By Robert Parry
The political crisis sweeping the Middle East is another part of Ronald Reagan’s dark legacy that is shattering into chaos even as the United States prepares to lavishly celebrate his 100th birthday.
Upon taking office in 1981, Reagan turned the United States onto a new course, away from Jimmy Carter’s intensive Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations and toward tolerance of the Likud strategy of expanding settlements on the West Bank and lashing out at Israel’s enemies in Lebanon and the Occupied Territories.
This Reagan-Likud cooperation also affected politics and media inside the United States. In the early 1980s, with Reagan’s assistance and blessings, a group of articulate operatives known as neoconservatives emerged as a powerful political/media force. Their dual role was to buttress U.S. support for the security interests of Israel and to rebuild a consensus around the U.S. global agenda, which had been shattered by the Vietnam War.
The neocons – through their work inside the Reagan administration and in key parts of the U.S. news media, such as The New Republic and the Washington Post’s opinion section – became, in essence, the arbiters of Washington’s conventional wisdom, setting the parameters of acceptable debate.
Even before the days of Fox News, their voices were prominent on the TV talk shows, the likes of Charles Krauthammer, Fred Barnes and William Kristol, or as publishers of influential opinion journals, such as Martin Peretz, Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz.
As the Reagan era advanced in the 1980s, journalists and politicians who showed skepticism about U.S. foreign policy — the sort of attitude that had been common in the 1970s — were dismissed as “blame America firsters,” a phrase coined by Reagan’s UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick.
Skeptics who continued to insist on challenging the Reagan/neocon propaganda saw their careers damaged or destroyed.
More malleable journalists ensured their status in the well-paying world of Washington media by bending to the prevailing winds. Many politicians did the same, recognizing the trouble they could get into by crossing Reagan’s team and its ideological heirs.
Reagan’s Middle East policy shifts — and the influence of the neocons — created space for Israel’s Likudniks to pay lip service to granting Palestinians a homeland while systematically encroaching onto more and more Palestinian land, a process that Likud called “changing the facts on the ground.” The expanding settlements essentially killed chances for a viable Palestinian state.
Reagan’s approach, in effect, turned the Middle East into a political pressure cooker with the Arab “street” steaming over the humiliations of the Palestinians and furious over the timidity of bought-off Arab leaders.
As the pressure built – with occasional outbursts of Muslim outrage, including acts of terrorism – Washington’s desire for “stability” required ever more repression. The Reagan administration stepped up security assistance to the region’s dictators.
Leading to Invasion
The cumulative effect of Reagan’s tough-guy legacy – and the neocons’ climb to the top of Washington’s opinion hierarchy – paved the way for George W. Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq with remarkably little resistance from the U.S. media/political elite.
The Iraq invasion represented the fulfillment of the idea that American force could bring into line Muslim governments that resisted U.S. dictates or that threatened Israel.
In the heady days after Saddam Hussein was knocked from power, the neocons joked about whether to turn next to Syria or Iran. The thinking went that once those nation-state targets were neutralized Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Palestine’s Hamas would have no choice but to beg for peace on whatever terms Israel deigned to offer.
However, events didn’t work out quite the way the neocons had diagrammed. After the initial victory in Iraq, the war went badly. The dreams of imposing pro-U.S./pro-Israeli regimes in Syria and Iran had to be deferred. Indeed, the U.S. ouster of Sunni leader Saddam Hussein in Iraq ended up increasing the relative power of Shiite-ruled Iran.
Closer to Israel, Hezbollah and Hamas – rather than pleading for mercy – grew stronger, while pro-U.S. dictators in places like Egypt, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and Jordan grew more unpopular. Many Egyptians sharply criticized President Hosni Mubarak for standing aside while Israel’s military pummeled Gaza in a brutal campaign in late 2008 and early 2009.
Meanwhile, the global financial collapse that marked the end of Bush’s Reagan-redux presidency added more steam to the Middle East pressure cooker, which was getting ready to blow. The only question was when.
The explosion started with a popular uprising in Tunisia, where the longtime dictator Ben Ali resigned and fled into exile. The popular revolt soon spread to Egypt, the most populous Arab country.
There, massive street demonstrations forced Mubarak to agree not to seek reelection, though protesters have kept up their demands that he leave immediately. Monarchies in Jordan and Saudi Arabia were shaken, too.
So, even as a lavish celebration is readied for Reagan’s 100th birthday — including a special act of homage to the late president at the Super Bowl — the Middle East is becoming just the latest part of his legacy to come undone.
The region now appears to be careening toward potentially bloody upheavals and possibly future war, especially if Israel with its high-tech weapons (and nuclear arsenal) fears its survival is threatened.
A Different Narrative
Things could have been very different if Reagan had not succeeded in wresting the White House from Jimmy Carter in 1980.
Carter was pushing a starkly different approach to the region, pressuring Israel to surrender Arab lands conquered in 1967 in exchange for peace agreements with its neighbors.
In 1978, Carter secured the first step in this peace process, the Camp David Accords in which Israel’s Likud Prime Minister Menachem Begin agreed to return the Sinai to Egypt in a peace deal.
However, Begin was furious, feeling that Carter had bullied him into accepting the arrangement. Beyond that resentment, Begin feared that Carter would use his second term to push Israel into accepting a Palestinian state on West Bank lands that Likud considered part of Israel’s divinely granted territory.
Former Mossad and Foreign Ministry official David Kimche described Begin’s fury in the 1991 book, The Last Option.
Kimche wrote that Israeli officials had gotten wind of “collusion” between Carter and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat “to force Israel to abandon her refusal to withdraw from territories occupied in 1967, including Jerusalem, and to agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state.”
Kimche continued, “This plan – prepared behind Israel’s back and without her knowledge – must rank as a unique attempt in United States’s diplomatic history of short-changing a friend and ally by deceit and manipulation.”
However, Begin recognized that the scheme required Carter winning a second term in 1980 when, Kimche wrote, “he would be free to compel Israel to accept a settlement of the Palestinian problem on his and Egyptian terms, without having to fear the backlash of the American Jewish lobby.”
In his 1992 memoir, Profits of War, Ari Ben-Menashe, an Israeli military intelligence officer who worked with Likud, agreed that Begin and other Likud leaders held Carter in contempt.
“Begin loathed Carter for the peace agreement forced upon him at Camp David,” Ben-Menashe wrote. “As Begin saw it, the agreement took away Sinai from Israel, did not create a comprehensive peace, and left the Palestinian issue hanging on Israel’s back.”
So, in order to buy time for Israel to move more Jewish settlers into the West Bank, Begin felt Carter’s reelection had to be prevented. A different president also presumably would give Israel a freer hand to deal with problems on its northern border with Lebanon.
The evidence is now clear that Begin found that new partnership with Ronald Reagan and his foreign policy team. Begin would do what he could to help Reagan defeat Carter in 1980, finally sliencing Carter’s incessant nagging.
Though Carter may not have understood his predicament, his position was even more precarious because he had made other powerful enemies, including the CIA’s “Old Boys” network. His CIA director, Stansfield Turner, had reined in their operations and cashiered some of their leaders, the likes of Ted Shackley who left the operations directorate and went to work for the campaign of former CIA Director George H.W. Bush.
In the Republican primaries, Bush competed with Reagan for the nomination but ultimately accepted the second spot on the GOP ticket, bringing along Shackley and a host of other disgruntled CIA veterans who were itching for payback against Jimmy Carter.
Carter’s human rights lectures also had riled America’s right-wing and anti-communist allies, especially after the brutal Shah of Iran was driven from power by a popular uprising in late 1978 only to get replaced by the similarly brutal Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Carter was viewed as a bumbling do-gooder who needed to be shown the door for the good of the Western world. Reagan, a former B-movie actor, may not have been the optimal replacement, but he was surrounded by Republican national security experts, including Bush, who knew their way around the global chessboard.
‘CIA Within the CIA’
In 1990, looking back on those events, legendary CIA officer Miles Copeland told me that “the CIA within the CIA” – the inner-most circle of powerful intelligence figures who felt they understood best the strategic needs of the United States – believed Carter and his naïve faith in American democratic ideals represented a grave threat to the nation.
“Carter really believed in all the principles that we talk about in the West,” Copeland said, shaking his mane of white hair. “As smart as Carter is, he did believe in Mom, apple pie and the corner drug store. And those things that are good in America are good everywhere else. …
“Carter, I say, was not a stupid man,” Copeland said, adding that Carter had an even worse flaw: “He was a principled man.”
The anti-Carter sentiments of “the CIA within the CIA” and Begin’s Likudniks appeared to stem from their genuine beliefs that they needed to protect what they regarded as vital interests of their respective countries. The CIA Old Boys thought they understood the true strategic needs of the United States – and Likud believed fervently in a “Greater Israel.”
Both groups saw Carter as a dangerous threat.
But the lingering mystery of Campaign 1980 is whether these two groups followed their strongly held feelings into a secret operation in league with Republicans to prevent Carter from gaining the release of 52 U.S. hostages then held in Iran and thus torpedoing his reelection hopes.
Carter’s inability to resolve that hostage crisis did set the stage for Reagan’s landslide victory in November 1980 as American voters reacted to the long-running hostage humiliation by turning to a candidate they believed would be a tougher player vis-à-vis America’s enemies.
Reagan’s macho image was reinforced when the Iranians released the hostages immediately after he was inaugurated on Jan. 20, 1981, ending the 444-day standoff.
The coincidence of timing, which Reagan’s supporters cited as proof that foreign enemies feared the new president, gave momentum to Reagan’s larger agenda, including sweeping tax cuts tilted toward the wealthy, reduced government regulation of corporations, and renewed reliance on fossil fuels. (Carter’s solar panels were removed from the White House roof.)
Reagan’s victory also was great news for CIA cold-warriors who were rewarded with the choice of World War II spymaster (and dedicated cold-warrior) William Casey to be CIA director.
Casey then purged CIA analysts who were detecting a declining Soviet Union that desired détente. He replaced them with people like the young and ambitious Robert Gates, who agreed that the Soviets were on the march and that the United States needed a massive military expansion to counter them.
Casey also embraced old-time CIA swashbuckling in Third World countries and took pleasure in misleading or berating members of Congress when they insisted on the CIA oversight that had been forced on President Gerald Ford and had been accepted by President Carter. To Casey, CIA oversight became a game of hide-and-seek.
Time for Expansion
As for Israel, Begin was pleased to find the Reagan administration far less demanding about peace deals with the Arabs, giving Israel time to expand its West Bank settlements.
Reagan and his team also acquiesced to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, a drive north that expelled the Palestine Liberation Organization but also led to the slaughters at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. Israel’s Lebanon invasion eventually drew U.S. troops into the Lebanese civil war, with 241 getting killed by a suicide bombing on Oct. 23, 1983.
Behind the scenes, Reagan also gave a green light to Israeli weapons shipments to Iran (which was fighting a war with Israel’s greater enemy, Iraq). The weapons sales helped Israel rebuild its network of contacts inside Iran while creating large profits which helped finance West Bank settlements.
In another significant move, Reagan credentialed a new generation of pro-Israeli American ideologues known as the neocons. That paid big dividends for Israel as these bright operatives fought for Likud’s interests both inside the U.S. government and through their opinion-leading roles in the major American news media.
In other words, if the disgruntled CIA Old Boys and the determined Likudniks did participate in the so-called October Surprise scheme to sabotage Carter’s Iran-hostage negotiations and thus seal his doom, they surely got much of what they wanted.
Yet, while motive is an important element in solving a mystery, it does not constitute proof by itself. What must be examined is whether there is evidence that the motive was acted upon, whether Begin’s government and disaffected CIA officers covertly assisted the Reagan campaign in contacting Iranian officials to thwart Carter’s hostage negotiations.
This evidence is strong though perhaps not ironclad. A well-supported narrative does exist describing how the October Surprise scheme may have occurred with the help of CIA personnel, Begin’s government, some right-wing intelligence figures in Europe, and a handful of other powerbrokers in the United States. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “CIA/Likud Sinking of Jimmy Carter” or Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
It’s also clear that Reagan – after becoming president – did nothing to retaliate against Iran for the hostage-taking and instead rewarded Khomeini’s regime by secretly approving Israeli arms shipments to Iran. That hidden reality became apparent to some U.S. government officials after one of Israel’s supply planes crashed just inside Soviet territory on July 18, 1981.
In a PBS interview nearly a decade later, Nicholas Veliotes, Reagan’s assistant secretary of state for the Middle East, said he looked into the incident by talking to top administration officials who insisted that the State Department issue misleading guidance to the press.
“It was clear to me after my conversations with people on high that indeed we had agreed that the Israelis could transship to Iran some American-origin military equipment,” Veliotes said.
In checking out the Israeli flight, Veliotes came to believe that the Reagan camp’s dealings with Iran dated back to before the 1980 election.
“It seems to have started in earnest in the period probably prior to the election of 1980, as the Israelis had identified who would become the new players in the national security area in the Reagan administration,” Veliotes said. “And I understand some contacts were made at that time.”
If the October Surprise narrative is true, then Reagan’s Iran-Contra arms deals in 1984-86 would have been essentially a sequel, not a stand-alone story, with Iran getting more weapons in exchange for its help in freeing other American hostages then held in Lebanon.
Yet, whatever one thinks of the October Surprise story – whether you believe that the Republicans sabotaged President Carter or not – there can be little doubt that the shattering events of that period propelled the Middle East down a course that changed the region’s history – and has today left the world at another dangerous crossroads.
A three-decade epoch was begun with the neocons and the Reaganites emerging as the dominant forces in Washington; with stepped-up security protecting autocratic Arab leaders from the angry “street”; with Shiite-ruled Iran supplying militant Muslim organizations to undercut the mostly Sunni autocrats and to pressure Israel; and with Likud and its vision of a Greater Israel guaranteeing little sustainable progress toward a Palestinian state.
It was an epoch that Ronald Reagan and his foreign policy team helped launched in 1980-81; it was an epoch that Jimmy Carter’s second term might have prevented; and it is an epoch that may be collapsing into violence and disorder now.
[For more on these topics, see Robert Parry’s Lost History andSecrecy & Privilege, which are now available with Neck Deep, in a three-book set for the discount price of only $29. For details, click here.]
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth’ are also available there.