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Ronald Reagan: Isolationist

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 [1983] 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.


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#1 Comment By NY Teacher On June 28, 2011 @ 12:46 pm

Kudos Hunter!

Anyone still doubts that the Republican Party of the Bushes (and their heirs: McCain, Palin et al) is truly infiltrated and controlled by the NeoCons? How many readers outside this magazine can even define a NeoCon, leave alone name a few? How many can even discern the Trillion-dollar earnings the MIC have wrought through this “useless” war? The duped masses continue to pony up $4 gasoline, totally clueless about the connection to the Wars-for-oil…

This duping, dear GW, is truly “Mission Accomplished!”

#2 Comment By John Mohan On June 28, 2011 @ 1:23 pm

It is the John McCain’s, George Bush’s,Bill Kristol’s, and Charles Krauthammer’s whose unbridled thirst for unending, unnecessary conflicts to intervene in, that are destined to be a freakish footnote in American history. Ronald Reagan, whose foreign policy genius becomes clearer with every passing year, practiced true defense of his nation. His was a foreigh policy committed to protecting America’s vital national security interests only, not those of Israel’s or of the war-profiteering militrary/industrial complex.Republicans are returning to our true Taft/Goldwater/Reagan/Ron Paul roots!

#3 Comment By Westie On June 28, 2011 @ 1:24 pm

Very good Hunter and I see a new class of American Citizen moving our country rapidly to it’s roots in Constitutional Republicanism!

#4 Comment By Gil On June 28, 2011 @ 3:30 pm

Why we need a Buchanan, not a Reagan or a Bachmann!

I know that Ronald Reagan is every conservative’s hero, and I thought he was great on domestic and social issues. However, let’s examine his history and foreign policy record objectively in order to get some perspective.

1. He was a former democratic union leader in Hollywood who switched before running for Governor of California.

2. He loved Israel: over his 8 years in office, he gave somewhere between 24 and 50 billion US dollars in military hardware to Israel.

3. He had the US 6th fleet docked in Israel for his entire tenure.

4. He bombed Libya, trying to kill Khadaffi for a crime that was never definitively proven to have been perpetrated by Libya.

5. He stationed Marines in Lebanon, pulling them out ONLY after the barracks were bombed.

6. He armed militant groups and put CIA and Special Forces troops on the ground all over the world (covertly, of course) including in Afghanistan.

It’s true that his foreign policy was not DIRECTLY as robust as Sean Hannity, Bill Kristol, Charles Krauthammer or The National Review would like, but I think it fair to say that he was 50-75%..

After all, why do Neocons like David Brooks, Max Boot, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, The Heritage Foundation, The National Review, The weekly Standard, Ann Coulter, and Michelle Bachmann all love this guy?

I know this is all very hard to swallow for some people, and I expect lots of criticism on this post, but please, take some time to think about Reagan’s actual policies and background. We will never get a Pat Buchanan in The White House until we realize what’s going on. And, let’s not fall into the Michelle Bachmann trap. Make no mistake about it- she is a classic Neocon:
1. Loves Israel. In fact, she spent a summer working on an Israeli farm in 1974.
2. Supported Jimmy Carter but switched over in the 70’s (or was it the 80’s????)
3. Believes in “The Mission” in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So, Michelle Bachmann fits into Bill Kristol’s OWN DEFINITION of a Neoconservative. A Democrat who’s been mugged by reality into becoming a conservative, who believes in projecting US military power in order to create democracy overseas, and who supports Israel.

#5 Comment By Mickey Zellberg On June 29, 2011 @ 4:45 am

Gil, +1. This revisionist version of Reagan is straight-up ridiculous.

#6 Comment By Smitty On June 29, 2011 @ 8:03 am

I don’t get why some people expect us to recoil at the word “isolationist”, as we do from words like “communist”, “pervert” or “traitor”.

To me isolationism has always seemed a very American quality, a characteristic virtue even, roughly the opposite of “socialist busybody”. Keep your nose out of other people’s business, tend to your own affairs, avoid sneaky foreign types and their machinations. American as apple pie really. In fact, I’d say that it’s the interventionists who have some explaining to do. One of the things the interventionists need to explain is why so many of them are either sneaky foreign types themselves, or only one or two generations removed from being sneaky foreign types.

#7 Comment By Gil On June 29, 2011 @ 9:01 am


When you throw out words like “ridiculous” and “revisionist” without shooting down any of my facts, you lose the argument. Tell me where my facts are wrong, and I’ll gladly concede if I’ve made a mistake here.

#8 Comment By Wesley Mcgranor On June 29, 2011 @ 9:40 am

Amen..except for those pesky Communists.

#9 Comment By Thomas O. Meehan On June 29, 2011 @ 2:11 pm

The term Isolationist cannot be defeated by embracing it. Foreign policy realists and traditional Conservatives need to define their approach in their own terms.

The crux of our differences with the NeoCons is the definition of national Interest. The Neo’s admit to a broad and frequently sentiment based definition. Thus Israel is a “Friend” who must not be abandoned while France is a bad actor populated by “Cheese eating surrender monkey’s.” The Neo’s seem to base all evaluations of national interest on rather ideological hysterical grounds.

I suggest that we who wish a more rational ordering of priorities need to assert a commonly understood term for a national interest based on purely material considerations. Access to raw materials, including oil, freedom of the seas and the safety of American interests abroad should be the centered principle of our foreign policy. I believe that the majority of our population is mature enough to happily adopt this principle.

And yet there is a fly in the ointment. We are a country with a History and a culture. Could we really abandon Europe to a Muslim onslaught? Would we allow an invasion of Canada? There is the problem. In dealing with the family of nations we have trouble admitting that some are more kin than others. Since we are now becoming a balkanized multicultural state, we will face this question of interest vs cultural/racial connection more and more into the future.

If we can control our borders and assert our identity as a Western, English speaking nation with kinship ties to those like us, we face a future as a rogue nation with a foreign policy directed by ethnic factions driving us into more and more dysfunctional and capricious policies. Such a state will engender defensive coalitions that will further hurt our ability to achieve real material goals.

#10 Comment By Mickey Zellberg On June 29, 2011 @ 4:48 pm

Gil, I was agreeing with you. That’s why I gave you +1.

#11 Comment By Gil On June 30, 2011 @ 6:42 am

Okay, Mickey,

Even after years of furious Internet usage, I’m very dense when picking up on chat and text code.

#12 Comment By Libby Gadsen On June 30, 2011 @ 9:01 am

What is truly ridiculous is America’s unrealistic program of nation-building in the Middle East and trying to force democracy on countries that have not known it, do not want it, and hate us for trying to impose it. The neoconservative vision that continues to animate so many on the Right, has caused too much damage already and is in no way conservative. Besides the USA is broke, where’s the money going to come from?

#13 Comment By A. G. Phillbin On June 30, 2011 @ 9:57 am


I agree with you regarding RR’s foreign policy, but would add one more incident:

The unprovoked, undeclared war against the miniscule island of Grenada, on the false pretense of rescuing hostages.

Everyone seens to forget about that one, probably because it “worked,” and because it is a fleaspeck of a country.

#14 Comment By Gil On June 30, 2011 @ 11:54 am


Yes, and of course, we cannot forget the capture of Manuel Noriega. Adding up Reagan’s Latin American adventurism (and let’s not fool ourselves for a second- there were plenty of CIA troops and Special Forces on the ground), his bombing of Libya, our troop presence in Lebanon, the 6th fleet in Israel, and his support for the Taliban (Mujahadeen) in Afghanistan, Ronald Reagan certainly fit into the definition of a Conservative with democratic origins who believed in projecting US military might in order to create Democracy overseas. This is the Neocon’s OWN definition of a Neoconservative.

#15 Comment By Thomas O. Meehan On June 30, 2011 @ 2:56 pm

Noriega was toppled by George H W Bush in 1989. Reagan left officde on 88.’ The Taliban did not exist until after the Soviet pullout. There were CIA assets working against our avowed enemies in Central America. Unike the middle east, it’s our back yard we have a right to fumigate if necessary. Reagan’s Libyan bombing was a justified retaliation for acts of terrorism by the Libyan government.

As Pat Buchanan once said, Reagan used the neocons as part of a coalition to win the cold war. W Bush was used by the neocons to prosecute their wars.

#16 Comment By Chick Dante On June 30, 2011 @ 3:01 pm

As a very young man, I was not that fond of Ronald Reagan. In fact, his general approval ratings were not that great until after he left office and Grover Norquist’s Reagan Legacy Project began re-writing history and changing “the brand.”

Then I read Will Bunch’s book, “Tear Down This Myth” and I actually gained a lot of respect for President Reagan as a leader who possessed many admirable human qualities such as an intense passion for the country, concern for the welfare of its citizens and desirous to do right in the face of enormous opposition that often came more from the right than the left. For instance, Bunch writes that Reagan’s speech about tearing down the Berlin wall was aimed primarily at neoconservatives back home, including Democrat Scoop Jackson otherwise known as the Senator from Boeing.

The most memorable story is about the letters between Reagan and Gorbachev seeking ways to end the cold war peaceably. These were handwritten by Reagan to make sure they couldn’t be leaked to the press and he be labeled an appeaser by the war mongers of his day. He sometimes walked a fine line politically in order to achieve peaceful objectives. Sadly, his opponents have siezed upon his passing and the short memory of the nation he loved, to justify their love of war as being “Reaganesque” when nothing could be further from the truth.

I appreciate Jack Hunter’s article. He brings a little truth and light to myth building that has dogged the legacy of the 40th President.

#17 Comment By Gil On June 30, 2011 @ 4:29 pm


You are correct about Noriega- my lapse. But, the Taliban did exist during Reagan- they were called the Mujahadeen- and we funded them throughout the 80’s.

As far as justifying Reagan’s adventuring in Latin America as necessary “fumigating,” – well, you’re entitled to your opinion as to what constitutes “our interests.”

But then you argue that we had a right to hit Libya because they hit us first. Well, that’s interesting. Because that is precisely the argument the Neocons used to get us into Afghanistan.

As far as Bush is concerned- as much as I detest the Neocon philosophy, I detest those who allow themselves to be used by the Neocon philosophy even more. If George Bush put troops in Saudi Arabia and drove the Iraqi army out of Kuwait because of Neocon pressure, then he is as guilty as they are. I would jump off a bridge before committing one American life to a political philosophy designed by some dead Washington Senator or University of Chicago philosopher.

#18 Comment By Thomas O. Meehan On June 30, 2011 @ 7:10 pm

The Mujahadeen preceded the Taliban. They were the “Holy Warriors,” committed to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan. After the Soviet pullout the various factions within the Mujahadeen fell into conflict as Afghans will, and civil war ensued. It was only then, and with the oversight of the Pakistani ISI that the Taliban movement emerged. This too happened after President Reagan left office.

You don’t have to be a neocon to support a punitive strike against an agressor. You do accept that Al Queda was responsible for 9/11 right? In fact if you remember it was the neocons that were responsible for diverting national attention from Afghanstan to their chosen war of choice – Iraq. Indeed it’s more characteristic of neocons to plot wars for potential or made-up threats, as in Iraq and now Iran.

The problematic aspect of our 10 year Afghan deployment is that we took over the feckless task of trying to change the nature of Afghanistan. Pure idiocy.

#19 Comment By Gil On June 30, 2011 @ 10:15 pm


Al Queda plotted patiently and carefully, hijacked four airliners each filled with almost enough fuel to reach Hawaii, and hit three sensitive targets and a cornfield. We were right to go into Afghanistan and destroy the Taliban in the process. Although, we never really destroyed the Taliban. We went in with way too little force and stayed far too long.

Afghanistan was the rare exception, however. We should have never rescued Kuwait- without being paid back. We should never have gotten involved in Latin America without a strong border and drug policy (think Ron Paul and legalization), and Iraq was simply ridiculous.

Isolationism usually works. Unless we are directly attacked we should mind our own business.

The problem with selective involvement overseas is that national interests become very ambiguous and interconnected. For example: We shouldn’t be involved in Libya because they do not threaten us. However, the French are freaking out about North African unrest. A Moroccan kid gets shot in the Paris metro and riots erupt in the suburbs of 400 French cities. The Italians are taking in endless boatloads of unskilled Libyan refugees. Who knows what Cameron is doing in Libya. It may have something to do with oil.

So, the French and British, who have been calling us Imperialists and Neocons for the past 10 years, are suddenly begging us to launch cruise missiles at Tripoli and station CIA agents in Bengazi. We are members of NATO. Do we help our allies here, or should we tell them they’re on their own? I believe the latter. Because while for the French it may be a war-of-necessity, for us it’s just another exercise in Democracy building which is not in our national interests. Then, of course, there are those who would argue that a strong France benefits a strong US. And the cycle begins.

For the French, Libya might be an existential threat. For us, it isn’t. Unless we are directly, physically attacked, the safest choice is Isolationism. Once we cross that line and attempt to rationally pick and choose where our interest lie, we enter a murky foreign policy Jacob’s Ladder with no exit.

#20 Comment By Thomas O. Meehan On July 1, 2011 @ 12:01 pm


We largely agree then. The polestar of real national interest is economic. Does a given situation threaten our supply of vital resources including regretably oil? Does X regime threaten freedom of the seas in an area vital to us?

Still I think we have a stake in bolstering nations with whom we have a familial relationships like England, Australia, etc. You are right about our Europsean associates. Obama let himself be suckered into a military action in North Africa that rightfully fell under the European sphere of influence. Our cousins in Europe need to develop a credible military capacity of their own.

Our military should be on our borders and we need to flush our the alien interlopers among us. No immigration for a generation of two and speedy deportation of unassimilating elements is imperative .

#21 Comment By JakeJ On July 1, 2011 @ 11:18 pm

We all know why Lieberman is for spilling American blood – but what is in it for McCain?

#22 Comment By A.C. On July 2, 2011 @ 1:40 am

Thomas O. Meehan-what you say in your first post highlights to me just how broad and vast the differences are between neos (who are the “mainstream” con movement now, unfortunately) and what I would call more genuine traditional conservatives. The reason neos, especially obvious fanatical sentimentalist ones like Boot, Gerson, Krauthammer, etc.,etc., (who i think at least understand WHY they think what they think, however wrong they are, much more clearly than pols like McCain, Graham, Lieberman, etc, do) properly belong on the Left and not the Right is because of this blind faith in abstract universalisms they hold, whereas the more traditional conservatives know that a million different things make America America; our habits, mores, customs, traditions, beliefs, etc., that cannot be boiled down into some sort of creedal maxim. Traditional conservatives don’t reject American exceptionalism; they simply understand it in its proper context-a new nation/republic that was being designed as a hopeful EXAMPLE to the world. Not some sort of mandate that could be accepted on blind faith removed from a people’s culture and exported to the world, the way neos insist Lincoln believed in his appropriation of Jeffersonian ideas. (Whether Lincoln really DID believe this is up for debate IMO. Let’s just say at the very least he was a master rhetorician who knew how to speak advantageously to the people in his time) Traditional cons don’t reject Jefferson’s self-evident truths either, but again, they understand it better than neos do, by placing it in its proper context as a necessary truth of political philosophy and rhetoric for the republic to work, not a literal truth, which TJ himself surely did NOT believe. We were “created” equal only in the moral eyes of our Creator; obviously, TJ knew individuals were very unequal in our capacities and abilities. Neos, however, take this part of the Declaration and a strange perversion of American exceptionalism to be quite literal, removed from any European cultural foundation that the Founders identified with. Which is why so many of them don’t worry about us becoming a balkanized multiculti state the way they should; they think the only problem is that new immigrants aren’t being taught the universal maxims that make America unique clearly enough. If they were, all other problems would seemingly melt away as ethnic/cultural/traditional/religious/etc differences that now exist aren’t really important to being an American in their eyes. Far too many of them would believe that these millions of now European Muslims can be taught these universal principles of democracy and majoritarianism easily enough, and well, everything else, all the vast cultural differences that separate the post-Christian, post-sexual revolution European from the pious Muslim will sort of melt away and things will fall into place eventually. For all the praise thats often heaped onto neocons and neolibs in both parties, (and the elite of all three parties in Britain), they’re really incredibly uneducated people in their dismissiveness of the importance of culture, and their overreliance on believing in political universalisms like the ones above and others makes them exactly the sort of folks who CAN’T identify what may or may not be in our national interest in foreign policy.

I think Reagan was NOT at heart a Neo, (as GWB, to extent he’s a thinker at all, IS) but he was probably somewhat influenced by some of their worse ideas, and it’s easy to see why. The fight between us and the USSR was very ideological.

#23 Comment By Gil On July 2, 2011 @ 8:28 am


McCain’s worldview is much the same as Lieberman’s, as far as I can see. It’s a dangerous worldview, but they have it. What McCain gets out of spilling American blood is quite simple- he sees his worldview in action, and he realizes that he is one of the principal actors. What gives people in power their rush is knowing that THEY are writing history.

#24 Comment By Kill Bill On July 2, 2011 @ 1:02 pm

McCain is the head of the IRI [intl repub inst] So his views tend not to lean toward isolationism.

#25 Comment By Gil On July 2, 2011 @ 2:05 pm

I believe that when Neocons say we can create Democracy by using US military force to knock down autocratic regimes like dominoes, they actually believe it. Call them idealistic, naive, or simply stupid, but I take them at their word. Down here in Texas, almost everyone I meet is either an Evangelical Neocon (support Israel for Armageddon), or a “Support the Mission in Iraq and Afghanistan” type. They love Hannity and Limbaugh, unconditionally support the Likud government in Israel, and seem actually nostalgic for the Cold War. The insanity is to the point that I wonder whether some people are simply bred to be Neocons because, like rooting for a sports team, they cannot stand living in an era where there isn’t some sort of “clash of civilizations.” Lord help us if Rick Perry (another Evangelical Neocon) runs for President. He’s actually charismatic enough to win.

#26 Comment By Jack in Wi. On July 3, 2011 @ 4:42 am

Jack: Tihis is one great column. Reagan was the ultimate realist. He followed the neocons on 2 occasions. One the fiasco in Lebanon, the other Iran Contra. He learned his lesson, unlike the GW Bush and McCain..

#27 Comment By Gil On July 3, 2011 @ 1:10 pm


Why is it that so many people cannot tolerate criticism of Ronald Reagan? Why do Neocon institutions such as the Heritage Foundation, the National Review, the Weekly Standard etc continue to heap praise on this former liberal Hollywood union member. We can analyze and disseminate all we want, but let’s just call things as they are.

If you needlessly send young men to their deaths because you listened to someone else’s advice, the responsibility is YOURS. As much as I detest Neocon philosophy- because it’s both naive and idealistic to the point of insanity- I detest those who cannot think for themselves and buy into Neocon philosophy even more. If some wacky philosopher named Strauss at the University of Chicago, or some nutty senator from Washington named “Scoop” teaches some idealistic young cipher to give you advice, and then you send United States Marines to their deaths in Lebanon, the fault is all yours. Bill Kristol and David Brooks and Jon Bolton and Rush Limbaugh and Richard Perle et al are all completely deluded, but those who listen to them and do their bidding are even worse. If some nutty academic told me I really ought to rob a bank, and I went through with it, whose fault would it be?

You cannot have it both ways. Had Reagan (or Bush 1, or Bush 2) been a great man, he never would have listened to the Neocons in the first place.