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Reagan, Iraq, and Neoconservatism

There are several major deficiencies -- even logical gaps -- in the Halper-Clarke thesis that Ronald Reagan would not have invaded Iraq ("Neoconservatism Is Not Reaganism," TAS, April 2004, and posted yesterday as "Would Ronald Reagan Have Attacked Iraq?"). The first and most obvious is that the authors fail to deal with the realities that faced President Bush immediately after the attacks on September 11, 2001.

It is difficult enough to demonstrate that one president would have acted differently than another under roughly the same circumstances; it is virtually impossible when the circumstances are so different as to be without precedent. Suffice it to say that Ronald Reagan never saw a day as president in which the United States was attacked on its own soil, by suicidal maniacs, in service of a lunatic ideology. Reagan, like all his post-war predecessors, faced in the Soviet Union an expansionary bureaucratic state which could be deterred by military power and persuaded to negotiate by well-understood principles and incentives of national interest. On this basis alone, the Halper-Clarke analysis of Reagan should be dismissed.

But leaving this huge lacuna aside, the authors then lapse into a wholly hypothetical discussion of whether Ronald Reagan was a neoconservative -- an effort that would have been worth undertaking if they had made any effort to define neoconservatism. Instead, what we get is a description of a worldview that seems to bear no coherent relationship to neoconservatism, which the authors portray as an ideology of compulsive militarism and interventionism. Take this fevered paragraph, for example:

We detect a deep pessimism among neoconservatives about human nature and human society -- and one which is much darker than the skepticism about human perfectibility often found in conservative thinking. The here-and-now world in which neoconservatives see themselves is a world of Hobbesian state-of-nature primitivism and conspiracy where perpetual, militarized competition for ascendancy is the norm, and moderation -- even of the sort envisioned by Hobbes -- by the community of nations is impossible…[it continues on like this for another 50 words or so]…and where adversaries (defined as defeatist and more broadly as anyone who does not share the neoconservative worldview) must be preemptively crushed lest they crush you.

However, it's not very difficult to find a coherent description of neoconservatism if the authors had wanted one. One of the best and most lucid was given by Charles Krauthammer in his Irving Kristol lecture at the annual dinner of the American Enterprise Institute in February 2004. There, Krauthammer described neoconservatism (renaming it Democratic Globalism) in the following terms:

This conservative alternative to realism is often lazily and invidiously called neoconservatism, but that is a very odd name for a school whose major proponents in the world today are George W. Bush and Tony Blair -- if they are neoconservatives, then Margaret Thatcher was a liberal. There's nothing neo about Bush and there's nothing con about Blair.

Yet they are the principal advocates of what might be called democratic globalism, a foreign policy that defines the national interest not as power but as values, and that identifies one supreme value, what John Kennedy called "the success of liberty." As President Bush put it in his speech at Whitehall last November: "The United States and Great Britain share a mission in the world beyond the balance of power or the simple pursuit of interest. We seek the advance of freedom and the peace that freedom brings."

Beyond power. Beyond interest. Beyond interest defined as power. That is the credo of democratic globalism.

If this doesn't sound much like the Hobbesian world confected by Halper and Clarke, it's no wonder. What they describe as neoconservatism is a fictitious straw man, developed apparently to deny neoconservatives the right to claim the mantle of Ronald Reagan. The syllogism is as follows: Some people who identify themselves as neoconservatives (William Kristol, Robert Kagan, and Richard Perle) have called their view Neo-Reaganism; these neoconservatives are militaristic interventionists; following their counsel caused George W. Bush to invade Iraq; Reagan was not a militaristic interventionist; therefore, Reagan was not a neoconservative and would not have invaded Iraq.

But we can put this obviously flawed analysis to one side and consider seriously the question whether Reagan would have invaded Iraq. To do that, we have to place Reagan in the same position as Bush on September 12, 2001, the day after the attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. We have already noted that Reagan faced a wholly different world than Bush -- a world in which the United States dealt with nation-states that could be deterred by military force and compelled to negotiate on the basis of national interests.

In this world, Reagan was a superb negotiator, but he negotiated from the strength provided by his unprecedented peacetime buildup of military force. Looking back on the 1980s, it seems far more likely that Reagan seldom used force (Grenada is a small exception) because he could achieve his ends without it, and little evidence, despite the Halper-Clarke analysis, that he was averse to military action where it was truly necessary in the national interests of the United States.

Again, we need not be detained by this question. On September 12, 2001, the world had changed. Even a president who was averse to the use of force would have had to reconsider his position. The first question we should ask about Reagan in this context is whether it seems reasonable to conclude that he would have attacked Afghanistan. Looking at his options -- the same as Bush's options -- it seems virtually certain that he would have done so. Once it was established that Afghanistan was the haven and training ground for al Qaeda, and that al Qaeda was the sponsor of the attack, could any president have stood idly by? It would be hard to imagine even a Dukakis or McGovern doing this, let alone Reagan.

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Letter to the Editor

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Foreign Policy, Islam, Law, Military, Iraq, United Nations, Africa, Communism, Conservatism, Neoconservatism, Oil, Unions

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