Commentary

Reagan Was No Neocon

It’s Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday on Sunday, and everyone on the Right is jockeying for a piece of the Gipper’s legacy.

No surprise, then, that the latest issue of the Weekly Standard — the magazine that helped bring you the Iraq War — is a “What Would Reagan Do?” special, with a cover featuring Reagan blowing out his birthday candles. This isn’t the first time the Standard’s editor, William Kristol, has wrapped himself in our 40th president’s mantle. In a famous 1996 article, “Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy,” Kristol and co-author Robert Kagan invoke the Gipper for an aggressive program of “global hegemony” and rogue-state rollback.

Nice try. During his career, Ronald Reagan often employed the sort of confrontational rhetoric neoconservatives thrill to, but, as president, Reagan was no neocon — and be thankful for that.

In foreign affairs, the Reagan legacy is one of realism and restraint.”

In their 2004 book, America Alone: The Neoconservatives and the Global Order, Jonathan Clarke and Stefan Halper write that modern neocons have “attached a Reagan bumper sticker to their motorcade,” but they “ignore much of the substance: the intense arms control commitment, the summitry, the minimal use of direct American military power.”

Reagan had a genuine horror of nuclear weapons, and wanted them abolished. He called mutually assured destruction “the craziest thing I ever heard of.” His three military interventions — Grenada, Lebanon and Libya — were “limited operations of short duration,” and he carefully avoided direct confrontation with the Soviets.

This got Reagan into trouble with the neocons early on. They took to the oped pages to lament “The Muddle in Foreign Policy” (Irving Kristol) and chronicle the “Neoconservative Anguish over Reagan’s Foreign Policy” (Norman Podhoretz).

Incredibly, Podhoretz accused Reagan of “following a strategy of helping the Soviet Union stabilize its empire,” instead of “encouraging the breakdown of that empire from within.”

In Reagan’s Middle East policies, especially, there was much for hawks to rue, such as the administration’s sharp condemnation of Israel’s 1981 “preventive strike” on the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak, and Reagan’s decision to withdraw U.S. peacekeepers from Lebanon after a truck bomb killed more than 200 Marines.

In a 2007 debate, to the chagrin of Rudy Giuliani, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, invoked Reagan to argue for getting out of the Middle East: “We need the courage of a Ronald Reagan.”

Despite Reagan’s “ringing speeches,” he was “quite circumscribed in his efforts at democracy promotion,” Colin Dueck writes in Hard Line, a new history of GOP foreign policy. Reagan viewed the U.S. as a city on a hill, a “model to other countries,” not a crusader state with “an obligation to forcibly promote democracy overseas.”

Most of all, what separates Reagan from his hawkish latter-day admirers was his optimism. He viewed the United States as dynamic and free — and, therefore, strong enough to outlast any enemy.

For the neoconservatives, however, it’s always 1939, and the free world is always under siege, whether from a decrepit Soviet monolith of the 1980s or today’s allegedly “existential threat” presented by several hundred cave-dwelling Islamists.

In the Gorbachev era, Norman Podhoretz accused Reagan of buying into “the fantasy of communist collapse.” Some fantasy.

Reagan had been right when he proclaimed in 1981 that “the West will not contain communism; it will transcend communism,” dismissing it as “a sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.” The Gipper’s threat-addled fans at the Standard could use some of his confidence today.

In recent decades, Republicans have repeatedly honored Reagan’s memory by naming federal buildings after him — a curious tribute indeed. They’d do better to look at his actual record.

In foreign affairs, the Reagan legacy is one of realism and restraint.

Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute and the author of The Cult of the Presidency.