International Papers

Never a Gray Moment

The international press looks at Ronald Reagan.

The death of former President Ronald Reagan was front-page news in many international newspapers that did not appear on Sunday. The two-day delay allowed commentators, obituarists, and grandees who knew the man to sharpen their quills and reflect upon what he left behind.

The London-based Al-Hayat published a front-page story by the paper’s deputy editor, under the heading: “Ronald Reagan: The Maker of Costly Victories.” The ambiguous phrase referred to the fact that the late U.S. president, “who didn’t like gray zones,” left behind a more unstable world by combating the USSR. Reagan was “a president who lacked deep culture, who would stumble on the names of presidents and the locations of countries … [but] who had extraordinary communication skills … and an ability to speak to the American spirit and awaken the American dream.” Moreover, his legacy affected President George W. Bush, who “would not have torn Iraq away from the ‘axis of evil’ had it not been for the startling victory of Reagan when he moved against the ‘evil empire’ [the Soviet Union].” The Sydney Morning Herald also blended praise and hesitation by observing that Reagan “offered the [United States] certainty and strength. This, he believed, was only possible by ignoring moral ambiguities. He [also] wound back abortion rights, civil rights, affirmative action and the influence of the United Nations.”

France’s left-wing Liberation drew the implications of his policies for U.S. politics today by noting that Reagan “revived the credibility of conservatism in the United States” after the damage done to it during the Nixon years. He was “supported by a handful of ‘neoconservatives’ emerging from the ranks of the Democratic Party (the parents of [the neocons] of today), [and] gave Americans a simple program that rested on two ideas: a lowering of taxes and anti-communism.”

In a commentary in London’s Daily Telegraph, Charles Moore examined what Reagan had meant for British conservatism, particularly his close relationship with former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Observing that the two had met before coming to power, Moore wrote: “Reagan was [then] considered stupid and [a] maverick, Mrs. Thatcher was considered ignorant and provincial.” Adversity built up close ties, but there were differences: “She stood for the stern, puritanical side of conservatism—the need to brace up and take the medicine. He stood for the optimistic, open, deeply American side of it—the idea that everything will be all right if only people are trusted to get on with their lives.”

Reagan’s differences with Thatcher would pale in comparison with those between the U.S. president and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin over Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. The invasion, whose start the Lebanese commemorated on Sunday, was a defining moment for the Reagan presidency, which sought to use the aftermath to push for a comprehensive Middle East peace settlement. As Lebanon’s English-language Daily Star recalled, the 88-day siege of Beirut was particularly bloody: “Estimates place the number killed at around 20,000, those wounded at 30,000, while approximately half a million people were made homeless.” The violence prompted a testy exchange between Reagan and Begin, wrote a commentator in Israel’s Ha’aretz who described Lebanon as “a breaking point” in U.S.-Israeli relations: “‘The bombing of Beirut is a holocaust,’ Reagan told Begin, who responded by saying, ‘Mr. President, I know very well what a holocaust is.’ ”

But a breaking point it actually was not. When the American project in Lebanon came crashing down following the deaths of 241 servicemen in a truck bombing of Marine barracks in 1983, the Reagan administration’s relations with Israel improved. Israelis would ultimately remember the U.S. president as a friend, but more specifically as someone whose hostility to the Soviet Union translated into sympathy for that country’s dissidents, especially Jews. One of these, Nathan Sharansky, who is now an Israeli Cabinet minister, penned a Reagan tribute in the Jerusalem Post, in which he remembered the impact of reading about Reagan’s “evil empire” speech while in prison: “Tapping on walls and talking through toilets, word of Reagan’s ‘provocation’ quickly spread throughout the prison. We dissidents were ecstatic. Finally, the leader of the free world had spoken the truth—a truth that burned inside the heart of each and every one of us.”

Daniel Ortega, who headed the Sandinista government that Reagan had fought so hard to overthrow, issued a flintier post-mortem against his old enemy, one picked up by Nicaragua’s La Prensa. After accusing Reagan of conducting a “dirty war” against Nicaragua, he nevertheless asked that God, “whose capacity for love is so great,” forgive the late president. That a former Marxist should mention the divine made one wonder, however, whether the last word didn’t really belong to the publicly devout Reagan.