Gettin' the Gipper Wrong

Mitt Romney doesn’t know what he's talking about when it comes to Ronald Reagan's foreign policy.

Earlier this week, Mitt Romney penned an op-ed for the Washington Post on how he would handle Iran's nuclear program differently than Barack Obama. That his "plan" was basically identical to President Obama's actual policy is certainly worthy of note -- but perhaps even more interesting was Romney's statement that "the overall rubric of my foreign policy will be the same as Ronald Reagan's: Namely, "peace through strength."

For those curious as to what a foreign policy agenda might look like with Mitt Romney in the White House such a statement provides helpful insight. If his words are to be believed, he'll govern like Ronald Reagan did. But there's one problem: Romney (like many of his fellow Republican presidential aspirants) appears to have very little understanding of what Ronald Reagan's foreign policy "rubric" actually looked like. If he did, he'd find himself articulating a very different and more pragmatic approach to managing America's global responsibilities.

To be sure, Romney's understanding of "peace through strength" is reflected in part by his proposals to build up the U.S. Navy and bolster the current ballistic missile defense system. Here, Romney demonstrates a general grasp of the "military build-up" part of Reagan's approach to foreign policy -- even if the Reagan build-up occurred in a completely different global context (i.e. the existence of a bipolar, superpower-dominated world). But not much else of the way in which Romney talks in this op-ed and elsewhere about foreign policy jibes with Reagan's approach to the world.

Indeed, Iran is a good place to start. Romney posits that the Iranian hostage crisis ended not because President Jimmy Carter was able to negotiate an agreement to end the impasse -- but rather because incoming President Reagan scared the snot out of them. "The Iranians," Romney writes, "well understood that Reagan was serious about turning words into action in a way that Jimmy Carter never was." According to the website Politifact, which interviewed seven scholars of the era in question, this is a "Pants On Fire" lie. Rather, the release of U.S. hostages had almost nothing to do with Iranian fears of what a Reagan presidency would foretell for their nation.

From this re-write of recent history, Romney uses his "Reagan model" to argue that the key for U.S. policy toward Iran today is firm "resolve." But Romney elides over a key historical fact; a central element of Reagan's policy toward Iran was not resolve but rather negotiation and diplomacy as part of an effort, wait for it, to free U.S. hostages (in this case ones held by Iranian-backed terrorist groups in Lebanon).

Also unmentioned is that, in this episode, Reagan violated another "Romney principle" of foreign policy, namely that the United States must never negotiate with terrorists.

But Romney's Iran confusion is in keeping with the GOP's larger misunderstanding about Reagan's foreign policy record. He was, in reality, the furthest thing from the resolute, unwavering, peace through "military strength" caricature they have created. Sure, there was the first-term Reagan: The strident anti-communist who ratcheted up the anti-Soviet rhetoric, increased defense spending, and supported authoritarian regimes and anti-communist rebels in Latin America, Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and Afghanistan -- during perhaps the single most dangerous period of the Cold War.

But that image of Reagan tells a very incomplete tale. He was also the sort of pragmatic commander-in-chief that seems anathema to the modern GOP. He sent troops to Lebanon -- and then "cut-and-run" after U.S. Marines were killed by terrorists. He allowed his U.N. ambassador, Jeane Kirkpatrick, to join in a Security Council condemnation of Israel for bombing the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq -- an event that if it were to happen today would probably lead to impeachment proceedings against Obama. On immigration, Reagan even allowed for amnesty of millions of illegal immigrants in the United States. Such a proposal today would get one laughed out of Republican presidential debates.

For all of his hawkish image and supposed ability to scare foreign leaders into submission, Reagan only ordered one "major" military intervention in his entire presidency -- the invasion of Grenada. In three years, Barack Obama has been a lot more inclined to order U.S. troops into harm's way than Ronald Reagan was in eight.

Beyond his lack of propensity for foreign military excursions, Reagan's most telling foreign policy legacy looks very different from the tough guy image that Reagan at times cultivated -- and Republicans today appear fixated on. If anything, Reagan was beginning near the end of his first term something of a quasi-peacenik -- at least when it came to U.S.-Soviet relations. Of course, Reagan had spent much of his career bashing communism (March 8 is ironically the 29th anniversary of his "Evil Empire" speech). But in 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev ascended to the leadership of the Kremlin, Reagan took his measure of this reformist leader and decided this was someone with whom he could work with to end the Cold War.

Though the two men could not reach agreement at Reykjavik on reducing all nuclear weapons, the very fact that Reagan even entertained the notion is indicative of his pragmatism as a politician and his willingness to sit down with enemies -- not at all the sort of unbending image that Republicans today prefer to present as the ideal U.S. foreign policy president. Moreover, Reagan's near apostasy in Iceland went against the counsel of his closest advisers, many of whom argued -- a la Romney -- that the United States could show no weakness or give in the face of the enemy. In the end, Reagan's inclination to tone down Cold War tensions and give Gorbachev the political space to enact serious reforms in the Soviet Union helped far more than his tough talk and military build-up to contribute to the Communist regime's ultimate demise.

It's often forgotten today that, when Reagan left office in 1989, he was considered by many in the conservative foreign policy community as something of a disappointment for not more forcefully confronting Gorbachev and the Soviet Union. But Reagan, like so many presidents, found that the tough talk of the campaign trail didn't sit so well once ensconced in the White House and faced with the difficult and complex set of challenges and competing interests that defines every president's foreign policy tenure. As Obama noted the other day, it's easy on the campaign trail for presidential candidates to talk about the "casualness" of war and foreign policy in general. Governing is something else altogether -- a lesson that Ronald Reagan understood all too well.

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Battle Royale

Why is Hollywood heavyweight Harvey Weinstein picking a fight with France's foremost racist politician?

As any masterful strategist knows, picking the perfect enemy is as important as selecting one's ally.

But why did Hollywood producer and Oscar award-magnet Harvey Weinstein publicly trash the godfather of France's far right, Jean-Marie Le Pen, just days after a Weinstein import, The Artist, quietly rocked the Academy Awards?

If Weinstein were almost any other American producer fresh from shepherding a French-made and mostly silent black-and-white film to five improbable Oscars, he would probably still be polishing those trophies and trying to capitalize at the box office.

But as an aggressive movie-industry legend whose films have won 86 Oscars, Weinstein is not like other producers. The television show Entourage immortalized Weinstein -- especially in an episode titled, "Sorry, Harvey" -- in which a stunning, foul-mouthed, abusive film producer named "Harvey Weingard" curses out waiters, threatens to destroy various actors' careers, and brandishes a knife over dinner with one of the main characters. (A Weinstein rep commented to Variety magazine in 2007 that the producer thinks Entourage is a "fun and entertaining show.")

So perhaps it is no wonder that Weinstein is already hard at work to make sure that France's enormously successful film, The Intouchables, enjoys a similar reception in the United States.

The fish-out-of-water, interracial buddy movie tells the story of a poor, young black man from a suburban ghetto who is hired to care for a bourgeois, white, quadriplegic Parisian man. It may not sound like a recipe for surefire comedy, but the feel-good movie about a former convict who teaches his wheelchair-bound boss how to live again has become the second-highest-grossing film on French soil, ever. (It has sold nearly one ticket for every three French citizens.) The lion's share of the film's $250 million take has come from France, a country with one-fifth of the U.S. population -- meaning that an equivalent success in the United States would be a billion-dollar movie. That's bigger than Titanic or Avatar.

Critically, the film scored excellent reviews in France. Highbrow critics tended to note their suspicions about the politically correct-sounding core concept, only to revel in the film's on-screen execution and the performances of its acting duo. Most ranked the film as good or excellent. At one press screening, jaded French film critics -- generally a cerebral group that avoids public displays of affection -- actually applauded, vigorously. The left-leaning Nouvel Observateur magazine went further, commenting: "There is no point in beating around the bush: The Intouchables is a miracle."

The public felt the same, only more so. The film's average ranking out of some 5,500 reviews on France's AlloCiné website is 4.5 stars out of five, with 58 percent giving it the maximum. And two days before the Oscars, one of the stars of The Intouchables, Omar Sy -- who plays the ex-con -- beat out Jean Dujardin of The Artist for the best-actor César award (the French equivalent of the Oscar), making Sy the first black man in French history to win in that category.

By that time, the Weinstein Company had already snapped up the film's American distribution and its English-language remake rights. But in the run-up to the March 1 U.S. premier of the film at a French film festival in New York, Weinstein needed to overcome one potentially major obstacle: a stunningly vicious Variety magazine critique from last September that threatens to shape the thinking of other American reviewers as they head to press screenings ahead of the film's May 25 theatrical release in the United States.

The trade magazine's reviewer, Jay Weissberg, lambasted The Intouchables as a movie that "flings about the kind of Uncle Tom racism one hopes has permanently exited American screens." Weissberg called the film "offensive," and he wrote that Sy is "nothing but a performing monkey (with all the racist associations of such a term), teaching the stuck-up white folk how to get 'down' by replacing Vivaldi with 'Boogie Wonderland' and showing off his moves on the dance floor."

Twisting the dagger, Weissberg added that Sy's charisma is squandered on "a role barely removed from the jolly house slave of yore, entertaining the master while embodying all the usual stereotypes about class and race."

They say there's no such thing as bad publicity, but Weinstein is savvy enough to know that bringing over a French comedy that might be perceived as racist won't fly in America. Weinstein could have simply attacked the critic, but that might have looked petty. So Weinstein initiated a contretemps strategy: He attacked Le Pen -- something that wouldn't have been possible if the old Frenchman hadn't already lodged himself into debate over the film.

It is, in many ways, difficult to imagine these two men -- the ultimate Hollywood battler and the French political beast -- in the same universe, much less taking part in the same debate. Weinstein dines at snazzy restaurants where attractive wannabe-actor waiters cater to his every whim; Le Pen used to wear an eye patch and has been the target of multiple assassination attempts.

But perhaps it was inevitable. After all, Weinstein has been involved in the U.S. release of around 30 French films, including Amélie, the triptych Bleu, Blanc, Rouge, and Delicatessen. Le Pen's role in French society is akin to that of Rush Limbaugh in the United States. The Frenchman may have been an active politician for more than 40 years, but he has never aspired to hold a share of real power (unlike his daughter Marine), instead preferring to push the national political debate further and further to the right -- particularly when it comes to immigration and the dilution of white, Christian, French culture. And like Limbaugh, Jean-Marie Le Pen has rarely encountered a sensitive hot topic that he wouldn't use to try to enlarge the reach of his megaphone.

In a televised Jan. 29 interview on France 3, Le Pen offered a critique of The Intouchables that was nearly as caustic as that in Variety, but for a different reason. "France is like this cripple stuck in this wheelchair, and we are going to have to wait for the help of these [ghetto] youngsters and from immigration in general," Le Pen said. "I don't subscribe at all to this way of seeing things."

"It would be a disaster if France would find itself in the same situation as this unfortunate handicapped person."

Weinstein seized on the comments by the fixture of France's far-right. Why? If your film is being accused of racial insensitivity, pick a fight with a real racist.

The 83-year-old Le Pen may have passed on the reins of the National Front party that he founded four decades ago to his daughter last year, but he continues to provoke from semi-retirement. It is a fitting continuation for a man who has repeatedly stoked up trouble, whether during his numerous presidential campaigns or otherwise. In his 1986 book, Pour la France, he asserted that France should prioritize European émigrés rather than the more numerous "Third World" immigrants who, due to their cultural-religious roots, tend to "refuse assimilation." He also suggested that many of these "Third World" immigrants -- read: Muslims -- are inspired by radicalism. In 2009, Le Pen asserted that immigrants and their children perpetrate 90 percent of crimes in France. (French law bans the gathering of statistics related to racial or ethnic backgrounds, so he was making a random -- and outlandish -- guess.) And let's not forget Le Pen's most infamous comment -- that the gas chambers of World War II were a "tiny detail" of history.

Weinstein certainly had a lot to work with here. So when The Intouchables premiered at New York City's Lincoln Center this month, Weinstein released a statement not only attacking the old Frenchman's interpretation of the film, but also Le Pen's politics and his daughter popularity. (She currently polls a strong third place in her quest for the French presidency.)

"It's not a surprise to hear such an intolerant statement from the man who founded and was president of the extreme-right, xenophobic, racist National Front party," Weinstein said in a statement. "Le Pen made a repulsive statement, representing a bigoted world view. And right now, Jean-Marie's daughter, Marine Le Pen, is running for president of France as the leader of the National Front party … with almost 16% of the population intending to vote for her. That's frightening to me, and I think it's important to speak up and speak out against Le Pen and his ideas."

If American filmgoers even know of Le Pen, few are likely to side with the xenophobic French nationalist whose views are shaped by France's lost grandeur. Weinstein's real point is that his film can't possibly be racist if France's most notorious living racist actually sees it as a disturbing plaidoyer for people to come together across racial, ethnic, religious, and class differences.

It is the sort of confrontation that high-level electoral-campaign strategists labor to orchestrate. The strategy involves boosting the most offensive or despicable critic of your client (to the detriment of more potentially credible ones) and then asking who wants to align with the devil, so to speak. Intouchable, untouchable -- you get the point.

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