The U.S. and Mubarak: What Would Reagan Do?

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Ben Curtis / AP

Antigovernment protesters block an army tank at a protest site opposite the Egyptian Museum near Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo on Feb. 6, 2011

"You will be visiting Berlin at a time of ferment," Secretary of State George Shultz wrote to his boss, Ronald Reagan, on May 11, 1987. The confidential memo was included in the briefing materials given to Reagan before a trip to Europe, which would include a speech in West Berlin. "Your address ... offers the chance to call for the lowering of East-West barriers and an improved situation in Berlin," a city that had been divided for 40 years. Shultz encouraged Reagan to appeal to Germans' hope for change. "There is a sense," the Secretary wrote, "of a need for emancipation."

One month later, Reagan stood in front of the Brandenburg Gate and delivered the six most famous words of his presidency: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" Two years after that, the Berlin Wall collapsed.

Most of the President's foreign policy advisers, however, thought it had been a mistake for Reagan to issue the challenge to Gorbachev. The exhortations made by Shultz in his memo to Reagan — part of a sheaf of newly declassified documents made available to me by the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library — were unusual. Reagan Administration officials wanted to pressure Mikhail Gorbachev to open up the communist bloc, but they were uncertain about how aggressively to do so. Progress takes time, some argued. The world is complicated. Gradual change is in America's best interest.

Does this sound familiar? The declassified documents are a reminder that even when the U.S. is on the right side of history, it struggles to keep up with it. In July 1986, a National Security Council paper advocated steps to ease the division between East and West Berlin. Hot rhetoric would be counterproductive; instead, the paper said, the U.S. should use "more neutral phrasing than 'tear down the wall.'" The paper called for Washington and Moscow to commit to reaching the goal of a "Berlin without barriers" within "five years."

As it turns out, the reunification of Berlin happened in just over half that time. This, despite the Establishment's skepticism about the possibilities for change in Berlin, or anywhere in Eastern Europe. A memo sent to Reagan by National Security Adviser Frank C. Carlucci, just before Reagan left to give his speech in West Berlin in June 1987, had summed it up: "This will not be a trip full of big and easy political victories. Most observers are expecting ambiguous and not very memorable results."

Experienced policymakers are conditioned not to succumb to false hopes. When it comes to statecraft, risk is a dirty word. But Reagan, like all successful Presidents, recognized at critical times the need to surmount his advisers' caution.

So what does history tell us about how Barack Obama is handling the current crisis in the Middle East? Or, put it another way: What would Reagan do? Since the start of the uprising in Cairo two weeks ago, Obama has insisted on a "gradual transition" to democracy and resisted calls to push Hosni Mubarak aside. To neoconservatives like Elliott Abrams, who served under Reagan, Obama's "go-slow" approach is evidence of the current President's insufficient commitment to promoting freedom.

But the Reagan Administration's own support for democracy was inconsistent. Washington provided backing to the Solidarity movement in Poland and religious dissidents in Russia, but overlooked the antidemocratic abuses of U.S. allies in Latin America. Reagan did business with Saddam Hussein to counter the threat of Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini in Iran. He coddled strongmen like Mubarak and said in the 1984 presidential debate that it had been a mistake to withdraw support from the Shah of Iran. Perhaps the closest analogy to Obama's current Mubarak dilemma was the 1985 People Power revolution that overthrew Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos. Though the U.S. ultimately forced Marcos to accept exile, Reagan was initially reluctant to intervene. "We must try not to lay down the law," he wrote in his diary. "All we can do is send the message ... & pray."

Though celebrated for his idealism, Reagan was a pragmatist. He might have labeled the Soviet Union an "evil empire," but he was not above negotiating with it. He publicly challenged Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall but rarely brought it up in person — doing so might embarrass Gorbachev and stiffen his resistance to making a deal on nuclear weapons. All of which suggests that in Egypt, Reagan would have followed a line similar to Obama's: trying to persuade Mubarak to leave with dignity, seeking to prevent a vacuum of power, resisting any dramatic break with a loyal American ally until the last possible moment.

The difference is that while Reagan tended to compromise in private, he was unafraid to throw caution to the wind in public, as he did at the Brandenburg Gate. Like his hero, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Reagan used his speeches to rally the public around an optimistic vision for the future, even if his policies fell short of it. Similarly, the outcome in Egypt may prove less satisfying than what the Obama Administration and most of the demonstrators in Cairo would prefer. But that shouldn't stop Obama from proclaiming the U.S.'s support for a freer, more democratic Middle East — perhaps with a "tear down this wall" speech of his own. America's foreign policy does need to guard against the realities of a messy world. But it can also help people work toward a better one.

Ratnesar, a TIME contributing editor-at-large, is a Bernard L. Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of Tear Down This Wall: A City, a President, and the Speech That Ended the Cold War. His column on global affairs appears every Monday on