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Would Ronald Reagan Have Attacked Iraq?

The opening article, "Neoconservatism Is Not Reaganism," in a recent American Spectator exchange between the authors and Peter J. Wallison of the American Enterprise Institute. His response, from our June issue, will appear tomorrow.

By and 6.15.04

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Following September 11, 2001, the U.S. has undertaken a remarkably ambitious foreign policy -- one radically different from the philosophy on which President Bush campaigned and a notable departure from the classic principles of conservative realism in which ends are ambitious but carefully calculated, and means are sufficient for success but prudently measured. Some heart-warming successes have been achieved. America and the world are better off with the Taliban defeated and Saddam Hussein removed.

But this is not the whole story: the long-term prospects in both Afghanistan and Iraq are exceedingly fragile, and the costs in American lives and resources will remain high; in Asia, we now depend on Communist China for what little progress there is with North Korea; globally, one conservative commentator has noted, "for the first time since World War II, America faces a crisis of legitimacy"; domestically, our society is as polarized as during the Vietnam era, and doubts about the basis on which foreign policy choices are being made have opened political space for the Democrats. In other words, there is plenty for conservatives to ponder.

One group unlikely to join in this process of reflection happens to include the primary advocates of the current approach. This small corps of foreign and defense policy intellectuals -- often called neoconservatives -- are strangers to second thoughts. In the crucial days following 9/11 they were able to win approval for their ready-made plans for military intervention in the Middle East and subsequent regional nation-building. Today, they are proposing that the U.S. should not "rest on its laurels" but extend what has been a risky effort -- costly in lives and dollars -- to Syria, Libya, Iran, and North Korea, to mention only the most salient.

An important element of their position is the claim that they are the true heirs of President Ronald Reagan. In 1996 William Kristol and Robert Kagan published a Foreign Affairs article setting out what they described as a "Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy." In its founding statement of principles issued the following year, the Project for the New American Century advocated a "Reaganite policy of military strength and moral clarity." Richard Perle asserts that the policies in place today reflect those of a "bold president" like Reagan. The implication is that Reagan too would have attacked Iraq.

But would he? We make the case that the neoconservative interpretation of Reagan's foreign policy is, to be blunt, a travesty of Reagan's record. Moreover, Reagan's historic achievement -- the defeat of Soviet Communism -- was secured largely because he rejected neoconservative policy recommendations, rather than because he embraced them. Of course, the menace of terrorism in an age of WMD proliferation poses new challenges in a different environment than faced Reagan. But any objective look at his record raises serious doubts about whether he would have agreed either with the underlying philosophy urged by the neoconservatives or with the means they have adopted to put their aims into operation. Let us look at the record.

GEORGE SHULTZ, WHO SAW Reagan's foreign policy from the inside, records that Reagan was "not a man who would stay labeled." This, however, is exactly what the neoconservatives do: they extract from the Reagan record those elements that suit their agenda (the defense build-up, the "evil empire," Grenada, Central America, and Libya), exclude those that do not (arms control, China, arms for Iran, the Daniloff/Zakharov trade, Lebanon, the USS Stark) and label the result to fit their own ideological paradigm. They then proceed to place that label on purposes that owe little or nothing to Reagan. In no case is this more apparent than on the conditions and arrangements surrounding the use of force. One of Reagan's first foreign policy acts was to lift the grain embargo against the Soviet Union in a gesture he described as intended to bring about a "meaningful and constructive dialogue which will assist us in fulfilling our joint obligation to find lasting peace."

In Eastern Europe, Poland provides another example of Reagan's caution. When Warsaw's Soviet satellite government imposed martial law in December 1981, in response to protests led by the noncommunist Polish labor union Solidarity, Reagan resisted intense pressure from anti-Communist hardliners to impose an economic embargo and foreclose on the Polish debt.

The neoconservatives of the day were quick to criticize. Commenting in the New York Times Norman Podhoretz, then editor of Commentary, wrote: "Either this administration does not in fact know what it wishes to do, or what it really wishes to do does not correspond to what the President himself has said." Irving Kristol asked in the Wall Street Journal: "Are there no stronger, more meaningful options?" As an alternative, he urged "moving to destabilize the Castro regime in Cuba as a suitable response to the Soviets stabilizing their puppet regime in Poland." Podhoretz later argued in Foreign Affairs that "what President Reagan's response to the Polish crisis reveals is that he has in practice been following a strategy of helping the Soviet Union stabilize its empire, rather than a strategy aimed at encouraging the breakdown of that empire from within." As today, the neoconservatives wanted public pyrotechnics, leading them to miss the more subtle and eventually effective side of Reagan's response: financial assistance delivered to Solidarity via the AFL/CIO and moral suasion through Pope John Paul II.

The Middle East provides a similar story of Reagan's pragmatism and neoconservative ire. "Carterism without Carter" was a typical accusation, when, for example, Reagan announced his opposition to Israeli annexation of the West Bank and Gaza. Reagan courted a close relationship with Saudi Arabia, despite the fact that suspicions of Saudi ties to the likes of Abu Nidal were already in circulation. When the administration announced plans to give five radar early warning aircraft (AWACs) to Riyadh, Reagan was accused of a "a policy of economic and political appeasement of Saudi Arabia." Irving Kristol described it as "an action for which not even a foolish reason can be given."

Turning to the Peoples' Republic of China (PRC), a similarly pragmatic, interest-driven policy was apparent. While continuing arms sales to Taiwan under the Shanghai Communiqué, Reagan attempted to pursue a policy of making friends and contracts with China -- including military to military exchanges. Significantly, aspects of this process were administered by Paul Wolfowitz then assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. Moreover, under the careful monitoring of Richard Perle, then assistant secretary of defense for policy, scientific and technical protocols were signed and high level exchanges within the research and development community were arranged with Beijing. Again Podhoretz objected, "If Mr. Reagan had been as great an ideologue as he was often said to be, he might have taken the position that the loss in clarity of ideological purpose entailed by this policy was greater than any advantage that so economically backward and militarily weak a nation as China could bring to the balance of power."

TO HEAR THE NEOCONSERVATIVES (and their fellow travelers like Dinesh D'Souza) tell the story, Reagan's foreign policy consisted of an uninterrupted series of confrontational demonstrations of American power. In fact, Reagan's actions were limited. The three interventions conducted during his administrations, with troops deployed to Beirut in 1982 and Grenada in 1983, and the bombing of Libya in 1986, were limited operations of short duration. The action in Grenada was the only direct use of American troops against a pro-communist movement. The bombing of Libya was undertaken, in Reagan's own words, "as a last resort" and only after there was irrefutable proof of Libyan responsibility for the Berlin bombing. For the rest, and certainly from 1983 onward, Reagan devoted more of his foreign policy time to arms control than to any other subject. There was no question within the West Wing that his purpose in accelerating the defense build-up was "to position the United States for successful negotiations with the Soviet Union."

The negotiations comprised both strategic and intermediate range missiles, with a treaty being reached on the latter. The intricacies -- the zero and double zero options, the trade off between SS-20s and Pershing IIs and so on -- go beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say, however, neither in style nor substance did these negotiations conform to the neoconservative "no holds barred" interpretation. They reflected, to be sure, a muscular diplomacy, but were laced with adroitly crafted negotiating positions designed to extract maximum American leverage. Particularly distinct from today's environment, flavored by "hegemony," Reagan cooperated in the closest possible manner with America's allies, not just with the British but also the French and Germans. At least one of today's neoconservatives, Richard Perle, could attest to this fact since he was noted as "floating in a cloud over the success of the Geneva summit" between Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev held in December 1985.

The question of how and when force should be used to respond to terrorism produced fierce controversy throughout the Reagan administration. Once again, today's neoconservatives have drawn much broader lessons than the facts allow. The multiple acts of terrorism in 1985 (TWA 847, the Achille Lauro, the Berlin discotheque bombing) prompted discussions of preemptive action that foreshadow similar themes today. Yet only in the case of the Berlin attack, where irrefutable evidence of Libyan complicity was established, and when Reagan, in consultation with U.S. allies, believed all other avenues had been exhausted, did a military response take place -- one that was strictly controlled "to avoid any casualties or danger to civilians."

Otherwise Reagan tended to side with the precautionary "six tests" established by Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger to define when the U.S. should use military force -- and when it should not. These tests are a far cry from the force-friendly National Security Strategy (NSS) published with such neoconservative input and fanfare in September 2002. Thus the undifferentiated doctrine the neoconservatives put into being as their post-Cold War policy matrix did not derive from Reagan. If anything, the Reagan legacy points in the opposite direction.

THE FINAL JUDGMENT ON Reagan from prominent neoconservatives of the time did not share the retrospective interpretations of the current generation. As Podhoretz argued, "The President's warmest friends and his most virulent enemies imagined that they had found in him a champion of the old conservative dream of going beyond containment of Communism to the 'rollback' of Communist influence and power and the 'liberation' of the Soviet empire. The truth, however, is that Mr. Reagan as President has never shown the slightest inclination to pursue such an ambitious strategy." As many neoconservatives of the time admitted, Reagan was not one of them. Instead, he carefully weighed his foreign policy options while clearly stating his principles, and acted cautiously. By the middle of Reagan's first term, the editors at Commentary and their intellectual allies were "sinking into a state of near political despair."

When the technical analysis of Reagan's foreign policy philosophy and execution is laid aside, perhaps the more fundamental difference between him and today's neoconservatives is one of temperament. As Shultz records, Reagan was optimistic, he "appealed to people's best hopes, not their fears." His was a confidence rippling from the Declaration of Independence -- that America was attractive in and of itself and that American ideals had an intrinsic appeal. By contrast, the neoconservative vision is one that has mobilized fear as a binding political adhesive in support of a one-dimensional approach to global affairs.

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, where the search for a social contract à la Locke or Rousseau is illusory, where trust (even Reagan's "trust but verify") among human beings is elusive, 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. Domestically, they believe America is well along the path to perdition, with education, sexual mores, morality and the judiciary all in grip of an alien modernist and secular culture.

In many important respects, they still inhabit the gunpowder-impregnated sixteenth-century world of one of their love-hate icons, Machiavelli, escape from which formed so much of America's early founding philosophy, which looked optimistically to the future and understood that progress lies in bringing out the best in people, not forever expecting the worst. Gliding past a long-established body of international relations thinkers and practitioners, they seem never far from Hobbes's doomsday vision of man in his primitive state. They reject the notion -- implicit in Reagan's striving for accord with the Soviet Union -- that democracy can be brought to non-democratic countries other than at the point of the bayonet or on the back of a Tomahawk cruise missile.

Thus, it is very hard to argue that there is a direct line of descent from Reagan's foreign policy to modern neoconservatism. Reagan was a conservative but never a neoconservative -- either in content or in personality. Reagan had presented the conflicts of international politics in essentially moral terms, and for this reason he looked like the president whom neoconservatives had long hoped for. But as his declaratory policies gradually moved toward pragmatism, those events, for example Poland, that seemed to be disasters in foreign policy to neoconservatives, appeared as major achievements to the moderates who were making the key decisions in the administration.

Furthermore, the Reagan defense establishment remained dominated by these moderates -- Shultz, Clark, Weinberger, Taft, Eagleburger -- to the utter disappointment of the hard-line ideologues. By Reagan's second term, many neoconservatives were disenchanted with the direction of American foreign policy. Despite the presence of individuals such as Jeane Kirkpatrick, Elliott Abrams, and Richard Perle, Reagan put a firm cap on neoconservative influence over his policy.

MODERN NEOCONSERVATISM WAS BORN after Reagan left office during the administrations of the senior Bush and Clinton. These were years in exile for the emerging neoconservative Young Turks. One commentator argued that the neoconservative journey from origin to Soviet collapse was a transition "from Trotskyism to anachronism." This was premature. A fierce internal debate took place in which the main ingredients were a deeply negative reaction to the 1992 decision not to remove Saddam at the end of Desert Storm, disgust at Clintonite vacillation and U.N. and EU weakness in the Balkans, and the emerging U.S. military predominance.

What emerged from this was a theory that, in the post-Cold War era, the U.S. should make an armed, preemptive crusade for global democracy the organizing principle of its foreign policy. Because of their discontent with Clinton, neoconservatives like William Kristol looked back at the Reagan era as a golden age of American foreign policy constructed on neoconservative lines. But we can see, this interpretation owes much more to nostalgia and marketing savvy than to the real characteristics of the Reagan approach.

The bloodline for the neoconservative model (which has the editorialists of the Wall Street Journal waxing enthusiastic about using taxpayer money for electricity and water services in Iraq) may be traced from Wilson via FDR, Kennedy, and Johnson to the "democratic enlargement" of the Clinton administration on which the same editorialists poured so much scorn. Indeed, some neoconservatives now openly admit that they are, in essence, Wilsonians with guns. A word of warning, however: the fact that neoconservatives advocate the use of power to achieve their ends does not thereby turn a Clintonesque policy -- one involving social engineering and which, predictably, is looking exceedingly fragile -- into a conservative one.

The Wilsonian heritage is not an ignoble lineage, but it has little to do with mainstream conservatism. If the neoconservatives wish to adopt Wilsonianism as the conservative orthodoxy, and send the nation to further adventures in its name, it would become them better and would make for better public policy if they did so openly and honestly, rather than falsely calling on Reagan's name. Neoconservatism is not updated Reaganism. It is a new political animal born of an unlikely mating of humanitarian liberalism and brute force. The neo-Reaganite foreign policy drawn up by Kagan and Kristol is vastly more "neo" than it is "Reaganite." And certainly no service to the cause of true conservatism.

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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).