How Obama can learn from the Soviet downfall under Reagan

Great leadership is grounded on clear values.

March 10, 2015 20:20
4 minute read.
US President Barack Obama

US President Barack Obama. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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In the aftermath of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech before the US Congress last week, President Barack Obama has joined a chorus of Democratic politicians and many media pundits in arguing that the prime minister’s message lacked an alternative to the administration’s pursuit of a deal with Iran. After all, the argument goes, if we don’t strike a deal, the only alternative left is a military option, and America is simply unwilling to consider another war overseas.

Netanyahu’s speech-writers should have anticipated this criticism. Congress and the American public, and indeed all the Western allies, deserve to have a reasonable if not compelling plan to consider if they are to deny Obama the foreign policy accomplishment he so badly seeks through an accommodation with the Iranian leadership.

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Indeed, recent American history has much to offer both leaders if they are seeking alternative ideas to offer the public and the Iranians.

Ronald Reagan came to power in 1980, at the peak of the Soviet’s Brezhnev Doctrine, which had asserted effective Soviet control over Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, South Yemen, Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Nicaragua, Grenada and Afghanistan. By the time he left office in 1988, the USSR was well on its way to collapse, and ceased to exist by 1991. How this happened and why, what policies were deployed by Reagan to speed up its collapse, are important to consider in formulating strategies for today.

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Reagan had a deeply-rooted view toward the USSR. He called it the Evil Empire. This description and many of his polices were derided and mocked by the analysts and commentators of his day. His unwillingness to accommodate Soviet domination of Eastern Europe was called “unrealistic and dangerous” by Strobe Talbott, later to be a Clinton State Department official. The New York Times called Reagan’s plans “simplistic, outrageous, and primitive.”

But Reagan persisted and ignored his many critics. He knew that a combination of severe economic pressure combined with an arms race which would weaken further the USSR’s already anemic economy would eventually tip the scales and force the Soviets to surrender their plans, which is precisely what eventually happened. Reagan dismissed the advice he received urging Soviet “containment.” He aimed for, and achieved, the goal of “rollback.” The missile defense system he deployed was part of an unprecedented $1.5 trillion military buildup.

In the end, it was the twin threats of economic and military pressures which won out and which created the greatest, if still unfulfilled, promise for the rise of democracies the world ever knew.

Today’s Iran is not yesterday’s USSR. While similarities may exist, circumstances obviously differ.

But there is no denying that Iran is a threat to the Middle East, Israel and the West. The recent rapid growth of Tehran’s sphere of influence within the Arab world is alarming and its blatant threats to Israel must be taken seriously. Wishful thinking by our leaders and ungrounded hopes for the mullahs’ self-reform cannot justify the risks by themselves.

Here, then, are some ideas which might be considered a reconstituted version of the Reagan Doctrine and how it may be offered as a “better solution” for today.

• Keep the economic pressure on Iran. The mullahs fear a domestic revolution, as such revolution has repeatedly altered the Iranian political landscape. Sanctions should be kept in place so long as Iran refuses to dismantle its nuclear program. No “sunset provision” should be part of any deal. Despite exporting crude oil, Iran is highly dependent on importing oil products since its own refining capacity is so ineffective and antiquated. This should be added to the mix of pressures put on the table. Additionally, sanctions should be broadened to include the banks that directly finance Iranian trade as well as the financial institutions they trade with.

• Significantly enhance the US naval presence in the Arabian Gulf. Even with the impact of sequestration, military planners can provide important strategic assets to position in the waters through which so much of the world’s oil products flow. This will give a powerful message of a determined US and of our willingness to look after the concerns of our long-standing allies in the region.

• Offer a strong positive message to the Iranian people. The Iranian public generally remains one of the most pro-American populations in the Middle East. Creative US leadership would offer qualified Iranian students generous college scholarships to study in the US and invite Iranian sports teams to tour the US. Seeing how our relative open society works will pay huge dividends when they return home.

At this pivotal juncture of history, the US and the world need effective and creative leadership.

Great leadership is grounded on clear values.

Ronald Reagan laid out his intention to confront and ultimately to defeat Communist Russia when he said in his first inaugural speech, “No weapon in the arsenals of the world is as formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women.” Courage led him to challenge his adversary into submission. His lessons are critically needed today.

Ghanem M. Nuseibeh is originally from a prominent Palestinian family of Jerusalem. He is the founder of London-based Cornerstone Global Associates, a strategic consulting firm. He is currently a Senior Visiting Fellow at King’s College, London.

Eli Epstein is a New York-based businessman with long-standing interests in the Middle East.

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