Whatever happens to Bashar Assad, you can be sure that Ronald Reagan is rolling in his grave. That’s the assessment of a small but loud faction of conservatives who are perplexed that Republicans aren’t rushing to join Barack Obama’s march to war in Syria.
If Rand Paul gets more than 10 percent of the 2016 Republican primary vote, Hugh Hewitt fears “the party of Ronald Reagan is dead, and former Ohio Sen. Bob Taft will finally get his due.”
The Wall Street Journal‘s Bret Stephens also sees Robert Taft’s ghost, and he is very afraid. The wild-eyed view that Congress has the power to declare war, expressed in a subversive document known as the Constitution, penned by peacenik pinkos like James Madison, “would have astonished Ronald Reagan.”
But such “faux-constitutional assertions,” as Stephens describes them, “would have sat well with Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio.”
Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol helpfully divided the GOP into two factions: “Reagan Republicans” and “Snowden Republicans.” Guess whose side the hawks are on?
“Now Ronald Reagan wasn’t a libertarian, folks,” Lindsey Graham reminded the crowd at a Charleston fundraiser. Graham is among the minority of Republican senators likely to vote with Obama on authorizing military force in Syria.
“Ronald Reagan, if he were president, would get Assad like that,” Bill O’Reilly blustered.
Well, Ronald Reagan was president at the same time Assad’s father was running Syria and he didn’t. And Reagan might have had stronger grounds for doing so than Obama has today.
Republicans who almost seem to be itching to fight wars — or at least type on their laptops while other people fight them — often say they are adhering to Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy. Peace through strength, better dead than red. They don’t much like it when less hawkish Republicans invoke Reagan.
But Reagan’s actual foreign policy was more complicated than authors of the thousandth call for a “neo-Reaganite foreign policy” would have it. Yes, he built up the military and invaded Grenada. He also, as the American Conservative Union’s Donald Devine writes in America’s Way Back, “actively committed fewer U.S. ground forces on foreign soil than any modern chief executive other than Jimmy Carter.”
Reagan, writes George Mason University professor Colin Dueck, “generally avoided protracted, failed, or militarily improbable entanglements abroad.” The Grenada invasion was undertaken to rescue American medical students and prevent the establishment of a Soviet base camp in the region, at the request of treaty allies, against an army of 600 men.
Even Ron Paul, while chastising Reagan for not going to Congress first, conceded “we have a legitimate national interest” in Grenada.
“It now appears that there were troops and advisers in Grenada from Libya, Cuba, Bulgaria, the Soviet Union, East Germany and North Korea,” Paul said on the House floor in 1983. “If that is the case, I fail to see how anyone can believe that Grenada posed no threat to our well-being.”
“Clearly, in comparison to post-Vietnam liberal Democrats, Reagan was a foreign policy and national security hawk, comfortable with the use of force and unapologetic about it,” observes Dueck. “At the same time, when it came to the prospect of large-scale, direct military interventions overseas, President Reagan in practice was genuinely careful.”
In fact, Reagan devoted much of his foreign policy to arms control, eliciting criticism from many of the same people and institutions who consider themselves “ne0-Reaganite” today, as well as some Cold War hawks who eventually became paleocons.
“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,” complained Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz. “The truth, however, is that Mr. Reagan as President has never shown the slightest inclination to pursue such an ambitious strategy.”
Since Reagan’s passing, the Republican Party has conspicuously lacked leaders who combine the neocons’ forceful rhetorical denunciations of tyranny with Taft-like skepticism of war.
More measured Republican critics of hyper-interventionism would be nice, but the people who might qualify have been completely ineffective. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel appears to be on board with his boss’ plans for Syria, just as he once reluctantly supported the Iraq war. Jon Huntsman has signed on to the Syria strikes and doesn’t think Obama should have involved Congress.
When it comes to opposing wars when it counts — even the kind Bob Dole once called “Democrat wars” — Taft’s disciples have had to do the heavy lifting.
But the John McCains and Lindsey Grahams aren’t just more hawkish than the Pauls and Robert Taft. They are, contra Hugh Hewitt, more hawkish than Dwight Eisenhower or Reagan. Perhaps even more hawkish than some earlier versions of McCain, who voted against Reagan sending Marines to Lebanon while many who now cheer him criticize Reagan for pulling them out.
Point five in the Weinberger doctrine held that “U.S. troops should not be committed to battle without a ‘reasonable assurance’ of the support of U.S. public opinion and Congress.” Both Powell and Weinberger, who worked for Reagan, said that war should only be considered as a last resort.
Similarly, “peace through strength” was premised on the hope that strength would make the actual use of military force unnecessary. “The neo-Reaganite foreign policy drawn up by Kagan and Kristol is vastly more ‘neo’ than ‘Reaganite’,” concluded Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke.
A foreign policy based heavily on preventive war is something of an aberration, largely abandoned even by George W. Bush during his second term.
It would be inaccurate to call Reagan a non-interventionist, obviously. But the neo-Reaganites conscripting him aren’t painting a truer picture.
W. James Antle III is the editor of The Daily Caller News Foundation and author of the recently released book “Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?“ Follow him on Twitter.