President Reagan was a strong advocate of Peace through Strength. Essentially he believed that foreign powers were less likely to engage with the United States militarily if they were certain that they would receive immediate, disproportionate punishment from our armed forces. It’s the same philosophy that most of us were smart enough to learn in grade school: Bullies don’t pick on the strong kids. They pick on the weak kids. If a bully picks on you, punch them really hard in the nose. Not only will they go away, they will probably not pick on you again. They will slink off and look for a weaker target.
Along with Peace through Strength, Reagan had several other beliefs that guided his thinking regarding protecting America from foreign enemies. First: there is good and evil. Second, in facing evil, it is justified to use military force. Third, if we are going to use force, use overwhelming force. Fourth, nation building works if you have a nation to begin with. Fifth, technology and innovative tactics both help overcome manpower or military imbalances. Finally, always leave your enemies guessing how extreme your military response might be.
There is good and evil. There is right and wrong. Reagan clearly would have seen both Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda as evil and threats to the citizens of the United States. So much has been made regarding the presence or absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Clearly Iraq had them at one time because they used them on their own citizens (the Kurds). However WMD’s would not have been Reagan’s justification for acting against Iraq. The main justification after 9-11 would have been that both Iraq and al-Qaeda were behind state sponsored terrorism. They financed, equipped and trained terrorists to attack the US. In addition, he would have viewed them as fundamentally, morally evil due to Sadam’s abuse of his own citizens and the Taliban’s abuse of their fellow citizens. Considering Reagan was a big supporter of the Mujahedeen in their fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan, Reagan would have seen the rise of the Taliban as a failure of the US to execute a consistent, long-term foreign policy with Afghanistan.
In facing evil, it is justified to use military force. Here’s what President Reagan said in response to the TWA Flight 847 hijacking by terrorists: “Americans […] are not going to tolerate intimidation, terror and outright acts of war against this nation and its people. And we are especially not going to tolerate these attacks from outlaw states run by the strangest collection of misfits, Looney Tunes and squalid criminals since the advent of the Third Reich […] There can be no place on earth where it is safe for these monsters to rest, or train or practice […] We must act together – or unilaterally, if necessary – to ensue that these terrorists have no sanctuary, anywhere.”
In addition Reagan said the following regarding our bombing of Libya in response to the 1986 Berlin disco bombing: “Today we have done what we had to do. If necessary, we shall do it again. It gives me no pleasure to say that, and I wish it were otherwise… When our citizens are abused or attacked anywhere in the world on the direct orders of a hostile regime, we will respond so long as I’m in this Oval Office…Despite our repeated warnings, Qadhafi continued his reckless policy of intimidation, his relentless pursuit of terror. He counted on America to be passive. He counted wrong.” So President Reagan, much like President George W. Bush, would have used the military against both Iraq and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. And as he stated above, he would have acted unilaterally if necessary.
If we are going to use force, use overwhelming force. An overwhelming military response maximizes the likelihood of victory and minimizes the loss of life. Reagan’s view was very similar to the “Powell Doctrine” under President George HW Bush. Reagan’s other view was that the use of overwhelming force served as an example and deterrent to those who might want to attack the US in the future. Reagan said, “History teaches that wars begin when governments believe the price of aggression is cheap.” Thus I believe Reagan would have responded to both Iraq and al-Qaeda with even more personnel, hardware, and technology than President Bush did.
After we militarily defeated Saddam in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan, Reagan would have made a move to transition the countries to their own control. However he would have taken a different approach with each country. Reagan would have guided the political and military training of those Iraqi’s who helped us defeat Saddam so that they could defend and rule their own country. This would have happened in a quicker timeframe than under President Bush because the military conflict would have ended sooner under Reagan. There wouldn’t have been the military need for the “Surge”. The whole operation would have been a Surge, an extreme overwhelming, unrelenting military presence. After Saddam and his forces were crushed, Reagan would propose keeping several US military bases in Iraq for an extended period of time (e.g. Germany after World War II and South Korea after the Korean War).
However Reagan would have dealt with Afghanistan differently. Afghanistan has not had a stable government in recent history. One could argue they never have had a stable government from the perspective of how we think about a government protecting the rights of its citizens. So after defeating the Taliban, Reagan would have used the combination of technology and innovative tactics to keep al-Qaeda in check in Afghanistan. Reagan believed technology could offset many military challenges. He saw technology as a game changer on the political battlefield of the Cold War. Instead of depending upon Nuclear weapon superiority (the Soviets had more warheads), Reagan saw a shield or a weapon to destroy the Soviets warheads after they were launched as the checkmate to win the nuclear escalation battle. Thus the Strategic Defense Initiative (Star Wars) was born. The dependency on Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) was broken. With SDI, a nuclear war wouldn’t be avoided because the parties knew they both would be destroyed. It would be avoided because the Soviets would understand if they launched first, we could intercept a majority of their inbound missiles and thus maintain our capability for retaliation. Without a technology equivalent to SDI, the USSR would be annihilated by our response. Reagan stated about SDI, “the defense policy of the United States is based on a simple premise: The United States does not start fights. We will never be an aggressor. We maintain our strength in order to deter and defend against aggression — to preserve freedom and peace.” Thus SDI represented both a new technology and a new tactic.
Reagan would take his belief in technology and innovative tactics and apply them to Afghanistan after the Taliban was defeated. We would become the terrorist on the terrorists in Afghanistan. Instead of having US bases in Afghanistan, we would use commandos and Special Forces to stage impromptu attacks on remaining Taliban pockets of resistance as we were able to identify them by satellites or in country intelligence. We would have even more extensive use of stealth bombers, drones and missiles that would attack the Taliban hiding places without warning. The Taliban would never know whether they were going to be hit by commandos, bombers, drones or missiles. They would be stuck in their caves and have difficulty executing any significant military action. At the same time, we would not be exposing a large number of US forces to attack from within Afghanistan. Tied to our solution above for Iraq, our military bases in Iraq would serve as a source for many of our attacks on the Taliban. Of course with drones, missiles, and bombers, a lot of the support staff could be in remote bases, aircraft carriers and back in the mainland US. Our goal would simply be to constantly harass the Taliban so that they couldn’t be effective in taking over Afghanistan again. This could go on for a decade or more with a limited loss of US life while keeping al-Qaeda from gaining a foothold in Afghanistan.
This combination of commando tactics and technology represents one of the ways Reagan would have executed his belief in leaving your enemies guessing. Reagan was often accused of being a Cowboy, quick on the trigger. It was exactly that persona that he used to his advantage. During the 1979 Iran Hostage crisis, Iran viewed President Carter as weak and thus they saw the hostages as pawns to be used to humiliate and extract money from the US. That’s why they kept the hostages for 444 days. Why didn’t they keep them for 445 days? Because Reagan was inaugurated on the 445th day. And on that day, Iran released the hostages. The reason was that they firmly believed Reagan was not weak, and he absolutely would take strong military action against them. Iran had no idea what Reagan would do, but they knew the outcome would have been really bad for them. The terrorists today would also always be in doubt regarding what that American Cowboy was getting ready to do to them.
Like all Presidents, Reagan felt one of the most difficult things he ever did was put our men and women of the military in harm’s way. He felt that not only due to the potential loss of life but also because he felt the people in our military represented the best of the American character. As an example of Reagan’s faith and love for our military Reagan stated, “Some people live an entire lifetime and wonder if they have ever made a difference in the world, but the Marines don’t have that problem.” The men and women of our military had a high regard and mutual respect for President Reagan. Rest assured they would have used all their abilities to execute on the President’s vision to keep America safe from the threats in Iraq and Afghanistan.