Think Again

Think Again: The Arctic

Everyone wants a piece of the thawing far north. But that doesn't mean anarchy will reign at the top of the world.

View a slide show about the Arctic

"The Arctic Is Experiencing a 21st-Century Gold Rush."

Wrong. In August 2007, a minisubmarine carrying Artur Chilingarov, a Russian parliamentarian and veteran explorer, descended into the ice-covered sea at the North Pole, extended its robotic arm, and planted a Russian flag on the seafloor. The world's reaction was swift, and in some cases furious. "This isn't the 15th century," fumed Peter MacKay, then Canada's minister of foreign affairs. "You can't go around the world and just plant flags and say, 'We're claiming this territory.'"

Maybe not, but many countries are looking at the Arctic today with fresh eyes. Because of climate change, the Arctic Ocean's summer ice cover is now half of what it was 50 years ago. In recent years, Russian and Canadian armed forces have staged Cold War-style exercises in the far north, and in the summer of 2009 a pair of German merchant ships conducted voyages across the relatively ice-free waters of the Northeast Passage, the long-dreamed-of trade route from Europe to Asia. And maybe the only thing heating up faster than the Arctic Ocean is the hyperbole over what's under it. "Without U.S. leadership to help develop diplomatic solutions to competing claims and potential conflicts," scholar Scott G. Borgerson wrote in Foreign Affairs in 2008, "the region could erupt in an armed mad dash for its resources."

It could -- but it won't. Anarchy does not reign at the top of the world; in fact, it's governed in a manner not unlike the rest of the planet. The region's land borders -- shared by Canada, Denmark (which controls Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States -- are all set and uncontested. Several maritime boundaries do remain under dispute, most notably those between Canada and the United States in the Beaufort Sea and between Canada and Denmark in Baffin Bay. But progress has been made recently in resolving even the thorniest disagreements: In April, after 40 years of negotiating, Norway and Russia were able to forge an equitable deal for a new boundary in the Barents Sea, a continental-shelf area rich in fisheries and oil and gas reserves.

What about the part of the Arctic where sovereignty remains unresolved: the seafloor that Chilingarov tried to claim? Despite being covered with ice for much of the year, the Arctic Ocean is governed much like the rest of the world's oceans -- by a maritime treaty that has been ratified by all the Arctic countries except the United States, which generally abides by its terms anyway.

Chilingarov's flag gambit was a clever bid for attention, but not much more than that. Although the resources of the Arctic seabed are likely to be partitioned among the five countries that could plausibly claim them, it won't be on a first-come-first-served basis. The world has learned a lot since the resource and land grabs of earlier centuries; for the most part, the only scuffles over borders and oil fields today are in regions that are badly destabilized already.

Tiffini M. Jones/U.S. Navy /via Getty Images

"Climate Change Is Driving the Transformation of the Arctic."

Not entirely. In recent decades the Arctic's average temperature has risen almost twice as fast as the rest of the world's. Sea ice is retreating, Greenland's glaciers are melting, snow cover is decreasing, and permafrost is thawing. Some Arctic communities are literally washing away into the ocean. These are unprecedented changes, and they have had profound impacts on the culture and way of life of the far north's 4 million people, and especially its 400,000 indigenous residents.

But the transformation in how humans use the Arctic hinterlands is being driven as much by global economics and natural resource availability as it is by climate change. It is mostly the work of a few industries: natural resource development (think oil and gas, minerals, and timber), marine tourism (think cruise ships), and fishing.

Regional warming has had little effect, positive or negative, on Norway's and Russia's extraction plans, which have been driven by global prices of oil and gas. The cruise ship industry's newfound interest in the Arctic, particularly the voyages now running along Greenland's west coast, is in keeping with the expansion of tourism to once-remote destinations everywhere. Arctic voyages are lucrative, in demand, and relatively safe (pirates are few and far between in Baffin Bay). As for fishing, fleets and some fish populations are moving north as Arctic and subarctic seas become warmer and more navigable. But the fleets are also there because fish stocks in more temperate waters have been badly overfished -- and not necessarily just because of climate change.

"The Arctic Is a Vast Storehouse of Natural Resources."

True. The Arctic's resources may not be subject to an anarchic scramble, but that doesn't mean they aren't hugely valuable. The largest zinc mine on the planet, called Red Dog, is located in northwest Alaska. Across the Arctic in western Siberia is the massive Norilsk Nickel mining complex, the world's leading source of nickel and palladium and one of its largest copper producers. Canada's Baffin Island is home to one of the best undeveloped iron-ore deposits on Earth; European steel companies are already experimenting with ways to get the ore into their blast furnaces and envisioning a fleet of polar ore carriers that could deliver the mineral year-round. There are renewable resources, too: world-class fisheries in the Barents and Bering seas, and abundant fresh water elsewhere.

But the most valuable Arctic commodities, today and in the future, are likely to be oil and gas. In 2008 the U.S. Geological Survey released a report indicating that natural gas resources above the Arctic Circle could amount to 30 percent of the world's undiscovered reserves; oil in the region was estimated at 13 percent of the world's undiscovered supply. (Saudi Arabia, by comparison, has 21 percent of the world's proven oil.)

Two Arctic states are already banking on the oil and gas reserves on their northern frontiers: Norway has developed the Snohvit gas field in the Barents Sea near the fishing-community-turned-industrial-port of Hammerfest and is shipping its output of liquefied natural gas to North America and Europe. Russia has been similarly busy working the oil and gas fields of western Siberia and has recently started shipping oil from an offshore terminal in the Pechora Sea to Murmansk. But for the current global oversupply of natural gas, the giant Russian firm Gazprom would be making good on its longstanding plans to develop the Shtokman field in the eastern Barents Sea, one of the world's largest natural gas deposits. Greenland has also linked its economic and perhaps political future to offshore drilling, recently beginning work near Disko Island off its west coast.

Taken together, this means that the distant and once-economically unviable resources of the far north will be linked to global markets more closely than ever before, playing an increasingly important role in the world economy. They constitute a new frontier of investment and industrialization and will add considerably to the fortunes of the countries that possess them. But these riches amount to an economic shot in the arm -- not a fundamental game-changer -- for the eight Arctic states, most of which are already major producers of oil, gas, and minerals. Arguably, the countries that stand to be most transformed by the Arctic resource boom aren't in the Arctic at all; they're emerging, resource-hungry economies such as China and India whose future development is likely to be fueled by the exports of the far north.

"The Arctic Will Become a Shipping Superhighway."

Not so fast. As early as the 15th century, European monarchs and capitalists salivated over the idea of a navigable northern waterway that would allow them to reach the Pacific Ocean without a grueling sail around Africa or land crossing of Central Asia. Some in today's shipping industry are no less enamored of the prospect: By one (perhaps optimistic) estimate, bringing a container ship from Northern Europe to the West Coast of the United States via Canada's fabled Northwest Passage -- whose deep-water route was ice-free for a few days during the summer of 2007 -- could cut shipping costs 20 percent. And the security challenges and threats (again, think pirates) would be minimal.

But just because ships will soon be able to traverse the Arctic doesn't mean many actually will. The Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea Route across the top of Russia have indeed been made navigable by climate change, but only for a few days or weeks a year. Although several climate models predict an ice-free Arctic Ocean for a brief period each summer as early as 2030, they also project a mostly ice-clogged ocean in winter, spring, and fall through at least the end of the 21st century. No one predicts an ice-free Arctic Ocean throughout the year.

This means that an Arctic Ocean crossing, while theoretically possible, might be too difficult and costly to be worth the effort. The more ice along an Arctic navigation route, the slower the ship's speed, a factor that could easily negate the shorter distance gained by sailing across the top of the world. Expensive polar-class ships -- ice-breaking cargo carriers -- would still be required for most operations. And many other economic details have yet to be filled in. Last year's definitive Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment found significant challenges and unanswered questions regarding the endeavor: Can it be economically viable as a global trade route if not conducted year-round? What are the risks assumed in Arctic navigation, and how will the marine insurance industry respond to them?

So, while modest volumes of cargo might be carried during the summers ahead, a majority of the Arctic voyages in the coming decades will be destinational: A ship sails north, performs an activity in the Arctic, and goes home. In other words, don't expect a new Panama or Suez Canal. And even this more limited activity will require adaptation. The real challenge will be the development of rules to protect Arctic people and the environment from the new marine traffic, wherever it's going.

"We Need a New Treaty to Govern the Arctic."

Not really. Do we need a new international system to make sure the Arctic's future is managed equitably and responsibly? That was what the seven countries with territorial claims on Earth's other polar region decided in 1959, when they set them aside to join five other countries in the Antarctic Treaty. Conceived at the height of the Cold War, the treaty reserved the uninhabited Antarctic for peaceful purposes, notably scientific research, banning military activity and prohibiting nuclear explosions and disposal of radioactive waste. A half-century later, it stands as a landmark of peaceful cooperation, demilitarization, and shared governance among the 47 countries that have signed.

It's highly unlikely, however, that the Arctic countries would ever agree to the same sort of comprehensive treaty for the north. All have huge economic stakes in the Arctic; some have centuries of sovereign claims to the region, and others still use its waterways for strategic purposes, even 20 years after the Cold War. And that's fine, because we already have a diplomatic framework to deal with most of the Arctic: the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. The treaty allows coastal states everywhere -- not just those in the Arctic -- to extend their seabed claims beyond their sovereign waters, but only after extensive scientific surveys and submissions of geologic data to the New York-based U.N. Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. It is a complex process, but an orderly one. And it isn't new: More than 50 claims have been submitted to the commission over the past decade. The International Maritime Organization, a U.N. agency, can also craft binding rules for shipping in the Arctic Ocean.

Then there's the Arctic Council, a 14-year-old intergovernmental forum that brings the eight Arctic states to the table along with six indigenous groups (and other observers) to discuss environmental protection and sustainable development. The council is essentially toothless, at least in a legal sense: It's not bound by any treaties, and members have chosen not to deal with military and security issues, or even fisheries management. But it has nonetheless been a force for good, getting everyone in the habit of discussing the future of the region in a diplomatic setting. It has also conducted several pioneering assessments on climate change, oil and gas, and Arctic shipping. Look for it to take a more forceful role as Arctic relations become ever more important. Already, it has a task force negotiating the first legally binding agreement among its members, on search and rescue in the region.

"Conflict Is Inevitable in the Arctic."

No, it isn't. The Arctic has been a geopolitical flashpoint before: During the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union faced off directly in the region. But that was then. Today's Arctic is governed by eight developed states that arguably cooperate more than they have at any other period in history. International collaboration in scientific research, for instance, is at record levels in the Arctic today.

The looming Arctic resource boom doesn't threaten this stability -- it reinforces it. States such as Norway and Russia have much to lose economically from Arctic conflict, as do the many non-Arctic countries and multinational corporations that will be among the eventual investors in, and consumers of, future Arctic ventures. No one is contesting anyone else's sovereignty in the region; in fact, the Arctic might one day play host to the emergence of a new sovereign state, Greenland, with the support and encouragement of Denmark, its long-time colonial ruler.

This isn't to say that saber rattling hasn't happened and won't happen again in the future. Canada, Norway, and Russia have conducted military and naval operations in the region to showcase their capabilities and demonstrate their sovereignty. (The United States has been more modest in this regard, though the U.S. Navy last fall did release a "roadmap" for the Arctic, emphasizing the need for military readiness in the far north.) NATO's role in the Arctic is uncertain and unfocused -- five Arctic states are members, but three (Sweden, Finland, Russia) are not -- and the organization could go a long way toward reducing tension and building trust in the Arctic by promoting cooperation on matters of military security, law enforcement, and counterterrorism there.

But none of this friction is beyond the realm of diplomacy. Even Chilingarov, the flag-wielding champion of Russian northern expansionism, understands the virtues of negotiation. When he met Chuck Strahl, Canada's minister of northern affairs, in June, the first thing he reportedly did was invite his would-be adversary to a conference-called "The Arctic: Territory of Dialogue" -- scheduled for this September in Moscow. The two countries' representatives have since trumpeted their thawing relations in the Arctic, meeting regularly and even discussing plans to work together on mapping the seafloor where Chilingarov planted the Russian standard. The lesson is clear enough: The world has plenty of regions where serious conflict is a way of life already. Let's worry about them first.  

Think Again

Think Again: Ronald Reagan

The Gipper wasn't the warhound his conservative followers would have you think.

"Ronald Reagan Was the Ultimate Hawk."

Not so much. These days, virtually every time someone on the American right bashes President Barack Obama for kowtowing to dictators or failing to shout that we're at war, they light a votive candle to Ronald Reagan. Former presidential candidate John McCain has called his own foreign-policy views "a 21st-century policy interpretation of the Reagan Doctrine." His running mate Sarah Palin invokes the Gipper so frequently that some now speculate that she might launch her 2012 presidential bid in his hometown. As Dick Cheney put it a few years back, speaking for his fellow conservatives, "We are all Reaganites now."

No, actually, you're not. Today's conservatives have conjured a mythic Reagan who never compromised with America's enemies and never shrank from a fight. But the real Reagan did both those things, often. In fact, they were a big part of his success.

Sure, Reagan spent boatloads -- some $2.8 trillion all told -- on the military. And yes, he funneled money and guns to anti-communist rebels like the Nicaraguan Contras and Afghan mujahideen, while lecturing Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down that wall. But on the ultimate test of hawkdom -- the willingness to send U.S. troops into harm's way -- Reagan was no bird of prey. He launched exactly one land war, against Grenada, whose army totaled 600 men. It lasted two days. And his only air war -- the 1986 bombing of Libya -- was even briefer. Compare that with George H.W. Bush, who launched two midsized ground operations, in Panama (1989) and Somalia (1992), and one large war in the Persian Gulf (1991). Or with Bill Clinton, who launched three air campaigns -- in Bosnia (1995), Iraq (1998), and Kosovo (1999) -- each of which dwarfed Reagan's Libya bombing in duration and intensity. Do I even need to mention George W. Bush?

In fact, Reagan was terrified of war. He took office eager to vanquish Nicaragua's Sandinista government and its rebel allies in El Salvador, both of which were backed by Cuba and the Soviet Union. But at an early meeting, when Secretary of State Alexander Haig suggested that achieving this goal might require bombing Cuba, the suggestion "scared the shit out of Ronald Reagan," according to White House aide Michael Deaver. Haig was marginalized, then resigned, and Reagan never seriously considered sending U.S. troops south of the border, despite demands from conservative intellectuals like Norman Podhoretz and William F. Buckley. "Those sons of bitches won't be happy until we have 25,000 troops in Managua," Reagan told chief of staff Kenneth Duberstein near the end of his presidency, "and I'm not going to do it."

Nicaragua and El Salvador weren't the only places where Reagan proved squeamish about using military force. In February 1988, federal courts in Florida indicted Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega for drug smuggling. With the U.S. media in a frenzy over drug addiction and Noriega virtually imprisoning Panama's elected president, Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams -- backed by his boss, George Shultz -- began pushing for a U.S. invasion. Reagan refused and instead tried to convince Noriega to relinquish power in return for having the charges dropped. When the deal fell through, Abrams redoubled his push for war. Reagan, however, adamantly rejected any action that would require him to "start counting up the bodies." It was left to his supposedly "wimpy" successor, George H.W. Bush, to depose Noriega with 27,000 U.S. troops.

"Reagan Banished the Vietnam Syndrome."

Yes, but not how you think. Reagan's political genius lay in recognizing that what Americans wanted was a president who exorcised the ghost of the Vietnam War without fighting another Vietnam. Although Americans enjoyed Reagan's thunderous denunciations of Central American communism, 75 percent of them, according to a 1985 Louis Harris survey, opposed invading Nicaragua. A 1983 ABC poll found that Americans opposed sending troops to El Salvador by almost 6-to-1, even if that meant letting the communists win.

So Reagan created Potemkin Vietnams. His biographer Lou Cannon calls him "shameless" in using Grenada to revive America's Vietnam-wounded pride. The war resulted in more medals per soldier than any military operation in U.S. history. When he bombed Libya in 1986, Reagan goosed American nationalism again, declaring, "Every nickel-and-dime dictator the world over knows that if he tangles with the United States of America, he will pay a price."

That last phrase was the key. America's enemies would pay the price, not the American people. Americans loved Reagan's foreign policy for the same reason they loved the 1985 blockbuster Rambo, in which the muscle-bound hero returns to Vietnam, kicks some communist butt, and no Americans die. Reagan's liberal critics often accused him of reviving the chest-thumping spirit that had led to Vietnam. But they were wrong. For Reagan, chest-thumping was in large measure a substitute for a new Vietnam, a way of accommodating the restraints on U.S. power while still boosting American morale.

"Reagan Frightened the Soviet Union into Submission."

Hardly. Reagan's role in winning the Cold War lies at the core of the American right's mythology. The legend goes like this: Reagan came into office, dramatically hiked defense spending, unveiled the Strategic Defense Initiative (his "Star Wars" missile shield), and aided anti-communist rebels in the Third World. Unable to keep pace, the Kremlin chose Gorbachev, who threw in the towel.

The problem with this story is that Reagan began abandoning his hard-line anti-Soviet stance in late 1983, 18 months before Gorbachev took power. One reason was domestic politics. Today, commentators tend to believe that Reagan's hawkish reputation was always a political asset. But in 1983, after more than two years of epic defense spending, virulent Cold War rhetoric, and no arms-control talks, Americans were demanding détente. Public support for defense spending fell, and the U.S. House of Representatives endorsed a freeze on the production of nuclear weapons. Fearful that these dovish trends could threaten Reagan's re-election, White House chief of staff James Baker pushed Reagan to make an overture to the Soviets, a suggestion backed by Shultz, who was eager to restart arms talks.

Their effort coincided with a change in Reagan, who had long harbored a genuine terror of nuclear war reflected in his decades-old belief -- often ignored by backers on the right -- that nuclear weapons should eventually be abolished. The terror had its roots, as did many of Reagan's inclinations, in movies. According to Colin Powell, national security advisor from 1987 to 1989, Reagan had been deeply affected by the 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still, in which space aliens warn earthlings that unless they stop settling their conflicts through war, the powers that be in the galaxy will destroy their planet. (During his presidency, Reagan repeatedly invoked the prospect of an alien invasion as a reason for the United States and the Soviet Union to overcome their differences. Whenever he did, Powell would mutter, "Here come the little green men.")

In 1983, two movies triggered Reagan's latent anti-nuclear views: Matthew Broderick's WarGames, which portrays a young computer hacker who almost starts a nuclear war, and ABC's The Day After, which depicts Lawrence, Kansas, in the aftermath of one. For Reagan, who didn't draw a sharp contrast between reality and celluloid (he once told Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir that he had visited Nazi concentration camps when in reality he had only seen them on film), the movies were chilling. Soon after viewing The Day After, Reagan attended a briefing on U.S. military procedure in the event of a Soviet attack, as if the doomsday movies were playing out before him in real life. His dread only grew by year's end when he learned that his nuclear buildup and anti-Soviet speeches had so terrified Kremlin leaders that they interpreted a nato war game as preparation for a real attack and put their military on high alert.

This combination of electoral and psychological anxiety led Reagan, late in his first term, to begin a dramatic rhetorical shift. Declaring that "nuclear arsenals are far too high," in January 1984 he told the country that "my dream is to see the day when nuclear weapons will be banished from the face of the Earth." By summer, he had largely scrapped preconditions on meeting Soviet leaders, and in September Time magazine reported that he told Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko the United States "respects the Soviet Union's status as a superpower and has no wish to change its social system."

Reagan's sudden infatuation with arms control didn't initially bear fruit, mostly because Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko had one foot in the grave. But in March 1985, within hours of Gorbachev's selection, Reagan invited him to a summit without preconditions. The same year, he overruled administration hard-liners and quietly scrapped some older submarines so the United States would not violate the never-ratified SALT II Treaty and thus anger the Kremlin. When Soviet troops in East Germany killed a U.S. soldier, giving Reagan a perfect excuse to avoid meeting his Soviet counterpart, he instead told journalists that such incidents just made him want to meet Gorbachev more.

When they did meet in Geneva, in November, Reagan whispered to Gorbachev, "I bet the hard-liners in both our countries are bleeding when we shake hands." An initial meeting scheduled for 15 minutes lasted five hours. The following year, in Reykjavik, Iceland, Reagan and Gorbachev came within a whisker of agreeing to destroy all their nuclear weapons (a deal Reagan scuttled because he would not limit "Star Wars"). But in 1987, the two men signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the Cold War's most far-reaching arms-reduction agreement.

By 1988, though the Soviet Union had not yet released Eastern Europe from its grip, Reagan was explicitly denying that the Soviet Union still constituted an "evil empire" and had begun calling Gorbachev "my friend." And contrary to the conservative fable, it was this second-term dovishness that played the crucial role in enabling Gorbachev's reforms. From virtually the moment he took office, Gorbachev was desperate to cut military spending, which by the mid-1980s constituted a mind-bending 40 percent of the Soviet budget. But within the Politburo, vast unilateral cuts would have been politically impossible; Gorbachev needed an American partner. And once he found that partner in the less-menacing second-term Reagan, Gorbachev was able to convince his Kremlin colleagues that the Soviet Union could risk losing its Eastern European security belt without fearing Western attack. In the words of longtime Soviet Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Dobrynin, "If Reagan had stuck to his hard-line policies in 1985 and 1986 ... Gorbachev would have been accused by the rest of the Politburo of giving everything away to a fellow who does not want to negotiate. We would have been forced to tighten our belts and spend even more on defense."

"Conservatives Loved Reagan."

Not always. As early as 1982, after Reagan skirmished with Israel, declined to send U.S. troops to Central America, and refused to cut off Western loans to communist Poland, Commentary's Norman Podhoretz declared that neoconservatives were "sinking into a state of near political despair." New York Times columnist William Safire announced that "if Ronald Reagan fails to awake to the hard-liners' anger at his betrayal, he will discover that he has lost his bedrock constituency." By 1984, after Reagan withdrew troops from their peacekeeping mission in Lebanon, Podhoretz moaned that "in the use of military power, Mr. Reagan was much more restrained" than his right-wing supporters had hoped.

But that was nothing compared with the howls of outrage that accompanied Reagan's dovish turn toward the Soviet Union. In 1986, when Reagan would not cancel his second summit with Gorbachev over Moscow's imprisonment of an American journalist, Podhoretz accused him of having "shamed himself and the country" in his "craven eagerness" to give away the nuclear store. Washington Post columnist George Will said the administration had crumpled "like a punctured balloon." When Reagan signed the INF Treaty, most Republicans vying to succeed him came out in opposition. Grassroots conservative leaders established the Anti-Appeasement Alliance to oppose ratification and ran newspaper advertisements comparing Gorbachev to Hitler and Reagan to Neville Chamberlain. Reagan, wailed Will, is "elevating wishful thinking to the status of political philosophy."

Therein lay the rub. Reagan's conservative allies were mostly pessimists. They saw conflict as the eternal reality of world affairs. But Reagan was a radical optimist who thought that every story should have a happy ending. Will wrote that he "is painfully fond of the least conservative sentiment conceivable, a statement taken from an anti-conservative, Thomas Paine: 'We have it in our power to begin the world over again.' Any time, any place, that is nonsense."

But it was because Reagan could envision a dramatically better world that he could see the opportunity Gorbachev offered -- and seized the chance to bring it about. His conservative critics, by contrast, were so convinced that the world was a nasty place that they blinded themselves to the possibility of radical progress, even when it was occurring before their very eyes.

"Reagan Was Tough on Terror."

Wrong Again. George W. Bush's administration endlessly compared its battle against jihadi terrorism to Reagan's battle against Soviet communism. But the irony is that in Reagan's own "war on terror," his policies more closely resembled Obama's than Bush's.

For starters, Reagan was not exactly seen as tough on terror in Jerusalem. A few months into his presidency, he announced that the United States would sell AWACS surveillance planes to Riyadh, advanced aircraft that would make it harder for Israel to launch a pre-emptive military strike against Saudi Arabia (as it had done against Egypt in 1967). When Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin expressed "profound regret and unreserved opposition," Reagan shot back that it was "not the business of other nations to make American foreign policy."

In 1981, when Israel did strike Iraq, bombing its Osirak nuclear reactor, Reagan backed a U.N. resolution condemning the move. And in 1982, when Israel attacked West Beirut in an effort to destroy Yasir Arafat's PLO, Reagan told Begin that Israel's behavior constituted a "holocaust." (Begin, whose parents and older brother were murdered by the Nazis, did not appreciate the line.)

That summer, after U.S. diplomats negotiated a cease-fire in Lebanon, Reagan sent Marines to help enforce it. They were still there on Oct. 23, 1983, when a terrorist later linked to Hezbollah detonated a truck filled with TNT outside the barracks where the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines slept, killing 241 young Americans. It was a seminal moment in the growing collision between American power and jihadi terror. Rhetorically, Reagan did his best John Wayne. "He may be ready to surrender," Reagan barked after House Speaker Tip O'Neill proposed withdrawing the remaining Marines in February 1984, "but I'm not." Then -- just weeks later -- Reagan withdrew them.

In 1985, after a U.S. Navy diver was shot in the hijacking of TWA Flight 847, Reagan once again channeled John Wayne as he vowed, "America will never make any concessions to terrorists." But within months, he was not only making concessions, he was selling anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to Iranian "moderates" in the hope that they would use their influence to help free Americans taken hostage by Hezbollah in Beirut.

Midge Decter, Podhoretz's wife and a noted neoconservative in her own right, declared herself "disgusted" by Reagan's capitulation in Lebanon. But to Reagan, the mistake was having sent the Marines in the first place. Almost five years later, in his final moments as president, he told press secretary Marlin Fitzwater that "the only regret I have after eight years is sending those troops to Lebanon." Then he saluted and walked out of the Oval Office for the last time.

"George W. Bush Was a Reaganite."

Yes and no. In one sense, Bush did indeed carry on Reagan's legacy. Like Reagan, and unlike most traditional conservatives, he believed that the world could be rapidly and radically improved. And like Reagan, he believed that dictators, or at least anti-American dictators, would be swept away by history's tide.

The difference is that although Reagan was optimistic about ends, he was cautious about means. His confidence that America would eventually win the Cold War was tempered by his post-Vietnam lack of confidence that the United States could easily win hot wars. He believed that history was moving America's way, but doubted that the 101st Airborne could speed it up.

Bush, by contrast, took office after a decade of U.S. military successes: from Panama in 1989 and the Gulf War in 1991 to Bosnia in 1995 and Kosovo in 1999. With each victory, U.S. resistance to military intervention receded. The public grew more pliant, Democrats grew more fearful of looking weak, and the generals who warned of Vietnam-style quagmires came to seem like boys crying wolf.

Of course, the 9/11 attacks gave Bush a massive jolt of popularity and sent Congress diving for cover, all of which made the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq much easier. But had 9/11 occurred on Reagan's watch, when Vietnam still stung and even toppling Manuel Noriega seemed a monumental task, it is unlikely the United States would have invaded and occupied two distant countries within 18 months. CENTCOM, the combatant command that oversaw the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, didn't even exist when Reagan took office in 1981. Eight years later, the U.S. ground presence in the Middle East was still restricted to a Navy supply base in tiny Bahrain and a few hundred peacekeepers in the Sinai desert. Bush's wars were not only a response to a devastating terrorist attack; they reflected a geopolitical appetite that had grown dramatically during the triumphant 12 years after Reagan left the political scene.

"Obama Is the New Reagan."

He could be. In a hundred ways, Obama and Reagan are different. But there are parallels between the moments in which they came to power. Like Reagan, Obama took office in an environment that severely constrains the ability of the United States to launch new military campaigns. For many contemporary conservatives, being a Reagan disciple means acting as if there are no limits to American strength. But the real lessons of Reaganism are about how to wield national power and bolster national pride when your hands are partially tied. That doesn't mean Obama should mimic all of Reagan's policies, some of which were deeply misguided. But Obama can, and should, be Reaganesque in his effort to project great strength at low risk.

That means understanding that America's foreign-policy debates are often cultural debates in disguise. Reagan was a master of symbolic acts -- like awarding the Medal of Honor to overlooked Vietnam hero Roy Benavidez -- that made Americans feel as though they were exorcising Vietnam's ghost without refighting the war. Obama must be equally shrewd at a time when he has no choice but to retreat from Iraq and eventually Afghanistan. That means more than ritual incantations about flag and country; it means rhetorically challenging those who unfairly attack the United States. From a purely foreign-policy perspective, publicly confronting Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Venezuela's Hugo Chávez when they malign the United States, or calling out universities that ban military recruiters from campus, might seem useless. But for U.S. presidents, there is no pure foreign-policy perspective; being effective in the world requires domestic support. If Obama does not want to be Jimmy Carter, if he does not want Americans to equate his restraint with their humiliation, he must be as aggressive as Reagan in finding symbolic ways to soothe Americans' wounded pride.

Even more importantly, Obama must rebuild U.S. economic strength. Although Reagan boosted the defense budget, he saw the contest between the United States and the Soviet Union fundamentally as a struggle between political and economic systems in which the dynamism of American capitalism was the West's trump card. As a liberal taking office in the wake of a financial collapse, Obama is rightly concerned not only about capitalism's dynamism, but also its stability and decency. Still, the crucial insight is that power in world affairs rests on economic strength. Obama needs to remind Americans that their most successful Cold War presidents -- Reagan included -- saw the conflict as a primarily economic struggle. Soviet communism threatened the United States less because the Red Army might overrun Western Europe than because, for a time at least, it represented a serious competitor for the hearts and minds of people across the globe.

In that regard, it is not jihadi fanaticism that has taken the Kremlin's place. After all, even in the Muslim world, barely anyone really believes that al Qaeda, the Taliban, or Iran's ruling clerics can build a society prosperous and stable enough to challenge the West. The better analogue is China's 21st-century authoritarian capitalism, which has built a record of political stability and economic dynamism that has captured the imagination of people (and governments) throughout the developing world.

In the nascent economic and ideological struggle between the United States and China, wars that Washington cannot possibly pay for -- and which leave the country more reliant on foreign central bankers -- don't make America stronger; they make it weaker. Of course, the United States and China are far more economically interdependent than were the United States and the Soviet Union. But within every interdependent relationship lies a balance of power, and Obama's leverage over China will depend in large measure on his ability to stop hemorrhaging money, lives, and attention in the Muslim world so he can rebuild the political and economic institutions that form the foundation of U.S. national strength. Do that, and the American model can triumph again, peacefully. Ronald Reagan -- if not his contemporary right-wing admirers -- would understand. 

AFP/Getty Images