Foreign affairs were a big factor in the election campaign of 1980. They have almost disappeared from the campaign of 1984. The public appears convinced that the President has succeeded in reaching the two goals that it has sought since the end of World War II: peace and strength. But this may well turn out to be an illusion fostered by a master of public relations and accepted by a complacent electorate equally disconnected from the outside world.
The best that can be said about four years of Reagan’s foreign policy is that things could have been much worse. They would have been, if its ideological premises and prescriptions had been followed consistently. Fortunately, two checks have often been applied. When reality obviously turned out to bear no relation to ideological fantasy, the latter had to be abandoned—although not without damage.
The other check has been the dominance of domestic concerns, including of course the President’s reelection. It was the domestic and social program that engaged the President’s attention, not his foreign policy. As for the American public, it has remained extremely suspicious of external military entanglements, unless—as in Grenada—they can be brief and easy. This is why covert intervention and military assistance rather than the direct involvement of US forces have been used in Central America, despite the President’s claims that the region is vitally important. This is also why the American forces in Lebanon were removed as soon as things became too hot—both on the ground and in national politics.
After four years, the administration cannot claim a single foreign policy triumph—not even a limited one comparable to Carter’s Camp David accord or Panama treaties. But what matters to the public is that there hasn’t been any major disaster, a major disaster being defined either as a national humiliation (the killing of badly protected Marines or officials by unknown terrorists is received, it seems, like an act of God, unlike the seizure of hostages by a government-supported mob) or as a protracted and inconclusive war. This allows the President to boast that he was right all along: we are at peace because of his own firm leadership and because the US is “standing tall.” Both claims are unwarranted.
The rhetoric and the displays of strength may have succeeded in ousting one “Marxist–Leninist” gang from power in Grenada, and in preventing the rebels in El Salvador and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua from making new gains. But if one looks at the effects of Reagan on friendly and neutral countries, one cannot be impressed. In Latin America, the Contadora group has persisted in a direction toward regional accommodation that clearly makes Washington unhappy. In southern Africa, the settlement of the Namibia issue and the departure of the Cubans from Angola have not been achieved. In Western Europe, the failure of the peace movements of West Germany and Britain results more from…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.