The Spectacle Blog

Bret Stephens Gets It Wrong

By on 9.3.13 | 3:56PM

In an astonishing column in this morning’s Wall Street Journal the normally perceptive Bret Stephens writes a piece with this headline:

The Robert Taft Republicans Return
Isolationism has never served the interests of America, or the GOP.

What astonishes is Mr. Stephens inability to discern the difference between isolationists, Reaganites, and neocons.

In this Stephens makes the same mistake ….or is it a mistake?...routinely made by the likes of Ron Paul and this or that neocon.

Ronald Reagan was decidedly not an isolationist. (Ron Paul was already well-out there attacking Reagan back in the 1980s -- enough said.) Reagan was also decidedly not a NeoCon.

Stephens says, in part (bold for emphasis mine):

Yet the Syria debate is also exposing the isolationist worm eating its way through the GOP apple. Thus:

"The war in Syria has no clear national security connection to the United States and victory by either side will not necessarily bring into power people friendly to the United States." Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.).

"I believe the situation in Syria is not an imminent threat to American national security and, therefore, I do not support military intervention. Before taking action, the president should first come present his plan to Congress outlining the approach, cost, objectives and timeline, and get authorization from Congress for his proposal." Sen. Mike Lee (R., Utah).

"When the United States is not under attack, the American people, through our elected representatives, must decide whether we go to war." Rep. Justin Amash (R., Mich.)

Such faux-constitutional assertions—based on the notion that only direct attacks to the homeland constitute an actionable threat to national security—would have astonished Ronald Reagan, who invaded Grenada in 1983 without consulting a single member of Congress. It would have amazed George H.W. Bush, who gave Congress five hours notice before invading Panama. And it would have flabbergasted the Republican caucus of, say, 2002, which understood it was better to take care of threats over there rather than wait for them to arrive right here.

Wow.

Where to begin?

Reagan’s reasoning on Grenada is explained nearby by this columnist.

Grenada had become a Soviet client state in America’s backyard -- not to mention that it was holding 800 American medical students as hostage. Reagan did consult with Congress -- Speaker O’Neill and Senator Robert Byrd, the Democrats, said don’t do it. The GOP Senate Leader, Howard Baker, was cool on the idea. Reagan believed, correctly, that Grenada was a threat -- a direct threat to the US -- and was holding hostages to begin with. Correctly believing himself well within his authority, Reagan invaded.

But he felt differently about Beirut -- and, again as cited nearby -- pulled the Marines out after 241 were killed. There was nothing isolationist about this -- nor did invading Grenada after consulting Congress make him a Neo Con.

Not to mention as Reagan biographer Craig Shirley has noted correctly, the “isolationist worm” of which Stephens speaks was incubated not in the GOP but in FDR’s Democrats. Shirley, who wrote extensively in his book December 1941: 31 Days that Changed America and Saved the World about the left-wing epidemic of isolationism in the 1930’s Democratic Party points out that:

The heart of isolationism was inside FDR’s own Democratic Party. They controlled the Congress that voted into law the various Neutrality Acts of the 1930’s which codified isolationism. They nearly voted to eliminate the standing army. They voted to cut and cut and cut defense spending. 

The famous Democrats of the era -- including Montana’s Senator Burton K. Wheeler and Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy (yes -- the Kennedy family patriarch) and many, many more-- were either leaders of the America First movement or out-and-out isolationists. In fact, they were the forerunners of a later generation of Democrats -- the George McGovern liberals.

When contacted for comment about the Stephens column, Shirley noted:

No wonder David McCullough said America is deep into its third generation of historically ignorant citizens.

Ouch.

Stephens' lack of understanding of the Reagan difference is also evident in this snarky line about Sean Hannity:

At town hall meetings in their districts, the congressman reports, House Republicans are hearing "an isolationist message." It's not America's war. The evidence that the Assad regime used chemical weapons is ambiguous, maybe cooked. There isn't a compelling national interest to intervene. "Let Allah sort it out." We'd be coming in on the side of al Qaeda. The strike serves symbolic, not strategic, purposes. There's no endgame. It would be another Iraq.

Or, to quote Sean Hannity in all his profundity, it would be "the next world war."

Sean Hannity is a Reaganite….not exactly a news flash except, apparently, to Mr. Stephens.

The fact of Stephens snarky attack on Hannity shows clearly that Stephens himself is not only no Reaganite but in some bizarre fashion is associating the response of Americans showing up at House Republican townhalls as isolationist when in fact, based on Stephens own reporting, they sound like Ronald Reagan himself post-Beirut.

Clearly, Brett Stephens is utterly unfamiliar with Reagan’s Rules for Military Action. Here they are again, as written by the man himself.

Reagan Rule 1: The United States should not commit its forces to military actions overseas unless the cause is vital to our national interest.

Reagan Rule 2: If the decision is made to commit our forces to combat abroad, it must be done with the clear intent and support to win. It should not be a halfway or tentative commitment, and there must be clearly defined and realistic objectives.

Reagan Rule 3: Before we commit our troops to combat, there must be reasonable assurance that the cause we are fighting for and the actions we take will have the support of the American people and Congress. (We felt that the Vietnam War had turned into such a tragedy because military action had been undertaken without sufficient assurances that the American people were behind it.) 

Reagan Rule 4: Even after all these other tests are met, our troops should be committed to combat only as a last resort, when no other choice is available.

Reagan also wrote:

…the irrationality of Middle Eastern politics forced us to rethink our policy…How do you deal with a people driven by such a religious zeal that they are willing to sacrifice their lives in order to kill an enemy simply because he doesn’t worship the same God they do? People who believe that if they do that, they’ll go instantly to heaven?”

Reagan’s answer to his own question?

He pulled the Marines out of Beirut. Or, as it were, Reagan was saying “Let Allah sort it out.”

Again, the fact that Mr. Stephens seems unable -- or is it unwilling? -- to distinguish between Reaganism and neocons, Reaganism and isolationism, says a great deal.

But trying to make Ronald Reagan -- or for that matter Sean Hannity and others - into something they decidedly were and are not is a sign of either historical ignorance.

Or an agenda.

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