Yes We Can

Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan (L) greets for

Beinart encourages Obama to follow in Reagan’s footsteps:

[T]he same “Reaganites” who will bash Obama for compromising with Rouhani once bashed Reagan for compromising with Gorbachev. As late as December 1987, Charles Krauthammer was writing that “the fundamental misconception about Gorbachev is that he has somehow broken the ideological mold.” Until virtually the day the Soviet empire collapsed, Rep. Dick Cheney was calling glasnost a fraud. In 1988 George Will accused Reagan of having “accelerated the moral disarmament of the West … by elevating wishful thinking [about Gorbachev] to the status of public policy.” When Reagan brought the intermediate missiles deal to Congress for ratification, a right-wing group called the Anti-Appeasement Alliance took out newspaper ads comparing Reagan to Neville Chamberlain.

Yes, those political struggles were easier for Reagan because he hailed from the political right. But that wasn’t the only reason he triumphed over the “Reaganites” who now take his name in vain. He triumphed because he had the moral imagination to envisage a relationship beyond confrontation and war. Musing in late 1987 about the opponents of his nuclear deal, Reagan declared that “some of the people who are objecting the most … whether they realize it or not, those people basically down in their deepest thoughts have accepted that war is inevitable.” Because Reagan refused to accept what others considered inevitable, he achieved one of the greatest successes in the history of American foreign policy. Now it’s Obama’s turn to imagine a future that his critics cannot and to have the guts to make it real.

Obama’s careful speech at the UN today did not sound like Reagan’s dreamy optimism toward Gorbachev at Reykyavik – another moment when neoconservatives denounced Reagan as aggressively as they will surely denounce any diplomacy with Iran. It was designed to express caution – too much caution, in my view. Money quote:

I don’t believe this difficult history can be overcome overnight – the suspicion runs too deep. But I do believe that if we can resolve the issue of Iran’s nuclear program, that can serve as a major step down a long road toward a different relationship – one based on mutual interests and mutual respect.

I understand the delicacy. But what Rouhani needs is what Gorbachev needed – a big gesture – or the nit-pickers and nay-sayers and militarists in both countries will once again seize the initiative.

(Photo: Former US President Ronald Reagan greets former president of the former Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev upon his arrival in the US. By Mike Nelson/AFP/Getty Images.)