Unbelievably the crash of Communism in Eastern Europe occurred all of 24 years ago, culminating with the dramatic and less than peaceful overthrow of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, a Dracula-like figure, although lacking the vampire’s panache. After their attempted escape, the bloodsoaked tyrant and his equally culpable wife were quickly tried and executed by a hastily organized people’s court on Christmas Day. Fa-la-la-la indeed.
The Iron Curtain’s fall, followed by the Soviet Union’s collapse two years later, were magnificent works of Providence, one of whose instruments was Ronald Reagan, who almost uniquely understood the earthly vulnerabilities of the 70-year-old totalitarian empire so intrinsically at odds with humanity and God. For this reason, among others, Reagan ranks among the last century’s greatest presidents, and his hymns are justly sung, and not just by conservatives.
But like all great leaders, Reagan too made tragic decisions. Larry Schweikart’s targets Reagan’s “biggest mistake” in his relatively recent book, Seven Events That Made America America: And Proved That the Founding Fathers Were Right All Along. He cites Reagan’s lack of attention to the rise of radical Islam, and his unwitting contributions to it, especially by the failed intervention and withdrawal from Lebanon in 1983. Osama bin Laden would later reference America’s hasty retreat from Beirut after the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks as proof of America’s lack of resolve when confronted by Islamist terror.
Two hundred forty-one U.S. service personnel were killed by an Iranian suicide bomber, making it the most lethal day for U.S. Marines since World War II. Earlier in 1983 a suicide bomber had attacked the U.S. embassy, killing 63. Reagan had dispatched the Marines in facilitate the withdrawal of the Palestine Liberation Organization after Israel’s invasion and in a vain attempt to stabilize war-torn Lebanon. French forces suffered an equivalent disaster minutes afterwards, and their eventual retreat with the U.S. also added to bin Laden’s understanding of Western weakness. In the wake of the attacks, the U.S. insisted there would be no withdrawal. But in fact the U.S. Marines did retreat just a few months later under a barrage of U.S. naval fire aimed at Syrian and pro-Iranian forces in the Lebanese mountains.
Schweikart labels the Lebanon intervention a terrible mistake, although admitting the withdrawal itself was prudent, given the absence of any clear strategic objective for a U.S. military presence. And he notes that Reagan, in his post-presidential memoirs, identified radical Islam’s rise as a looming threat. “I don’t think you can overstate the importance that the rise of Islamic fundamentalism will have on the world in the century ahead,” Reagan wrote, specifically warning of its potential acquisition of nuclear and chemical weapons. But President, Reagan unintentionally fueled radical Islam by arming the anti-Soviet Muslim fighters in Afghanistan and by ultimately secretly shipping arms to Iran to gain release of U.S. hostages held by Iranian proxies in Lebanon. Schweikart also faults Reagan for selling AWACS plans to Saudi Arabia, but the sale, during the Cold War, was the understandable arming of a strategic if highly flawed ally. The same is true for helping insurgents in Afghanistan, whose lethal toll on Soviet forces forced eventual Soviet withdrawal and itself contributed to the collapse of Soviet Communism. But some of the Mujahedeen later would align with the Taliban and al Qaeda. Today’s friends are sometimes tomorrow’s enemies, and vice versa.
Schweikart quotes bin Laden’s remarks in the 1990s about the 1983 Beirut bombing when “Marines fled after two explosions,” and of the U.S. as a “paper tiger” that after a “few blows would run in defeat.” According to Schweikart, there is little reference in Reagan Administration papers to specific concerns about the rise of radical Islamic, with Middle East mischief instead typically faulted, understandably, on Soviet manipulation. He quotes a 2008 column by Reagan National Security Advisor Bud McFarlane admitting that the Lebanon withdrawal persuaded Middle Eastern terrorists that America had “neither the will nor the means to respond effectively to a terrorist attack.”
Reagan’s lack of focus on the rising Islamist threat is maybe comparable to FDR’s similar disregard for the impending Soviet challenge that would immediately follow World War II. Justifiably, Reagan was focused on countering and defeating, without direct war, the Soviet Union, just as FDR was focused on militarily defeating Germany, Italy and Japan. Such gargantuan tasks, completed successfully, explain the lack of better foresight for the next round of struggle. Both the Cold War and World War II required unsavory allies against the primary enemy. No leader, no matter how savvy, is omniscient. Reagan and FDR are justifiably honored for their great victories, but they were only mortals, captive to their times. Each was a providential tool for defeating tyranny and defending a humane liberty for his own nation and large portions of the globe.
Part of the message of Christmas is that an overruling Providence governs the affairs of humanity and that all earthly rulers, whether Herod and the Romans in Jesus’ day, or the tyrannies of modern times, are subject to God’s overriding judgment. They are permitted for a season and then dispatched by the divine hand over history. “He changes times and seasons, deposes kings and sets up kings,” the Scriptures declare.
Most memorably, there is Isaiah’s reassuring prophecy relating to the Messiah, quoted often at Christmas, that proclaims an ultimate Ruler over rulers: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counseller, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.”