Al-Qaeda’s devastating attack on 11 September 2001 led to a new War on Terror as a dominant part of American foreign policy. Systematic studies of America’s previous battles with terrorists are therefore timely and important. Such studies can yield compelling guidance for distinguishing between appropriate and inappropriate strategies. Osama Bin Laden and other enemies of the United States have cited the inadequacy of previous American responses as having fueled their contempt for American resolve in the current war. David Wills’s The First War on Terrorism provides a flawed but valuable [End Page 164] account of the Reagan administration’s response to political terrorism in the 1980s.
Wills’s great strengths lie in the realms of research and narrative rather than policy and analysis. One of his serious errors is projecting the priorities of the post-9/11 world onto the decade of the 1980s. The problem of terrorism had less salience for the Reagan administration than for President George W. Bush. The issue was important for Ronald Reagan but was secondary to the Soviet threat that he rightly believed was primary. Much of what Wills deems inconsistency makes more sense when viewed through the prism of the administration’s paramount objective of waging the Cold War. Not only Reagan but every Cold War president found daunting the task of forging an anti-Soviet consensus in a region seething with animosity, crosscutting cleavages, tyranny, and defiance to American conceptions of freedom.
Another serious error, related to the first, is Wills’s underestimation of Reagan himself. Wills sticks to the old depiction of Reagan as an uninformed, disengaged president, even though recent scholarship has thoroughly undermined that depiction. Contrary to what Wills claims, Reagan came to office with long-standing, well-formulated views about foreign policy—views that served as the basis for his highly successful strategy for waging the Cold War during the 1980s. The archives and even Wills’s own cases studies establish that Reagan was the driving force of his administration’s major policies, especially with regard to the Soviet Union.
Nor does Wills seem to realize that William Clark, Reagan’s national security adviser from 1982 to 1983, was the person whom Reagan trusted and relied on the most. Finally, Wills accepts at face value, throughout the book, the discredited notion that Yasir Arafat truly was committed to a genuine two-state solution of the Palestinian conflict that would also protect Israel’s right to exist within defensible boundaries. This leads to his misguided view that pressuring a democratic ally like Israel rather than reforming a corrupt and authoritarian Palestinian government (now compounded by the rise of Hamas terrorists) would address the root cause of Palestinian terror.
What largely redeems these shortcomings is the meticulousness and thoroughness of the case studies themselves. Wills provides definitive accounts of the Reagan administration’s debacle in Lebanon in 1983–1984, the hijacking of TWA flight 847 in June 1985, the hijacking of the Achille Lauro in October 1985, the Rome and Vienna airport massacres in December 1985, and the bombing of the LA Belle Disco in April 1986. He splendidly conveys the interplay of differences and circumstances that often inhibited a decisive response: the difficulty of identifying perpetrators beyond a reasonable doubt; fear of domestic reaction and aversion to inflicting casualties on innocent civilians; and policy differences among the president’s major advisers, particularly Secretary of State George Shultz and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger.
These cases studies are essential reading for anyone trying to comprehend the debate over the Bush administration’s strategy for waging the war on terror. Among other things, we learn that George W. Bush was not the first to contemplate regime change as remedy to the root cause of terrorism. Prominent members of the Reagan administration weighed the possibility of overthrowing Muammar Gadhafi in Libya [End Page 165] before concluding that the difficulties of doing so were prohibitive. Secretary of State Shultz emerges not only as the Reagan administration’s strongest advocate of a...