June 10, 2004
Now, every American politician is going to try say Ronald Reagan's shoes fit him or her the best. But --surprise, surprise -- the man who most easily slips into the late American president's shoes these days is not an American, but an Israeli.
The onslaught of coverage following Ronald Reagan's death is providing plenty of reminders of his successes and his failures.
But what's undeniable is that Reagan demonstrated courage and vision on the one issue of existential gravity: the Soviet Union. The environment and the budget deficit obviously pale next to the specter of nuclear war or Soviet hegemony. Reagan used his insight, intelligence and personal charm to see then-Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev through the peaceful end of a violent system. There were many on the right who disagreed, and many on the left who doubted his motives, but Reagan persevered. Even his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) was, at least in his mind, a step toward cooperation, not confrontation.
In a reappraisal of SDI in the Heritage Foundation's Policy Review, Mark W. Davis notes that Reagan's long-term vision was the removal of the threat of nuclear war, of Mutual Assured Destruction. To do so, he believed in a strong national defense coupled with international defense and diplomacy.
"As a result," Davis writes, "the national defense side of Reagan's plan has been adopted by conservatives, while the more idealistic, global defense portion has been discarded. Extensive attention is given in conservative literature to defending the American continent and close allies. It is hard to find any mention today of Reagan's idea of sharing it with potentially hostile powers."
Many conservatives split with Reagan thinking he was giving away the store, when in reality he was trying to protect the whole neighborhood.
Today, the most phantasmagorical quality of Reagan's plan is not the idea of a international missile shield, but the fact that there was once a Republican president who understood the relationship between American security and international cooperation.
This week, another politician bravely followed Reagan's lead.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the godfather of the settlement movement, pushed a vote through his cabinet that called for the dismantling of Gaza settlements (see story on page 23). The language of the resolution makes the Talmud look like "Dick and Jane," but the aim is clear: by the end of 2005 there will be no Jewish settlers in Gaza. Until now, the 7,500 settlers there -- living in the midst of 1.5 million Palestinians and protected by thousands of Israeli soldiers and millions of Israeli dollars -- has been a needless boot on Israel's throat. Critics like Natan Sharansky say withdrawal gives legitimacy and power to a violent, oppressive and corrupt Palestinian regime -- and former refusenik Sharansky knows something about repressive regimes. But Sharon, at the end of the day, knows the good outweighs the harm, and the harm has been inflicted on both sides daily.
"Israel is not going to allow the Gaza Strip to turn into Hamas-stan," Dr. Dore Gold, a senior advisor to Sharon, told me by phone Wednesday. Gold was quick to point out that evacuation from Gaza should not be seen as a precedent for the West Bank, where Sharon will assert Israel's right to "defensible borders." The failure of Camp David was a clear sign that the Palestinians are not interested in negotiating, he said. "We are taking our destiny into our own hands," Gold said.
It is easy to be cynical about the vote, for the pullout will be slow and full of stumbling blocks. But as Jaffe Center for Strategic Studies analyst Hirsch Goodman pointed out, there is no going back. This week Sharon embarked on nothing short of a revolution. The hardliner saw where the policy was taking Israel, stood up to the enormous forces arrayed against him and earned in the pages of the left-wing Haaretz a comparison to Charles de Gaulle.
"In Israel, as in France, it seems that only the right knows how to handle the far right," columnist Yoel Marcus wrote.
The arguments of Peace Now -- that there is no future in settlement, that occupation does not have a military solution, that Israel's best hope of security lies within smaller borders -- are now the backbone of Sharon's policy.
Like Reagan, the prime minister has had to persuade those to his right that a strong national defense cannot be decoupled from international -- or in this case, bilateral -- security.
If Reagan's leadership helped tear down the Berlin Wall, Sharon's will one day be credited with tearing down a policy that walls Israel off from any hope of security. In is bold. It is right. It is Reaganesque.