The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink, by William Inboden (Dutton, 608 pp., $35)
Ronald Reagan may have been the last president to enter office with both a foreign policy vision and a strategy for getting the job done. Reagan’s vision was vindicated: his presidency ended successfully, with Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms leading to the dissolution of the Soviet Union a few years later, during the presidency of Reagan’s successor, George H. W. Bush.
Since Reagan, our presidents have been less focused. Some have lacked a strategy; others, especially George W. Bush, changed theirs because of external events. But none have entered office with a true foreign policy vision.
It is for this reason that Will Inboden’s new book, The Peacemaker, a detailed history of Reagan’s presidency told through the lens of his foreign policy, is especially welcome. As the U.S. struggles with the question of what to do with a rising and aggressive China, as well as the apparent development of a new axis of authoritarianism arrayed against the United States, Reagan’s example for leveraging American military power, allies, diplomatic initiatives, presidential rhetoric, and human beings’ innate desire for freedom is incredibly instructive. (Quick disclosure: Inboden and I overlapped for a time in the George W. Bush administration.)
A professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a former national security official, Inboden has a gift for telling a compelling story while presenting the big picture. Despite Reagan’s successes in foreign policy, Inboden is no cheerleader. He points out many mistakes by Reagan and his foreign policy advisors, but this makes for a more nuanced portrait of the administration. His chronological treatment of developments allows readers to see how everything comes together and how an imperfect team can nevertheless achieve success in its overarching goal.
The cornerstone, Inboden makes clear, was Reagan himself. Inboden is not shy about pointing out the presidents’ apparent contradictions. Inboden presents a best of times, worst of times look at Reagan that reveals that his flaws and his strengths were both manifest to fair-minded observers: “His mind was alternately inattentive and facile toward policy details, yet brilliant in its photographic memory and strategic vision. He lived in fear of nuclear annihilation yet maintained a lightness of being that steeled him with the self-confidence and equanimity to weather unfathomable pressures and burdens.” All these characteristics, good and bad, made Reagan who he was and allowed him to accomplish what he did.
Beyond Reagan himself was the team that he built. Inboden is particularly good at describing these players and how they came to join the operation. He provides small details that bring the participants to life on the page. Of CIA director William Casey, Inboden writes, “Casey brought to CIA the street smarts of a blue-collar kid from Long Island, the anti-communism of a devout Catholic, and the flexible ethics of a New York lawyer.” He also explains that Casey’s infamous mumble was not just a strategic choice but the result of being hit in his trachea in a boxing match in his youth. Casey did appear to exploit the confusion that the mumble caused when it suited him, but the medical origin of the speaking style adds clarity to the tale. Other illuminating descriptors include those on NSA official Michael Ledeen—“A scholar of fascism and Machiavelli with a fetish for secrecy, Ledeen drew on extensive contacts in Italy and the Middle East to dispatch colorful reports back to Washington,” and arms control official Kenneth Adelman, whom Inboden describes as “a young intellectual then serving with [Jeane] Kirkpatrick at the UN, whose past escapades included being Muhammad Ali’s translator during the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ match in Zaire against George Foreman in 1974.”
All these colorful characters around Reagan made for a fractious bunch, and Inboden revels in telling tales of the rivalries and infighting that ensued. Much of the upheaval at the beginning centered around Alexander Haig, a mistaken hire pushed on Reagan by Richard Nixon. Haig started off on the wrong foot, presenting top White House aides Jim Baker, Mike Deaver, and Ed Meese—the troika, as they were known—with a memo laying out Haig’s grandiose view of himself as the “vicar” of foreign policy. Meese stuffed the memo in a briefcase—his infamous “Meesecase”—and it was never seen again. But Haig freelanced on foreign policy and, in one instance, tried to throw the aides who reported to the White House on his shenanigans off of his plane.
Haig thought a lot about modes of travel; he would later complain about not being on Reagan’s helicopter on a trip to England. When Haig was forced out shortly afterward, he said that he was resigning over policy differences. Reagan wrote bemusedly in his diary that “actually, the only disagreement was over whether I made policy or the Secretary of State did.” George Shultz replaced Haig and proved much more successful, even if he engaged in his own unrelenting struggle—this one against Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger.
Despite the tumult, the Reagan approach worked, largely because Reagan made it work. His vision and his strategy were clear, and those who were not aligned, including Haig and short-term national security advisor Richard Allen, were ushered out. In addition, as Inboden makes clear, Reagan’s approach worked in Asia and Europe, where he put both time and thought into strategy and the cultivation of allies, such as U.K. prime minister Margaret Thatcher and Japanese prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone. The approach was less successful in the Middle East, where he expended less time and thought.
Reagan may have been America’s last great president. He left office with high approval ratings, served two full terms, and passed the presidency on to a successor who had been his own vice president. He also laid out a foreign policy approach and pursued it doggedly and successfully. The Reagan foreign policy deserves a detailed history, and Inboden was the right person to write it.
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