Ronald Reagan: Hawk, Dove, or 'It's Complicated'?

Republicans check their WWRRD? bracelets.

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.

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  • SIV||

    1. Defeated Soviet Communism

  • Bam!||

    Communism defeats itself.

  • SIV||

    A lot of people who lived in Communist Europe give Reagan credit for its downfall.

  • CentristClassicalLiberal||

    He prolonged it by sending them aid.

  • The Immaculate Trouser||

    Someone should tell Cuba and N Korea.

  • thom77||

    Cuba and North Korea are toothless husks of the Soviet legacy. Yes, it's terrible that they survived at all, but neither are what they used to be, thanks to the collapse of their Soviet benefactor.

  • Notorious G.K.C.||

    Think of Saruman and the Orcs after the fall of Sauron.

  • John C. Randolph||

    They know it, they're just not allowed to say it.

    -jcr

  • thom77||

    Communism eventually defeats itself, yes, however Reagan accelerated the process through shrewd military and diplomatic strategies.

    Just because the Soviet system was ultimately untenable doesn't mean it couldn't have lasted for another hundred years on the backs of it's enslaved population, especially with unchecked military adventurism allowing them to gobble up more and more.

    Non-intervention wasn't an option. It would have come down to us or them one way or another.

  • CentristClassicalLiberal||

    How did sending them aid accelerate the process?

  • Tony||

    2. Would be the world's biggest RINO today

  • SIV||

    No, that's Goldwater.

  • Pro Libertate||

    And Jack Kennedy would be a Republican today.

  • bassjoe||

    Oh God. This is retarded. The conflict between the USSR and USA had barely anything to do with communism vs. freedom/free markets/democracy/whatever. That's like saying "Islamic radicals hate us for our freedom".

    The USSR vs. USA face-off had everything to do with what every other great power face-off in the history of civilization had to do with: POWER. That's it. The people in power in the USA didn't give two damns about what ideology was holding sway in Moscow. Fear-mongering about the "Red Scare" was a damn good way to rally the plebes, however.

    Also, last I checked, communism is still the official ideology of the largest country -- and second largest economy -- on the planet. Yeah, you can argued that it's not "real communism" but neither was whatever was being practiced in Moscow.

  • Jerry on the boat||

    Coca Cola and The Beatles.

  • Jerry on the boat||

    (defeated Soviet communism)

  • Outlaw||

    The GOP needs to stop playing Weekend at Bernie's with Reagan's corpse.

    I'm sick and tired of fucking hearing about it.

  • Hugh Akston||

    Weekend at Bernie's or Nekromantik?

  • ||

    Nekromantik 2, Hugh.

  • Hugh Akston||

    Any excuse to name-drop your favorite movie, eh?

  • MarkinLA||

    Come on, how manny times a week do you get a fund raising letter telling you somebody is keeping something about Reagan alive in order to get you to give them money you will never see again? That old gas bag has been a gold mine for the cottage industry of Reagan memorabilia and hagiography producers. It is as bad as the bible thumpers.

  • LarryA||

    We are talking about conservatives, for whom "The Golden Age of Earth" = "The way I remember things being when I was twelve."

  • Ken Shultz||

    "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"

    What you're just described is the philosophy of a pragmatist--with a heavy dose of the Powell Doctrine, all of which happened against the backdrop of a proxy war.

    I don't care if you're a non-interventionist or a foaming at the mouth neoconservative--looking at each and every policy situation and prescribing the same treatment is absurd. Why would we treat Syria the same way we treated Libya?

    Our interests are different. The risks are different. The rewards are different.

    It's like looking at a stock in the S&P 500 and saying that if you like (or don't like) one company, you have to do the same with all the others, too. That's plain stupid.

    I favored Afghanistan as a war of self-defense. I opposed Iraq as being a war where the costs were likely to outweigh the benefits; indeed, some of you may remember that I thought America's bests interests were undermined by war in Iraq, especially in regards to Iran. And why would we deal with Iran the same way we dealt with Iraq?

  • Ken Shultz||

    The absurdity isn't in Reagan's foreign policy. The risks he took to America's interests were limited (proxy wars) and few (see bugging out of Lebanon), and when the payoff for America's interests were high and the risks were low, he pushed America's interests. That's the way you win a Cold War--nothing absurd about it.

    The absurdity is in the mind's of people who look at America's interests in all places and in all situations at all times--and see the same thing everywhere.

  • Outlaw||

    Agreed.

    You're on a roll today, Ken.

  • CentristClassicalLiberal||

    The best way to "win" the "cold war" was to not send them aid.

  • ||

    I favored Afghanistan as a war of self-defense. I opposed Iraq

    So you're a crypto-Canuck.

  • The Immaculate Trouser||

    Yes, agreed.

    Moreover, it is impossible to say where Reagan would have landed on post-Cold War foreign policy because quite simply, the Cold War was a very unique situation which dwarfed more pedestrian foreign policy concerns: it tied up morality, aggression, and the politics of an entire world in a way that probably won't be replicated for some time.

    Asking what Reagan would do about today's problems is something like asking Aragorn what his approach to the Crimean War would have been: it is so far outside of the frame of reference of that person, that there is nothing definitive (much less useful) that could come of such an inquiry.

  • pspomer||

    Great article. Reagan is one of the most oversimplified figures of American politics.. This piece does a lot to show the nuances of his foreign policy.

  • Pro Libertate||

    You know what America needs right now? To discover a Reagan sex tape/orgy.

  • The Immaculate Trouser||

    Reagan refused to release said tape during the 1984 campaign. His reason?

    "I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience."

  • John C. Randolph||

    Reagan is why I gave up on the Republican party. During the campaign against Carter, he said that requiring me to register for the draft in peacetime was "unconscionable", and he did precisely squat to stop it once he was elected.

    -jcr

  • gaoxiaen||

    Just think of all the liberty the WOD brought to America.

  • Jayburd||

    Reagan's foreign policy legacy? He QUADRUPLED the size and budget of the State Dept. But he talked a good game.

  • RishJoMo||

    I think that dude knew what the deal was.

    www.Anon-Works.com

  • I. B. McGinty||

    "he pulled out of Lebanon"

    I once pulled out of a Lebanese chick.

  • dstarke||

    Of Course Reagan was all of the above. It is incumbent on the President of the United States to be all at once: peace-loving, apparently slightly mad, willing to commit troops in our national interest, and ultimately wise enough to keep his own council about what he or she would do in the event of some provocation.

    This is the problem with open diplomacy. This is the problem with projecting weakness. Our enemies can never know just what the President will do and can never be sure enough of his "peaceful intent" to take advantage.

  • CentristClassicalLiberal||

    Ron Paul-style non-interventionism is more cost-effective. If the Swiss didn't have mandatory service their foreign policy would be perfect.

    My saying is that NAFTA is my foreign policy. Shut and trade I say to the hawks and "patriotic" types. Bring on consumer choice, the hot foreigners and yummy food!

  • ace_m82||

    "Our enemies can never know just what the President will do..."

    My enemies are those who want me enslaved and/or dead. My enemies are almost all inside this country and the most dangerous work in Washington DC. China and Putin would have to work QUITE hard to even show up on my radar.

  • dbobway||

    My memory of Reagan is clear. His political enemies right here painted him as a unhinged, dangerous man. Not to be trusted with the our military arsenal, because he was crazy enough to use it.

    Iran wasn't scared of Carter so they played him a fool. When Reagan was elected, they let our people go. They thought that crazy bastard might vaporize us. He increased the military to such a powerful deterrent, along with his possibly mis read trigger finger, brought us some of the most peaceful 8 years in my lifetime.

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