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Gettin’ the Gipper Wrong

Mitt Romney doesn’t know what he's talking about when it comes to Ronald Reagan's foreign policy.

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Earlier this week, Mitt Romney penned an op-ed for the Washington Post on how he would handle Iran’s nuclear program differently than Barack Obama. That his "plan" was basically identical to President Obama’s actual policy is certainly worthy of note — but perhaps even more interesting was Romney’s statement that "the overall rubric of my foreign policy will be the same as Ronald Reagan’s: Namely, "peace through strength."

For those curious as to what a foreign policy agenda might look like with Mitt Romney in the White House such a statement provides helpful insight. If his words are to be believed, he’ll govern like Ronald Reagan did. But there’s one problem: Romney (like many of his fellow Republican presidential aspirants) appears to have very little understanding of what Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy "rubric" actually looked like. If he did, he’d find himself articulating a very different and more pragmatic approach to managing America’s global responsibilities.

To be sure, Romney’s understanding of "peace through strength" is reflected in part by his proposals to build up the U.S. Navy and bolster the current ballistic missile defense system. Here, Romney demonstrates a general grasp of the "military build-up" part of Reagan’s approach to foreign policy — even if the Reagan build-up occurred in a completely different global context (i.e. the existence of a bipolar, superpower-dominated world). But not much else of the way in which Romney talks in this op-ed and elsewhere about foreign policy jibes with Reagan’s approach to the world.

Indeed, Iran is a good place to start. Romney posits that the Iranian hostage crisis ended not because President Jimmy Carter was able to negotiate an agreement to end the impasse — but rather because incoming President Reagan scared the snot out of them. "The Iranians," Romney writes, "well understood that Reagan was serious about turning words into action in a way that Jimmy Carter never was." According to the website Politifact, which interviewed seven scholars of the era in question, this is a "Pants On Fire" lie. Rather, the release of U.S. hostages had almost nothing to do with Iranian fears of what a Reagan presidency would foretell for their nation.

From this re-write of recent history, Romney uses his "Reagan model" to argue that the key for U.S. policy toward Iran today is firm "resolve." But Romney elides over a key historical fact; a central element of Reagan’s policy toward Iran was not resolve but rather negotiation and diplomacy as part of an effort, wait for it, to free U.S. hostages (in this case ones held by Iranian-backed terrorist groups in Lebanon).

Also unmentioned is that, in this episode, Reagan violated another "Romney principle" of foreign policy, namely that the United States must never negotiate with terrorists.

But Romney’s Iran confusion is in keeping with the GOP’s larger misunderstanding about Reagan’s foreign policy record. He was, in reality, the furthest thing from the resolute, unwavering, peace through "military strength" caricature they have created. Sure, there was the first-term Reagan: The strident anti-communist who ratcheted up the anti-Soviet rhetoric, increased defense spending, and supported authoritarian regimes and anti-communist rebels in Latin America, Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and Afghanistan — during perhaps the single most dangerous period of the Cold War.

But that image of Reagan tells a very incomplete tale. He was also the sort of pragmatic commander-in-chief that seems anathema to the modern GOP. He sent troops to Lebanon — and then "cut-and-run" after U.S. Marines were killed by terrorists. He allowed his U.N. ambassador, Jeane Kirkpatrick, to join in a Security Council condemnation of Israel for bombing the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq — an event that if it were to happen today would probably lead to impeachment proceedings against Obama. On immigration, Reagan even allowed for amnesty of millions of illegal immigrants in the United States. Such a proposal today would get one laughed out of Republican presidential debates.

For all of his hawkish image and supposed ability to scare foreign leaders into submission, Reagan only ordered one "major" military intervention in his entire presidency — the invasion of Grenada. In three years, Barack Obama has been a lot more inclined to order U.S. troops into harm’s way than Ronald Reagan was in eight.

Beyond his lack of propensity for foreign military excursions, Reagan’s most telling foreign policy legacy looks very different from the tough guy image that Reagan at times cultivated — and Republicans today appear fixated on. If anything, Reagan was beginning near the end of his first term something of a quasi-peacenik — at least when it came to U.S.-Soviet relations. Of course, Reagan had spent much of his career bashing communism (March 8 is ironically the 29th anniversary of his "Evil Empire" speech). But in 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev ascended to the leadership of the Kremlin, Reagan took his measure of this reformist leader and decided this was someone with whom he could work with to end the Cold War.

Though the two men could not reach agreement at Reykjavik on reducing all nuclear weapons, the very fact that Reagan even entertained the notion is indicative of his pragmatism as a politician and his willingness to sit down with enemies — not at all the sort of unbending image that Republicans today prefer to present as the ideal U.S. foreign policy president. Moreover, Reagan’s near apostasy in Iceland went against the counsel of his closest advisers, many of whom argued — a la Romney — that the United States could show no weakness or give in the face of the enemy. In the end, Reagan’s inclination to tone down Cold War tensions and give Gorbachev the political space to enact serious reforms in the Soviet Union helped far more than his tough talk and military build-up to contribute to the Communist regime’s ultimate demise.

It’s often forgotten today that, when Reagan left office in 1989, he was considered by many in the conservative foreign policy community as something of a disappointment for not more forcefully confronting Gorbachev and the Soviet Union. But Reagan, like so many presidents, found that the tough talk of the campaign trail didn’t sit so well once ensconced in the White House and faced with the difficult and complex set of challenges and competing interests that defines every president’s foreign policy tenure. As Obama noted the other day, it’s easy on the campaign trail for presidential candidates to talk about the "casualness" of war and foreign policy in general. Governing is something else altogether — a lesson that Ronald Reagan understood all too well.

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