting opinion in that was Dick Cheney.
PARRY: But that was to the congressional report, right?
WILKERSON: Yeah. Yeah.
PARRY: The Tower report was what was done by the White House investigating itself. And then there was a congressional investigation where Dick Cheney was the ranking minority member who handled the–. And his position was, in that minority report to the–
WILKERSON: President’s all-powerful.
PARRY: –was that the president could do what he wanted, and therefore nothing illegal had happened, because the president has all power.
JAY: So if we bring this up to today, where President Reagan in the official narrative is one of the great presidents–and I say, this is quite a bipartisan affair, the talking and eulogizing President Reagan. How much has that got to do with the defense of the imperial presidency?
WILKERSON: I’m not sure “imperial presidency” is a phrase that even registers with anybody but the national security elite and other elites that deal with this sort of thing. It doesn’t register with the American people. If I go out and speak at Charlotte or Houston or someplace, they wouldn’t even know what I was talking about unless I took a few minutes to explain it to them. So I don’t–other than with the elite, I don’t see it.
JAY: But I’m more or less talking the elite. I’m talking whether they use the words–.
WILKERSON: Well, there are a lot of people in this country who think Reagan was a great president, a lot of people. I’d say, probably, if you polled and you did it well, you’d get half, maybe a little more.
JAY: And if you ask young people who weren’t there, they’d probably– I would think a majority think he’s a great president, ’cause that’s the narrative.
WILKERSON: Yeah. I won’t dispute that.
JAY: So what I’m getting at is part of the reason for that is that various presidents, including the current one, don’t mind the kind of power that was accumulated in the presidency the way Bob’s talking about.
WILKERSON: I don’t–I think it would be very difficult to find a human being, especially one who could make it through the electoral process that we have today–you may have read Joseph Ellis in The Washington Post saying our first six presidents wouldn’t even think about running for president today–that takes you all the way through John Quincy Adams, by the way. I can’t imagine that they wouldn’t like it. That’s the reason I said–when Obama was elected I said one of the things I’m going to lament here is that he will not surrender an iota of what George W. Bush re-accumulated for the presidency of the United States in terms of power. Once you’ve got it, you won’t let it go, ’cause you like it.
PARRY: Well, listen, that’s all true. I do agree with that. But I also think that the situation with some of the Democrats is a bit different, in that there’s also the political cowardice that is factored in here. And we saw this in early 2008 when president–when then-senator Obama makes this statement to a newspaper about how much he admired Ronald Reagan for having changed the narrative and so forth. And he–you sense that, oh, wow, he’s really just acknowledging that he had this tremendous impact on the history of the country. But if you actually read his statement, he’s praising Reagan for having brought some kind of accountability to the excesses of the ’60s and ’70s, that–. So he’s doing more than simply acknowledging that Reagan changed the direction of the country; he’s–in many ways was praising what Reagan did. So you have–but I think the reason for that was his desire to sort of position himself as someone who was a different kind of Democrat. And this has been a common factor not just with Democrats but with members of the press, this idea that if we praise Reagan, that’ll show we’re kind of–how centrist we are, how reasonable we are, how bipartisan we are, and it’s become an easy way to sort of punch that ticket. But it’s–I think journalistically and historically it’s a mistake. It allows a false narrative to be established and become part of what people then operate based on. People start making judgements based on what is not a real narrative. The real narrative was that Reagan caused a great deal of harm for this country. And–but I know it’s an easy way to sort of say, well, he was a nice old man, he was very genial, let’s all embrace that. But that’s not the reality. Certainly, I covered Central America a lot, and all the bloodshed that went on not just in Nicaragua but El Salvador and Honduras and Guatemala, where a truth commission–a truth commission in Guatemala, based on US government documents, reported by the late ’90s that during the ’80s there had been a genocide, a genocide against the highland Indians in Guatemala, and that that genocide was not something done a long time ago, that was done under Ronald Reagan, when Reagan was defending people like Rios Montt and other dictators in Guatemala. So this was a very brutal period. And whether Reagan was a genial man and told nice stories is almost beside the point. The reality was quite different.
WILKERSON: And a lot of this–
JAY: Final word?
WILKERSON: –I mean, a lot of this, I have to say, is based on US corporate interests, too. You can’t go into Latin America without encountering US corporate interests–at least–I don’t–put a percentage on it, 10, 15, 20 percent of their problem for the last half-century in terms of resurrecting themselves. And God hope they might be on the brink of another attempt to do that right now. They seem to be moving pretty fast. I hope it sticks. But it’s been us, it’s been our corporate interests that have essentially said, whether the president knew about it or not in terms of the specifics, hey, our banana plantation is going to win, our telecommunications in Cuba are going to win, we’re going to win, we’re going to beat you back. And it’s been that way. I’m sorry to say, but America, the hegemon in the Western Hemisphere, has been very unkind to its neighbors.
JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, both of you. And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
End of Transcript
DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.