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Reagan, Iraq, and Neoconservatism

A reply to yesterday’s posting, "Would Ronald Reagan Have Attacked Iraq?" From the June American Spectator.

By 6.16.04

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There are several major deficiencies -- even logical gaps -- in the Halper-Clarke thesis that Ronald Reagan would not have invaded Iraq ("Neoconservatism Is Not Reaganism," TAS, April 2004, and posted yesterday as "Would Ronald Reagan Have Attacked Iraq?"). The first and most obvious is that the authors fail to deal with the realities that faced President Bush immediately after the attacks on September 11, 2001.

It is difficult enough to demonstrate that one president would have acted differently than another under roughly the same circumstances; it is virtually impossible when the circumstances are so different as to be without precedent. Suffice it to say that Ronald Reagan never saw a day as president in which the United States was attacked on its own soil, by suicidal maniacs, in service of a lunatic ideology. Reagan, like all his post-war predecessors, faced in the Soviet Union an expansionary bureaucratic state which could be deterred by military power and persuaded to negotiate by well-understood principles and incentives of national interest. On this basis alone, the Halper-Clarke analysis of Reagan should be dismissed.

But leaving this huge lacuna aside, the authors then lapse into a wholly hypothetical discussion of whether Ronald Reagan was a neoconservative -- an effort that would have been worth undertaking if they had made any effort to define neoconservatism. Instead, what we get is a description of a worldview that seems to bear no coherent relationship to neoconservatism, which the authors portray as an ideology of compulsive militarism and interventionism. Take this fevered paragraph, for example:

We detect a deep pessimism among neoconservatives about human nature and human society -- and one which is much darker than the skepticism about human perfectibility often found in conservative thinking. The here-and-now world in which neoconservatives see themselves is a world of Hobbesian state-of-nature primitivism and conspiracy where perpetual, militarized competition for ascendancy is the norm, and moderation -- even of the sort envisioned by Hobbes -- by the community of nations is impossible…[it continues on like this for another 50 words or so]…and where adversaries (defined as defeatist and more broadly as anyone who does not share the neoconservative worldview) must be preemptively crushed lest they crush you.

However, it's not very difficult to find a coherent description of neoconservatism if the authors had wanted one. One of the best and most lucid was given by Charles Krauthammer in his Irving Kristol lecture at the annual dinner of the American Enterprise Institute in February 2004. There, Krauthammer described neoconservatism (renaming it Democratic Globalism) in the following terms:

This conservative alternative to realism is often lazily and invidiously called neoconservatism, but that is a very odd name for a school whose major proponents in the world today are George W. Bush and Tony Blair -- if they are neoconservatives, then Margaret Thatcher was a liberal. There's nothing neo about Bush and there's nothing con about Blair.

Yet they are the principal advocates of what might be called democratic globalism, a foreign policy that defines the national interest not as power but as values, and that identifies one supreme value, what John Kennedy called "the success of liberty." As President Bush put it in his speech at Whitehall last November: "The United States and Great Britain share a mission in the world beyond the balance of power or the simple pursuit of interest. We seek the advance of freedom and the peace that freedom brings."

Beyond power. Beyond interest. Beyond interest defined as power. That is the credo of democratic globalism.

If this doesn't sound much like the Hobbesian world confected by Halper and Clarke, it's no wonder. What they describe as neoconservatism is a fictitious straw man, developed apparently to deny neoconservatives the right to claim the mantle of Ronald Reagan. The syllogism is as follows: Some people who identify themselves as neoconservatives (William Kristol, Robert Kagan, and Richard Perle) have called their view Neo-Reaganism; these neoconservatives are militaristic interventionists; following their counsel caused George W. Bush to invade Iraq; Reagan was not a militaristic interventionist; therefore, Reagan was not a neoconservative and would not have invaded Iraq.

But we can put this obviously flawed analysis to one side and consider seriously the question whether Reagan would have invaded Iraq. To do that, we have to place Reagan in the same position as Bush on September 12, 2001, the day after the attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. We have already noted that Reagan faced a wholly different world than Bush -- a world in which the United States dealt with nation-states that could be deterred by military force and compelled to negotiate on the basis of national interests.

In this world, Reagan was a superb negotiator, but he negotiated from the strength provided by his unprecedented peacetime buildup of military force. Looking back on the 1980s, it seems far more likely that Reagan seldom used force (Grenada is a small exception) because he could achieve his ends without it, and little evidence, despite the Halper-Clarke analysis, that he was averse to military action where it was truly necessary in the national interests of the United States.

Again, we need not be detained by this question. On September 12, 2001, the world had changed. Even a president who was averse to the use of force would have had to reconsider his position. The first question we should ask about Reagan in this context is whether it seems reasonable to conclude that he would have attacked Afghanistan. Looking at his options -- the same as Bush's options -- it seems virtually certain that he would have done so. Once it was established that Afghanistan was the haven and training ground for al Qaeda, and that al Qaeda was the sponsor of the attack, could any president have stood idly by? It would be hard to imagine even a Dukakis or McGovern doing this, let alone Reagan.

Assuming then that Reagan had attacked Afghanistan, and defeated the Taliban but not al Qaeda, would Reagan have continued on to attack Iraq? Here we require a more complicated analysis. As Halper and Clarke suggest, the neoconservative worldview has some relevance here, but not as they caricatured it. Bush faced two realities: He was not dealing with a nation state that could be defeated by military force, and his attackers could not be deterred by fear of retaliation -- they had to be arrested and incarcerated for an indefinite period, or killed. Even this, however, would not be sufficient. The al Qaeda ideology springs from failed societies and a failed culture; as long as the conditions that produced this cancer continued to exist, it would not be possible to eliminate the threat of further attacks.

What Bush needed was a strategy that included both a military and an ideological response. The military response was to deprive al Qaeda of bases and training resources; the ideological response was to deprive it of support in Arab and Muslim lands. To accomplish this, Bush chose to use the idea of freedom and democracy -- the American ideology -- as a weapon. Iraq was a target not only because it was a potential source of weapons of mass destruction for the terrorists and a threat to the stability of the region, but because its population was well educated, relatively secular in outlook among the Arabs, and one of the Arab populations most likely to be capable of self-government.

TO BE SURE, PRESIDENTS Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt had used the preservation of freedom as a way of justifying U.S. participation in World Wars I and II, but in these cases American values were used defensively. We went to war to make the world safe for democracy in World War I and to prevent the snuffing out of freedom and democracy in Europe in World War II. Bush, however, in developing a strategy to combat Islamic terrorism, has attempted to use American values offensively, to establish democracy in a place it hasn't existed before -- Iraq -- as a beachhead for bringing democracy to the failed societies of the Arab world. In Bush's view, changing the governance of Arab societies, making them more democratic and open, will eventually weaken the wellsprings of al Qaeda and other terrorist movements.

This offensive use of American values was previously employed by only one other American president -- Ronald Reagan -- and Bush reached back to Reagan in outlining his approach in a speech to the annual dinner of the American Enterprise Institute in February 2003 -- just prior to the invasion of Iraq -- and again in a November 2003 speech to the National Endowment for Democracy. Describing the basis for his democratization policy in his National Endowment for Democracy speech, President Bush acknowledged his conceptual debt to his predecessor:

In June of 1982, President Ronald Reagan spoke at Westminster Palace and declared the turning point had arrived in history. He argued that Soviet communism had failed, precisely because it did not respect its own people -- their creativity, their genius and their rights….

A number of critics were dismissive of that speech by the President.…Some observers on both sides of the Atlantic pronounced the speech simplistic and naïve, and even dangerous. In fact, Ronald Reagan's words were courageous and optimistic and entirely correct.

The great democratic movement President Reagan described was already well underway. In the early '70s, there were about 40 democracies in the world. By the middle of that decade, Portugal, Spain, and Greece held free elections. Soon there were new democracies in Latin America, and free institutions were spreading in Korea, in Taiwan, and in East Asia. This very week in 1989, there were protests in East Berlin and in Leipzig. By the end of that year, every communist dictatorship in Central America had collapsed. Within another year, the South African government released Nelson Mandela. Four years later, he was elected president of his country -- ascending, like Walesa and Havel, from prisoner of state to head of state.

As the 20th century ended, there were around 120 democracies in the world -- and I can assure you more are on the way. Ronald Reagan would be pleased, and he would not be surprised.

Reagan's Westminster speech was indeed a seminal event. It drew strong opposition from groups who feared an adverse Soviet reaction, and those who could never understand -- as Reagan did -- the power of ideas. But in the mild language he frequently chose when he laid out bold ideas, Reagan promised an aggressive ideological assault on the Soviet Union:

While we must be cautious about forcing the rate of change, we must not hesitate to declare our ultimate objectives and to take concrete actions to move toward them. We must be staunch in our conviction that freedom is not the sole prerogative of a lucky few, but the inalienable and universal right of all human beings. So states the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which among other things, guarantees free elections.

The objective I propose is quite simple to state: to foster the infrastructure of democracy, the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities, which allows a people to choose their own way to develop their own culture, to reconcile their own differences through peaceful means.
[...]
It is time that we committed ourselves as a nation -- in both public and private sectors -- to assisting democratic development….

Now I don't wish to sound overly optimistic, yet the Soviet Union is not immune from the reality of what is going on in the world. It has happened in the past -- a small ruling elite either mistakenly attempts to ease domestic unrest through greater repression and foreign adventure, or it chooses a wiser course. It begins to allow its people a voice in their own destiny. Even if this latter process is not realized soon, I believe the renewed strength of the democratic movement, complemented by a global campaign for freedom, will strengthen the prospects for arms control and a world at peace.

What all this demonstrates is that Reagan was a neoconservative (or in Krauthammer's terms, a democratic globalist) before that worldview had been given a name in a foreign policy context. If we go back to Charles Krauthammer's AEI lecture, we can see in his discussion of the "success of liberty" -- more than simply the defense of liberty -- the same belief in the power of American values and ideals that can be traced through Ronald Reagan at Westminster to George W. Bush addressing the National Endowment for Democracy.

None of this proves, of course, that Reagan would have invaded Iraq. But it shows very clearly that he shared with George W. Bush the same deep faith in the power of freedom and democracy -- as an ideological weapon -- that is a major tenet of neoconservatism and seemed to be a key motivating factor in Bush's actions with respect to Iraq.

If we take Bush at his word, he invaded Iraq for two major reasons -- to deprive terrorists of access to Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and to create in Iraq a beacon of democracy and an example of an open society in the Arab world. The second of these is clearly the only way to combat and defeat the jihadist movement among the Arab peoples, just as Reagan correctly saw it as an offensive weapon in the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

It is hard to believe that Reagan, presented with these two objectives, would not have found them -- under conditions identical to those that confronted Bush on September 12, 2001 -- equally compelling.

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About the Author

Peter J. Wallison is the Arthur F. Burns Fellow in Financial Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.