TPMCafe has a discussion going on Will Bunch’s new book Tear Down This Myth: How the Reagan Legacy Has Distorted Our Politics and Haunts Our Future. Bunch is no fan of the 40th president, obviously, but one of the myths he attacks is that of Reagan the foreign-policy neocon. Reagan was very far from being a noninterventionist, and his bombing of Libya shows that he wasn’t always determined to avoid civilian casualties. His overall foreign-policy though, heated rhetoric notwithstanding, was fundamentally un-Bushian. (For that matter, Bush’s rhetoric was always lovey-dovey “Everybody just wants to be free” blather, so he was actually unlike Reagan in that regard, too.)

Here’s Bunch’s take:

… when it comes to foreign policy, Reagan’s record is harder to characterize. He clearly wanted to fight communism and expand America’s capitalist influence in this hemisphere and elsewhere, but he also had a strong personal distaste for war and killing — and a lifelong fear that Armageddon was both real and at hand. That led to some muddled policies. He didn’t want to spill U.S. blood in Central America and thus resisted a lot of military schemes like a suggested embargo of Cuba and the planned invasion of Panama that George H.W. Bush did launch just months after Reagan left office. But he instead developed something called the Reagan doctrine which meant instead supporting murderous local death squads in the name of “freedom.” In the Middle East, his personal anguish that Americans had been taken hostage was the spark for what became the Iran-Contra scandal. Despite his massive and often wasteful buildup of the Pentagon, Reagan was sincere is seeking deep cuts in nuclear weapons and was even influenced by the liberal Hollywood movie “The Day After.”

As relates to Iraq, Reagan would have been appalled at the military strategy underpinning the March 2003 assault, the heavy bombing tactic known as “shock and awe.” He was extremely reluctant to respond militarily to terrorism at all. In June 1985, Hezbollah terrorists hijacked a TWA jet and killed a Navy diver who was on board. Lou Cannon wrote in the Washington Post that summer that Reagan stunned some of his aides — like the bellicose Patrick J. Buchanan — with his unwillingness to use force in response to terrorism. “Reagan, always more tender-hearted when dealing with real people than with abstract ideas, decided that retaliation in which innocent civilians are killed is “itself a terrorist act” — a view he expressed publicly at his June 18 news conference,” Cannon wrote in 1985. He noted that just two days later the president had to overrule a military response to an attack on Marines in El Salvador, and he wrote that “Reagan asked [National Security Advisor Robert] McFarlane whether an attack could be carried out without killing civilians — a yardstick that surprised Buchanan.”

I touched on some of these points in my reviews of Bill Buckley’s and John Patrick Diggins’s recent Reagan books.