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Will George W Bush be remembered as another Reagan?

By Stephen Barton - posted Tuesday, 29 June 2004

In 1984, at the 40th anniversary celebration of D-Day, President Reagan told veterans that they fought with the knowledge “that there is a profound moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest. You were here to liberate, not to conquer, and so you and those others did not doubt your cause.”

For many in the West the moral clarity of 1944 is absent in the military adventures of 2004; they doubt the cause and methods of the War on Terror and the war in Iraq. Although, according to American writer Robert Kaplan, for those at the sharper end there is little doubt. In his recent article in The Atlantic Monthly, “Five Days in Fallujah”, Kaplan wrote:

“For young men living in austere conditions, going out daily to risk their lives, morale is based not on polite subtleties but on a stark belief in their own righteousness, and in the iniquity of the enemy.”


Further from Fallujah however, the doubts remain; indeed, previously gung-ho supporters of the military intervention have become less strident, particularly when the awful pictures emerged of US military police “getting creative” with Iraqi prisoners.

Mark Steyn lamented this rise of “fainthearted armchair generals” in columns syndicated around the world. In a recent article in The Australian, tailored for a local audience, Steyn took a swipe at the ADF’s Bishop, Dr Tom Frame who had developed an attack of the wobbles.

Frame wrote: “Looking back on the events of the past 18 months I continue to seek God's forgiveness for my complicity in creating a world in which this sort of action was ever considered by anyone to be necessary.” That was a long way from the Bishop Frame I heard in Sydney’s Garrison Church on St. Barbara’s Day in 2002, who used the pulpit to advocate what he saw as a just war.

James Delingpole writing in The Spectator - tongue in cheek -  catalogues the journalists and papers “panicked by events such as Abu Ghraib … into sniveling breast-beating recantation”. Delingpole restates the case for invasion and makes the argument that before the invasion we were told how hard it would be, and yet those same people now indict the Coalition’s failure to create “instant harmony”.

The two articles remind us - in case we needed reminding -  of how extraordinarily divisive the war in Iraq is, and the extent of doubt over the justice of the cause.  At this point it’s worth returning to Reagan. 

With his death it’s easy to forget just how polarising and divisive a figure the Gipper was. Reagan said himself in 1989, “…pundits said our programmes would result in catastrophe. Our views on foreign affairs would cause war. Our plans for the economy would cause inflation to soar and bring about economic collapse.”


In 1980 Jimmy Carter called him “dangerous” and “divisive”. Carter was echoing the concerns of many of Americans, especially the sort who would write for The New York Times. The Soviet Union, they argued, needed to be accommodated; some even said it was doing better economically than the US. Foreshadowing the reaction to Bush’s “axis of evil”, The New York Times called Reagan’s description of the Soviet Union as an evil empire “primitive”.

Carter, displaying the malaise of the post-Vietnam policy maker, said “there are no simple answers to complicated questions”. Reagan on the other hand said, “I say there are simple answers to many of our problems- simple but hard”.  It’s an apparent contradiction, but like Rumsfeld’s “known unknowns” you know just what he means. Reagan continued, “it’s the complicated answer that’s easy because it avoids facing the hard moral issues.”

There were two simple strands to Reagan’s foreign policy, the first is best summed up by the famous “Bear in the Wood” advertisement:

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About the Author

Stephen Barton teaches politics at Edith Cowan University and has been a political staffer at both a state and federal level. The views expressed here are his own.

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