Tag: ronald reagan

It Was Fifty Years Ago Today

Fifty years ago today, the actor Ronald Reagan gave a nationally televised speech on behalf of the Republican presidential nominee, Senator Barry Goldwater. It came to be known to Reagan fans as “The Speech” and launched his own, more successful political career.

And a very libertarian speech it was: 

This idea that government was beholden to the people, that it had no other source of power is still the newest, most unique idea in all the long history of man’s relation to man. This is the issue of this election: Whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.

You and I are told we must choose between a left or right, but I suggest there is no such thing as a left or right. There is only an up or down. Up to man’s age-old dream – the maximum of individual freedom consistent with order – or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism. Regardless of their sincerity, their humanitarian motives, those who would sacrifice freedom for security have embarked on this downward path. Plutarch warned, “The real destroyer of the liberties of the people is he who spreads among them bounties, donations and benefits.”

The Founding Fathers knew a government can’t control the economy without controlling people. And they knew when a government sets out to do that, it must use force and coercion to achieve its purpose.

Video versions of the speech here.

For libertarians, Reagan had his faults. But he was an eloquent spokesman for a traditional American philosophy of individualism, self-reliance, and free enterprise at home and abroad, and words matter. They change the climate of opinion, and they inspire people trapped in illiberal societies. And these days, when people claiming the Reagan mantle push for wars or military involvement in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and other danger spots, we remember that Reagan challenged the Soviet Union mostly in the realm of ideas; he used military force only sparingly. George W. Bush, whom some call “Reagan’s true political heir,” increased federal spending by more than a trillion dollars even before the financial crisis. We watch the antigay crusading of today’s conservative Republicans and remember that Reagan publicly opposed the early antigay Briggs Initiative of 1978 (featured in the movie Milk).

And in those moments libertarians are tempted to paraphrase the theme song of All in the Family and say, “Mister, we could use a man like Ronald Reagan again.”

Would that the current assault on economic freedom would turn up another presidential candidate with Reagan’s values and talents. More on Reagan here and here. 

Know Your Libertarian History: The Great Tax Revolt of the 1970s

One of the great libertarian victories of the past few decades was the tax revolt of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The inflation of the 1970s caused higher property taxes and income tax bracket creep, which led to California’s Proposition 13, the Kemp-Roth tax cut bill, the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the 1981 tax cut, the deceleration of government spending, the further lowering of marginal rates in 1986—and a long period during which economic growth exceeded government growth.

This story isn’t told often in history books and popular media. Even with the boom in histories of modern conservatism, which in many instances focuses on the reaction to socialism and the welfare state, there is rarely a sense of the important arguments that free-market advocates were making. That’s why it’s important to have historians who understand economics and appreciate the value of limited government. One such historian is Brian Domitrovic, author of Econoclasts: The Rebels Who Sparked the Supply-Side Revolution and Restored American Prosperity.

In the latest issue of Cato Policy Report, the Cato Institute’s newsletter for Sponsors and friends, Domitrovic has a lead article titled “Tax Revolt! It’s Time to Learn from Past Success,” where he tells the story outlined above. If you get discouraged about the possibility of positive change, you should read it. Or read it if you just want to know more about the history of movements for limited government.

Also in the January-February Cato Policy Report: my editorial on Pope Francis, Nelson Mandela, and the longing for Utopia; leading scholars and policymakers on a century of central banking; and reports on NSA surveillance, jury nullification, and Cato’s recent policy studies.

Note that if you were a Cato Sponsor, you would get articles like this in your mailbox every month, along with the satisfaction of supporting the work of the Cato Institute. Become a Sponsor now!

Wall Street Journal: Romney Should Be a Neocon, but Hide It in Debate

Would you buy a foreign policy from this man?

Imagine a world in which the Iraq War had gone exactly as marketed. The United States invaded in March 2003. The Iraqis, with the help of Ahmed Chalabi, rapidly transitioned to become a stable, liberal democracy allied with the United States against Iran. The marvelous and smooth transformation had ripple effects throughout the region: a handful of Arab states followed suit, and the United States had drawn down to under 30,000 troops in country by September 2003, setting up a basing agreement with the new Iraqi government to stay indefinitely. Few American lives were lost, the swamp of terrorism was drained, and an oil pipeline has just been completed running from Iraq to the Israeli port city of Haifa.

Imagine, at the same time, that opponents of the war, despite having gotten every major judgment about the prudence and consequences of the war comically wrong, had been vaulted to positions of power and prestige in foreign affairs commentary. Meanwhile, the war’s proponents, despite their support for a strategy that yielded huge strategic dividends for the United States at a low cost, were banished to the wilderness, heard from sporadically on a few blogs and at a think tank or two.

It would be strange, wouldn’t it?

And yet that situation is roughly analogous to the one in which we find ourselves today, except in real life the war was an enormous disaster, just as its opponents predicted, and the proponents of the war are the ones in denial about its implications. Foremost among the salespeople for war who have yet to come to grips with the facts are the members of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board.

But hey, let’s let bygones be bygones: they’ve got some advice for Mitt Romney in his upcoming foreign policy debate.

First, the good news: Even the editorial board of the Journal seems to understand that speaking openly about their plans for more wars would be bad politics. Accordingly, the Journal doesn’t “expect Mr. Romney to offer an explicit defense of the Bush Doctrine” and they worry about the implications of Obama charging Romney with wanting to get the United States into a third (and fourth) Middle East war. This is in keeping with the previous assurance of Bret Stephens (pictured above) that Romney wouldn’t start any new wars. Romney should deny wanting any more wars while doing a number of things that make them inevitable.

Second, the bad news: Instead of suggesting that Romney actually trim the neocon sail a bit, the article suggests Romney continue his strategy of wheeling out a fog machine and saying “leadership” and “strength” instead of discussing details. The American people who tune in Monday night deserve to hear some specifics. Not the level of specifics that would satisfy the people who think about international politics for a living, sure, but some specifics. Instead, while suggesting that Romney “offer[] a serious critique of Mr. Obama’s foreign policy that doesn’t descend to clichés,” the article suggests clichés but not seriousness.

This blends with the ugly news: like an insular clique of Bourbon royalty, the neocons at the Journal appear to have learned nothing and forgotten nothing about strategy over the last 10 years. To the extent their suggestions do go beyond clichés, they are a reminder that Bush-era neoconservatism still lies at the center of their world view, and the world view of the Republican establishment. A few examples:

  • The war in Iraq, we are informed, had “already been won when Mr. Obama became president.” Mission accomplished? Come again?
  • Obama turned that win into a loss by failing to secure “a viable alliance with Baghdad and a bulwark against Tehran.” When you have allocated yourselves 1,608 words, you may want to show your work about how this could have happened.
  • Another Obama failure is that he allowed Israel to have a partially independent defense strategy. He should have “provide[d] Israel with reassurances that it needn’t consider its own military options” on Iran. If Israelis should just rely on the United States to defend them from the most important threats facing their country, why does Israel have such a powerful military in the first place?
  • Obama’s “policies of premature military withdrawals [in Iraq and Afghanistan] have increased rather than diminished the chances that we will be at war in the Middle East again.” How? In which countries?

One could go on. But more broadly the piece suffers from the flaw that has characterized the whole foreign-policy discussion in the election: the idea that the outside world begins at Algeria and ends at Afghanistan. The sprawling essay says exactly nothing useful when it comes to the most important foreign policy challenges facing the United States: the prospect of a European implosion, the wreckage of our war on drugs in Mexico, and preventing American entanglement in a prospective World War III in Asia.

The essay closes by invoking Robert Gates’s invocation of Ronald Reagan, who said that he had lived through many wars but none of them began because the United States was too strong. Gates and the WSJ’s editorial board probably ought to think a little harder about whether the United States blundered into any costly quagmires as a function of its overweening strength and insulation from the costs of its strategic choices. The answer is obvious.

On the Virtues of Polarization

Today POLITICO Arena asks:

Is Jeb Bush right that his father and President Reagan would find themselves out of step with today’s Republican Party because of its strict adherence to ideology and the intensity of modern partisan warfare?

My response:

Jeb Bush’s remarks about the Republican Party represent the views of some members of a party that, like the Democratic Party, has become more sharply defined than it was under his father’s or brother’s presidencies. Looking at the longer and deeper view, however, that’s not surprising, because the Bush presidencies were more anomalous than indicative of the party.

For much of the post-War period the Republican Party, especially under the eastern establishment, was little but “Democrat-lite.” That began to change with Barry Goldwater in 1964, suffered a setback under Nixon and Ford, but nonetheless continued under Governor and then President Reagan, who brought a fair measure of ideological discipline to the Party—affecting the Democratic Party in the process. (Compare the ideological opposition to Reagan to that of Ford, for example.) Despite the two Bushes thereafter, the intellectual and activist institutions that had underpinned the Reagan revolution continued to grow, especially as the Democratic Party itself became more polarized, and those forces increasingly influenced the Republican Party, encouraging it to stand for something, unlike the earlier “always-in-the-minority” party—the party Democrats remembered fondly as the “reasonable” Republicans.

There were plenty of counterexamples to those developments, of course—the collapse of the Gingrich bubble late in 1995, the rise of the Tom DeLay opportunists, and the spending of Bush II. And there were issues that continued, and continue even now, to deeply divide members, like immigration and the drug war. But increasingly the two parties have become more sharply defined—”polarized,” if you prefer—as the 2010 mid-term elections made especially clear.  And contrary to the Washington establishment, that’s not a bad thing, because voters now have a real choice, not just a choice between two parties, both of which stand for essentially the same things, their respective candidates seeking simply to stay in power. Today, in the main, Republicans stand for the private sector and limited government, Democrats for the public sector and government services. We’ll soon see which course the American people want to take.

Romney’s National Security Problem

It appears some Republicans want to return to their familiar national security play book in their pursuit of the White House, accusing a Democratic president of gutting defense spending and undermining national security. An Associated Press story predicts that Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign may feature the “hawkish and often unilateral foreign policy prescriptions that guided Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.” But the calls from Republican operatives and GOP hawks for Romney to slam Obama for cutting the military and drawing down in Afghanistan are hollow. Focusing on national security isn’t likely to score Romney any political points. To the extent that foreign policy matters in this election, Romney’s policies are both misguided, and at odds with what the American people want.

For one thing, Romney’s prescriptions for Afghanistan aren’t so different from Barack Obama; where they are different, they are politically unpopular. From yesterday’s New York Times:

For Mr. Romney, the evolving politics of the Afghan conflict suggest that he “wouldn’t get a lot of juice for making the argument to stay,” said Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tufts University. “The problem he’s got is, how he can criticize the president by adopting a policy remarkably similar to the president. He’s obviously got to criticize him, but he doesn’t have that much to work with.”

But the problem extends beyond Afghanistan. The more Romney talks about “staying the course” in an unpopular war, the more he sounds like the last GOP presidential nominee. John McCain’s campaign boast that he would rather lose an election than lose a war should haunt the party: he delivered neither a political victory for Republicans, nor a military victory in Iraq. Romney’s embrace of the Afghan quagmire could seal the GOP’s fate as the party that happily defies the wishes of the American people in order to fight costly and interminable nation-building missions in distant lands.

On defense spending, Romney’s approach has been “Fire. Ready. Aim.” He has accused Obama of short-changing the military, and pledges to spend at least 4 percent of the nation’s GDP on the Pentagon’s base budget, a promise that would bring spending to levels unprecedented since the end of World War II. Romney has yet to spell out what other spending he would cut, or what taxes he would increase, in order to make up what I estimate to be $2.5 trillion in additional spending over the next decade. Or he could just add to the deficit, as George W. Bush did. Team Obama would be smart to press Romney for clarification.

But Obama himself is to blame for misleading the public about military spending. Although he boasts of having cut $487 billion from the Pentagon’s budget over the next decade, his budget submission for FY 2013 represented only a slight decline below the previous year, and is still above the average during the Bush years. If Obama gets his way, the Pentagon’s budget would rise to near historic highs again by the end of the decade. (For more on this, see here.)

Therefore, far from believing that Obama has gone too far in cutting military spending, as Romney contends, many Americans believe that the cuts could go much deeper. That is the take away from Yochi Dreazen’s story in this week’s National Journal. Noting that we have the biggest and second-biggest air forces in the world (the Air Force and the Navy, respectively) and 11 aircraft carriers to China’s one (which isn’t exactly state-of-the-art), Dreazen quotes an exasperated T.X. Hammes, a professor at the National Defense University, and a 30-year Marine veteran, “the services keep saying that we need to be big. What’s the justification? Based on what threat? I’m just not sure I see the logic.”

A companion story at NJ by George E. Condon Jr. shows that Hammes isn’t alone. A recent Gallup poll found that 41 percent of Americans think we spend too much on the military as opposed to just 24 percent who think we don’t spend enough. It is that latter segment of the population, presumably, that Romney has locked up with his four percent promise. But it is hard to see how his stance will win over the war-weary public that isn’t anxious to repeat our Iraq and Afghanistan adventures, and that isn’t looking to boost military spending, either.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

GOP the Loser in Primary Fight over Immigration

Over at National Review Online this morning, I ask how the Ronald Reagan of 1980 would have fared in today’s Iowa caucuses given his views on how to tackle illegal immigration (“GOP Candidates Betray the Spirit of Reagan on Immigration”). My conclusion, based on the current mood of many Republicans, is that Reagan would have been the target of a barrage of attack ads:

In April 1980, when Ronald Reagan was competing in the presidential primaries, he rejected the building of a wall between the United States and Mexico: “Rather than talking about putting up a fence, why don’t we work out some recognition of our mutual problems? Make it possible for them to come here legally with a work permit — and then while they’re working and earning here, they pay taxes here. And when they want to go back, they can go back. And open the border both ways by understanding their problems.”

If a Republican presidential candidate said such a thing today, he or she would suffer withering criticism for being soft on illegal immigration. Instead, we hear Reagan’s successors talk about implementing national ID cards, imposing intrusive regulations on the labor market, raiding farms, factories, and restaurants, and harassing small-business owners trying to survive in this tough economy, all in the name of chasing away hard-working immigrants.

The unhealthy competition among the current Republican candidates to sound tough on immigration also risks alienating millions of Hispanic voters who could otherwise be persuaded to support the party. If conservatives want to rediscover the more optimistic, inclusive, reform-minded spirit of Reagan, they should be talking about real immigration reform, not about spending more money and enacting more sweeping regulations to enforce a fundamentally flawed system.

Weinberger/Powell Doctrine R.I.P.

This morning at the Skeptics, I blogged about a series of questions raised by the ongoing military operations against Libya. But I left room for one big question: Is the Weinberger/Powell Doctrine dead?

Actually, it isn’t a question. It’s a statement: the doctrine that sought to prevent the United States from engaging in risky and counterproductive missions that had nothing to do with protecting U.S. vital interests (e.g. Lebanon 1983; Somalia, 1991; and Kosovo, 1999) is dead. Shovel dirt on it.

To review, the doctrine was first coined by Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger, in a speech at the National Press Club in 1984. Weinberger was aided by a rising military officer, Colin Powell, who later adapted the concepts for his own purposes as National Security Adviser for Reagan and later as Chairman of the JCS under George H.W. Bush. The essential elements boil down to five key questions:

  1. Is there a compelling national interest at stake?
  2. Have the costs and consequences of intervention been considered?
  3. Have we exhausted all available options for resolving the problem, i.e. is force a last resort?
  4. Is there a clear and achievable military mission, and therefore a well-defined end state?
  5. Is there strong public support - both domestic and international - for the operation?

The current operations over Libya fail on at least four counts.

There is no compelling U.S. national interest at stake. The rationale for the mission is purely humanitarian: stopping violence against civilians. Whenever the United States involves itself in such missions, it inevitably raises questions about why we are intervening in this case, and not in others.

The costs and consequences have not been considered or debated. The claim that it will be quick and easy is belied by troubling parallels to Iraq, not the least of which is the divided nature of Libyan society, and the possibility – indeed, likelihood – that in the event of regime collapse a long-term nation-building project will be required to prevent reprisal attacks against former regime supporters.

The mission is not clearly defined, and we do not have a clear understanding of an end state. In the run-up to last week’s UNSC resolution, a number of observers pointed out that a no-fly zone alone was unlikely to halt Qaddafi’s advance on rebel positions. The resolution went one step further, allowing for attacks against forces on the ground. But the danger to civilians will persist for some time (see above), and that seemingly discrete object in fact allows for a very long-term mission, at a time when U.S. forces remain in Iraq and Afghanistan, and are also engaged in numerous other missions around the globe.

There is some public support for the mission, but I’m most interested in domestic opinion, and I’m most troubled by the Obama administration’s failure to obtain congressional approval for war. There was time for such an initiative, but the administration chose to dedicate its attention to the UN building in New York, not the U.S. Capitol at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. If members of Congress had been asked in advance, they might well have given approval, but someone up there would have asked at least two crucial questions: How long will this take? And how much will it cost?

I will allow that the military option might have been the only thing remaining in the policy toolbox to halt Qaddafi’s advance on rebel positions, but that doesn’t answer the question of why the U.S. military should have been involved (with no vital U.S. interest at stake, and with the U.S. military busy elsewhere, it should not have been), and it also doesn’t address the more troubling question about the long-term ramifications of said military action, even if the best-case scenario of Qaddafi’s speedy ouster plays out.

It goes too far to claim that the Libyan intervention killed the Weinberger/Powell doctrine. It was already dead, or at least very sick. But I see President Obama’s latest decision as a clear indication that the relative wisdom and prudence of the Reagan/Bush I years is but a distant memory.

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