The political crisis sweeping the Middle East is another part of Ronald Reagan's dark legacy that is shattering into chaos even as the United States prepares to lavishly celebrate his 100th birthday.
Upon taking office in 1981, Reagan turned the United States onto a new course, away from Jimmy Carter's intensive Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations and toward tolerance of the Likud strategy of expanding settlements on the West Bank and lashing out at Israel's enemies in Lebanon and the Occupied Territories.
This Reagan-Likud cooperation also affected politics and media inside the United States. In the early 1980s, with Reagan's assistance and blessings, a group of articulate operatives known as neoconservatives emerged as a powerful political/media force. Their dual role was to buttress U.S. support for the security interests of Israel and to rebuild a consensus around the U.S. global agenda, which had been shattered by the Vietnam War.
The neocons -- through their work inside the Reagan administration and in key parts of the U.S. news media, such as The New Republic and the Washington Post's opinion section -- became, in essence, the arbiters of Washington's conventional wisdom, setting the parameters of acceptable debate.
Even before the days of Fox News, their voices were prominent on the TV talk shows, the likes of Charles Krauthammer, Fred Barnes and William Kristol, or as publishers of influential opinion journals, such as Martin Peretz, Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz.
As the Reagan era advanced in the 1980s, journalists and politicians who showed skepticism about U.S. foreign policy -- the sort of attitude that had been common in the 1970s -- were dismissed as "blame America firsters," a phrase coined by Reagan's UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick.
Skeptics who continued to insist on challenging the Reagan/neocon propaganda saw their careers damaged or destroyed.
More malleable journalists ensured their status in the well-paying world of Washington media by bending to the prevailing winds. Many politicians did the same, recognizing the trouble they could get into by crossing Reagan's team and its ideological heirs.
Reagan's Middle East policy shifts -- and the influence of the neocons -- created space for Israel's Likudniks to pay lip service to granting Palestinians a homeland while systematically encroaching onto more and more Palestinian land, a process that Likud called "changing the facts on the ground." The expanding settlements essentially killed chances for a viable Palestinian state.
Reagan's approach, in effect, turned the Middle East into a political pressure cooker with the Arab "street" steaming over the humiliations of the Palestinians and furious over the timidity of bought-off Arab leaders.
As the pressure built -- with occasional outbursts of Muslim outrage, including acts of terrorism -- Washington's desire for "stability" required ever more repression. The Reagan administration stepped up security assistance to the region's dictators.
Leading to Invasion
The cumulative effect of Reagan's tough-guy legacy -- and the neocons' climb to the top of Washington's opinion hierarchy -- paved the way for George W. Bush's 2003 invasion of Iraq with remarkably little resistance from the U.S. media/political elite.
The Iraq invasion represented the fulfillment of the idea that American force could bring into line Muslim governments that resisted U.S. dictates or that threatened Israel.
In the heady days after Saddam Hussein was knocked from power, the neocons joked about whether to turn next to Syria or Iran. The thinking went that once those nation-state targets were neutralized Lebanon's Hezbollah and Palestine's Hamas would have no choice but to beg for peace on whatever terms Israel deigned to offer.
However, events didn't work out quite the way the neocons had diagrammed. After the initial victory in Iraq, the war went badly. The dreams of imposing pro-U.S./pro-Israeli regimes in Syria and Iran had to be deferred. Indeed, the U.S. ouster of Sunni leader Saddam Hussein in Iraq ended up increasing the relative power of Shiite-ruled Iran.