So far May has been a busy month for new saints. The Pope was in Sao Paulo last week where, joined by a million of the faithful, he canonized the first ever Brazilian Saint, Antonio de Santa Ana Galvao (1739-1822). The week before, the 10 declared Republican presidential hopefuls assembled at the Ronald Reagan Library for a debate broadcast to millions. If the evening’s talk in Simi Valley left one central impression, it was the downright elevation of Ronald Reagan to political sainthood. His name was invoked a reported 19 times during the debate.
While it typically takes the Catholic Church centuries to canonize new saints, not so politicians. In the Republican rush to judgment, I found one comment by candidate Rudolph Giuliani especially troubling. When asked about Iran, the current front-runner in the polls asserted: “They [the Iranians holding 52 American Embassy hostages in 1982] looked in Ronald Reagan’s eyes and in two minutes released the hostages.”
Macho may sell well to voters, but history is seldom so simple. In fact, the Carter Administration had previously negotiated the hostages’ release with the so-called Algiers Accords which, among other things, unfroze $8 billion in overseas Iranian assets, indemnified Iran from lawsuits and pledged U.S. non-intervention in Iranian domestic affairs.
Invoking Reagan on the topic of Iran is a minefield, and if Giuliani, or any other candidate for that matter, mentions “Reagan” and “Iran” in the same sentence, history compels discussion of the “Iran-Contra” scandal. On the evening of November 13, 1986, President Reagan took to the airwaves and admitted to the world that his Administration had, in fact, secretly sold arms to Iran to help covertly fund paramilitary squads in Nicaragua. Hard to imagine a bigger setback to our credibility in the Middle East.
Another episode in the Reagan foreign policy may have also weakened the perception of our nation’s resolve in dealing with our adversaries. Reagan inherited from Carter a U.S. peacekeeping force in Beirut. On October 23, 1983, a suicide truck bomber (sound familiar?) stormed into the Marine headquarters and blew up the building, killing 241 U.S. servicemen in what at the time was the worst terrorist attack on U.S. citizens. The Reagan Administration withdrew our troops to offshore the next day, and by April of 1984, the U.S. no longer provided a peacekeeping role in Lebanon.
Rudolph Giuliani may well have concrete solutions to the enormous foreign policy challenges confronting our next president – as front-runner on the Republican side, I certainly hope that is the case. Hiding in the shadow of dumb-downed revisionist Reagan history should not be an option. Reagan’s policies in dealing with Islamic fundamentalists included capitulation (Beirut) and outright duplicity (Iran). Hardly the stuff of saints and probably contributing factors to the mess we are currently confronting.