This fascinating book contends that Ronald Reagan was an innovative strategic thinker, which will come as a shock to those who still cling to the caricature of a simple-minded actor reading his 3x5 cards. As president, he abandoned containment and mutual assured destruction and pursued instead a war of ideas designed to undermine the Soviet Union. John Arquilla, a professor of defense analysis at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, shows that Reagan understood the "power of words to change history" and that America's most potent weapon was telling "our story to the world." Reagan was not an ideologue, but intellectually supple, nuanced, and civil. In the end, he reached out to Mikhail Gorbachev and ended the Cold War without firing a shot.
At the same time, Arquilla criticizes Reagan's vacillating response to terrorism. The world might have been a different place if the president had listened to George Shultz, who as early as 1984 advocated preemptive attacks—primarily clandestine paramilitary strikes—against Islamic terrorists. Shultz was stymied by Caspar Weinberger and a tradition-bound Pentagon wedded to fighting conventional war. Arquilla claims that Reagan followed his instincts as a politician and not as a strategist and sought a bureaucratic compromise in formulating U.S. counterterrorism policy, with crippling results. In an odd way, it is a tribute to Reagan's great success that he is criticized for failing to identify and solve the problems of the new, post-Cold War world that he did so much to create.
University of Virginia
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This article appeared in the Winter 2006 issue of the Claremont Review of Books