Tear Down This Wall (of Fame): Reagan’s Overrated Foreign Policy

A visit to the remote Reagan ranch in the mountains near Santa Barbara, Calif., on the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birth set me thinking about Reagan’s foreign policy record.

Conservatives have venerated Reagan for limiting government and winning the Cold War – alleged accomplishments that were either untrue or vastly exaggerated, respectively. Although various strains of conservatism all try to say that Reagan was one of them, his policies were neoconservative. William F. Buckley laid out the neoconservative philosophy in 1955 by saying that the primary focus of U.S. policy should be defeating the Soviet Union, and if that meant bigger government at home, so be it. Reagan’s stated goals upon taking office were to increase defense spending, cut taxes, and balance the budget. Of course, the third goal was last and least, because to do so while doing the first two would require deep cuts in domestic spending, including entitlement programs. That never happened.

In the end, Reagan accomplished the first two objectives, but predictably was an abysmal failure at the third one. Despite his rhetoric of limiting government, Reagan presided over an increase in federal spending as a portion of GDP during his two terms. This contrasts with the administrations of Dwight Eisenhower and Bill Clinton, which reduced such spending as a percentage of GDP. Clinton even reduced federal spending per capita, the only president since Harry Truman to do so. Reagan actually patented the fake tax cut – slashing taxes without cutting spending, thus creating huge budget deficits – that has done so well since for the Republican Party. If spending is not cut, either taxes have to be raised, money borrowed (resulting in future tax increases and interest payments), or money printed. Reagan had to do all three to battle looming deficits.

But wasn’t all this just the price needed to win the Cold War? The Soviet Union gave up its empire and then dissolved shortly after Reagan left office. Applying an insight from social science, however, the apparent relationship is a correlation, not cause and effect. Conservatives, even though Reagan’s policies weren’t all that conservative in a traditional sense, have just assumed that Reagan scared the Soviets into capitulation with his over-the-top Cold War rhetoric, increases in defense spending, and fanciful Star Wars missile defense program.

Yet the American elite, and especially neoconservatives, regularly exaggerate the effect that U.S. policy has on other countries. Most great social transformations are internally driven. For example, the end of South African apartheid is regularly attributed to mild international economic sanctions – once again erroneously turning correlation into cause and effect – when most of the factors driving it were internal to South Africa. American impotency in the recent Egyptian revolution is another example of internal developments trumping attempted external influence. America even has trouble reining in its client rulers after invading countries, installing them, and propping them up with U.S. occupation forces – as Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrate. So conservatives insist that Reagan collapsed a superpower with a little aggressive rhetoric and a plan for a missile system, which was ridiculed at the time by experts, the media, and much of the world’s public. Furthermore, Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader, realized that he could build offensive missiles more rapidly and cheaply than the U.S. could ever build the defenses and undertook little effort to counter the American program. And Reagan’s overheated anti-Soviet rhetoric almost led to accidental nuclear war in 1983 during the NATO Able Archer exercise, the second most dangerous episode of the Cold War, eclipsed only by the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Most likely, the non-viable communist economic system – slammed in the 1980s by the plunging price of oil, the only thing the Soviets produced that anyone wanted to buy – would have collapsed anyway.

But if Reagan did indeed win the Cold War with heightened rhetoric and more defense spending, he at least must share the glory with every president since Truman. Most of those chief executives had harsh words for the Soviets, and U.S. defense spending had been high since the Korean War. And Reagan did not originate the effort to roll back communism. For example, it was a goal of Dwight Eisenhower, and Jimmy Carter began the effort to compel a Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.

In fact, instead of wasting added money on defense, perhaps the U.S. could have overextended and exhausted the Soviet Empire even faster if it had helped defend Western Europe and East Asia – the world’s centers of economic power – but let the Soviets take over and pay to administer economic basket cases, such as Vietnam, Angola, and Afghanistan.

As for Reagan’s policies against terrorism, they were a disaster. He helped make new enemies that made use of anti-U.S. terror (Libya and al-Qaeda), retreated in the face of terrorists (Hezbollah in Lebanon), aided a state sponsor of terrorism (Iraq), and appeased a state sponsor of terrorism by trying the bribe of illegal weapons sales (Iran). In the last case, the profits from violating a criminal statute were transferred secretly, illegally, and unconstitutionally to the Nicaraguan Contra guerrillas in defiance of congressional prohibition. This Iran-Contra scandal was the most serious in U.S. history, even eclipsing the obstruction of justice during Watergate, because the scheme circumvented Congress’s primary function under the Constitution – the power to decide funding for U.S. government activities.

The only foreign policy accomplishment that Reagan had was the Intermediate Nuclear Force (INF) Treaty, which eliminated nuclear missiles in Europe.

Thus, Reagan’s vaunted foreign policy collapses under close scrutiny, and his profligate spending and illegal and unconstitutional behavior in the Iran-Contra scandal should raise enormous questions about his iconic presidency.

Author: Ivan Eland

Ivan Eland is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute and author of Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty.