Reaganism versus ‘Neo-Reaganism’

The death of Ronald Reagan will no doubt prompt panegyrics from all the most prominent bastions of neoconservative thought – National Review, the Weekly Standard, Commentary, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, etc. ad nauseam. They will claim him for their own, aver that they are upholding his legacy, and give him an honored place in the neocon pantheon a few notches above Winston Churchill and just below Abraham Lincoln. And there is just enough truth to their claim to make it all sound so very plausible, at least on the surface.

After all, it was in Reagan’s first term that the neocons achieved a measure of influence in the U.S. government, and began their long march through the national security bureaucracy. As John Judis succinctly summarizes their history and outlook: “They were Cold War liberals who searched for a Truman in the 1970s and found Reagan.”

Ideologues are in the business of myth-making, and the iconization of Ronald Reagan as the progenitor of neoconservative foreign policy prescriptions began well before his death, in 1996, when William Kristol and Robert Kagan titled their post-cold war manifesto “Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy.” “Benevolent global hegemony” – and nothing less – is the announced goal of this “neo”-Reaganism. “Peace through strength” became “peace through domination.” “Trust but verify” was transmuted into “preempt and lie.” Lots of conservatives noticed this revisionism, and it annoyed them at the time, but then came the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when neocon ideologues such as Richard Perle grabbed the banner of Reaganism and tried to run with it, arguing that Reagan would have endorsed the invasion of Iraq and claiming the Gipper’s imprimatur for the neoconservative program of unrelenting bellicosity. The Rush Limbaugh know-nothings nodded and slipped back into their habitually narcotized state, while the War Party wrapped itself in the “Reaganite” flag, and the neoconservative movement enjoyed a post-9/11 boom.

But as Stefan Halper, who served in three Republican administrations, and is a senior foreign policy advisor to the Republican National Committee – and Jonathan Clarke, a policy analyst at the Cato Institute, pointed out in a piece that appeared last month, the neocon-ization of Ronald Wilson Reagan amounts to a radical rewriting of history:

“The implication is that Reagan too would have attacked Iraq. But would he? We make the case that the neoconservative interpretation of Reagan’s foreign policy is, to be blunt, a travesty of Reagan’s record. Moreover, Reagan’s historic achievement – the defeat of Soviet communism – was secured largely because he rejected neoconservative policy recommendations, not because he embraced them.”

It was Reagan, Halper and Clarke remind us, who reached an accommodation with the Soviet Union on arms control, moving in the opposite direction from the hardline policies advocated by the warlike neocons – who, right up to 1990, were still warning that Gorbachev and the Commies were pulling off an elaborate trick to snare the West and crack down on Soviet dissidents. Far from functioning as loyal Reaganites, the neocons, in their characteristically factional and manipulative fashion, constantly criticized Reagan in terms that would normally be reserved for one’s bitter enemies.

In 1981, Norman Podhoretz, the neocons’ scold-in-chief, berated Reagan for “following a strategy of helping the Soviet Union stabilize its empire” – because the President wouldn’t impose an economic embargo on the long-suffering Polish people following the Commie crackdown on Solidarity.

Polish communism fell, anyway, and, not too long afterward, so did the rest of the Evil Empire, but even as it was decomposing the neocons refused to believe it. In 1983, Podhoretz, upset by Reagan’s overtures to the Soviets, accused the Reagan administration of committing “appeasement by any other name.” Two years later, the Committee for the Free World, founded by Podhoretz and Midge Decter, his wife, featured Michael Ledeen, Richard Perle, Elliott Abrams, Sovietologist Richard Pipes, and neocon “godfather” Irving Kristol at a conference, the main theme of which was the inability and apparent unwillingness of the Reagan administration to roll back Soviet influence. Even as the Kremlin was imploding, and Reagan was negotiating the terms of Gorbachev’s surrender, the CFW group, including Norm and Midge, spent two days complaining that Reagan had gone soft on Communism.

Reagan had gone into retirement and retreated into a merciful dimness by the time the neocons achieved their present apotheosis. But Podhoretz kept up the attack. In an essay in Commentary that wondered aloud under what circumstances George W. Bush would “go wobbly” and deviate from the neoconservative timeline – which demanded not only an invasion of Iraq, but also attacks on Syria, Lebanon, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, to start with – Podhoretz kvetched that previous Republican Presidents had sometimes failed to follow neocon prescriptions to the letter – and even, as in the case of Bush ’41, defied them outright, by refusing to march on Baghdad in the first Gulf War. In Podhoretz’s long litany of betrayals, Reagan figures prominently:

“Just hours after Ronald Reagan’s inauguration in January 1981, the hostages were finally released by the Iranians, evidently because they feared that the hawkish new President might actually launch a military strike against them. Yet if they had foreseen what was coming under Reagan, they would not have been so fearful. In April 1983, Hizbullah – an Islamic terrorist organization nourished by Iran and Syria – sent a suicide bomber to explode his truck in front of the American embassy in Beirut, Lebanon. Sixty-three employees, among them the Middle East CIA director, were killed and another 120 wounded. But Reagan sat still.

“Six months later, in October 1983, another Hizbullah suicide bomber blew up an American barracks in the Beirut airport, killing 241 U.S. Marines in their sleep and wounding another 81. This time Reagan signed off on plans for a retaliatory blow, but he then allowed his Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger, to cancel it (because it might damage our relations with the Arab world, of which Weinberger was always tenderly solicitous). Shortly thereafter, the President pulled the Marines out of Lebanon.

“Having cut and run in Lebanon in October, Reagan again remained passive in December, when the American embassy in Kuwait was bombed. Nor did he hit back when, hard upon the withdrawal of the American Marines from Beirut, the CIA station chief there, William Buckley, was kidnapped by Hizbullah and then murdered. Buckley was the fourth American to be kidnapped in Beirut, and many more suffered the same fate between 1982 and 1992 (though not all died or were killed in captivity).”

He then segues into a denunciation of the Iran-Contra deal, neglecting to note that one of the chief figures in his “Committee for a Free World,” Michael Ledeen, served as an essential go-between with the Iranian mullahs: and, somehow, Israel’s key role in that affair also goes without mention.

Reagan was soft on terrorism, according to Podhoretz, and stands condemned as an “appeaser” – yet Field Marshall Podhoretz never explains why American Marines were in Beirut to begin with, nor what the American interest in such a presence was. Short of invading and permanently occupying Lebanon, one wonders what Reagan could have done except “cut and run” – especially given the militarily untenable position of U.S. Marines barracked like sitting ducks in a sea of perpetual hostility.

This, of course, is precisely the position U.S. troops in Iraq find themselves, much to their dismay, but to Podhoretz such matters as high casualties hardly matter. What’s important is waging what he and other prominent neocons characterize as “World War IV” – an all-out decades-long struggle against Islam, which has now taken the place of Communism in the neocons’ international rogues gallery.

That the neocons are claiming Reagan as one of their own is just the most recent example of a series of wholesale appropriations that they have so far managed to pull off, starting with their organizational and financial control over the “official” conservative movement institutions, the big philanthropic foundations and thinktanks, and including all of the major magazines and newspapers generally considered to be on the Right (National Review, the Washington Times, the New York Post, etc.). But if you look at the record, another story emerges: the neocons, given an entrée to government circles for the first time, responded to Reagan by relentlessly harping on his alleged shortcomings and criticizing him bitterly when he failed to conform to the “correct” line.

Halper and Clarke make a good case that the neocons are very selective when they point to the invasion of Grenada and U.S. military adventurism in Central America as the essence of the “Reaganite” foreign policy legacy, while ignoring what doesn’t fit into their mythological narrative. The Halper-Clarke piece, which first appeared in The American Spectator and was widely reprinted, also points to a difference in tone and style between the bright optimism of Reagan’s “morning in America” “shining-city-on-a-hill” rhetorical style and the dark vision of the neocons:

“When the technical analysis of Reagan’s foreign policy philosophy and execution is laid aside, perhaps the more fundamental difference between him and today’s neoconservatives is one of temperament. As George Shultz records, Reagan was optimistic; he ‘appealed to people’s best hopes, not their fears.’ By contrast, the neoconservative vision is one that has mobilized fear as a binding political adhesive in support of a one-dimensional approach to global affairs.

“We detect a deep pessimism among neoconservatives about human nature and human society – and one that is much darker than the skepticism about human perfectibility often found in conservative thinking. They reject the notion – implicit in Reagan’s striving for accord with the Soviet Union – that democracy can be brought to nondemocratic countries other than at the point of the bayonet or on the back of a Tomahawk cruise missile.”

The death of Reaganism preceded the demise of its founder by quite a few years, but the flood of retrospectives and film clips over the weekend is enough to make any libertarian nostalgic for those halcyon days of the pre-9/11 era, when conservatives actually railed against Big Government and the evils of centralized authority.

How we reconcile this with the neoconservative program as advanced in, say, An End to Evil, a recent screed by Richard Perle and David Frum, in which they advocate a national ID card, and the organization of a secret political police to spy on Americans, is a question we’ll leave for the cleverer neocons to clear up. Suffice to say that one can hardly conceive of Reagan condoning the “PATRIOT” Act.

Reaganism was a direct outgrowth of Goldwaterism, and good old Barry would surely have looked on the neo-authoritarian stance of today’s “conservatives” with horror, and, along with Bob Barr, joined hands with the American Civil Liberties Union in opposition.

So, I suspect, would Reagan, 9/11 or no 9/11. There was real passion and conviction in his voice when he denounced the evils inherent in government authority, and that was one of the real problems being a Libertarian Party activist in the 1980s – the Gipper was borrowing our rhetoric, and even some aspects of our program (without, of course, following through). The genial, inspiring, funny GOP standard-bearer was stealing our thunder, dammit, and charming the country into believing that he would really roll back the power of government in America and set us all free.

The contrast with today’s conservative movement – and with George W. Bush – could not be more dramatic. Instead of radical anti-government rhetoric, we hear paeans to the power and majesty of the State – coupled with record Republican spending proposals. Instead of a Great Communicator exuding benevolence, optimism, and a vision of America leading by example – that “shining city on a hill” – we have a Major Misspeaker emanating a fearful truculence, and a new foreign policy in which America leads by the edge of its sword.

That is why the remembrances of Reagan take on such a poignant quality, at least for me. Reagan, in his heyday, represented the spirit of a more innocent time. The neocons, although they had wormed their way into the Reagan coalition, had yet to amass the power and seniority they have now, in government and in the conservative movement. The man who, in effect, stopped World War III, by making the first moves toward comprehensive nuclear disarmament, and successfully negotiating the peaceful surrender of the Soviet bloc, would almost certainly not have started World War IV – and the neocons know it, which is why they spent a good part of their energies attacking him.

Reaganism was a product of the cold war, as was the post-World War II conservative movement. The Old Right of the pre-war Saturday Evening Post, and the ferociously antiwar Chicago Tribune, which crystallized in the America First Committee, survived the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, but it was the cold war that really killed it. Such formerly key figures as John T. Flynn and Garet Garrett were marginalized, and a coven of ex-Communist and ex-Trotskyist intellectuals, who were instrumental in the founding of National Review magazine, was brought into prominence. Anti-communism trumped the old libertarian anti-imperialist impulses of the Old Right, and gave way to a tripartite coalition of anti-Communists, “free market” conservatives of a libertarian bent, and traditionalists such as Russell Kirk, the forerunners of today’s “paleoconservatives.” It was this coalition that built the Goldwater movement, energized by the two contradictory streams of conservative passion: a driving desire to confront the Soviet Union militarily, and an equally passionate hatred of centralized authority in all its forms, but especially that centered in Washington, D.C.

Reagan, in his early incarnation as a conservative luminary campaigning for Goldwater, embodied one aspect of the conservative passion, in 1964, when he warned his audience that his remarks would prove “controversial,” and boldly declared : “I make no apology for this.” The time had come to ask ourselves “if we still know the freedoms intended for us by the Founding Fathers,” or “whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.”

It is a question, no doubt, that has occurred to many Iraqis today, who yearn for a choice not an echo when it comes to choosing their own leaders, but Americans, too, will find an eerie prescience in Reagan’s words, uttered 40 years ago:

“You and I are told we must choose between a left or right, but I suggest there is no such thing as a left or right. There is only an up or down. Up to man’s age-old dream-the maximum of individual freedom consistent with order or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism. Regardless of their sincerity, their humanitarian motives, those who would sacrifice freedom for security have embarked on this downward path.

Reagan – a supporter of the emerging American police state? It’s unimaginable.

On the world scene, he had a vision of peaceful transformation that was, in many ways, the polar opposite of the neoconservative hegemonism that dominates the foreign policy councils of this administration:

“… We are for aiding our allies by sharing our material blessings with nations which share our fundamental beliefs, but we are against doling out money government to government, creating bureaucracy, if not socialism, all over the world.”

Let the Coalition Provisional Authority – and the “conservative” globalists over at the American Enterprise Institute, who supply a good number of the CPA’s central planners – take note.

Reaganism was the product of the cold war, and had reached the end of its tether by the time the Berlin Wall came tumbling down. The “national greatness” rhetoric of the neocons, and the invention of “Big Government conservatism,” wiped out whatever remnants of old-style Reaganism still persisted on the right. The “neo-Reaganism” of Kristol, Kagan, and their fellow world “liberators” is Reagan without the benevolence, without any of the libertarian elements, reduced only to a willingness to waste multi-billions on a military build-up and a reflexive militancy in foreign affairs.

Reagan’s orgiastic military spending fatally undercut his economic and tax-cutting efforts. Oh, but this is what defeated the Soviet Union, the neocons aver: we forced them to spend themselves into penury. Yet we suffered from the same effects: the unprecedented spending was a disastrous drain that eventually led to a major downturn. In any case, the Soviets would have collapsed on their own, perhaps sooner, since socialism – as conservatives like Reagan used to proclaim endlessly, and quite correctly – cannot work, and must in the end be impaled on its own inner contradictions.

Be that as it may: on the foreign policy front Reagan was hardly the warmonger he’s made out to be by the left as well as the neocon right. But it’s on the domestic side that I feel the most nostalgia for Reagan and that whole era, which rings, at least in memory, with the cadences of a libertarian distrust – an outright hostility – to government power. The attempt to liquidate the real legacy of Ronald Reagan – the ardent Goldwaterite who extolled liberty and disdained mere security – and portray him as a warmongering neocon, once again underscores the Soviet style of our “ex“-leftist neocons, who have an uncanny ability to rewrite history as quickly as it unfolds.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].