Worldviews: Reagan and Bush
WASHINGTON — President Bush's vision for America's role in the world borrows crucial elements from the playbook of Ronald Reagan - but it differs in important ways, as well.
If nothing else, Mr. Bush's rhetoric about foreign policy is ringingly Reaganesque. It's no accident that Bush's phrase "axis of evil" echoes Mr. Reagan's description of the Soviet Union as the "evil empire."
In a West Point speech in 2002, Bush praised Reagan and John F. Kennedy by name for the "moral clarity" of their vision. "We are in a conflict between good and evil, and America will call evil by its name," said Bush.
But over the course of his two terms in office Reagan was also pragmatic about conducting the nation's business abroad. His foreign policy legacy involved more than confrontation - as his intensive arms negotiations with the "evil empire" showed.
In the end Reagan both talked tough and acted cautiously, even conventionally, in some regions. He was not altogether the bold cowboy claimed as an inspiration by the neoconservatives that today hold some of the most powerful US foreign policy posts.
"Neoconservatism is not updated Reaganism," concluded a recent article in the political journal American Spectator, by Stefan Halper, a security official in three GOP administrations.
In some measure, it shouldn't be surprising that President Bush should look back past the administration of his own father to that of Reagan for inspiration in foreign policy.
Many key officials of the Bush White House have Reagan ties. Confronted by the events of Sept. 11, they reached back and recalled what they felt were some of the signature aspects of the Reagan presidency: Its black-and-white view of the world, and its willingness to use military force.
It's difficult to remember today, when US troops are fighting throughout the crescent of the Middle East, but Reagan's invasion of Grenada in 1983 was widely seen as a reversal of a post-Vietnam reluctance to get involved in foreign wars.
Reagan's sometimes fierce anticommunist rhetoric was frightening to some - but bracing to others, who thought the nation had drifted into a morass of self-doubt and moral relativism. In a broadcast interview in 2002, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz said that the staunchness with which President Bush had identified an "axis of evil" was simply a reflection of the "clarity" that Reagan had introduced into the cold war.
Some critics of the Bush administration's approach to Iraq say that this comparison is strained, however. Reagan was ratcheting up the rhetoric, true, but he was also the heir to decades of settled policy of containment of the Soviet Union. In its key elements, that was a policy he continued. "The first thing to remember about American policy towards the Soviet Union is that we never directly invaded another nation under Soviet control," wrote former Democratic presidential candidate and retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark in a recent issue of The Washington Monthly.
The academic consensus today is that Reagan did indeed make an important contribution to the end of the cold war. It's hard to argue otherwise - the Berlin Wall fell not even a year after he left office. Since then the testimony of former Soviet officials has confirmed Washington's belief that Reagan's military spend-up daunted the USSR, and helped undermine its regime. "Reagan bolstered the US military might to ruin the Soviet economy, and he achieved his goal," said Gennady Gerasimov, who was the top spokesman for the Soviet Foreign Ministry during the 1980s.
But Reagan's Soviet policy was a multi-faceted one that aimed to develop opposition to the regime within itself. Again, it drew on the containment policies practiced from Harry Truman on. And in the latter portion of his time in office, after Mikhail Gorbachev took power, Reagan negotiated eagerly in an effort to find some common ground for arms reductions.
The Reykjavik summit remains an extraordinary moment of superpower diplomacy, the only time when a US president at least appeared to seriously contemplate striking a deal to eliminate virtually all nuclear weapons.
Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, "star wars," helped convince Soviet leaders they couldn't match US technology. But it was also, in a way, utopian - Reagan spoke often of sharing its technology with the USSR. It was an offer he appeared to genuinely believe in.
"Utopian" is not a word often used to describe Bush's foreign policy, however. The Bush administration sees a threat to the nation's very existence in terrorism, and has vowed to use all means at its disposal to defeat it. Due to circumstances, and perhaps temperament, it is a darker vision of the world than the one Reagan appeared to hold.
Reagan's supporters felt he appealed to people's hopes, not their fears. "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," writes ex-GOP official Mr. Halper with his coauthor former British diplomat Jonathan Clarke.