Ronald Reagan was many things, but one thing he was not was a US President with an appetite for starting long, costly and deadly wars. Of course, Reagan ballooned the military-industrial complex with CIA led adventures in Nicaragua (and the related Iran-Contra scandal), the brief invasion of Grenada and CIA meddling in El Salvador. But when it came to starting long and deadly wars, Reagan knew full well that the ghosts of Vietnam hung too heavily in the balance for any 1980s conflict to even approach a Vietnam level of US personnel fighting overseas. Such a war would have been too unpopular to sucessfully wage.
Because in the 1980s, veterans of the Second World War, war on Korea and war in Vietnam were all major demographic elements of the US public, few Presidents at that time would have been so eager to go to traditional wars for no clear national defence purpose, as have 21st century Presidents who rule over a young and middle aged population who may not even know what ‘the draft’ is let alone what a draft dodger like Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Donald Trump are. Obama was of course the only 21st century President too young to have potentially fought in Vietnam.
The longest war that Reagan fought was one he inherited from the Carter administration. This was of course the war in Afghanistan orchestrated by arch-Russophobic war criminal Zbigniew Brzezinski. Crucially, while the war in Afghanistan caused the world great damage by leading to the foundations of al-Qaeda and the Takfiri terrorism that has become a world wide disaster in the 21st century, because hardly any American soldiers were in Afghanistan during the 1980s, many Americans remained oblivious to the fact that the US was funding and arming the Takfiri Mujaheddin, where as recently as 1975, every American saw the harrowing films of the last helicopter leaving Saigon.
Furthermore, in hindsight, Reagan was far less pro-“Israel” than any of his successors. While many in “Israel” actually favoured a victory of the Islamic Republic of Iran over Saddam Hussein’s Arab Nationalist Iraq (hard to believe for those with a short memory, but true nevertheless), Reagan made few concessions to “Israel” and instead happily formed an alliance with Saddam. Reagan’s administration went so far as to criticise “Israel” for its illegal attack on Iraq in 1981. Again there is a rational explanation for this. Most of the individuals in the Reagan White House were born long before the invention of “Israel”. Therefore, the the pro-Zionist stance of more recent US leaders was psychologically moderated by the fact that Ronald Reagan and his colleagues were on the whole, far older than “Israel” itself and therefore did not see the entity as something which was as sacrosanct as those born into a world where “Israel” was the rule rather than the exception.
When Ronald Reagan did engaged in conflicts in the Arab world, it was usually with short and ultimately meaningless operations. When Reagan sent US Marines into the thick of the Lebanese Civil War in 1983, all it took was one bombing of their barracks for Reagan to realise that the prudent move was to pull them out. After a short naval strike on pro-Syrian targets in Lebanon that same year, Reagan pulled all the US troops out of Lebanon and they would not return.
In 1986, Reagan conducted a brief bombing campaign of Libya in retaliation for alleged Libyan involvement in the West Berlin discotheque bombing which targeted US servicemen. This bombing took place on the 15th of April 1986 and lasted for about as long as Donald Trump’s 2018 strike on Syria which occurred on the 14th of April. While the US claimed a victory, Libya too claimed a moral victory when Libyan forces shot down a US F-111 Aardvark aircraft. The attack which some say was intended to kill Libya’s revolutionary leader Muammar Gaddafi was instead memorialised with a monument of a Libyan fist crushing an American F-111. Thus, Reagan and Gaddafi both claimed a personal victory while neither country’s geopolitical reality was changed.
Donald Trump’s missile strike on Syria bears similarities to Reagan’s on Libya beyond the ironic timing of Trump’s attack happening virtually 32 years later, almost to the day. Trump’s attack has allowed the US to claim it “stood up to Syria, Iran and Russia”, while the fact that Syria intercepted almost all of the missiles and thus far no deaths have been confirmed, has been seen in Syria as a moral victory for Damascus. If the 14th of April becomes a public holiday in Syria at this time next year, one shouldn’t be surprised.
Yet when Reagan bombed Libya few Americans protested or even cared. Several years after the bombing, few Americans even remembered it happened. Yet in the 21st century, the US wars in the Middle East are remembered by virtually all Americans, both because of their length and because of the fact that most Americans feel that either the US hasn’t won or that the US has already lost.
The resurgence of both Pat Buchanan style American paleoconservatism and Ron Paul style libertarian have propelled the right of centre anti-war movement to the forefront of American politics, no matter how much the mainstream media ignores it. In fact, Trump campaigned as a simplistic version of a Buchanan/Paul hybrid in many respects. So while in terms of actual military logistics, Trump’s attack on Syria did even less damage than Reagan’s attack on Libya, for many Trump supporters he is now the new Bush or the new Obama – aka a pro-war, big government enemy.
Forgetting ethics (as Washington doesn’t seem to have any), when it comes to the war of public opinion, Trump should realise that he is in an era shaped by the disaster of Bush’s Iraq disaster, Obama’s Libya disaster and the wave of Daesh terrorism that these wars, as well as Obama’s own sponsorship of terrorism in Syria have caused. Because of this, the US public is increasingly having a post-Vietnam attitude to war. Put simply, many Americans remember losing wars and creating terrorism and hence they’re not interested in doing it again, just as in the 1980s most Americans if they had to choose, would have preferred an Iran-Contra President to a President drafting young American men to fight in conflicts in a war in Nicaragua that the average journalist at the time, let alone the average person couldn’t even fully explain the meaning of.
Because the wars of the Bush and Obama eras are not yet over, Trump does not have the luxury Reagan had of automatically having the benefit of the doubt among the US public that his little wars wouldn’t turn into big wars. Because of this and because of the speed with which uncomfortable historical facts are learned thanks to social media, Trump may have to work hard to transform himself from “Georak Obamush” into Donald Reagan, in the eyes of his anti-war base. This war may already be lost.