The Republican presidential primary has provided ample display of the party’s penchant for bellicosity in foreign affairs, and last night’s debate was no exception. It’s a posture that’s understandably gotten many liberals worried about a reprisal of the famously interventionist Bush Doctrine. “God help us if any of these jokers makes it into the White House,” wrote Fred Kaplan of Slate after watching the previous GOP’s national security debate.
But maybe liberals shouldn’t fret so much. Yes, imagining any of the various Republican novelty candidates as the next commander-in-chief is a frightening prospect. But if we assume that the establishment candidate, Mitt Romney, wins the nomination, it seems unlikely that he’ll be inclined to reenact the presidency of George W. Bush. Indeed, if you take a close look at his foreign policy positions, you’ll find echoes of another Republican president, one who has lately become much more palatable to Democrats: Ronald Reagan.
In recent years, something of a cottage industry has cropped up promoting President Reagan as a canny and relatively pragmatic practitioner of foreign policy. Among liberal historians like James Mann and Beth Fischer, it has become fashionable to cite different elements of Reagan’s national security platform as a positive example. In his book The Icarus Syndrome, for example, Peter Beinart identified Reagan’s mix of nationalistic swagger and military caution as the perfect antidote to the American tendency toward imperial overstretch, writing that Obama “should learn from Ronald Reagan, who scrupulously avoided Vietnam-type military interventions yet found symbolic ways … to make Americans feel proud and strong.”
These revisionists often emphasize Reagan’s hesitance to employ American troops abroad: withdrawing the Marines from Lebanon in 1983, using limited airstrikes to retaliate against Qaddafi, and refusing conservative demands to intervene against the Sandinistas because “those sons of bitches won’t be happy until we have 25,000 troops in Managua, and I’m not going to do it.” (Grenada was the risk-free exception.) It’s clear that, governing in the shadow of the Vietnam era, Reagan was still haunted by our experiences there. Likewise, any desire Reagan may have had roll back the Soviet Union militarily was limited by his deeply felt fear of nuclear retaliation—a fear that ultimately led him to engage Gorbachev and end the Cold War.
President Obama has assimilated many of these lessons. His desire to eliminate all nuclear weapons chimes with Reagan’s stated desire to do the same. His intervention in Libya displayed echoes Reagan’s hesitance to commit American troops to foreign conflict. And of late, Obama’s China policy has shown a Reaganesque willingness to assume a tough strategic posture while continuing to maintain cordial dialogue.
During this campaign, Romney has been borrowing from Reagan in a different way, evincing a mix of over-the-top symbolic toughness, on one hand, and military caution on the other. Indeed, when it’s come to questions about the actual use of force, Romney has been quite circumspect, even dovish. Earlier this year, he suggested opposition to Obama’s military surge in Afghanistan, saying “one lesson we‘ve learned in Afghanistan is that Americans cannot fight another nation’s war of independence,” and he maintains that he would pull troops from the country by 2014. He has periodically retracted and modulated his most bellicose statements about attacking Iran, instead vowing to send more aircraft carriers to the region and increase sanctions. (Even at his most hawkish, it’s hard to see how Romney’s position on Iran differs in practice from Obama’s vow to keep all options on the table.) And he effectively adopted no position on the Libya intervention, criticizing Obama noncommittally.
Romney has also placed great emphasis on those aspects of the Reagan playbook that Democrats might prefer to ignore—namely, Reagan’s vast binges on defense procurement spending and missile defense, the Manichaean approach to diplomacy that marked Reagan’s first term, and his gauzy emphasis on American greatness. While Obama may be about to oversee a massive reduction of defense triggered by the failure of the Super Committee for deficit reduction, Romney has proposed a “Peace through Strength” defense budget that would increase base defense spending to at least 4 percent of GDP. Romney has also echoed Reagan’s call for a “600-ship Navy” by proposing to “increase the shipbuilding rate from 9 per year to 15.” Like Reagan, he shored up his right-wing foreign policy bona fides by opposing a major treaty—in Romney’s case New START, in Reagan’s the Panama Canal Treaty. And he has doubled down on missile defense, blasting Obama for “convey[ing] an image of American weakness” and “surrender[ing] America’s role in the world.”
Many of these steps could be deeply counterproductive in the current geopolitical context. To take one example, Reagan’s military ramp-up was pursued in the context of an arms race with a major strategic competitor, the Soviet Union. Today, while there might be a case for keeping the defense budget steady, there’s little justification for a build-up on the scale that Romney proposes, and an increase that large could jeopardize future economic growth.
Of course, a lot of Romney’s campaign platform could be pure politics. It’s extremely hard to predict what a given presidential candidate will do on foreign policy based on statements from the campaign. (Just see what became of George W. Bush’s “humble” realism.) Romney may simply be trying to keep his options open, avoiding political pitfalls while substituting fiery rhetoric for any real commitment that might tie his hands in the future—but it’s difficult to shake the feeling that he’d rather be “offshore balancing” than storming the beaches of tyranny a la John McCain.
But if liberals are worried that Romney will come into office and revive the tradition of never-back-down interventionism that defined the presidency of George W. Bush—and reminded them so much of Lyndon Johnson—then they’re almost certainly mistaken. Instead, Romney promises a huge defense build-up and a lot of loud talk about American greatness. He’s gambling that it’ll be enough to soothe a GOP bruised by a decade of war and anxious about the country’s decline. Why not? It worked for Ronald Reagan.
Barron YoungSmith is a former online editor of The New Republic.