Reagan's Real Legacy

He missed greatness, but nailed rightness

(Page 2 of 2)

And then there was Lebanon, the least remembered but perhaps, from today's vantage point, most costly of Reagan's shrugs. In his first term, Reagan committed American forces to a fuzzily defined peacekeeping mission in Lebanon, where there was no peace to keep. Again and again, he swore that the United States had a vital interest in Lebanon and would not "cut and run," even after a suicide truck bomber (does that sound familiar?) killed 241 U.S. marines. On February 4, 1984, Reagan said, "If we do [cut and run], we'll be sending one signal to terrorists everywhere: They can gain by waging war against innocent people." And then, only a few days later, Reagan skedaddled, insisting lamely that he was merely redeploying the marines—on ships, offshore, floating away. No one was fooled. The signal he sent to terrorists and insurgents was exactly the one he foretold, and the country is still paying the price—in Iraq, among other places.

Every president makes mistakes, but Reagan's were compounded by an element of complacency that shaded into negligence. The dark side of his optimism was wishful thinking that bordered on denial. Still, it must be admitted that his brand of irresponsibility—avoiding a bad-news story and whistling a happy tune—was a part of his political genius, the secret of his Teflon.

More important, it must also be admitted that the things Reagan did care about were very important things. And he got those right, which is impressive. More impressive still is that he got them right when the smartest people in his country had them wrong.

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