For a moment this week, the debate about Ukraine became a debate about Ronald Reagan. Rand Paul, a Kentucky senator who represents the relatively libertarian side of the Tea Party movement, set the stage by saying that some conservatives "are so stuck in the Cold War era that they want to tweak Russia all the time." The most hawkish major faction of the GOP, the neoconservatives, deemed these comments insufficiently muscular, and on Sunday the Texas senator Ted Cruz, a frequent ally of Paul's, joined the critics. "I'm a big fan of Rand Paul," Cruz told ABC. "But I don't agree with him on foreign policy....I agree with him that we should be very reluctant to deploy military force abroad. But I think there is a vital role, just as Ronald Reagan did."
As Paul fired back with a Breitbart article headlined "Stop Warping Reagan's Foreign Policy," the neocons gave Cruz an attaboy, with the reliably pro-war Washington Post pundit Michael Gerson ending a column with the lines: "Paul is left to insist, 'I'm a great believer in Ronald Reagan.' This amounts to a serious concession, since Reagan would not have returned the compliment." So this week Reagan gets to be the terrain where the right's internecine foreign-policy battles are being fought.
It's a landscape with weapons for everyone. If you're more interested in Reagan as a symbol than as a flesh-and-blood historical figure, you can cherry-pick from his record to invoke him all sorts of ways. He invaded Grenada, and he pulled out of Lebanon. He believed in confronting communism, and he dreaded the prospect of nuclear war. Early in his administration, he battled the doves to build up America's nuclear arsenal; when he became convinced that Mikhail Gorbachev was serious about making peace, he battled the hawks to push through missile reductions. He angered the anti-nuclear movement with a plan to build a space-based missile defense, but he defended that program with some of the most starry-eyed rhetoric ever to come from a sitting president, even offering to share the technology with the Russians.
God knows, no one thought the man was a non-interventionist at the time. If Paul were trying to paint the president as a clone of the senator's father, the famously antiwar Texas congressman Ron Paul, he wouldn't have a leg to stand on. (When Reagan was in office, Paul Sr. called the White House's support for Nicaragua's contra rebels a "vicious abuse of power" and was upset that the president sent troops to Grenada without a declaration of war.) But the junior Paul isn't exactly a pure non-interventionist himself—he favors sanctions against Russia, and in 2012 he voted for sanctions against Iran—and at any rate, he wrote in his Breitbart piece that he doesn't "claim to be the next Ronald Reagan." Instead he offered a more modest argument: not that Reagan eschewed international intervention, but that there was more to his foreign policy than the popular memory of a president forever standing tall against the nation's foes (or, in the Democratic version, of Ronnie Raygun rushing off to war).
And that's a more plausible position. Reagan wasn't any kind of anti-interventionist, but he was no neocon either. In 1982 one of the founding neoconservatives, Norman Podhoretz, wrote a long article for The New York Times decrying Reagan's policies in the Persian Gulf, in Central America, and—shades of Crimea—in Eastern Europe. Reagan's response to Poland's crackdown on the Solidarity rebellion was too weak, Podhoretz argued:
Like Dwight Eisenhower and Lyndon Johnson in the face of the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, [Reagan] protested, and like Jimmy Carter in the face of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, he announced a program of sanctions. Yet unlike Eisenhower and Johnson, he had options other than verbal denunciations, and although those options were more far-reaching in their potential effects than Carter's, he could not bring himself to go even as far as Carter had gone. One remembers easily enough that Carter instituted a grain embargo and a boycott of the Moscow Olympics, but one is hard-pressed even to remember what the Reagan sanctions were.
Today's conservatives complain that Barack Obama is a wimpy Carter retread. By comparing Reagan unfavorably to Carter, Podhoretz managed to outdo even that. He and his allies kept up the drumbeat throughout the '80s, accusing Reagan repeatedly of appeasement. As you can imagine, they weren't happy with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty that Reagan's team negotiated with Moscow in 1987. Just four years before the USSR dissolved, Podhoretz was calling the agreement a "bloodless victory" for the Soviets.
As an anti-interventionist myself, I thought Reagan's foreign policy provided both the worst and the best moments of his presidency. The low points were the times his administration sent aid to thugs—some of them already in power, some of them trying to get there—in the name of fighting communism. The high point came when he correctly read Gorbachev's intentions and fought for the treaty that helped bring the Cold War to a close. (In an odd twist, Rand Paul's dad joined the neocons in opposing the INF, though this reflected his distaste for international agreements and not any love for the Cold War.)
Here's the thing, though: If you're a conservative trying to steer a Reaganite path between the neocons and the doves, the rising Republican that you're most likely to sound like isn't Rand Paul. It's Ted Cruz, who like Paul criticized the drone war and opposed intervention in Syria but who has never displayed any serious interest in rolling back America's presence abroad. Paul is much more skeptical about U.S. intervention than the 40th president ever was. He has a very good reason not to "claim to be the next Ronald Reagan": He isn't.
But who besides the most cultish hero-worshipper thinks that's the most important issue? If the question is who can perform the more credible Reagan impression at an '80s nostalgia night, Paul can't hold a candle to Cruz. If the question is who has the better idea of what Washington's place in the world should be today, I prefer Paul.