What Would Reagan Do in Iraq?

Rand Paul and Rick Perry each claim to be the Gipper’s heir in the Middle East. Who's right?
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In today’s Republican Party, the most coveted endorsement a presidential candidate can receive is posthumous: from Ronald Reagan. Thus, it’s no surprise that potential contenders Rick Perry and Rand Paul are waging a rhetorical struggle over whose foreign-policy views the Gipper would prefer.

Last month, Paul opined in The Wall Street Journal that, “Though many claim the mantle of Ronald Reagan on foreign policy, too few look at how he really conducted it.” The Kentucky senator went on to argue that Reagan was highly cautious about sending U.S. troops into harm’s way, and that in that spirit, Republicans nowadays should resist renewed military intervention in Iraq. In a reply last Friday in The Washington Post, Perry accused Paul of having “conveniently omitted Reagan’s long internationalist record of leading the world with moral and strategic clarity.” Reagan, Perry insisted, “identified Soviet communism as an existential threat to our national security and Western values, and he confronted this threat in every theater”—meaning Republicans should be more willing to confront the jihadist threat in Iraq and beyond. In Politico on Monday, Paul volleyed back, declaring that “some of Reagan’s Republican champions today praise his rhetoric but forget his actions.”

They’re both right. As Paul suggests, Reagan was far more skeptical of direct military intervention than today’s conservatives remember. He sent U.S. ground troops into harm’s way twice in eight years: to invade Grenada, a country with roughly 500 troops, and to serve as peacekeepers in Lebanon, a mission he quickly aborted after a Hezbollah bomber killed 241 of them. The year after those interventions, as Paul notes, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger laid out a series of tests for military force—later popularized by Colin Powell—that essentially ruled out any intervention where public support, and decisive victory, could not be guaranteed. It was on that basis that in his final years in office, Reagan fended off members of his administration—led by a young assistant secretary of state named Elliott Abrams—who wanted to invade Panama. Even then, Reagan left the White House haunted by the belief that he had intervened too much. His final words in the Oval Office, according to Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater, were “the worst thing I ever did was send those troops to Beirut.”

But if Reagan might have approved of Paul’s reluctance to send troops into combat, Perry is right that in other ways, Paul is hardly Reagan’s foreign-policy clone. Paul, for instance, zealously advocates congressional limitations on a president’s national-security powers. Reagan, by contrast, oversaw the Iran-Contra scheme, which subverted Congress’s efforts to bar aid to Nicaragua’s anti-communist rebels.

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Peter Beinart is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and National Journal, an associate professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York, and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

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