Was Reagan a Neocon? Close Enough
Ronald Reagan’s birthday is this Sunday and everyone is celebrating. Well, at the very least everyone is using his special day as an excuse to tie their political philosophies to his. In that vein, the Cato Institute’s Gene Healy has written an article for the DC Examiner emphatically declaring that Reagan was not, actually, a neoconservative. He writes that,
In foreign affairs, the Reagan legacy is one of realism and restraint.
What is his evidence? Reagan never attempted to directly attack the Soviet Union. He lists some other reasons, too, but that’s his primary argument. Because other neoconservatives- such as Norman Podhoretz- were urging a more aggressive stance towards Russia that Reagan did not comply with, he must not have been a neocon.
Well, I think that is mostly wrong. The neoconservatives- Podhoretz, Kristol, Wolfowitz, et al- have been characterized by an extreme preference for using military might against countries they find disagreeable. That may sound simplistic, but it’s true. The neocons have rarely justified their foreign policy goals solely on defense alone. They usually justify it under the rubric of “democracy” or “promoting American interests abroad”. To them, foreign policy is primarily about power.
But even neocons weigh the expected costs and benefits of specific policy proposals. I cannot find any evidence of anyone calling for a first-strike or invasion of the Soviet Union. The costs would have been far too high, even for a neoconservative. When neoconservative foreign policy had its heyday under Bush’s first term, we attacked small and essentially powerless countries. Why? Because the costs are extremely low in terms of a possible retaliation. If we had struck the Soviet Union, we would have been nuked. Not even a neoconservative is willing to risk everything to spread American power.
Because nobody advocated a direct attack on Russia, we can’t use that as evidence that Reagan’s foreign policy was one of “realism and restraint.” To establish that we will need to look at other aspects of Reagan’s foreign policy initiatives. If they are neoconservative in nature we would expect to find a policy of attacking essentially defenseless targets with a low risk of serious retaliation.
And what do we find? We find a policy of attacking essentially defenseless targets with a low risk of serious retaliation. Remember, Bush was not the first President to wage a war against terrorism. In 1981, Reagan declared a “war on terrorism” the moment he got into office by directing the CIA to fund and train rebel forces in an attempt to overthrow a Nicaraguan government that posed no threat to us. Throughout the years, the Reagan-funded Contras destroyed the lives of tens of thousands of Nicaraguan civilians as well as their economy. And for what? Anti-communism was the official story but Reagan’s justifications were so flimsy he had to continually cover-up the Contra funding to Congress and the American people.
Healy mentions Reagan’s decision to withdraw American forces from Lebanon after a truck bomb killed 241 Marines as evidence that Reagan was not a total hawk. But why were American forces in Lebanon in the first place? They were there to assist Israel in setting up and maintaining a pro-Israeli government. We were hardly disinterested “peacekeepers,” as Healy seems to imply. Reagan did the right thing to pull the rest of our forces out, as Ron Paul has stated before, but our initial intervention in Lebanese affairs is exactly what one would expect a neocon to do.
Days after the Marine Corps’ barracks in Lebanon were blown up, Reagan ordered American forces to invade Grenada and overthrow its government. The reason, ostensibly, was to protect the lives of American medical students. But, as John Quigley points out in his book “The Ruses for War“, none of the medical students were ever in danger. Quigley goes to point out that although some of the students expressed a desire to leave, it turns out this was primarily because of fears that the U.S. was about to invade! The students were clearly wary about being caught on the ground during a military invasion. In fact, five-hundred of the students’ parents sent Reagan a telegram requesting he not invade so as not to give the government of Granada an excuse to take hostages. Like Bush, Reagan seemed to have a penchant for fabricating the evidence to justify war.
Reagan’s attack on Libya further contradicts Healy’s claim of “realism and restraint.” While it is undoubtedly true that we were in and out of Libya rather quickly (having dropped a few tons of explosives on them), a look at the evidence suggests Reagan’s intention to invade was hardly in self-defense. It is commonly argued that Reagan attacked Libya in response to a Libyan sponsored bomb that killed two Americans in Berlin. This is partially correct, but ignores the fact that two weeks before that bomb went off (and a month before we officially invaded) we were running military operations in and around Libyan territory for the purpose of eliciting a response from Libya’s leader. Muammar Gaddafi. Predictably, Gaddafi did respond with missiles, fighter jets and patrol boats in what is now called the Gulf of Sidra incident.
Regardless as to whether or not Libya had a right to attack the U.S., the real question is why the U.S. was running military operations in Northern Africa to begin with? There was nothing there that was vital to our interests or our security. So why were we there? Pentagon counterterrorism chief Neal Koch offers some reasons, including
the persistent and irritating posturing of Libyan strong-man Moammar Gadhafi; growing public and congressional disenchantment with the Reagan administration’s failure to deal with terrorism — especially Middle Eastern terrorism; intra-governmental pressures, with elements within the administration at war with each other; and finally, the fact that Libya was simply considered the easiest target among terrorist-supporting nations.
The fact is that this was not about self-defense in any real way. The attack on Libya was not about keeping the American people safe. It was a hot-headed attack by a President who didn’t want to appear weak. This is hardly evidence of a restrained foreign policy.
Setting aside these shortcomings, it is true that Reagan’s rhetoric was less belligerent than Bush’s, and that his posturing was probably more refined. But that doesn’t really mean much; next to Bush, one would be hard pressed to find anyone more belligerent and hostile. Still, the facts of history don’t exonerate Reagan simply because his tone was softer. Bush only invaded two countries; Reagan invaded three. Bush funded terrorist groups in an attempt to destabilize Iran; Reagan funded terrorists and death squads throughout most of Latin America. Both spoke often about spreading democracy and combating terrorism. The parallels between the two are simply too clear to miss.
Contrary to Healy, Reagan’s foreign policy was not realist or restrained. It was interventionist from the word go. It was contrary in every way to the wise and prudent words spoken by George Washington so many years ago. It was expensive for us and deadly for the thousands of people who were at the receiving end of U.S. bombs and CIA backed death squads.
So I say we stop playing the semantics game and call a spade a spade- Reagan might not have been quite the neoconservative that other neoconservatives wanted him to be, but that’s just a difference of degree.
For all intents and purposes, Reagan was a neocon.