What Reagan can teach us about Ukraine
May 14th, 2014
12:30 PM ET

What Reagan can teach us about Ukraine

By Rudy deLeon and Aarthi Gunasekaran, Special to CNN

Editor's note: Rudy deLeon served as deputy secretary of defense from 2000-2001 and is senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Aarthi Gunasekaran is a research assistant at the Center for American Progress. The views expressed are their own.

At the peak of the Cold War, a Soviet military fighter shot down a civilian airliner and all 269 passengers on board were killed, including a U.S. congressman and 61 other Americans. The world waited for a response from the United States.

But President Ronald Reagan didn't offer much beyond strong rhetoric and careful words, only condemnation without a serious call for action. He urged the international community to deal with the Soviets in a calm manner; labeled the Soviets as "savagery," "murderous," "monstrous," and united the European allies against a Soviet system nearing its end.

"We didn't elect a dictionary. We elected a president and it's time for him to act," is said to have sounded conservative columnist George Will. Reagan was the commander-in-chief at the time, and a conservative stalwart who today's hardliners believe would have never allowed such aggression go without response.

The victims' families grieved and American political conservatives charged that Reagan was overrun by faintheartedness. Throughout this period, House Speaker Tip O'Neill backed President Reagan, declaring that the situation should be handled with "patriotism over partisanship."

Thirty years later, there is a new crisis with Russia, this time in Ukraine as President Vladimir Putin pursues a strategy of chaos.

President Obama should continue to follow Reagan's example as he deals with this crisis – even as the Sunday talk shows criticize him and political participants across a wide ideological spectrum fill the media echo chamber with censures and praise, but few squeaks of solution or policy.

The United States is entering a gray zone on how to defend American national security interests and how to maintain the U.S. foreign policy elite. What we must understand that this is not a new phenomenon, but a truth that past presidents have skillfully addressed.

The divisive partisanship at home and in Congress makes it harder for America to move swiftly and jointly with a common purpose. A recent Pew Research poll showed 52 percent of Americans believe that the United States should "mind its own business internationally," yet 56 percent say the United States should remain the only military superpower. President Reagan mastered how to deliver to these two seemingly paradoxical sentiments, while at the same time maintaining an image as the president who would hold strong when American interests or reputation came under fire.

Amid these trends, President Obama has moved prudently to bring the U.S. troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan, to restore economic confidence after the Wall Street meltdown, and to restore America as the integral global stakeholder. In fact, President Obama's response to the crisis of Ukraine is much like President Reagan's response in the fall of 1983: build an international coalition, use the right economic tools, and stay on track for the long-term.

Today, conservatives see "Reaganism" in foreign policy as placing no boundaries on American military strength; indeed, they see a foreign policy rooted in American exceptionalism. But Reagan finely balanced how to lead a strong and confident nation. He handled his toughest days with condemnation and pragmatism while recognizing that holding the advantage on the political, economic, and diplomatic side meant that strong military capabilities were the last resort. That was then – and is now – a sign of strength.

President Obama has chosen similar approaches to the Crimea and Ukraine crisis, offering an updated version of "peace through strength," the hallmark phrase and policy of the successful Reagan strategy. He has rallied our European allies to press economic sanctions against Russia, used the expanded NATO to support alliance solidarity and capabilities, and offered economic assistance to the government in Kiev. These sanctions can put significant pressure on the Russian economy and government. The West can deter and negotiate, and it can create an atmosphere under which the Russian government is forced to choose between economic growth and geographic aggression.

President Reagan's handling of the Korean Airlines destruction offers further guidance on what President Obama can do when tested on critical security issues. As critics rail against Obama's caution and unwillingness to exercise American power, they should remember that Reagan was the master of talking big, and knew how to play a shrewd hand during times of crisis. Too much focus on politically motivated criticism can leave policy rudderless and reactive to events.

The opinion echo chamber is even louder and more distracting now than it was during previous administrations. But in a world where perfect answers and policy are not always available, Obama should continue President Reagan's example: choose his words wisely, stay firm, and spend his time strategizing on a long term course for countering Russian aggression. That is time well-spent.

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Topics: Foreign Policy • History • Ukraine • United States

soundoff (40 Responses)
  1. Joey Isotta-Fraschini

    In spite of all his popularity, Ronald Reagan was actually one of the worst Presidents we had. He ran on a platform of pure hatred, not enlightenment. On the other hand, it was Mikhail Gorbachev who ended the Cold War, although Reagan and his right-wing supporters claim that he did it. Then again, it was Voycek Jaruzelski who brought democracy to Poland, nor Lech Walesa or the Reagan Administration.

    May 14, 2014 at 12:39 pm | Reply
    • Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

      I am a major fan of Ronald Reagan, so I certainly did not write that post above.

      May 14, 2014 at 1:21 pm | Reply
      • Joseph McCarthy

        Please, quit trying to humiliate me, whoever you are. If you're such a Reagan fan, then post it under your own name instead of mine. Reagan was nothing but an ignorant warmonger. Just ask the family members of those 241 Marines who were killed in Lebanon back in October, 1983.

        May 15, 2014 at 1:10 am |
      • j. von hettlingen

        The Russians were convinced the Boeing 747 of the South Korean Airlines was flying over sensitive Soviet military installations, saying it did not stray off course and had been part of a hostile mission. The plane was shot down over Sakhalin island in the far east of the former Soviet Union.
        If it were an American plane, Reagan would have reacted differently. In April 1986 he ordered air raids on Tripoli and Benghazi, after Libya was accused of bombing a nightclub in Berlin, killing two US soldiers and a Turkish woman, and injuring least 230 people in the explosion.

        May 15, 2014 at 10:37 am |
      • George patton

        What gets me j.von hettlingen, is the fact that we were never told why KAL007 was flying over Sakhalin Island in the first place. This reeks of some kind of a cover up. I well remember all the right-wingers at that time all screaming for vengeance on the Russians.

        May 15, 2014 at 1:35 pm |
      • Socrates

        Too bad because is a good one.

        May 17, 2014 at 9:40 am |
      • Rolly Bobo

        Yes, in 1983 the Soviets shot down a Korean airliner that had flown over their airspace.
        Then 5 years later the U.S. Navy shot down, Iran Air Flight 655, killing all 290 passengers aboard – from the U.S.S. Vincennes, in that case, it was the U.S. Navy in the wrong place – it was later determined they were sailing in Iranian waters.

        Reagan didn't have a strong response, precisely because per the thinking of that era, you did shoot down passenger plaines if they wandered into your airspace, and as we found out later – the U.S. made this same type of decision.

        Reagan couldn't condiment the soviet's for something his administration would do himself.

        May 17, 2014 at 4:40 pm |
      • Mike

        @George, that flight strayed off course due to poor position of a GPS tracking system. That being said, they did not respond at all to the Soviet calls and were promptly shot down, as it should be. America would do the same.

        May 23, 2014 at 3:22 am |
    • john smith

      America is the root of all terror. America has invaded sixty countries since world war 2.
      In 1953 America overthrow Iran's democratic government Mohammad Mosaddegh and installed a brutal dictator Shah. America helped Shah of Iran to establish secret police and killed thousands of Iranian people.
      During Iran-Iraq war evil America supported Suddam Hossain and killed millions of Iranian people. In 1989, America, is the only country ever, shot down Iran's civilian air plane, killing 290 people.
      In 2003,America invaded Iraq and killed 1,000,000+ innocent Iraqi people and 4,000,000+ Iraqi people were displaced.
      Now America is a failed state with huge debt. Its debt will be 22 trillion by 2015.

      May 15, 2014 at 1:37 am | Reply
    • Rick

      Reagan was an azlheimers-addled fool.

      May 18, 2014 at 8:21 am | Reply
    • Chris

      No, Wojciech Jaruzelski was Soviet agent, Soviet general and a traitor like Judas was.

      May 18, 2014 at 12:52 pm | Reply
  2. palintwit

    Medical experts agree that Sarah Palin's strange behavior and inability to string together two complete sentences is a result of being kicked in the head by a moose.

    May 14, 2014 at 12:41 pm | Reply
    • So true

      And the moose had to spend the next 4 months with a cast on it's foot after kicking something with rocks in it.

      May 14, 2014 at 12:43 pm | Reply
    • Socrates

      Still she can see Russia from her window. I heard that the poor moose went blind.

      May 17, 2014 at 9:43 am | Reply
  3. Reagan put the CON in CONservative

    I suppose he could teach how to CON people into thinking they are CONservatives.

    May 14, 2014 at 12:41 pm | Reply
    • Patrick

      Well said. What can Reagan teach us about Ukraine? Absolutely nothing at all!!! That clown obviously know nothing about the history of Eastern Europe, let alone the history of this country. Besides, did he ever speak any language other than English?

      May 14, 2014 at 1:46 pm | Reply
      • 7742Zig

        @Patrick. Maybe you should be president of Russia, you know so much, wise guy.

        May 14, 2014 at 3:17 pm |
  4. palintwit

    And news in the literary world has Sarah Palin hosting another book signing event this weekend at her trailer park. Tens of people are expected to show up.

    May 14, 2014 at 1:08 pm | Reply
    • So true

      Is the ghost writer showing up too since Sarah Palin can't write? Or did Trig write the book?

      May 14, 2014 at 2:23 pm | Reply
  5. stuart

    Trig wrote the book.

    May 14, 2014 at 3:13 pm | Reply
    • trigtwit palin... America's favorite tard baby

      *drool*

      May 15, 2014 at 9:27 am | Reply
  6. greg

    There is a major difference between the one-off downing of an airliner and a serial taking over bits of other countries.
    The strategic significance of the former is nil, of the latter, very much. Action must be commensurate with strategic risk.

    May 14, 2014 at 5:53 pm | Reply
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    May 15, 2014 at 11:45 am | Reply
  8. chrissy

    And WHAT does THAT have to do with the price of tea in china??? Lmao

    May 15, 2014 at 12:28 pm | Reply
  9. Jane

    Significant pressure on Russia can lead only to misunderstanding between America and Russia. Russia is a strong country with a clever president. If we want to live in peace we must respect each other. "Peace through strength" is a great Obama mistake too,it may lead to war. Only weak parents punish their childnen million times instead of discussing the problems, but we.Russians, not naughty children, try to understand it . With respect and friendship to you. Excuse my mistakes,please.

    May 17, 2014 at 1:40 pm | Reply
  10. virginia

    Unfortunately its a good thing that we all have a different purpose in life and a different vision on what is good for the future of civilization..Unfortunately it creates war among the nations and among individuals...but it also brings on progress and good fortune to all involved...competing visions as to what is best for mankind__ is what creates war...

    May 17, 2014 at 4:35 pm | Reply
  11. Rolly Bobo

    in 1983 the Soviets shot down a Korean airliner that had flown over their airspace.
    Then 5 years later the U.S. Navy shot down, Iran Air Flight 655, killing all 290 passengers aboard – from the U.S.S. Vincennes, in that case, it was the U.S. Navy in the wrong place – it was later determined they were sailing in Iranian waters.

    For as long as I've been alive, the U.S. has routinely engaged in this type of double standard. Claiming they are favoring democracy in one war. Then propping up a King or a Dictator in the next war.

    You say learn from Reagan – well, I think everyone has learned from Reagan. He used words as he saw fit. And did what he wanted, and if sometimes words and actions were aligned – then that's a wonderful coincidence.

    May 17, 2014 at 4:44 pm | Reply
  12. Andy

    Obama doctrine - Peace through weakness.

    May 17, 2014 at 11:46 pm | Reply
  13. Andy

    Obama's doctrine - Peace through weakness.

    May 17, 2014 at 11:47 pm | Reply
  14. Jane, Russia

    I know about Obama's doctrine-peace through weakness, but this doctrine force us to develop our economic and political systems. As a result we are becoming stronger, not weaker. Due to sanctions many Russian people can't use payment systems "Visa"" and Master card" and now we are creating our own payment system. " Peace through weakness" is a harmful and useless approach in relations between people as well as between countries. Dont be angry if my English is difficult for understanding.

    May 18, 2014 at 4:13 am | Reply
  15. dennis

    NOTHING !!!!!

    May 18, 2014 at 6:26 am | Reply
  16. Mal

    The whole article is based on the false premise that Reagan had an exceptional role in causing the break up of the USSR.

    Aside from that premise, the article amounts to "Obama should be wise", which is fine, but then it injects "wise = Reagan", which is just fan talk.

    May 18, 2014 at 1:13 pm | Reply
  17. Henk Yserman

    All faiths (religious, political, social) do harm, because their figments defy intellectual self-consciousness.
    Mankind needs to understand Demo-Cracy (the people-to rule), therefore without an almighty president or prime-minister.The people should be souverain! "When will they ever learn?!" (Marlene Dietrich)

    May 19, 2014 at 3:57 am | Reply
  18. USAPeasant

    Nah Reagan couldn't lead on Ukraine situation, he has passed away.

    However, I think it doesn't take a political scientist to figure out George HW Bush was the real foreign policy brains behind Reagan. I mean come on senile actor consulting astrologers for policy advice, or the former ambassador to China and former CIA head? Not too hard to figure out.

    What saith George HW Bush? It be prudent to heed his advice while he still walks among us.

    May 19, 2014 at 1:08 pm | Reply
  19. matt

    Reagan was a senile imbecile....so the answer is no.

    May 20, 2014 at 8:33 am | Reply
  20. Tom Bukowski

    The worship continues. What did he teach us about the Marine barracks in Beirut?

    May 22, 2014 at 7:43 am | Reply
  21. Tony Elam

    Get me a break, Reagan couldn't even remember were Ukraine was!

    May 22, 2014 at 11:27 am | Reply
  22. Mike

    Oh...cuz ya know...America would not shoot down an unknown UNRESPONSIVE plane entering their air space...no sir, no no no. The pilot did his job, and for this I salute him for protecting the Mother Land. America is, as always, led by hypocrites.

    May 23, 2014 at 3:20 am | Reply
  23. jrcjazzed2012

    Reblogged this on jrcjazzed2012 and commented:
    Russia is not trying to take over the world – there are legitimate issues over the empire of the Soviet Union

    May 24, 2014 at 5:13 pm | Reply
  24. Aziz

    I want to say that I felt in love in American style of life and democracy, etc. When your citizens visited our country They were telling me America is the best model of democratic country. But after million people's death in Irak, Serbia, Livia, Egypt, Aughanistan and other countries I said it is only Bush's policy americns were not guilty. But When Obama support the killing of civilian . I've changed my view of point about americans. I don't know about your position to the situation in Ukraine, but if the american citizens claim to be democratic the killing of hundreds of civilian and destroying many buildings in the Eastern Ukraine (Lugansk and Donbas). Smb could say we don't know the situation who is guilty or not ? Let's invesigate. But germans can say we didn't know about jewish's, russian's extintion in Eastern EU.
    U're guilty because u elected such persons and they want to feed u. U're like parasites from another world who came to take all recources and kill who say /"It's our recources?, why u don't give us rights to manage it ourselves" U have the right answer "U're not democratic country u have to give us your rights and we 'kill everybody who will do efforts to stop us." U did it with american indians whom u killed and took their eath and lives only because u named them babarians. And when the indian's resources ended u're trying to do the same thing with Russia, Asia,Latin America and even with Africa .
    I have the only right answer ' You re parasites Who are living only for smb's resources and lives and when recources over u'll find another country.
    I can say u're parasites and your behaviour

    June 7, 2014 at 7:58 am | Reply

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