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Ronald Reagan's Top Hand

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Ronald Reagan's Top Hand

Paul Kengor

Paul Kengor is author of The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism (HarperCollins, 2006), associate professor of Political Science, and executive director of the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania.
This article is an e-publication of the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. The questions are posed by Visions & Values to Paul Kengor. The subject of this interview is his latest book: The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan's Top Hand (Ignatius Press, 2007).

V&V. Dr. Kengor, you've written, along with co-author Patricia Clark Doerner, a biography of Judge William P. "Bill" Clark. This is the biography of the man that everyone -- from Edmund Morris and Lou Cannon to Michael Reagan and Cap Weinberger -- agreed was Ronald Reagan's important adviser, who literally one day in 1985 rode off into the sunset and refused to write his memoirs and tell his story.

The publisher is billing this as the untold story of the Cold War. We will get to that, but first it should be noted that there is much more in here about foreign policy generally, and one thing in particular of very strong relevance to the world today. There is a major revelation in the book on Saddam Hussein and Iraq. This month marks separate anniversaries of both the capture and ultimate hanging of Saddam Hussein, in December 2003 and December 2006, respectively. Tell us what Clark told you -- which he disclosed for the first time, two full decades after the fact.

Paul Kengor: Sure. It is commonly asserted, especially among the left, that the United States, and specifically the Reagan administration in the 1980s, "armed" Saddam Hussein. If you actually sit down and read the junk on the web on this, it is extremely sloppy and unreliable. Nonetheless, the charges persist and clearly are not going away. They seem to have become common perception. Well, Bill Clark has intimate knowledge of this issue. Let me give some background first.

When we first began doing interviews for this book at Clark's California ranch, he one day showed me a pistol he received from Saddam Hussein as a gift. Clark and his family were ranchers, sheriffs, and lawmen. They know guns. Saddam knew that and gave him one. But my immediate question to Clark was, "Gee, how and when and where did you meet Saddam Hussein?" Clark never ceased to surprise me with all he did, but this one came out of nowhere.

He proceeded to tell me about a two-hour meeting, one-on-one, that he had with Saddam in January 1986. This was a full year after Clark had left the Reagan administration for good. Still, he continued to be Ronald Reagan's troubleshooter and reliable right-hand man. When Reagan had a sensitive assignment that required an aide of utter, complete trust, he called on Bill Clark, as he had done since his governorship in the 1960s.

So, Clark told me about this unpublicized, unannounced trip to Baghdad, where he met with Tariq Aziz, Nizar Hamdoon, and every top official in the Iraqi government. He then met with Saddam. I asked him if Saddam requested American arms to help in Iraq's war with Iran, which by then was into its sixth terrible year. When I asked this, Clark was more baffled than annoyed. He didn't understand my point. "He didn't ask for arms," he told me flatly. "Why would he?"

I explained that there was a kind of left-wing cottage industry dedicated to exposing the alleged Reagan conspiracy to arm Saddam in the 1980s, including arming him with WMDs [Weapons of Mass Destruction]. This really confused him. He didn't want to respond to something so baseless, and couldn't believe anyone would level such a reckless charge. I told him I would demonstrate when we got to his office in town later that afternoon. When we got there, I did a Google search on "Reagan armed Saddam." Clark was shocked at all the hits.

For the record, Clark says: "We never armed Saddam. And to my knowledge, we certainly did not give him anything like WMD technology, or assist him in developing WMD."

By the way, as I gained access to Clark's private papers, I came across the minutes and memos from this meeting. Indeed, there was no mention whatsoever of weapons.

V&V: So, can you say definitively that we never aided Saddam in the 1980s?

Kengor: I want to be careful with this. I've learned many times that history is much more complicated than we realize. So many things happen with this massive federal government, and all the people associated with it, that it's foolish to say "never" to anything. The more you know, the more you learn you don't know. Neither Clark nor I claim to know everything. That said, to Clark's knowledge -- and keep in mind that Clark is extremely credible, and was closer to Reagan than anyone, especially on foreign policy and national security -- we did not arm Saddam, and certainly not with WMD technology.

If you want to know who armed Saddam throughout the 1980s, it was the Soviets, the French, and the Chinese. That has been thoroughly documented. When we went to war against Iraq in Kuwait in 1991, we were fighting Soviet tanks, not our own. To the best of my personal knowledge, any possible American military support of Saddam was at best extremely small, especially compared to the aforementioned countries, and not at all substantial. It would hardly rise to the level of what the fringe left means by "arming Saddam."

Very importantly, Clark did clarify the nature of our support, which was limited, but which did involve some assistance in the war between Iraq and Iran.

V&V: What was that support, and what was the Reagan administration's objective with Saddam?

Kengor: We provided some quite helpful satellite imagery to Saddam. This was highly detailed photos of Iranian troop movements and tank columns and that kind of thing. Saddam was impressed and deeply grateful for this assistance.

V&V: So, in other words, we were trying to help Saddam -- or, at least, to help him defeat Iran?

Kengor: What we were trying to do was to prevent a single power from emerging from the conflict as a dominant hegemon in the region, which has always been the traditional U.S. strategic objective in the Middle East, especially since the fall of the Shah. Here again, I will quote Clark: "We wanted a stalemate [in the war], a stand-off. A ceasefire between Iraq and Iran was our clear objective, and that did occur."

We sincerely wanted both sides to stop fighting and for neither to emerge as the dominant power in the region. The worst prospect would have been to have one giant Iraq or one giant Iran in the place of both of them. It was an ugly situation regardless. And many of the critics of the Reagan administration on this issue don't realize the total lack of attractive options when dealing with nations like these. It is very difficult. People need to try to be understanding of the tremendous challenge of trying to bring good out of evil.

V&V: Also, we should recall that Iran was our main enemy at the time -- the leading supporter of terrorism. This is the first decade of the Ayatollah's theocracy.

Kengor: Yes, that's correct. Context is crucial, and our memories are short. But keep in mind that Saddam Hussein, throughout the 1980s, was also doing terrorism -- not just terrorizing his own population in his Republic of Fear, but was also exporting terror. He would increase that behavior in the l990s, to the point that the final Clinton State Department report on terrorism devoted more words to Iraq than any other country, including Iran. The Clinton State Department rightly listed Iraq and Iran as the two leading state sponsors of terrorism throughout the 1990s.

And here's where Clark's meeting continues to be very relevant today. Clark asked Saddam, on behalf of President Reagan, to "dry up" any support he was providing to Palestinian terror camps inside Iraq, where these killers were training to murder innocent Israelis. Saddam promised Clark he would do so. Clark believes that at the time Saddam might have been sincere, and even left the meeting with the impression that Saddam "wanted to be our friend." All of this collapsed, however, when Saddam invaded Kuwait and then directed his troops to the border of Saudi Arabia in August 1990. He destroyed the relationship by his aggressive actions. Everything descended downhill quickly after that.

V&V: What are some of the other revelations in The Judge that are of contemporary policy relevance?

Kengor: Clark spoke for the first time about the French plot to assassinate Moammar Kaddafi in 1981 -- French intelligence came to Reagan to ask if he would join them -- about Reagan warning the Soviets that he would shoot down their MiGs over Nicaragua in the spring of 1982, about the secret mission to Suriname in April 1983, about Clark as Reagan's liaison to Pope John Paul II's Vatican in 1982 and 1983, about Clark's role in urging Iran-Contra pardons in 1987, and how Nancy Reagan stopped the pardons. There is also a great, untold story about how we averted disaster by not joining the Chinese in joint construction of the Three Gorges Dam project -- that was Clark's recommendation to Reagan, and Reagan thankfully agreed with Clark. Those are just a few examples.

V&V: Do any of the revelations in your new book involve Reagan policy toward the Soviet Union?

Paul Kengor: Yes, several of them. I will note two in particular: the MiG incident and the major historical revelation in the book -- the secret mission to Suriname.

On the MiG incident: This was never before reported until Clark shared the story for this book. It occurred in 1982, when Ronald Reagan was still a relatively new president. The Soviets were known to test new presidents -- like J.F.K. in Berlin. The historians on Bill Clark's NSC staff warned him about the possibility the Russians would test Reagan somewhere.

Well, the test suddenly appeared to be unfolding in Nicaragua. In the spring of 1982, Clark's staff received reports that the Soviets were behind the construction of a large new airfield west of Managua. The runway was large enough to handle large military transports and bombers. As Clark put it, "This was for Soviet MiGs, and certainly not for Pan-Am airlines."

Clark remembers that the president -- far from the detached, bumbling grandfather type depicted by the left -- grew quite angry. He turned to Secretary of State Al Haig and ordered that he deliver a message to Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin:

You tell Dobrynin that if they move MiGs into that new lengthened airfield in Managua, we'll take them out within 24 hours.

Haig saluted. The Soviets backed down.

That's the kind of thing you didn't read about in the early biographies that made Ronald Reagan out to be a puppet controlled by his more moderate advisers -- the true geniuses, of course.

V&V: What about Suriname? What happened there?

Kengor: Only a handful of people knew even a few details about this. Here's what happened:

At the start of the 1980s, the Soviets were hoping to have another busy decade of expansion into the Third World, and especially into the Western Hemisphere. One man stood in the way: Ronald Reagan. The Soviets soon learned that Bill Clark was the other man who stood in the way. As a cover story on Clark in the New York Times Magazine reported at the time, Clark was not only "the most influential foreign-policy figure in the Reagan administration," but "the president's chief instrument" in confronting Soviet influence in the world, particularly in Latin America.

Well, at the northern tip of South America is the nation of Suriname, which had undergone a coup by a military despot named Desi Bouterse, who was suddenly getting very close to the USSR and Cuba. The Soviets, Clark's staff learned, actually had plans for a full-scale embassy in Suriname's capital. They saw this country as a significant military-strategic outpost, for reasons we lay out in the book. It gets worse: there was also a terrorist connection to Moammar Kaddafi's Libya. Further, the American company ALCOA had a plant there, and Clark and Reagan were very fearful of a potential hostage situation.

There are many similarities here to what happened in Grenada, but with one major difference: We didn't invade or use U.S. military force, which is not to say we didn't suggest a threat to do so. Clark and a few others flew a secret mission to Suriname, authorized by Ronald Reagan and not shared with White House moderates and leakers. Their objective was to try to salvage this situation with unique, dramatic, carrot-and-stick diplomacy. They pulled it off. And then, none of them talked about it until this book.

V&V: So, this is an unknown case of Ronald Reagan stopping the Soviet advance in Latin America? And Reagan never talked about it?

Kengor: Near the end of his presidency, Reagan rightly declared that during his eight years, "not one inch of ground has fallen to the Communists" -- compared to 11 nations that fell into the Soviet camp under Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. As an example of where Communism was halted, Reagan openly pointed to countries like Grenada, but was silent on Suriname.

V&V: This book has a strong religious component, which is integral to the Cold War story; it is the only book on a Reagan official published by a religious press. Explain that.

Kengor: Here were two men, Reagan and Clark, a devout Protestant president and devout Catholic, who prayed together, and who spoke of what they together, in their personal code language, called "the DP" -- the Divine Plan. They believed they had a mutual, spiritual obligation to drive a stake into the heart of an evil and self-acknowledged atheistic empire. And they proceeded to do just that. Reagan decided on the destination and Clark laid the railroad, which is now evident through a paper trail of declassified NSDDs [National Security Decision Directives] quoted at length in the book. Clark managed the NSC [National Security Council] staff that produced all those remarkable NSDDs that stated categorically that the plan was to undermine Soviet Communism, reverse Communism's hold on Eastern Europe, bring political pluralism to the USSR, and change the course of history by actually winning the Cold War.

These documents, which were done by Clark's NSC, and refined in daily consultation between Clark and Reagan, often meeting alone, expressed these precise goals. This is one of the biggest stories of the end of the 20th century.

The two men also together established the vital Cold War relationship with Pope John Paul II's Vatican, with Clark being the principal liaison.

V&V: How did Clark manage to get praised by the likes of Time and Michael Reagan, by the New York Times and Cap Weinberger, by Edmund Morris and Ed Meese, by tree huggers and Cold Warriors? You believe this is the only book on a Reagan official, or maybe anyone, endorsed by both Presidents George H. W. Bush and Jimmy Carter. Was there anyone who didn't like Clark?

Kengor: People liked him as a person. Politically and ideologically, however, he had his opponents, such as the moderates and pragmatists in the Reagan White House. Among them were Mike Deaver and Nancy Reagan, who wanted Clark fired. Some of these folks thought that if only hard-line Bill Clark would quit backing Ronald Reagan in his primitive desire to bankrupt the USSR, the Nobel Committee would show up at the Oval Office one day with the Peace Prize.

V&V: How did you convince him to tell his story?

Kengor: I can't say I really did. I appealed to his sense of duty to Ronald Reagan and to the historical record. He still regrets the attention this has brought to himself. He has a striking faith-based humility, stemming from a devout Catholicism begun as a young boy on the ranches and vistas of California, connecting to God through nature -- as did his favorite saint, Saint Francis -- and through years of contemplating the priesthood at seminary, which he left for another mission: to fight atheistic Soviet Communism -- to win the Cold War. The fulfillment of that mission would require that he meet an ex-actor named Ronald Reagan. The "DP" ultimately had precisely that in store.

V&V: So, in the end, you say that Clark rode off into the sunset?

Kengor: I will quote Roger Robinson, probably the most significant NSC aide. He says of Clark:

You talk about a dark horse in history. . . . There may have never been a greater dark horse than Bill Clark. He and his president were all about some 300 million people becoming free. And isn't it poetic, isn't it fitting, that this quiet rancher, this unassuming guy, gave everyone else the credit? He wanted no credit for himself. And then he just walked away.

Death in 1991 came to the doorstep of the Kremlin. And somewhere, at some point, when no one was watching, Bill Clark quietly returned to his ranch in California.

There are a number of photos of Clark and Reagan on horseback together. One, however, seems especially poignant. It has a special inscription from Reagan:

Dear Bill: "And As The Sun Slowly Sank in the West" -- Don't Ride Too Far Into the Sunset. Ron.

Well, as that sun sank slowly in the west, Bill Clark one day put all those achievements behind him and silently did just that.

Bill Clark was Ronald Reagan's secret weapon in winning the Cold War -- period. This is the unheralded, enigmatic figure who, more than any other White House official, helped President Reagan undermine atheistic Soviet Communism, and then, quite literally, one day saddled his horse in Washington for the final time, and rode off into the sunset. *

"[J]udges, therefore, should be always men of learning and experience in the laws, of exemplary morals, great patience, calmness, coolness, and attention. Their minds should not be distracted with jarring interests; they should not be dependent upon any man, or body of men." --John Adams

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