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Ronald Reagan and the Middle East

Lawrence Freedman: Well, I think Reagan benefitted indirectly from the sort of sense of haplessness and ineffectuality that surrounded Carter by the end. The

achievement on the Arab/Israeli treaty- on the Egyptian/Israeli treaty- was not fully appreciated. Particularly, at the time, the Israelis weren’t overjoyed about it, though it was in fact a great move for them. While he was seen so much to have lost Iran, and partly responsible for it, he hadn’t been able to get the hostages back despite making this the great cause of his final year. He said, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, that his views had been completely turned around and so that made him look as if he really didn’t have a good grasp of what was going on. Now, of course, Reagan was completely different to Carter in that Reagan never pretended to have a grasp of detail. That’s not what he was known for. But he did seem to (a) offer a more positive message, (b) not be trying to confront America with its malaise- malaise was a word that Carter used- you can never imagine Reagan using such a word about America. He was sort of uplifting. He offered a clear message about American priorities and dealing with evil and so on. Interestingly, he was extraordinarily pragmatic and flexible over his presidency. He wasn’t by any means an unyielding ideologue when it came to the particular problems he faced. In some ways, Reagan with the Iran/Contra affair, how he insisted he would never deal with countries like Iran when he was working, in fact, much more closely with the Iranians, tolerated an opening to Iran, which went against everything that he was saying. So, actually, he dealt with issues probably more on a human and emotional

level than on an ideological level in many areas of foreign policy, but he had the effect of making the Americans feel quite good about what they were doing. And he also- he had a great foreign policy achievement in the way he could almost say he broke the spirit of the Soviet Union as an opponent of the United States. And he did so in a way- in the end- that didn’t rub the Soviet noses in it. I think he was a genuine foreign policy success. On the Middle East, you can argue he went through some pretty big failures, but by the end of his presidency, he could also say that he’d humiliated the Iranians, too. He was partly responsible with Iraq for them failing to reach their objectives in the Iran/Iraq war. So the presidency didn’t end with an aura of failure. Had it ended earlier, it might have done, but when it did actually end, it had an aura of success.

Question: What was Reagan’s involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Well, Reagan was the most pro-Israeli President. And after Carter, this was quite noticeable. The rest of his Administration was not so pro-Israeli. And of course, he came in when Begin, as
Prime Minister, was taking a very strong line, both with the Palestinians and the men in Lebanon, as well- the invasion of Lebanon in ’82- to the point that Reagan got really cross- surprisingly cross, and there were all sorts of problems during the Eighties between Israel and the Administration, though Reagan never lost his basically pro-Israeli approach. He didn’t move the Arab/Israeli conflict on at all, really- only towards the end, and this was because of shifts really in the Palestinian position and the x, when Schultz saw certain opportunities as Secretary of State to somehow draw the PLO into the negotiating process. But up to that point, not a lot happened- of course, Israeli politics was paralyzed for much of the Eighties, and that was the problem- because they- there was no clear-cut government. I think one of the problems that beset American/Israeli relations- in which people who were always demanding of the Americans to put more pressure on Israel and so on- is just how weak in some ways a succession of Israeli governments have been. So though they may have had Prime Ministers or Foreign Ministers who saw the need to move the process forward, they never quite had the political strength to do so. And I don’t think it was Reagan’s particular interest to try to challenge that, as opposed to his successor, the elder Bush, if we can call him that, who did try to move it forward.

Recorded on: 5/19/08

Lawrence Freedman judges Reagan's strategies in the region, particularly regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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