Was Reagan the First Neoconservative?

Would Ronald Reagan have invaded Iraq? Would he have declared a doctrine of preventive war to keep any rival nation from rising to where it might challenge us? Would he have crusaded for “world democratic revolution”? Was Reagan the first neoconservative?

This claim has been entered in the wake of his death. Yet, it seems bogus, a patent forgery, a fabricated claim to the Reagan legacy, worked up in the same shop where they made the documents proving Saddam was buying up all the yellowcake in Niger.

Ronald Reagan was one of us, a Cold War anti-Communist union leader in the 1940s when neocons were still in mourning for Leon Trotsky. He was a militant free-market conservative in the 1950s when they were still wild about Harry. He was a fiery Goldwaterite in the 1960s when neocons were going all the way with LBJ.

None can say with certitude how Reagan would have responded to 9-11. Yet, it is hard to believe he would have invaded Iraq, absent hard evidence of Saddam’s involvement in Sept. 11. For, in spite of Reagan’s reputation as a cowboy, prudence, that most conservative of virtues, was a hallmark of his presidency in the Cold War conflict.

In 1981, when Gen. Jaruzelski crushed Solidarity on the orders of Moscow, Reagan refused to put the regime in default on its debts, which would have collapsed the credit rating of the Warsaw Pact.

When he challenged Moscow directly, it was on the battleground of ideas. He declared its ideology, communism, to be an unnatural and evil system, not long for this world, as it denied children of God their human dignity and thus could not and did not work.

When he aided resistance movements in Afghanistan, Angola and Nicaragua, it was on the periphery of Moscow’s empire. And he aligned America again with patriotism, nationalism and anti-imperialism. In Iraq, it is the United States, no matter the purity of the president’s motives, that is perceived as the occupying and imperial power.

While Reagan restored U.S. military might and produced the ships, planes, guns, satellites and smart bombs that won the Gulf War in six weeks, he believed in speaking softly and carrying a big stick.

His strike on Libya in 1986 in retaliation for the bombing of the Berlin discotheque frequented by U.S. soldiers was a measured response. In Grenada, he seized an opportunity to sweep Moscow’s most vulnerable pawn off the board. When the Soviets shot down the Korean airliner, he concluded the action had not been ordered by Moscow and declined to turn the atrocious crime into an international crisis.

When the Soviet Union deployed mobile SS-20 missiles in Eastern Europe, Reagan countered with Pershing and cruise missiles in Western Europe. But when Gorbachev agreed to take down the SS-20s, Reagan agreed to take out the Pershings. He was proud of the first strategic arms reduction treaty of the Cold War. Among the reasons he loved the Strategic Defense Initiative was that he hated nuclear weapons and wanted to see them gone from the face of the earth. Ronald Reagan was antiwar, because Ronald Reagan was pro-life.

And because he had confidence in himself, his convictions and his country, he was always ready to sit down and talk to the adversaries of the United States.

Where the neocons are implacable enemies of the Saudi monarchy, Reagan sold the Saudis AWACS and F-16s. Where the neocons are fearful of the outcome of our clash with radical Islam, Reagan was serenely self-confident of the outcome of our clash with communism. Where they are bellicose and compulsive interventionists, Reagan was cautious.

The one occasion where he did intervene was Lebanon. It was a blunder to put Marines in the middle of that cauldron of hate. But when the U.S. embassy and Beirut barracks were bombed with hundreds dead, Reagan retaliated, but pulled the Marines out.

For there was never a vital U.S. interest in Lebanon. Ronald Reagan had the courage to concede and correct a mistake, but is today denounced for not going in with massive punitive force.

As for the neoconservative demand that we put incessant pressure on dictators to reform or perish, Reagan got along fine with kings, autocrats, generals and presidents-for-life, as long as they took America’s side in the war that mattered: the Cold War. When Congress voted sanctions on South Africa, Reagan vetoed them, the State Department be damned.

He took the world as he inherited it. His mission was simple and clear: Defend the country he loved against the pre-eminent threat of the Soviet Empire, avoid war, for time was our side, and accept the assistance of any friend who would stand with us.

Reagan did not harbor some Wilsonian compulsion to remake the world in the image of Vermont. When Dick Allen, his security adviser, asked him what was his basic strategy for dealing with the Soviet Union, Reagan replied with a smile, “How about, ‘We win, they lose.'”

Author: Patrick J. Buchanan

Patrick Buchanan is the author of Churchill, Hitler, and "The Unnecessary War."