Living Up to the Eulogies

A little more than two decades ago, Ronald Reagan hosted the Western world's leaders in Williamsburg, Va., for what would become a high point in global summitry and Cold War politics. His agenda was as bold as it was ambitious: to win support for a nuclear buildup in Europe that would bolster his bargaining position with the Soviet Union. It's one thing to try to convince your allies to send their troops to a foreign war. It's another to get their support for missiles that could turn their nations into ground zero of a nuclear exchange.

Yet that's what Reagan did at Williamsburg, overriding Soviet threats of retaliation and overcoming the hesitations of the French and Canadians. The cruise and Pershing missiles that followed Williamsburg sparked widespread antinuclear protests in Europe and sharpened opposition to his presidency overseas. But Reagan held his alliances together, and entered talks with the Soviets on stronger terms.

Today at Sea Island in Georgia, George W. Bush hosts the same allies with another bold agenda. But for a president who has modeled his policies and rhetoric on Reagan, the comparisons fall short. This is a different era, with different enemies and different allies. Yet most of all, it is Bush himself who is sharply different from Reagan.

It was only two months before Williamsburg when Reagan warned of the "aggressive impulses of an evil empire" and those who believed the arms race was "a giant misunderstanding." When Bush warned of an axis of evil in January 2002, his aides were quick to point to Reagan's rhetoric to justify the president's positions--and the controversy they triggered among America's allies.

But Reagan followed his rhetorical pressure and military buildup with talks, not war. He talked of consigning communism to the ash heap of history, but he never invaded the Soviet Union or its satellite states. He sounded like he supported rollback of the U.S.S.R., like John Foster Dulles, and the liberation of Eastern Europe. But in practice Reagan adopted a more aggressive form of containment, extending a half century of American foreign policy.

The Bush administration makes the Reagan years look peaceful in comparison. When Reagan went to London in 1982 to be Churchillian about the Soviet threat, he admitted: "We must be cautious about forcing the pace of change." President Bush, in contrast, has shown few hesitations about forcing change on the Muslim world, starting with the war in Iraq. His aides have toiled long and hard to win Muslim support for the Middle East Initiative at this week's summit--a plan meant to turbocharge the pace of democratic change in the region. But where Reagan was forcing change on a hostile enemy, Bush has struggled to effect change on several friends. Administration officials remained enormously upbeat about the initiative even though several allies--including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Morocco--declined the invitation to show up in Georgia this week. "This is going to be a big success," said one senior State Department official. "You mark my words."

That's not to say that Bush's policy goals for the Middle East are misguided. Far from it. Democracy, economic reforms and greater cultural freedom are crucial to halting the spread of radical Islam. But the comparison between Reagan and Bush points to a curious contrast. Reagan carried his allies with him, even as he deployed missiles in their own countries. Bush has struggled to carry his allies, even when they already support the policies of reform in their own countries. Those struggles may be coming to an end with the passing of the latest United Nations resolution on Iraq, and the handover of sovereignty to a new Iraqi government. Yet the burning image of Bush's record is his sharp break with his allies, not his belated kiss-and-make-up. Even on Bush's signature policy of pre-emption, the comparison with Reagan falls apart. Where Bush insists he won't wait while dangers gather, the Reagan administration roundly condemned Israel's pre-emptive strike against Iraq's nuclear plant at Osirak in 1981. Not because Reagan's aides liked Saddam Hussein or his nuclear ambitions, but because they opposed pre-emption and feared it would destabilize the world.

Of course, it's not just Bush who suffers the discomfort of comparison with a late president whose political edges have been softened by time. John Kerry entered the Senate 18 months after the Williamsburg summit and launched his career by sharply opposing Reagan's policies in Nicaragua. He quickly took to attacking U.S. support for the contra guerrillas--one of Reagan's most idealized groups--and set about uncovering what became the Iran-contra scandal. On domestic policy, Kerry found himself on the wrong side of the Reagan administration even when he sided with Republicans. While Kerry broke with much of his party to support balanced-budget measures in the 1980s, the Reagan budgets were marked by record deficits.

Kerry now praises Reagan's "love of country" and was planning to pay his respects at Reagan's presidential library in California on Tuesday. And while his campaign suspended overt politics this week, Kerry's own written statement on Reagan contained its own veiled criticism of President Bush. Kerry could not resist referring to Nancy Reagan's dispute with the Bush administration on scientific research into Alzheimer's. In an apparent reference to Mrs. Reagan's support for stem-cell research, Kerry praised her efforts for increase understanding of the disease "and what we must do to prevent and cure it."

There's no doubt that Reagan's passing has cast a long shadow over the presidential election this week. But it's also led to some contorted positions for both campaigns. The closer both sides get to the Reagan years, the worse the candidates seem. Few politicians can match up to the eulogized version of a world leader, and neither Bush nor Kerry fares well alongside a president who entered the history books long ago.