Monday, December 7, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: Reagan Diaries

Reviewed By: Afrah Jamal
PUBLISHED IN THE POST / OCT 13, 2007

Much has been written about the man who ushered in the end of the Cold War and survived the fallout of Iran-Contra scandal. And now it appears, as much has been written by the man himself in diaries he kept during his 8 year tenure as President of the United States. Presidential diaries are rare. Publicizing one is unprecedented.

‘The Reagan diaries’ are an abridged version of records Ronald Reagan kept from 1981-1989 which also served as reference material for his autobiography. Other than 6 pages redacted for National security reasons and some on Nancy Reagan’s request, these diaries are an edifying dramatization of Reagan’s presidential duties, private commitments, personal thoughts and high profile State visits. Edited by Douglas Brinkley, contributing editor Vogue and in-house historian CBS News, these posthumously published diaries are important on several levels and while they by no means ‘give away everything’, their capture of exclusive offstage drama could be considered remarkable enough to revive interest in the Reagan era. And, apart from tracing the unfolding Iran-Contra scandal, which could be seen as an instance of ‘plausible deniability’ and the diplomatic warfare between Soviet Union and the U.S., we get a rare chance to piece together chain of events in the South Asian region of the world.

Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions are a recurring motif of the Reagan years as signs emerged that the surreptitious beginnings of the South Asian arms race coincided with the Soviet-U.S. arms reduction efforts. By early December 1982, Reagan thought Pakistan’s President Zia-ul-Haq “was dedicated to helping the Afghans and stopping the Soviets” . He may be right there. Zia also assured him that Pakistan was not developing any atomic or nuclear bombs. According to the diaries, we managed to keep that farce going till 2 months before Zia’s ill fated plane crash, though warning bells had been going off in Washington. A meeting was also held with Foreign Minister Yaqub Khan in November 1984 about Pakistan’s reluctance to allow inspections. Some of our analysts differ from Reagan’s professed ignorance and allege that Aid for ‘Mujaheedin’ was a compelling reason for Washington to look away from Pakistan’s nuclear program, at least till the end of Soviet occupation; which coincides with the timeline in the diaries; only by April 1988, Washington formally conceded that Pakistan may be ‘dickering’ for nuclear missiles.

Coincidentally, President Zia’s initial popularity with Reagan also sagged with the end of the Cold War and on June 9 1988, he officially canceled a trip to the United States. A week later, when Zia declared Islamic law to be law of Pakistan , Reagan placed the Pakistani President in the same league as Khaddafi or Ayatollah; let’s just say, not the best company as far as the Washington was concerned. Colin Powell’s call about Zia’s mysterious plane crash came 2 months later, but curiously enough, Reagan refers to it as ‘one of our C-130’s in Pakistan’ when it must be clarified here that the C-130 belonged to Pakistan. It is an unusual slip-up, but since the editor maintains the raw format of these diaries, other errors like misspelling Zia’s name, or referring to the Sarah Ferguson and Prince Andrews wedding as ‘Charles and Di’s’ in July of 1986 are not uncommon.

As far as Iran-Contra is concerned, the entries frankly sketch the original plan whereby Israel releases 20 Hezbollah, sells weapons to Iran; Hezbollah releases 5 U.S hostages. U.S replaces Israel’s weapons. Iran agrees not to upset the apple cart further with more hijackings. No one ever talks about it. It is hardly surprising to learn what came off this convoluted diplomacy.

Another significant incident is that Reagan dismisses Bob Woodward, a reporter for the Washington Post and author of such works as ‘State of Denial’ and ‘Plan of Attack, as ‘a liar’ when Woodward claims to have been privy to the death bed confidences of Bill Casey – Director CIA 1981-1987, that implicated Reagan of approving assassinations in Lebanon. Bill had been said to be incapable of understanding or communicating at the time, hence the doubts on Woodward’s credibility. Later, in 1988 another Woodward story surfaced alleging U.S.-Israel intelligence agreements based on claims by Israel’s Amiram Nir- (counterterrorism advisor to Simon Perez). Since this happened after Nir’s death, Reagan, once again likened the scoop to the Bill Casey incident. The problem with Reagan’s allegation is that an Iranian Shiite target identified as the mastermind of bombings which killed U.S. Marines in Beirut in the October of 1983 had been marked for air strikes by the U.S on November 7 that same year , put off due to lack of adequate intelligence and taken out within days by Israel instead. Such coincidences could be suggestive.

Being the President, Reagan’s thoughts are predominantly on the politics of the day but some extraordinary trivia livens up the narrative; for instance Queen Elizabeth and Reagan are cousins and perhaps the White house plays host to a ghost; entries about the behavior of ‘Rex’ the dog lends some credence to the haunting stories circulating around Lincoln’s bedroom.

Publishing all 5 volumes in their entirety is a future objective. Currently available in 693 pages, this manuscript preserves the defining moments of the Reagan era, helps set timelines for interested historians and possibly fill some gaps in our knowledge base. Besides, the White House as the observation post to study global politics is always an intriguing notion.

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