What Would Reagan Do?

by , June 10, 2004

I was nonplussed by all the Reagan encomia until I caught his address to the ’92 GOP convention on C-Span late Sunday night. He was showing his age, but that essential glimmer still came through.

I was actually there in Houston when Reagan spoke, though I don’t remember if I was in the Astrodome that night. My mother, a Bush Sr. delegate, was certainly on the floor. My family is a citadel of Gipperdom, right down to the framed picture of Ronnie in the living room. My father supported Reagan’s unsuccessful bids in ‘68 and ‘76. He was also the sole member of his delegation at the 1980 convention to vote against George H.W. Bush for vice president. Imagine all he might have spared us had he won over a majority of his fellows. But I’ll get to alternative histories later …

I’m certainly not going to try to appropriate Reagan as an antiwar icon; his record puts the lie to that. Yet, despite several unfortunate interventions – and the blowback those interventions nourished – Reagan’s record also gives the lie to his appropriation by the neocons. For while they shriek of awful tomorrows that can only be avoided by sacrificing freedom for power, Reagan spoke calmly and confidently of the better days to come if only we believed in the power of freedom. The man had his shortcomings, to be sure, but his successors – especially the last two – have made him look like a giant. As Tom Engelhardt at the leftist Nation Institute put it, summarizing exactly what libertarians should be saying:

“At least Reagan promised a new ‘morning in America’ (whatever he actually delivered). It’s striking that the Bush administration in its speeches promises only a drumbeat of fear, terror, and war to eternity.”

Oh, the neocons will say, our “axis of evil” routine is a riff on his “evil empire” bit. He’s ours, he really is! But while Reagan (correctly) denounced the evil of the Soviet government – and please note, Messrs. Boot and Ferguson, his pairing of evil and empire, as if the two terms have a certain affinity – he never abandoned the possibility of a dialogue with Soviet leaders. He never used the enemy’s alleged evil as an excuse to substitute force for negotiation. And for all you leftists who trash Reagan and canonize Gorbachev, let it be known that Gorbachev’s moderation would have been impossible were it not for Reagan’s. The Soviet hardliners would have sooner ousted Gorbachev and thawed the Cold War considerably than meekly abided the Bush Doctrine of preemption.

Even Reagan’s misguided Star Wars scheme was far more benign in his thinking than it is for the neocons who champion it today. Missile defense is wishful thinking either way, but for Reagan, it was, I believe, an alternative to the insanity of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), a genuine effort to free both West and East from the specter of nuclear holocaust. When Gorbachev balked at the idea, fearing the game theory implications of a shootout with men in bulletproof vests, Reagan offered to share the technology. Can you imagine the neocons offering to share such a thing with even the Canadians? Hell, David Frum, Mark Steyn, and Conrad Black are out picketing at the Pentagon right now, outraged that the U.S. hasn’t bombed their native country yet. They dream of missile defense in offensive terms – the removal of a major restraint on their aggression.

And while we’re imagining things, can you picture Reagan’s ostensible heir, George W. Bush, extemporaneously invoking Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, and Frederic Bastiat? More importantly, can you imagine Dubya handling the (grossly inflated) Soviet threat back in the ’80s? The Earth would be pockmarked with nuclear craters from Moscow to Miami.

Yet the neocons speak of their “neo-Reaganite” foreign policy as if their current puppet is the Second Coming, which implies an alternative history that demands a response. Would Reagan be doing what Bush is doing now? It’s impossible to say, of course, but I doubt it. Had Reagan continued in office after January 1989, the first Gulf War almost certainly would not have happened. On the practical side, it would have been very difficult for him to justify turning on Saddam Hussein so quickly. And though Reagan may not have resisted the temptation to meddle in the Iraq/Kuwait affair, there’s no doubt that, unlike Bush Sr., he would have made his objections plain before Saddam invaded.

But Reagan had better reasons to shun that war and the rest of the neocon project. With the Soviet empire gone and the MAD nightmare over, Reagan would have taken his victory lap. Instead of immediately turning his guns on Panama and Iraq, he would have wanted to let America – and the rest of the world – savor the new day. What was the point of all that strength if it didn’t buy a moment’s peace?

Yes, he had his faults – plenty of ‘em – but he was far different from the gang that has claimed his mantle since. As he said in that ’92 speech,

“Whatever else history may say about me when I’m gone, I hope it will record that I appealed to your best hopes, not your worst fears; to your confidence, not to your doubts.”

Could Bush, Cheney, or Ashcroft make it through that sentence without laughing?

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