What Would Reagan Do in Iraq?

President Ronald Reagan President Ronald Reagan Ron Edmonds/AP File Photo

In today’s Republican Party, the most coveted endorsement a presidential candidate can receive is posthumous: from Ronald Reagan. Thus, it’s no surprise that potential contenders Rick Perry and Rand Paul are waging a rhetorical struggle over whose foreign-policy views the Gipper would prefer.

Last month, Paul opined in The Wall Street Journal that, “Though many claim the mantle of Ronald Reagan on foreign policy, too few look at how he really conducted it.” The Kentucky senator went on to argue that Reagan was highly cautious about sending U.S. troops into harm’s way, and that in that spirit, Republicans nowadays should resist renewed military intervention in Iraq. In a reply last Friday in The Washington Post, Perry accused Paul of having “conveniently omitted Reagan’s long internationalist record of leading the world with moral and strategic clarity.” Reagan, Perry insisted, “identified Soviet communism as an existential threat to our national security and Western values, and he confronted this threat in every theater”—meaning Republicans should be more willing to confront the jihadist threat in Iraq and beyond. In Politico on Monday, Paul volleyed back, declaring that “some of Reagan’s Republican champions today praise his rhetoric but forget his actions.”

They’re both right. As Paul suggests, Reagan was far more skeptical of direct military intervention than today’s conservatives remember. He sent U.S. ground troops into harm’s way twice in eight years: to invade Grenada, a country with roughly 500 troops, and to serve as peacekeepers in Lebanon, a mission he quickly aborted after a Hezbollah bomber killed 241 of them. The year after those interventions, as Paul notes, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger laid out a series of tests for military force—later popularized by Colin Powell—that essentially ruled out any intervention where public support, and decisive victory, could not be guaranteed. It was on that basis that in his final years in office, Reagan fended off members of his administration—led by a young assistant secretary of state named Elliott Abrams—who wanted to invade Panama. Even then, Reagan left the White House haunted by the belief that he had intervened too much. His final words in the Oval Office, according to Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater, were “the worst thing I ever did was send those troops to Beirut.”

But if Reagan might have approved of Paul’s reluctance to send troops into combat, Perry is right that in other ways, Paul is hardly Reagan’s foreign-policy clone. Paul, for instance, zealously advocates congressional limitations on a president’s national-security powers. Reagan, by contrast, oversaw the Iran-Contra scheme, which subverted Congress’s efforts to bar aid to Nicaragua’s anti-communist rebels.

Paul likes to quote George Kennan on the importance of distinguishing between those parts of the world where America has vital interests and those where it does not. That wasn’t Reagan’s style. As Perry points out, Reagan “identified Soviet communism as an existential threat to our national security and Western values, and he confronted this threat in every theater” (my emphasis). For Reagan, confronting Soviet communism meant denouncing it rhetorically and arming anti-communist rebels and regimes, not sending U.S. troops into other countries. But he took this approach virtually everywhere. For a Kennanite like Rand Paul, it doesn’t much matter who controls Angola. For Reagan, it absolutely did. Unlike Paul, Reagan also wasn't concerned about how much his foreign policy cost.

So what would a Reaganite strategy against “radical Islam” look like? Based on Reagan’s record, particularly in his first term, it would be expensive, indiscriminate, rhetorically aggressive, hostile to congressional oversight, and cautious about deploying U.S. troops. It would, in other words, be a mess. Reagan was lucky enough to take office after Richard Nixon had exploited the Sino-Soviet rift and stopped treating communism as a unified menace. Even so, Reagan turned nearly every third-world civil war into a showdown between East and West, dramatically escalating the brutality of these conflicts even though struggles in places like Angola and Nicaragua were ultimately irrelevant to the course of the Cold War.

In today’s Middle East, by contrast, the U.S. has not yet found its Nixon. Neither the Bush nor Obama administration has developed a strategy for exploiting the widening Sunni-Shiite divide, and hawks like Perry talk about “Islamic extremism” like pre-Nixon hawks talked about communism: as a unified threat. In this context, Reagan’s strategy of indiscriminate pressure against communism across the globe offers no guide at all. What would it mean in Iraq—the topic of Paul and Perry’s columns—where an Islamist, pro-Iranian Shiite regime is battling Sunni salafists?

What America needs today is not the “strategic clarity” to battle “Islamism” or “jihadism” across the board, as Reagan did, since that would put the United States at war with much of the Middle East. Instead, America needs the strategic clarity to distinguish between those Islamists and jihadists who represent the greatest threat to American interests and lives, and those who—however ideologically noxious—can be our de-facto allies against those who pose the greater threat. The better model is not Reagan but Nixon, who partnered with Mao Zedong to weaken Leonid Brezhnev, or Franklin Roosevelt, who partnered with Joseph Stalin to weaken Adolf Hitler.

Unfortunately for Paul and Perry, Nixon and FDR’s posthumous endorsements don’t carry much weight in a Republican primary. 

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by Brocade

    Best of 2016 Federal Forum eBook

    Earlier this summer, Federal and tech industry leaders convened to talk security, machine learning, network modernization, DevOps, and much more at the 2016 Federal Forum. This eBook includes a useful summary highlighting the best content shared at the 2016 Federal Forum to help agencies modernize their network infrastructure.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    GBC Flash Poll Series: Merger & Acquisitions

    Download this GBC Flash Poll to learn more about federal perspectives on the impact of industry consolidation.

  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    A DevOps Roadmap for the Federal Government

    This GBC Report discusses how DevOps is steadily gaining traction among some of government's leading IT developers and agencies.

  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    Joint Enterprise Licensing Agreements

    Read this eBook to learn how defense agencies can achieve savings and efficiencies with an Enterprise Software Agreement.

  • Sponsored by Cloudera

    Government Forum Content Library

    Get all the essential resources needed for effective technology strategies in the federal landscape.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.