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. 

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