Daniel W. Drezner

Just what is a Reaganite foreign policy, anyway?

From James Traub’s latest FP column: I first need to amend something I wrote a few weeks ago. After thefirst Republican presidential debate in New Hampshire, I concluded that the "neo-Reaganite" ethos in foreign policy — uncompromising rhetoric, intervention in the name of "values," democracy promotion — had no followers among the GOP candidates. I should have said ...

From James Traub's latest FP column:

I first need to amend something I wrote a few weeks ago. After thefirst Republican presidential debate in New Hampshire, I concluded that the "neo-Reaganite" ethos in foreign policy -- uncompromising rhetoric, intervention in the name of "values," democracy promotion -- had no followers among the GOP candidates. I should have said that the candidates have calculated that Republican primary voters don't have much of an appetite for that language (nor do many Democrats). In fact, three of the more likely candidates for the nomination -- Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman, and Pawlenty -- all offer some variant of conservative internationalism.

Traub's essay prompted a fair amount of angry pushback from RealClearWorld's Ben Domenech, who accused him of... hmm, let me check... elitist bias, membership in the secret council of elders that rules the world Council on Foreign Relations, and ignorance of the disparate foreign policy views of the GOP candidates. 

From James Traub’s latest FP column:

I first need to amend something I wrote a few weeks ago. After thefirst Republican presidential debate in New Hampshire, I concluded that the "neo-Reaganite" ethos in foreign policy — uncompromising rhetoric, intervention in the name of "values," democracy promotion — had no followers among the GOP candidates. I should have said that the candidates have calculated that Republican primary voters don’t have much of an appetite for that language (nor do many Democrats). In fact, three of the more likely candidates for the nomination — Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman, and Pawlenty — all offer some variant of conservative internationalism.

Traub’s essay prompted a fair amount of angry pushback from RealClearWorld’s Ben Domenech, who accused him of… hmm, let me check… elitist bias, membership in the secret council of elders that rules the world Council on Foreign Relations, and ignorance of the disparate foreign policy views of the GOP candidates. 

While contretemps like these are fun, I wonder if they’re missing the point.  What I’m wondering is whether Traub’s description of a Reaganite foreign policy — "uncompromising rhetoric, intervention in the name of "values," democracy promotion" — is at all accurate.  I mean, it described the neoconservatives or "Neo-Reaganites," but what about Reagan himself? 

Mehdi Hasan writes in the Guardian that Reagan was no Reaganite:

[Reagan] succeeded in avoiding a direct military confrontation. As the liberal US writer Peter Beinart argues in his book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris: "On the ultimate test of hawkdom – the willingness to send US troops into harm’s way – Reagan was no bird of prey. He launched exactly one land war, against Grenada, whose army totalled 600 men. It lasted two days. And his only air war – the 1986 bombing of Libya – was even briefer."

In contrast, consider the blood-spattered record of his successors. George Bush launched Gulf war I and sent troops into Panama and Somalia; Bill Clinton bombed Iraq, Sudan, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia; George W Bush invaded Afghanistan and gave us Gulf war II and the war on terror. And the Nobel peace prize winner Obama had troops surging in Afghanistan, launched a war on Libya and sent drones into Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan.

Lest we forget, after America’s first encounter with jihadist violence in 1983 – when 241 US military personnel were killed – Reagan, to use the disparaging lingo of the neocons, chose to "cut and run". Every single soldier was pulled out of Lebanon within four months. "Perhaps we didn’t appreciate fully enough the depth of the hatred and the complexity of the problems that made the Middle East such a jungle," Reagan later wrote in his memoir, adding: "The irrationality of Middle Eastern politics forced us to rethink our policy there … If that policy had changed towards more of a neutral position … those 241 marines would be alive today."

These are the words not of a hawk but of a dove; of a leader who did not share the neocons’ blind faith in the use of military force to spread freedom.

The truth is that Reagan wasn’t a Reaganite; he ended the cold war through negotiation and with far fewer military interventions than his successors have managed so far in the war on terror. His actions, rather than his occasionally bombastic words, reveal a president more interested in jaw-jaw than war-war.

This is the foreign policy variant of debates that fiscal policy wonks have about Reagan’s record on taxes, in which it could simultaneously be claimed that:  a) Reagan enacted the largest marginal tax rate cuts  in history; and b) Reagan enacted the largest tax increase in history. 

The point is, there’s an awful lot of expanse within Reagan’s actual foreign policy record for a GOP candidate to camp in.  William Kristol, Robert Kagan and others who brand the term "Reaganite" to equal neoconservatism do a disservice to history. 

Here’s my question, however.  It could still be argued that neoconservatism was the primary theme of Reagan’s presidency, even if it doesn’t match Traub’s description of it.  So, dear readers, I’ll put it to you:  what were the key themese of Reaganite foreign policy? 

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. He blogged regularly for Foreign Policy from 2009 to 2014. Twitter: @dandrezner

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