In his ongoing mission to declare Republicans who dare question America’s foreign policy “isolationist,” Sen. John McCain asked recently concerning Libya: “I wonder what Ronald Reagan would be saying today.”
Columnist George Will answered McCain: “Wondering is speculation; we know this: When a terrorist attack that killed 241 Marines and other troops taught Reagan the folly of deploying them at Beirut airport with a vague mission and dangerous rules of engagement, he was strong enough to reverse this intervention in a civil war.”
Will added: “Would that he had heeded a freshman congressman from Arizona who opposed the House resolution endorsing the intervention. But, then, the McCain of 1983 was, by the standards of the McCain of 2011, an isolationist.”
McCain’s definition of who’s an “isolationist” seems to be anyone who believes permanent war is not in America’s interest. For McCain, any decision not to intervene militarily overseas is tantamount to erecting a brick wall around the US. The actuality of McCain’s foreign policy continues to demonstrate its absurdity—as now 72% of Americans say the U.S. is “involved in too many foreign conflicts” according to a recent Pulse Opinion Research poll.
According to McCain’s definition nearly three quarters of Americans are now isolationist. So was Ronald Reagan.
National Rifle Association President David Keene has noted the major distinction between Reagan’s foreign policy and the neoconservatives’ vision:
“Reagan resorted to military force far less often than many of those who came before him or who have since occupied the Oval Office. . . . After the  assault on the Marine barracks in Lebanon, it was questioning the wisdom of U.S. involvement that led Reagan to withdraw our troops rather than dig in. He found no good strategic reason to give our regional enemies inviting U.S. targets. Can one imagine one of today’s neoconservative absolutists backing away from any fight anywhere?”
True to neocon form, McCain now chastises his own party for even daring to think about backing away from Libya or Afghanistan.
This is not to say that Reagan was a non-interventionist. He wasn’t. But it is to say that Reagan’s foreign policy represented something far more cautious and restrained than the hyper-interventionism the neoconservatives demand.
After the 2010 election, McCain said of Senator-elect Rand Paul of Kentucky: “Rand Paul, he’s already talked about withdrawals, cuts in defense… I worry a lot about rise of… isolationism in the Republican Party.”
What sort of “isolationism” does Paul propose? Something similar to Reagan’s foreign policy, or as Paul told an audience at John Hopkins University earlier this month:
“If for example, we imagine a foreign policy that is everything to everyone, that is everywhere all the time that would be one polar extreme… Likewise, if we imagine a foreign policy that is nowhere any of the time and is completely disengaged from the challenges and dangers to our security that really do exist in the world—well, that would be the other polar extreme… But what about a foreign policy of moderation? A foreign policy that argues that—maybe we could be somewhere some of the time?”
Sen. Paul added: “Reagan’s foreign policy was one in which we were somewhere, some of the time, in which the missions were clear and defined, and there was no prolonged military conflict—and this all took place during the Cold War.”
McCain now wonders what “Ronald Reagan would be saying today” because the neoconservatives have long been paraphrasing him while ignoring his actual record. Ask many conventional conservatives what a “Reagan Republican” is and you’ll likely hear something about “Peace through strength”—while they typically forget the peace part. Conservatives who admired George W. Bush’s foreign policy perceived Bush as being Reagan-esque. This is a fiction the neoconservatives have steadily encouraged—but it is still fiction. Explained former Reagan Senior Adviser Patrick J. Buchanan:
“Would Ronald Reagan have invaded Iraq? Would he have declared a doctrine of preventive war to keep any rival nation from rising to where it might challenge us? Would he have crusaded for ‘world democratic revolution’? Was Reagan the first neoconservative? This claim has been entered in the wake of his death. Yet, it seems bogus, a patent forgery, a fabricated claim to the Reagan legacy, worked up in the same shop where they made the documents proving Saddam was buying up all the yellowcake in Niger.”
Added Buchanan: “(Reagan) took the world as he inherited it. His mission was simple and clear: Defend the country he loved against the pre-eminent threat of the Soviet Empire, avoid war, for time was on our side, and accept the assistance of any friend who would stand with us. Reagan did not harbor some Wilsonian compulsion to remake the world in the image of Vermont.”
Foreign Policy’s Peter Beinart has noted Reagan’s comparative reluctance to commit troops: “on the ultimate test of hawkdom—the willingness to send U.S. troops into harm’s way—Reagan was no bird of prey. He launched exactly one land war, against Grenada, whose army totaled 600 men. It lasted two days. And his only air war—the 1986 bombing of Libya—was even briefer.”
Beinart has also noted Reagan’s opinion of his neoconservative critics:
“(W)hen Secretary of State Alexander Haig suggested… bombing Cuba, the suggestion ‘scared the shit out of Ronald Reagan,’ according to White House aide Michael Deaver. Haig was marginalized, then resigned, and Reagan never seriously considered sending U.S. troops south of the border, despite demands from (neo)conservative intellectuals… ‘Those sons of bitches won’t be happy until we have 25,000 troops in Managua,’ Reagan told chief of staff Kenneth Duberstein near the end of his presidency, ‘and I’m not going to do it.”
There is Reagan the myth; crafted by neocon worship and manipulation, and then there is Reagan the man, who helped end the Cold War with far less military intervention than what neoconservatives demand today.
Author Michael Schaller noted in his 1992 book Reckoning with Reagan that “When Reagan retired, 72% of Americans voiced strong approval for his handling of foreign policy.” Today, 72% of Americans now believe their country does too much around the world.
When John McCain wonders what “Reagan would be saying today” the Senator implies the late president would agree with him. But his actual record suggests that Ronald Reagan would be in sync—as usual—with the bulk of his fellow Americans.