By Rouzbeh Pirouz.
Perhaps it was fitting that I was in America when Ronald Reagan died. As is their habit, sometimes endearing and sometimes unnerving, Americans quickly moved to the gear they know best: overkill.
Within moments of the news, the nation was submerged in a tide of sentimentality mushy enough to bring a smile to the face of a B movie actor in Hollywood. Still I felt it was better to view this event from American eyes simply because Ronald Reagan was so quintessentially an American character that the inevitably well balanced and somewhat jaded European perspective could never truly understand him. There is sadly very little space in the modern European sensibility for someone who was as sure of himself let alone his beliefs as Ronald Reagan. Yet I was also unsettled by the eerily reverential attitude of the American press who were busily lionizing Reagan in a fashion that would please most of the dictators Reagan had so passionately decried. Was he really that great I thought? Was he the right man in the right place in the right time or was he simply right? The answer to all three questions is yes but the curious thing despite all those who claim the lasting nature of his legacy is that we have already forgotten why that is the answer.
The first thing you should know in that I am unlikely advocate for the greatness of Ronald Reagan. I was born in Iran, a country which America ruthlessly manipulated for decades in order to secure the oil which lit up President Reagan's 'shining city on a hill.' I spent my formative years in Canada, a country which struggles mightily to define itself as something other than America. During my university years in the US, I volunteered for a homeless support group which convinced me that America's reality was closer to former NY Governor Mario Cuomo's evocation, 'a tale of two cities', than President Reagan's dreamy descriptions. And I have spent my professional career in Europe during a period in which Europeans have felt increasingly distant from their righteous cousins across the pond. I am an unabashed political liberal, a dirty word in post-Reagan America, who has always supported and worked for parties of the center left and believes in the importance of Government programs to a healthy society. So how on earth can I come to the conclusion that Ronald Reagan, America's cheerleader in chief and an avowed if not actual enemy of big government, can be described as a great leader? The answer is disarmingly simple: because he believed in the intrinsic superiority of Liberty for everyone, not just his own people, had the boldness declare it loudly, and the courage to fight for it.
Now you might think that that is no great feat. After all not even Saddam Hussein would openly admit to not believing in Liberty. As Americans themselves might say, isn't this like Mom and Apple Pie, something we are all for. Well not quite. One of the sad developments of the 20th Century was the extent to which liberals in the west allowed the universal ideal of liberal values to disintegrate into the murky haze of relativism under the guise of avoiding conflict at almost any cost. Liberal ideas, as conceived in the bright reflection of 17th century Enlightenment, derived their very meaning and force from the fact they were upheld as universal truths. The prospect of nuclear conflict, however, forced other considerations to the fore. Progressive thought in the West increasingly chose accommodation with the enemy to secure peace as a better alternative than the risks of defiantly declaring the supremacy of liberal values and paying the price to promote them. The messiness and ruthlessness of America's long hard campaign in the Cold War, which reached its pinnacle in Vietnam, made an entire generation uneasy with the struggle it found itself in. Liberals became more interested in promoting détente than democracy.
Ronald Reagan's unique political journey reflected his frustration with this trajectory of the political Left. He started his adult life as a Democrat but was alienated by what he felt was its debilitating weakness in facing the Soviet threat. When he finally emerged as a Republican president, Reagan boldly declared that liberal values were good and the totalitarian values epitomized by the Soviet Union were not. No one was more scandalized than the political grouping referred to as liberals. How could anyone, let alone the President of a superpower be so utterly simplistic? There was only one small problem: he was that simplistic and what's more, he was right. Ronald Reagan did not win the Cold War single-handedly but the clarity of his vision helped to shake the Soviet empire until it simply collapsed.
Sadly, the outpouring of praise and reverence that has marked President Reagan's passing cannot disguise the reality that the lessons of this experience have had almost no impact on how much of the political left is facing the new challenges facing the world today. Communism may be a thing of the past but tyranny endures. Yet the comfortable confines of relativism once again offer more comfort than the prerogatives of a moralized view. Even apart from the war in Iraq, a convoluted adventure that is easy to criticize, the Left has taken upon itself to treat the entire project of actively promoting democracy in the Middle East and elsewhere with disdain. Apart from a besieged band of so called liberal internationalists, the chorus is back again to tell us that we should just accept that everyone is different rather than daring to think that everyone deserves to be free.
Ronald Reagan simply did not care what such people had to say. In fact, remarkably, he seemed to relish the prospect of confronting them. He was in the truest sense a non-elitist who believed that the privileges of liberty should be afforded to everybody. This stands in stark contrast to the abject elitism of those who claim that some people are more suited to democracy than others. An elitism that disguises itself in populist clothing by claiming its opponents are trying to impose their values on others as if anyone had bothered to ask the people in question whether they wanted to be free? Thankfully, whenever the question has been asked, the response has been resoundingly affirmative.
In office, President Reagan was an idealist rather than a realist but pragmatic rather than dogmatic. As a result, Reagan's America exploited its greatest strength: the power of its example to the world. The Soviet Union collapsed not because it was defeated by the American military but because its leaders realized it could never defeat the American economy. This approach stands in marked contrast to that of the current President who has sadly wrecked America's image abroad through the hubris of a superpower. Reagan, on the other hand, understood America's authority came not from being seen as an empire but as the shining city of his dreams, however close or distant that was from reality.
Ronald Reagan was never fashionable among liberal intellectuals and I suspect his death will make little difference in this regard. In the age of W, America itself has become decidedly unpopular around the world. Just yesterday, I met an Arab Ambassador who launched into an hour long litany of America's crimes and misdemeanours. Most of which were true. But so too is America's long history as a free and vigorous democracy. With every new catastrophe in Iraq, the Relativists shout louder: we told you so, they say, the world is the way it is for a reason. Well Ronald Reagan never bought that line. He followed in the footsteps of Rousseau to see all mankind in the same light. The practices of his administration were often dodgy, sullied by the mindset of an unscrupulous combatant, but what endures was his vision. Countries, like people, are never as pure as their ideals. However the vision stood apart almost as a mesmerizing myth that changed the world as we knew it. Reagan understood that Liberty was a concept he could sell to them all including the hardened leaders of the Soviet Union as it turned out. And it was made possible by a single magical quality, optimism. In these dark days when anarchy reigns in Iraq and people feel America stands for power alone, that optimism is in short supply. It is at this moment when once again the meaning of being a liberal is so confused that Reagan, viewed by so many liberals as the enemy, would offer the best advice. First and foremost, he would say, have faith in Liberty.