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Foreign Policy and Reagan Nostalgia

Jim Antle lists [1] some of the ways that Reagan nostalgia warps conservative arguments. One of these is the tendency to remember Reagan only in terms of his most confrontational rhetoric and actions:

“We win, they lose.” “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Conservatives, especially neoconservatives, are fond of employing those Cold War Reagan catchphrases in the service of confrontation and conflict abroad.

Along with generic appeals to military power, these lines can go a long way toward dressing up hawkishness as a “neo-Reaganite foreign policy.” Negotiations with Iran? We win, they lose. War isn’t going well? Tough, we win, they lose.

If conservatives misremember Reagan as a hard-liner, that definitely has a number of harmful distorting effects on foreign policy debate on the right, but there is a related danger in thinking that many of Reagan’s policies are still reliable guides for what should be done decades after the Cold War ended. I touched on this in my article [2] on Reagan and foreign policy from last year:

At its best, Reagan’s foreign policy was a response to contemporary realities and problems, and most of these no longer exist. Conservatives who fail to take these changes into account are substituting nostalgia for sound analysis. Instead of worrying about what Reagan would do today, conservatives should devise a foreign policy that advances U.S. security and interests in the world as it is. Rather than trying to relive the Reagan years, conservatives would do well to scrutinize which of Reagan’s decisions still make sense with the advantage of more than two decades of hindsight.

His most hawkish decisions as president make sense only in the context of the Cold War and have little or no application to contemporary issues. The U.S. has no superpower rival to contain any longer, and it faces no coherent ideological challenge on par with that of Soviet Communism. A military build-up comparable to Reagan’s today would serve no purpose except to bloat the Pentagon’s budget—and defense contractors’ wallets—to the detriment of America’s fiscal health. To the extent that Reagan-era increases in military spending contributed to Soviet collapse, they had some value, but it makes no sense to maintain military spending that exceeds even that of the Reagan era when no comparable foreign threat exists.

There is no longer anything to be gained by supporting insurgents against weak dictatorships, and no reason for the U.S. to embroil itself in the internal conflicts of other nations. Whatever value the Reagan Doctrine may have had in the 1980s, it now stands mostly as a cautionary tale about the damage that arming foreign insurgencies can do to the countries affected and the abuses that may come from waging such proxy wars.

During the Libya and Syria debates, Republican hawks [3] invoked [4] the Reagan Doctrine as a precedent for their arguments to arm anti-regime forces in both countries. They inevitably treated past U.S. support for insurgents around the world as something that had been both wise and successful when it was frequently neither, but these problems could be brushed aside by virtue of the fact that “Reagan did it.” The appeal to the example of Reagan is often enough just an attempt to evade and ignore the huge flaws in the policy being promoted, so it is no coincidence that the people today that tend to wrap themselves in the “Reaganite” label most often are the ones calling for the most foolish and reckless policies.

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9 Comments To "Foreign Policy and Reagan Nostalgia"

#1 Comment By Joshua Simeon Narins On February 3, 2014 @ 1:31 pm

I look at Reagan’s arming of both sides of the Iran-Iraq war as one of the most amoral, if not downright evil, acts of any US President, in the realm of foreign policy.

That said, didn’t Venona show that Reagan’s military buildup, and SDI in particular, empower the hard liners in the Politburo, delaying Gorbachev’s more pacifistic maneuvers?

#2 Comment By James Canning On February 3, 2014 @ 2:17 pm

Excellent points, Daniel. And Reagan did cause what arguably was fantastic squandering of huge sums on unnecessary weapons. The Soviet Union clearly was approaching collapse, yet a 600 capital ship US Navy was envisioned.

#3 Comment By DeepSouthPopulist On February 3, 2014 @ 2:38 pm

a 600 capital ship US Navy was envisioned.

Corporate welfare for the MIC and Reagan’s friends among the SoCal defense contractors.

#4 Comment By Myron Hudson On February 3, 2014 @ 4:13 pm

I do recall that the neocons were aghast Reagan negotiating with the Soviet Union (“trust but verify”) and that it was either Reagan or Bush I who referred to the neocons as “the crazies in the basement”. And, he pulled us out of Beirut after the civilian/terrorist bombing of our facility and had some interesting, reflective things to say about our presence there.

They way the neocons and hawks now attempt to wrap themselves in his mantle is not mere nostalgia, it’s shameless deception and posturing.

But then it seems that all of our Presidents are mere puppets, sold to us in a smoke and mirrors campaign.

#5 Comment By Essayist-Lawyer On February 3, 2014 @ 5:11 pm

To a significant number of right wingers, the whole concept that different circumstances call for different policies shows a lack of principle and committment to universal and timeless values.

#6 Comment By Andrew On February 3, 2014 @ 7:08 pm

@Deep South Populist

Corporate welfare for the MIC and Reagan’s friends among the SoCal defense contractors.

600 ship Navy was more complex than that, before that was Arleigh Burke’s request, during his tenure as CNO (three terms), for the Navy which US industry simply couldn’t built because it lacked necessary resources. The problem is always deeper than obvious MIC contracts–it is the issue of a doctrine. Better yet, lack of thereof. John Lehman (Reagan’s NavSec) was naval aviator and a fanatical one at that, ergo–gigantic carrier centric navy envisioned by him. Even staunch anti-communist Burke had a very good sense of balance, which couldn’t be said about Lehman’s, that is Reagan’s, vision of the navy.

#7 Comment By Puller58 On February 3, 2014 @ 7:31 pm

As I will continue to point out, President Reagan was already in the grips of Alzheimers, and all the kiss and tell books point out that James Baker was running the White House till he and Don Regan made the mysterious switcheroo of their respective jobs. The one thing that I will give Baker credit for is that he gave Israel grief in an appearance before Congress on the futility of “Greater Israel.” The Israelis were not amused.

#8 Comment By Simon94022 On February 3, 2014 @ 8:31 pm

Good post, but some of these comments are way off base about Reagan. He was definitely not “in the grip of Alzheimer’s” while President. Reagan was highly intelligent and inquisitive, and unlike most of his predecessors and all of his successors he actually wrote or at least extensively revised most of his speeches. He was very much the man in charge of his administration.

#9 Comment By Simon94022 On February 3, 2014 @ 8:49 pm

It is also laughable revisionism to claim that the Soviet Union was “obviously” near collapse in the 1980s. That was not obvious to anyone, left or right.

Reagan and his conservative backers were convinced that the USSR could be beaten because they understood that communism was (1) hated by the peoples who lived under it and (2) economic quackery which could never keep pace with the West. These points seem obvious now, but mainstream liberal and centrist opinion in the 1970s and 1980s completely rejected them. The path to peace was supposed to be a gradual convergence of capitalist and socialist systems. And hey, East Germany’s powerful industrial economy proved that a command economy could “work”. Above all, Reagan’s talk of winning the Cold War and achieving a post Soviet world was considered dangerous and irresponsible.

I think part of what gave neocons so much hubris about Iraq was precisely the fact that they had been right in the 1980s while the mainstream foreign policy establishment and its liberal allies had been gobsmackingly wrong about Soviet communism. Tragically, the takeaway was to tune out warnings that a favored policy was reckless or something that just couldn’t be done.