Recalling the 1976 Republican Convention and Its Unintended Consequences

--Published in AMERICAN THINKER, 17 July 2016

History is paradoxical. This is because it is riddled with unintended consequences that are unavoidable, as they are part of the warp-and-woof of history. 

History is also paradoxical, it might be said, because the gods of history keep reminding us mortals that our conceit in being overly rational actors, foresighted and forearmed, is misplaced. Our best-laid plans are only as good as the limitation of our knowledge, which is finite in the face of infinitude. Only the gods of history know beginnings and ends ahead of time. Or as Shakespeare wrote, “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.” 

But when we, in the sobriety of our minds, make some sense of history we do so in retrospect as spectators. As actors in history, we have flawed expectation of our motives and imperfect understanding of our roles. Hence, the unintended consequences of our actions that torment us are mostly of our own making.

Republicans gathered in Cleveland to make Donald Trump officially their nominee for president in the November election, might well be reminded of some history and its paradoxical nature. In 1976 when Republicans gathered in Kansas City, the GOP was somewhat similarly divided between those supporting Gerald Ford, the sitting president, and those supporting Ronald Reagan and his insurgency campaign for the party’s nomination.

In that bicentennial year four decades ago Americans were far from jubilant. The divisiveness at home resulting from the Vietnam War was compounded by the stench of the Watergate scandal, which had forced Nixon out of office. While Ford’s pardon of Nixon was a wise decision, it was controversial at the time and trailed him in his bid to retain the presidency.

Reagan’s bid for the Republican nomination was not simply a challenge thrust at Ford; it was also aimed at the party establishment and its policies advanced by Nixon. Four decades later Donald Trump’s bid has been somewhat similar to that of Reagan, as Trump campaigned by opposing the party establishment and its policies on trade, immigration, globalism and security.

The Ford administration was more or less the Nixon administration without Nixon. Reagan had been critical of the détente policy as Nixon’s effort to accommodate the Soviet Union. Reagan was wary of Kissinger’s diplomacy as overly sensitive to Moscow’s interest, instead of defending more robustly the cause of freedom behind the Iron Curtain. And Reagan’s insurgency campaign struck a chord with Republicans when he spoke out against the Panama Canal “giveaway” that many suspected the Ford administration was secretly negotiating with Panama.

Ford and Reagan arrived in Kansas City with both short of delegates for winning the nomination outright. In Reagan: The Life (2015), Reagan’s recent biographer H.W. Brands writes, “Ford needed roughly 40 delegates to claim the convention’s majority; Reagan some 100. In the scrapping for those delegates, the president’s institutional heft would surely work in his favor.”

Ford won the nomination, and lost to Jimmy Carter. It was the “institutional heft” of the presidency or, in other words, the Republican establishment that denied Reagan the nomination that might well have led to a different outcome in November, and then an entirely different history from one we have witnessed since then.

The disastrous legacy of Carter’s failed presidency can be highlighted under one name, “Khomeini.” The revolution in Iran against the monarchy headed by Mohammad Reza Shah (1919-1980), which gained in strength through 1978 and was hijacked by militant followers of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1902-1989) in 1979, was not inevitable. The Shah had dithered and wasted valuable time in dealing early with the anti-monarchical unrest, as he was unsure of Carter’s support on his handling of the opposition he faced. The Shah’s biographer, Abbas Milani, in The Shah (2011) writes,

“It is hard to pinpoint the moment at which the unwieldy coalition that eventually overthrew the Shah began to coalesce. One thing is certain: Carter’s human rights policies had an impact in reinvigorating the dormant democratic movement.”  

If Reagan had won in 1976, he would very likely have handled the situation in Iran differently. The United States had invested heavily in arming the Shah and in supporting his effort to modernize a traditionally backward society. A firm declaration of support for the Shah when he needed it most would have given his regime the confidence to effectively contain the unrest, while gradually accommodating opposition demands for democratic reforms without alienating the expanding middle class.

The Shah’s Iran was the keystone state in the post-1945 structure of the Middle East. It was also the lynchpin of the Central Treaty Organization (also known as the Baghdad Pact) devised during the Eisenhower presidency in 1955 as a mutual defense pact among the four regional states (Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, and Turkey) with Britain as a signatory. This arrangement was meant to insulate the region on the southern perimeter of the Soviet Union from communist threats, and deter any Soviet ambition to extend Moscow’s influence down to the Persian Gulf region and its oil resources.

The overthrow of the Shah’s regime in 1979 by the fanatical followers of Khomeini was the first, and most important, triumph of radical Islam or Islamism. Khomeini’s victory was revenge of the medieval mind-set against modernity. It set loose the reactionary hordes as if emerging from the long forgotten period of late antiquity to prey upon the modern world.

The Shah was authoritarian and not much different from other Muslim despots, yet he was staunchly pro-West and a modernizer. He was trapped in the same dilemma as that segment of the Muslim population seeking modernist reform of their faith and culture, while threatened on all sides either as class enemies or heretics.

The collapse of monarchy in Iran set in motion a chain of events in the Middle East that is far from exhausted. The making of Khomeini’s Iran gravely destabilized the post-1945 arrangement of the Middle East. Historians will long debate the details surrounding the Shah’s departure from Tehran in January 1979, and events that followed. But what cannot be denied is the key factor – regime change in Iran – that let loose anarchy and wars nearly four decades ago that continue into the present.

Khomeini’s Iran was viewed with horror in every capital of the Middle East, and with concern in Moscow. A revolutionary Shi’ite regime in Tehran threatened Sunni hegemony in those Arab states of the Fertile Crescent with significant Shi’a Muslim populations. These states were Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. The threat materialized. Baghdad is now ruled by Shi’ites beholden to Tehran, Damascus is a satrapy of Iran, and Beirut is held captive by Hezbollah fighters loyal to the guardians of Khomeini’s Islamic republic.

Saddam Hussein’s fear of Khomeini’s revolution spilling over into his “tribaldom” of Iraq led him into a preventive war against Iran as champion of Sunni Islam. The nearly decade long war in the nineteen-eighties ended in a stalemate, and it then primed Saddam Hussein to turn against his Arab allies by invading Kuwait. We know now how all of this worked out with U.S. involvement and the irony, as Trump has repeatedly indicated, that the inconclusive aftermath of the 1990-91 Gulf War provided the mistaken rationale in the context of 9/11 for the second Iraq war of 2003 and after.

From Moscow’s perspective Khomeini’s Iran, unlike that of the Shah, was at a minimum a troubling nuisance in the soft underbelly of the Soviet empire. When the Afghan agents of Moscow got into difficulties running Afghanistan, Leonid Brezhnev and his aging oligarchs responded by sending Soviet troops to secure the regime in Kabul. This raised alarms in Carter’s Washington of seeing Moscow intending to take advantage of post-Shah Iran in the strategically important Persian Gulf region.

Carter’s response to the Soviet move into Afghanistan was the mobilization of a Rapid Deployment Force for the Persian Gulf. This announcement by Carter coincided with the beginning of the hostage crisis in Tehran when militants of the Khomeini regime took American diplomats into captivity.

The low level warfare inside Afghanistan was turned into the reverse of the Vietnam War for the Soviet Union during the Reagan administration. The nearly decade long war to oust the Soviet Union from Afghanistan waged by Afghan warriors and joined by militant Muslims – they came from across the Arab and non-Arab world of Islam in huge numbers lured by the call of jihad – was funded by Saudi Arabia, armed by America, and logistically supported by Pakistan. For the jihadis Afghanistan became the training ground of future jihads.

None of this was foreseen in 1976. None of this was inevitable or preordained.

For the Republican delegates gathered in Kansas City the pressure placed upon them by the GOP insiders to vote for Gerald Ford and deny Ronald Reagan the nomination worked. Any concerns about how damaged the GOP was, given the Watergate scandal and the “Church Committee” (known after its chairman Senator Frank Church, Democrat from Idaho) findings on CIA released in 1975 and 1976, were brushed aside by the “institutional heft” of the party in favor of Ford as the sitting president.

There was a fork in the road ahead of the November 1976 election when Republicans nominated Ford. They chose not to go the distance on the less traveled path that Reagan’s candidacy pointed toward. And that choice made all the difference for Americans and for the rest of the world.