President Obama delivered remarks from the White House yesterday, celebrating the success of his policy in Iran, and pointed to some examples from American history to bolster his broader point. “[F]rom Presidents Franklin Roosevelt to John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan, the United States has never been afraid to pursue diplomacy with our adversaries,” Obama said. “And as president, I decided that a strong, confident America could advance our national security by engaging directly with the Iranian government.”
That decision looks pretty smart now, though as it turns out, Obama isn’t the only one referencing Reagan. Did you catch this exchange on NBC’s “Meet the Press” yesterday?
CHUCK TODD: So under President Rubio, you would not have negotiated any sort of prisoner exchange for those four American hostages?MARCO RUBIO: When I become President of the United States, our adversaries around the world will know that America is no longer under the command of someone weak like Barack Obama. And it will be like Ronald Reagan where as soon as he took office, the hostages were released from Iran.
That was, to be sure, an unusually foolish thing for a grown-up to say on national television, but the Florida senator isn’t the only Republican presidential candidate using rhetoric like this. In recent months, Chris Christie has said Obama should follow Reagan’s example in dealing with Iran, and Rand Paul and Ted Cruz have made similar comments.
It’s hard not to get the sense sometimes that Republicans have lionized Reagan without any meaningful understanding of his presidency.
The Washington Post did a nice job setting the record straight, describing Rubio’s rhetoric as “specious,” which seems like an exceedingly polite way of saying “ignorant.”
It wasn’t the case, [Brian Michael Jenkins, a Rand Corp. expert who has written about how governments handled prisoner exchanges and hostage crises] said, that the release was simply prompted by a tough-talking Reagan’s inauguration – rather, diplomats under President Jimmy Carter negotiated a resolution finalized on Carter’s last full day as president. Carter secured the 52 hostages’ release in exchange for the unfreezing of Iranian assets, an American pledge not to meddle in internal Iranian affairs and the creation of a framework for resolving post-revolution financial claims.“There were concessions in return for getting them back,” Jenkins said.And while Reagan’s pledge not to “pay ransom” to the Iranians, coupled with Carter’s determination to secure a deal while president, clearly forced the crisis’s resolution, Reagan’s tough talk didn’t continue to guide his administration’s actions. Senior Reagan administration officials later went on to engage in secret talks with Iran to gain the release of hostages held by Iranian client groups in Lebanon. The deal negotiated by the Reagan officials included the sale of arms to Iran, the proceeds of which were funneled to right-wing rebels in Nicaragua, later exploding into the Iran-Contra affair.
It’s this latter point that seems especially important. If Rubio doesn’t understand the details of what transpired in January 1981, that’s a shame, but it’s not terribly surprising. There’s a GOP fairy tale that’s made the rounds and Republicans no longer understand that’s it’s fiction.
But the Iran-Contra scandal is much harder to overlook. When the issue at hand deals with U.S. policy in Iran, and the release of Americans detained abroad, the Reagan example should pretty much be the last model Republicans should point to.
As regular readers may recall, officials in the Reagan White House had the bright idea of illegally selling weapons to Iran in order to help finance an illegal war in Central America. It was one of the biggest scandals in American history, and much of Reagan’s national-security team ended up under criminal indictment.
At one point in 1986, Reagan delivered a nationally televised address in which he looked at the camera and promised Americans the scandal wasn’t true. Four months later, he was forced to deliver another televised address, conceding the fact that his claims in the first one weren’t true. (Take a moment to imagine what would happen to President Obama under these circumstances.)
I can appreciate why Republicans find all of this quite inconvenient now, and why the right may prefer to wipe the scandal from the party’s collective memories, but when the subject of U.S. policy towards Iran comes up, citing Reagan as some kind of Platonic ideal is ridiculous.