Ronald Reagan’s centenary coincides with the unraveling of Ronald Reagan’s Middle East. The president born February 6, 1911, is most associated with the dramatic end of the Cold War in Europe. But you can make a powerful case that the Cold War was won — not in Europe — but in the Middle East.
Four events were decisive. 1. The Reagan administration cemented Egypt, the largest and most important Arab country, into the U.S. alliance system.
The great Egyptian peacemaker Anwar Sadat was assassinated on Oct. 6, 1981, less than a year into the Reagan presidency. The killing was not the work of a lone gunman. A squad of soldiers fired grenades and automatic weapons at Mr. Sadat as he reviewed troops on the anniversary of the Yom Kippur war. The assassins killed 10 other people beside Mr. Sadat, and wounded many more, including Mr. Sadat’s vice president, Hosni Mubarak. At the same time, other conspirators launched an insurrection in Upper Egypt.
With U.S. assistance, Egyptian security forces suppressed the uprising. Mr. Mubarak assumed the presidency and proceeded to tighten the U.S. Egypt relationship even closer than under Mr. Sadat. 2. Reagan oversaw the weakening of the Soviet’s strongest Arab ally, Iraq.
Banished from Egypt, the Soviets developed a relationship with the second strongest Arab state, Iraq. On June 7, 1981, Israeli jets smashed the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak. The Reagan administration joined the UN condemnation of Israel. Yet the U.S. benefited enormously from the act it condemned.
Lacking nuclear weapons, on the defensive in the war it had launched against Iran in September 1980, Iraq was forced into greater economic dependence on the Gulf Arab states aligned with the U.S. — another blow to Soviet influence. 3. Middle East events forced the Soviet Union toward an (ultimately doomed) reconstruction of its economy.
In summer 1982, Israeli warplanes met the Syrian air force in a huge dogfight over Beirut.
Only nine years before, during the 1973 war, Soviet-provided ground-to-air missiles had wrought havoc against Israeli planes. Some questioned whether Israel had lost air supremacy over its enemies.
But in the interim between 1973 and 1982, the microelectronics revolution had transformed warfare. U.S.-made Israeli planes downed 80 Soviet-manufactured Syrian planes, one-quarter of the entire Syrian fleet, without suffering a single Israeli loss.
The Soviets had to face that the American advantage in military technology was widening. Unless the Soviets did something dramatic, American quality would overwhelm Soviet quantity in any future conflict.
That encounter over Beirut challenged the Soviet leadership to begin the changes that would become world-famous as “perestroika,” or reconstruction. These changes were meant to save the Soviet socialist system. Instead, they destroyed it, a too violent gear shift of a too-rusty transmission. 4. Then the final shove: In 1985, the Reagan administration persuaded Saudi Arabia to increase oil production.
Between 1985 and 1986, Saudi Arabia increased oil production from two million barrels a day to five million barrels. The oil price tumbled as oil supply surged: from US$30 a barrel to US$20 in just a few months.
The effect on the Soviet economy was devastating. Oil was the Soviet Union’s main – practically only – exportable product, the most important source of hard currency for the economically stagnant regime.
As former Soviet prime minister Yegor Gaidar details in a 2006 book, the Saudi action cost the Soviet Union $20 billion a year, money that had been used to pay for food imports from the West. How to close the sudden financial gap? The Soviets borrowed from Western banks.
As the Soviet economy stalled, borrowing needs increased. By 1989, the Soviet Union needed US$100-billion to avoid food shortages. That desperate need for Western loans precluded any Soviet intervention when first Poland and then the rest of the Warsaw Pact shook off Soviet rule in the spring, summer and fall of 1989.
The Reagan administration’s Middle East policy broke the Soviet empire. But no political achievement lasts forever. The price of oil has soared again, re-empowering Russia and other bad actors like Venezuela and Iran.
The Western military technology that decided the Cold War against the Soviet Union carries less weight in the new economic competition with China.
Iraq revived its nuclear program after Osirak, invaded Kuwait in 1990, and finally drew the U.S. into outright war to topple the regime in 2003. Unfortunately, the mission to reorienting Iraq to the West has taken longer and proved more challenging than expected.
Now Egypt will probably soon change direction, in a way possibly uncongenial to the United States and the Western world.
The Reagan policy has run its course, as all policies do. But no statesman is expected to solve the problems of all time. The 40th President of the United States magnificently surmounted the problems of his time. We honor Ronald Reagan most not by replicating him, but by emulating him: by doing not what he did, but as he did. He was the right leader for his time. Modern conservatives need to discover the right leadership for their time.
Originally published in the National Post.