Ronald Reagan: Hawk or Dove?
In a recent issue of Foreign Policy magazine, journalist Peter Beinart reassesses the legacy of Ronald Reagan by first restating the most common assumption about our 40th president, that “Ronald Reagan was the Ultimate Hawk.” Is this true? “Not so much,” writes Beinart:
“Today’s conservatives have conjured a mythic Reagan who never compromised with America’s enemies and never shrank from a fight. But the real Reagan did both those things, often. In fact, they were a big part of his success… Sure, Reagan spent boatloads — some $2.8 trillion all told — on the military. And yes, he funneled money and guns to anti-communist rebels like the Nicaraguan Contras and Afghan mujahideen, while lecturing Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down that wall. But 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. Compare that with George H.W. Bush, who launched two midsized ground operations, in Panama (1989) and Somalia (1992), and one large war in the Persian Gulf (1991). Or with Bill Clinton, who launched three air campaigns — in Bosnia (1995), Iraq (1998), and Kosovo (1999) — each of which dwarfed Reagan’s Libya bombing in duration and intensity. Do I even need to mention George W. Bush?”
Reagan’s comparably humble foreign policy is worth noting, precisely because so many of his neoconservative admirers today insist that Dubya’s wars, or even Obama’s insanity in Afghanistan, somehow reflect a “what would Reagan do?” philosophy. Yet, the opposite is more true and given his record, it is hard to imagine Reagan launching, or enduring, wars as foolish and long as what the U.S. currently finds itself bogged down in. Reagan had an aversion to prolonged military conflict, something either forgotten or intentionally ignored by his pro-war champions today. Writes Beinart:
“As early as 1982, after Reagan skirmished with Israel (and) declined to send U.S. troops to Central America… Commentary’s Norman Podhoretz declared that neoconservatives were ‘sinking into a state of near political despair.’ New York Times columnist William Safire announced that ‘if Ronald Reagan fails to awake to the hard-liners’ anger at his betrayal, he will discover that he has lost his bedrock constituency.’ By 1984, after Reagan withdrew troops from their peacekeeping mission in Lebanon, Podhoretz moaned that ‘in the use of military power, Mr. Reagan was much more restrained’ than his right-wing supporters had hoped.”
But how about Reagan’s supposed crown achievement, in helping to win the Cold War? According to the neocons in his day, who apparently have short memories these days, Reagan got that wrong too. Writes Beinart:
“(N)othing compared with the howls of outrage that accompanied Reagan’s dovish turn toward the Soviet Union. In 1986, when Reagan would not cancel his second summit with Gorbachev over Moscow’s imprisonment of an American journalist, Podhoretz accused him of having ‘shamed himself and the country’ in his ‘craven eagerness’ to give away the nuclear store… When Reagan signed the INF Treaty, most Republicans vying to succeed him came out in opposition. Grassroots conservative leaders established the Anti-Appeasement Alliance to oppose ratification and ran newspaper advertisements comparing Gorbachev to Hitler and Reagan to Neville Chamberlain.”
In December of last year, a Public Policy Poll ranked Ronald Reagan as the most popular modern president and he certainly remains popular in the GOP, where everyone from John McCain to Sarah Palin claims to be a “Reagan Republican.” Considering this continuing popularity, it is well worth pointing out that Reagan as the “ultimate hawk” is largely a myth—at least compared to how most of the Republicans today who speak in his name view American foreign policy. Columnist George Will asks us to consider the American Conservative Union’s David Keene’s take on Reagan’s relatively tame foreign policy:
“He 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?”
The answer? No. Neoconservatives will almost always commit troops anytime, anywhere and for any reason, whereas Reagan was hesitant most of the time, wary of where he might commit and liked having a good reason. If Reagan’s actual foreign policy record could become mainstream again, it would be a trend toward something far saner than what both parties subscribe to today. And if mainstream conservatives still suckered by the prevailing pro-war, any-war rhetoric on the Right are the least bit serious about honoring the memory of Ronald Reagan—they could start by no longer pretending that he was something he was not.