After a Crisis, Bush Is No Reagan

Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a senior advisor to the Center for Defense Information, was assistant secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration.

President Bush’s foreign policy is often compared with that of Ronald Reagan. His reference to Iran, Iraq and North Korea as the “axis of evil” in his 2002 State of the Union address, for example, is often likened to Reagan’s branding of the Soviet Union as the “evil empire.” Bush’s support for a national missile defense system and his eagerness to withdraw from the ABM treaty were old Reagan favorites as well.

Leaving aside the issue of whether the comparison of Bush with Reagan is apt (having worked for Reagan, I believe it is overblown), if Bush really wants to emulate Reagan, he ought to follow the former president’s approach to handling foreign policy disasters.

If Bush were willing to deal with the burgeoning controversy over the specious reasons he gave for going to war in Iraq in the same quick and decisive way that Reagan dealt with the 1983 terrorist attack on the Marine barracks in Lebanon and the 1986 Iran-Contra scandal, his administration and the country would be better off.

On Oct. 23, 1983, a large truck laden with the equivalent of more than 12,000 pounds of TNT crashed through the perimeter of the Marine compound at Beirut International Airport, penetrated the headquarters building and detonated, killing 241 U.S. military personnel and destroying the building.

Within two weeks Reagan had appointed and convened a commission to conduct a broad-ranging inquiry that not only focused on the attack but also on the mission of the U.S. forces in Lebanon.


Less than two months after the attack, the five-member commission, headed by retired Adm. Robert Long and including a high-level official from the Carter administration, had issued its report.

It not only criticized the administration and the Department of Defense for lack of preparedness in dealing with terrorism, but it also called into question the mission itself, the rules of engagement for the troops and the effectiveness of the chain of command.

On Dec. 27, 1983, Reagan held a news conference to address questions on the report, and by the first week in February he had withdrawn our forces from Lebanon and the secretary of Defense had implemented several of the report’s recommendations, including rebuking the on-scene commanders and their superiors in the chain of command and providing more anti-terrorism training.

Some two years later, Congress used the Long report as one of the reasons for passing the Defense Reorganization Act, which enhanced the role of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the combat commanders.

The biggest foreign policy disaster of the Reagan administration was the Iran-Contra affair. But here again Reagan acted promptly. Within 10 days of Nov. 22, 1986, when he was informed by the attorney general that proceeds from arms sales to Iran had been directed to the Contras in Nicaragua, the president had appointed John Tower, a Republican senator; Edmund Muskie, former Democratic senator, presidential candidate and secretary of State; and Brent Scowcroft, President Ford’s national security advisor, to investigate the situation.

After interviewing 50 people, including Reagan several times, and examining all the White House files, including the president’s diary, the Tower commission completed its report in three months. The report criticized the initiative, the president’s role in it, his management style and the conduct of several of his top officials, including his chief of staff and the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Within days of issuance of the report, the president had named a new chief of staff and CIA director and had acknowledged mistakes and accepted full responsibility in an address to the nation.

President Bush, on the other hand, wants his nine-member commission that will investigate the alleged intelligence failures in Iraq to take more than a year to report and avoid the critical question of whether his administration hyped the intelligence to gain support for the war.

Moreover, it will not simply examine the reasons for the disaster in Iraq but also how the intelligence community has dealt with North Korea, Iran and Libya. This is far too long a time and too broad a mandate. America’s credibility and our national security are in imminent danger because of Bush’s handling of the invasion of Iraq.

If Reagan could deal with Lebanon and Iran-Contra within a few months, surely Bush could have done the same with Iraq. By choosing not to do so, Bush has shown himself unworthy to claim the Reagan mantle.