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Neoconservatism, Iraq, and Reagan

A final reply, from our June issue, on whether President Reagan would have invaded Iraq. Part 1 appeared on Tuesday, Part 2 yesterday.

By and 6.17.04

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In his response to our article "Neoconservatism Is Not Reaganism" (posted Tuesday under the headline, "Would Ronald Reagan Have Attacked Iraq?"), Peter Wallison evinces a keen eye for the humorous. We had supposed that the spectrum of arguments for attacking Iraq was filled. We were wrong. He offers us genuinely new reasons, namely that "its population was well-educated, relatively secular in outlook…and most likely to be capable of self-government." Neither of us has yet heard the administration make this argument but, as the chaos in Iraq deepens, this deft insight will, no doubt, inspire administration wordsmiths. We congratulate Mr. Wallison on getting there first.

To turn to more serious matters, Mr. Wallison is right to say that any attempt to judge how Reagan would have reacted to 9/11 is necessarily speculative. But our speculation is not self-willed. A central claim of the neoconservative advocates of war was, as we document, that their policy was "Reaganite." Their purpose in doing so is to assert that their vision and, more importantly, their force-based methodology represent the new orthodoxy of Republican foreign policy. Through this marketing device, they wish to preempt debate among Republicans about post-9/11 policy. Our purpose is to show that they have gotten their history wrong and that the true lesson of the Reagan era is that ideas are effective only when they are properly balanced with interests -- which the neoconservative-driven policy in the Middle East has clearly failed to do.

In fact, today's neoconservatives not only separate themselves from mainstream Republican thought on national security matters, they are an aberration; they reject a half-century of risk-sensitive, alliance-oriented, multilateral policy that has characterized American interaction with the world and successfully promoted American objectives since World War II. Moreover, with reference to the issue at hand, rather than installing a "beacon of democracy" in the region, they have contrived to demonstrate the limits of American power, rendering American military and diplomatic policy dysfunctional in a region that respects strength -- and that is a miscalculation for which we shall pay dearly.

Mr. Wallison appears to miss another critical part of our argument: namely that methods used are every bit as important as objectives sought. Perhaps this is why he has devoted so much space to lengthy quotes of Reagan and Bush, seeking to identify rhetorical continuities in the aspirations expressed by Bush and Reagan. This is easy to do, but it means that Mr. Wallison ends by addressing the wrong questions.

Over the years the central question for American foreign policy has not been what Americans see as desirable outcomes. From Teddy Roosevelt onward, the rhetorical goals of American foreign policy have been remarkably consistent: a commitment to liberty and freedom, the virtues of market-democracy, the universal applicability of the Bill of Rights. There is a century-long, rock solid consensus on these goals. As for Mr. Wallison's argument that Reagan and Bush uniquely used this rhetoric for offensive rather than defensive purposes, has our interlocutor forgotten the bold, forward-leaning statements of the Truman doctrine? Also, a quick look at Kennedy's "pay any price, bear any burden" speech or Carter's 1977 Notre Dame speech (which caused the hair of many a totalitarian militarist to stand on end) should quickly disabuse him of this assertion.

Facts matter. History matters. It is crucial that we not permit a casual rewriting of events for the sake of ideological convenience. We are told to live in the past is to be blind in one eye; to forget the past is to be blind in both.

THE CORE OF THE DEBATE is thus not about ends -- we all want a freer, more democratic, less evil world -- but about means. Perhaps we have a practitioners' bias against ideology, but our experience suggests that if foreign policy success lay in giving speeches, then all the desiderata contained in the neoconservative speechifying quoted at length by Mr. Wallison would be today's reality. In fact, events cruelly present something quite different: these noble aspirations have turned to dust amidst an unacceptable sacrifice of American credibility, blood, and treasure.

There is no escape to the question: What methods most effectively and efficiently achieve the nation's objectives? This is critical in understanding the Reagan legacy. The neoconservatives (succinctly defined in our article, pace Wallison, as "Wilsonians with guns") misread the Reagan military build-up -- and Wallison repeats this error -- to justify their use of military force as the preferred option of policy.

In fact, the Soviet Union was consigned to history without a single hostile sortie by NATO -- and remember that the Reagan years coincided with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and upheaval in Eastern Europe. In terms of foreign policy, the leitmotif of the second Reagan administration is one of negotiation. This is extraordinarily significant. Mr. Wallison treats this as though it were something routine ("well-understood principles" are his words). This is an improper -- and in neoconservative hands, willful -- misunderstanding. To get this wrong is to fundamentally misunderstand the delicate balance of Reagan's political-military policy. Mr. Wallison chides us for suggesting that Reagan was "averse to military action." Well, if he was not, where is his evidence? We have set out the Reagan military record as it is usually recorded in the history books. Was there a parallel universe in which Reagan was constantly sending Americans into battle? If so, Mr. Wallison should identify it.

Mr. Wallison falls into the tired and emotional refrain of arguing that since Reagan never experienced an attack on the U.S. homeland, it cannot be said that he would not have attacked Iraq. Surely the issue is that had Reagan been in the same position as Bush: (a) believing -- as Bob Woodward records Bush as doing -- that the intelligence on Iraq's possession of WMD was unconvincing; (b) seeing only the most tenuous evidence about Saddam's operational links with al-Qaeda; and (c) hearing consistent doubts expressed by the secretary of state, among the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and at CIA that Iraq posed a direct threat to the United States, Reagan's record indicates that he would have moved much more deliberately. He would have either resolved the doubts or not initiated military action. Reagan's attack on Libya in 1986 was preceded by a painstaking intelligence analysis that linked the Libyan intelligence service to the deaths of two American servicemen without doubt. Likewise, Reagan's attack on Grenada proceeded only when there was incontrovertible evidence of that government's political-military relationship with the Castro regime and after it was clear that American lives on the island were in imminent danger. Further, the brief deployment of Marines to Beirut hardly makes the point in favor of military adventurism.

In short, we are grateful to Mr. Wallison for taking our argument sufficiently seriously to seek to counter it. The debate will no doubt continue. But we should remind ourselves of its hard edge. While the social and economic benefits of market-democracy coupled with Reagan's cautious optimism gave buoyancy to dissidents throughout the Soviet system producing the Havels and Walesas, the neoconservative approach to "democracy" delivered on the back of a Humvee has produced a reawakened Iraqi nationalism and a resurgence of world-wide anti-Americanism. Under neoconservative stewardship, the achievement of America's goals is further away than ever. That is their true indictment which, we doubt, even Mr. Wallison will wish to excuse.

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About the Author

Stefan Halper is a senior research fellow at Magdalene College, Cambridge, and a senior fellow at the Cambridge Centre of International Studies, where he is director of the Donner Atlantic Studies Program. He is author of The Silence of the Rational Center: Why American Foreign Policy Is Failing (Basic Books).