Jimmy Carter’s perceived weakness and passivity had cost him his presidency and ruined his reputation. Ronald Reagan was not going to repeat that error. Yet apart from projecting renewed pugnacity, the thread tying together Reagan’s various forays into the Islamic world was all but invisible. Assertiveness absent any appreciation for what might be lurking just around the next corner makes a poor basis for strategy.
Near the beginning of his first term as president, Reagan had explained to an aide his approach to the Cold War. “My idea of American policy toward the Soviet Union is simple,” he remarked. “It is this: We win and they lose.” To simplify was to clarify, stripping down to essentials as a basis for understanding.
Reagan’s ability to do just that numbered as not least among the qualities that endeared him to many Americans. Here was language—direct, unvarnished, even manly—they could grasp and appreciate. Us against them. Red Sox vs. Yankees. Notre Dame vs. USC. Here too was the formula that ostensibly served as Reagan’s azimuth—at least until he discovered in Mikhail Gorbachev a communist with whom he could do business. Yet however mightily Reagan strove to employ a similarly Manichaean approach when dealing with the Greater Middle East, the realities there refused to cooperate.
So while Reagan certainly stepped up the level of U.S. military activity in that region, he achieved little by way of lasting benefit. Implicitly endorsing the premises of the Carter Doctrine, Reagan never quite figured out a coherent approach to implementing that doctrine. So his piece of America’s War for the Greater Middle East was confused, slapdash, and inconsistent. In sum, it was a dog’s breakfast.
In retrospect, this appears readily apparent. At the time, the Reagan administration claimed that it had more wins than losses to its credit. Yet while Reagan meted out punishment to parties that arguably deserved what they got, doing so produced consequences both unforeseen and undesired. Notably, in each case where the administration claimed victory—over the Soviets in Afghanistan, over Moamar Gaddafi in Libya, and over Iran in the Persian Gulf—the outcome proved at best inconclusive and at worst plain bad. Meanwhile, in the one instance where the administration inarguably failed—inserting U.S. Marines into Israeli-occupied Lebanon—sacralizing that failure took precedence over learning from it, thereby making future failures on a larger scale that much more likely.