It is President Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday Sunday, and everyone on the right is jockeying for a piece of the Gipper’s legacy.
During his career, Reagan often employed the sort of confrontational rhetoric neoconservatives thrill to, but as president Reagan was no neocon — and be thankful for that.
In their 2004 book, “America Alone: The Neoconservatives and the Global Order,” Jonathan Clarke and Stephan Halper write that modern neocons have “attached a Reagan bumper sticker to their motorcade,” but they “ignore much of the substance: the intense arms control commitment, the summitry, the minimal use of direct American military power.”
Reagan had a genuine horror of nuclear weapons and wanted them abolished. He called mutually assured destruction “the craziest thing I ever heard of.” His three military interventions — Grenada, Lebanon and Libya — were “limited operations of short duration,” and he carefully avoided direct confrontation with the Soviets.
This put Reagan in trouble with neocons early on. Incredibly, he was accused of “following a strategy of helping the Soviet Union stabilize its empire,” instead of “encouraging the breakdown of that empire from within.”
In Reagan’s Middle East policies, especially, there was much for hawks to rue, like the administration’s sharp condemnation of Israel’s 1981 “preventive strike” on the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak, and his decision to withdraw U.S. peacekeepers from Lebanon after a truck bomb killed more than 200 Marines.
In a 2007 debate, to the chagrin of Rudy Giuliani, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, invoked Reagan to argue for leaving the Middle East: “We need the courage of a Ronald Reagan.”
Despite Reagan’s “ringing speeches,” he was “quite circumscribed in his efforts at democracy promotion,” Colin Dueck wrote in “Hard Line,” a new history of GOP foreign policy. Reagan viewed the U.S. as a city on a hill, a “model to other countries,” not a crusader state with “an obligation to forcibly promote democracy overseas.”
Most of all, what separates Reagan from his hawkish latter-day admirers was his optimism. He viewed the United States as dynamic and free — and therefore strong enough to outlast any enemy.
For the neoconservatives, however, it is always 1939, and the free world is always under siege, whether from a decrepit Soviet monolith of the 1980s or today’s allegedly “existential threat” presented by several hundred cave-dwelling Islamists. In the Gorbachev era, Reagan was accused of buying into “the fantasy of communist collapse.” Some fantasy.
Reagan was right in 1981 when he proclaimed that “the West will not contain communism; it will transcend communism,” dismissing it as “a sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.” The Gipper’s threat-addled fans could use some of his confidence today.
In recent decades, Republicans have repeatedly honored Reagan’s memory by naming federal buildings after him — a curious tribute indeed. They would do better to look at his actual record.
In foreign affairs, the Reagan legacy is one of realism and restraint.
Examiner columnist Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute and author of “The Cult of the Presidency.”