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The Useless “What Would Reagan Do?” Foreign Policy Debate

Michael Hogue

Dan Drezner rightly sees the debate over “what Reagan would do” on foreign policy as a useless exercise:

Beinart’s effort is a noble one, but let’s be blunt — after a point, this parsing of Reagan’s legacy starts to look like Communists trying to find a Lenin quote that justifies their pre-existing worldview. Or, to put it even more bluntly, who cares what Reagan would think? [bold mine-DL] Ronald Reagan had a decent foreign policy record, but confronted a world radically different from the one we face today. In Reagan’s time, the United States faced a clear, overarching threat that defined the way Americans thought about every part of the globe. In the 21st century, the threats are more variegated and far less potent than the Cold War era Soviet Union. Reagan is a pretty good guide for how to mix soaring neoconservative rhetoric with less-than-soaring realpolitik foreign policy. His administration’s record provides little guidance on what to do, however, in the modern Middle East, unless Republicans are suddenly keen on giving Iran arms again.

The same could be said about any other part of the world. This is one of the points I was making in my article last year on the uses and abuses of Reagan in foreign policy arguments. Different Republican factions can and do find things in Reagan’s record and rhetoric that suit their purposes, but the preoccupation with finding appropriate Reagan precedents is itself part of one of the larger problems with Republican foreign policy today. GOP foreign policy on the whole has completely failed to recognize how the world has changed since the end of the Cold War, and so it has failed to adjust accordingly. To the extent that most Republicans have acknowledged any changes, they have sought to turn current threats into a new version of the Cold War, and some have gone so far as to claim that the world is now more dangerous for the U.S. than it was when the USSR still existed. Republican hawks mostly took the end of the Cold War as an invitation for even greater activism abroad rather than seizing on it as the opportunity to reduce U.S. commitments and burdens that it obviously was.

Despite the Republican insistence that Reagan “won” the Cold War, there has been an equally strong insistence on ignoring the implications that the collapse of the USSR has had on the contemporary relevance of Reagan-era foreign policy. This has the odd effect of diminishing the significance of the achievement for which Republicans give Reagan far too much credit. Arguing over who has the better claim to being a Reaganite on foreign policy and disputing over what being a Reaganite means aren’t just wastes of time. This also discourages Republicans from seriously rethinking their assumptions about what the U.S. role in the world should be, and allows the GOP to carry on as if nothing much has changed since Reagan left office twenty-five years ago.

Harmful Reagan nostalgia among Republicans isn’t limited to foreign policy, but it may be where it does some of its greatest harm. For the most part, the Republicans most invested in claiming the mantle of Reagan are among the successors of those most likely to have denounced Reagan while he was in office as a sell-out, appeaser, or something equally unpleasant. As a result, the caricatured Reagan that they invoke takes the worst, most aggressive aspects of his record–exorbitant military spending, rhetorical excess, arming foreign insurgencies–and treats them as confirmation of the wisdom of their latter-day support for similarly foolish and unnecessary policies. When confronted with objections that their proposals are dangerous, wasteful, and unnecessary, they then declare their fidelity to Reagan in order to halt the debate.

It shouldn’t make much difference to us today what we think “Reagan would do.” Not only is it speculation to guess at what he would do in most modern crises and conflicts, but it is entirely possible that he would favor doing the wrong things just as he sometimes did when he was president. Instead of climbing over one another to prostrate themselves before Reagan’s image, contemporary Republican politicians should attempt to identify the real threats that the U.S. faces today, devise an appropriate strategy for addressing them, and articulate their own foreign policy vision rather than poring over the actions of a Reagan presidency that ended a generation ago in a world extremely different from our own.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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