Reagan and Neoconservatism: Then and Now


At first sight the foreign policies of the Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush administrations have little in common, besides their speechwriters' apparent obsession with Evil abroad - be it in the form of an Empire or an Axis. Reagan declared no large-scale wars - in fact the sordid and almost farcical intervention in Grenada was the closest the U.S. military got to a real shooting match; he preferred to support foreign state and non-state actors who could apply military or paramilitary force as proxies. Despite Reagan's constant flow of anti-Communist speeches, he was willing to engage, and even negotiate with, the Soviet leaders of his day.

Although Reagan's supporters credit him with "winning the Cold War", the action of his that could most have contributed to the dissolution of Soviet power in Russia and Eastern Europe was just a rearrangement of money: a massive increase in defense spending, which (it is argued) pushed the Soviets to exacerbate their economic problems and made the status quo untenable. (This was of course a big strategic gamble: there was no guarantee that increasing Cold War tensions would have the desired effect. As events of 1991 demonstrate, the status quo might have given way to something worse.)

By contrast, the current Bush administration has had few qualms about sending large numbers of U.S. troops into combat, and - certainly in the period 2001-2003 - would sooner be seen dead than talking, let alone negotiating, with those it considers its enemies abroad.

Two images caricature or epitomize this contrast: Donald Rumsfeld shaking the hand of Saddam Hussein in the early 80's, and Donald Rumsfeld exulting over the capture of the same Saddam Hussein in 2003. Or verbally, one could compare the position of Colin Powell in 1988 on the use of poison gas against Halabja (it wasn't that big a deal, apparently, for Reagan's NSA), with his well-publicised statement of 2003.

The Promise of Neoconservatism

Yet one philosophy or movement is said to underlie both Reagan and Bush II: neoconservatism. What could this mean, in principle and in practice? Can it unite the two in a coherent Unified Rumsfield Theory of foreign policy?

The supposed basic principle of neoconservatism has been stated in various ways, which can be summarized as "American Power Good", "Democracy Good", "Freedom Good". (Its supporters claim that these are just three ways of saying the same thing.) Could there possibly be any inconsistency in this trinity of moral clarity? Problems start when we insert verbs and attempt to apply the result to countries outside the U.S.A..

"Freedom and democracy (henceforth FAD) are good for America": a resounding truism, which neither Reagan nor Bush could deviate from. But how about "American power is good for your democracy and freedom"? Many overseas could disagree. And here is the rub: American interests naturally coincide with the democracy and freedom of American voters only (on the charitable assumption that democracy functions more or less properly). Voters and politicians have no natural interest in the FAD of lands beyond their shores, except as they impinge directly on U.S. security or prosperity.

Can American power retain its freedom-loving and democratic aspect when applied to many millions of people who did not, and never will, vote for it or speak in its political arena? For neoconservatives, it can and must: America is uniquely able to act for democracy and freedom when no other power can do so. But the record so far is not good.

Practical Neoconservatism for Fun and Profit

In the 1980's American power - supposedly obeying a neoconservative ideal - allied itself with brutal authoritarians and paramilitaries in Central America, and Islamic militants in Central Asia, while significantly abetting the aggression of a military dictator in the Middle East: all in the strategic service of defeating the USSR. At present, the list of U.S. allies is looking perhaps a little less gruesome, but includes a certain number of authoritarian regimes which practice methods against their opponents no more humane than those of the "Axis" which the U.S. is pledged to defeat.

When faced with this, the honest neoconservative will plead that it is necessary, and even the best available course of action, to use such undemocratic and freedom-lacking alliances in order to achieve the eventual victory of American power - and hence, of FAD. In certain historical circumstances such a desperate argument could be valid: it would not have done to fight both Hitler and Stalin at the same time. The best option was to accept the victory of Soviet Russia on the Eastern front.

The trouble with this sort of argument is that it is addictive, just as Lenin's infamous love of breaking eggs to create socialist Utopian omelettes proved to be. If you believe that advancing U.S. influence is the only way to save the world, you will countenance virtually anything in the cause. Once you have accepted the support of some right-wing or secularist military dictator - in FDR's words, "our son of a bitch", it is difficult to close the door to any common thug who wants to enlist under the name of America.

The worst of it is that the more such undemocratic elements declare themselves on the side "against Evil", the less credible is any U.S. mission to bring FAD to the world, and the greater the evidence for people to judge that the "forward strategy of freedom" is no such thing, but only another incarnation of the old Cold War game of keeping your nose in front by any means necessary.

The failure of this brand of neoconservatism in practice may be gauged by the aftermath of the dissolution of Soviet power. It turned out that the USSR was (apart from its nuclear arsenal) not nearly such a mortal adversary as the Cold War hawks - among them Richard Perle and Dick Cheney - had made out. Its inevitable economic defects and growing unwillingness to practice totalitarian repression implied that the system, at a certain point, could never last long. But the elements that the U.S. had promoted in its global anti-Communist efforts would prove to be much more troublesome in what followed: in particular, Islamic militants in Afghanistan and the aforementioned Saddam Hussein; the Islamic republic of Iran still being a major cause of concern. It turns out that the enemy of my enemy is only my friend as long as the original enemy is still around. The defeat of the Evil Empire did not lead to a global improvement of security or happiness, only in parts of Eastern Europe - where the main actual role the U.S. played was to stand firmly on the sidelines and offer moral support.

Know Your Enemy

Since democracy may mean the ability to vote for a left-wing or anti-American government, and freedom may mean the freedom to throw U.S. military or industrial interests out of the country, it is clear that the stated aims of neoconservatism are radically incoherent. Instead, the neoconservative modus operandi has been to identify an enemy and direct all rhetorical and material effort to the defeat of the enemy. This enemy may be real or imagined.

The Soviet Union was real enough: but the efforts of Cheney, Perle and Paul Wolfowitz (among others) in Team B, the infamous alternative intelligence analysis unit, manufactured absurd exaggerations of its economic and military strength and its threat to the U.S. Such overestimates inspired Reagan's defense spending and, less forgivably, interference in such countries as Nicaragua (which was, incredibly, seen as an "imminent threat" and prompted a national emergency). The Taliban and Al-Qaeda are perhaps the only enemies about which neoconservatism and reality have been in concordance. Most recently, the enemy of choice has been a military dictator who hands out his stockpiles of WMD for the use of international terrorists. Happily, this was in most respects a fictional character.

Neoconservatism is a belligerent, bipolar view of the world as a "clash of civilizations" in which "you are either for us or against us". As such it can be compared to the Leninist view of a constant struggle between Communism and Capitalism. The failings of such a view are that it is both unrealistic and immoral. The immorality is evident in the aftermath of "victory", when you survey the paramilitaries or warlords who were your allies and realise they are not in the least interested in FAD. The unreality arises in fitting a multipolar world into a bipolar worldview and in the necessity to paint the enemy as black as possible. In such a context Iran-Contra even makes sense: Iran, after all, was not Communist, so why not try to get it on the side of the U.S. - while the Contra beneficiaries were fighting a left-wing government. What was not to like?

Future Directions

Like conservatism in domestic policy, neoconservatism is on its way out: its contradictions have become too evident. Conservatism was a mixture of incompatible preferences for integrity, hard work, social conformity, and a stable nuclear family on one hand, and deregulated capitalism, conspicuous consumption and vast personal wealth, and a flexible labor market on the other. It is being replaced with libertarianism, which has at least a comprehensible central idea.

Neoconservatism's damaging fetish of American hegemony, and its hothouse climate of fear, must yield to either a more pragmatic - though amoral - realpolitik; an ethical internationalist approach in which foreign policy is genuinely designed for its global benefits; or a truly libertarian foreign policy which would entail keeping U.S. noses out of other states' business, and vice versa.

Recent decisions to withdraw from Fallujah, to allow the imminently sovereign Iraqi government the right to reject foreign military occupation, to resume contacts with Libya, and to allow left-wing governments in Venezuela and Brazil to go their own ways (despite a somewhat half-hearted CIA effort in one case) indicate departures from a strict neoconservative line. Where these departures will end up is still uncertain.


Reagan's greatest achievement in foreign policy was to overrule the inflexible hostility of the neoconservatives towards the Soviet Union, and to refuse to be quite as alarmed by it as they would wish. Instead, his rapprochement with Mikhail Gorbachev and their moves towards nuclear disarmament -- in 1986 at Reykjavik Reagan even suggested scrapping nuclear weapons entirely -- show a man who did not see imminent threats in every dark corner. (If only the same view had applied to Latin America.) Allied to this was a wise avoidance of major military engagements which preserved intact the deterrent power of the U.S. military to protect itself and its democratic allies. For all his anti-Soviet rhetoric, he realised that defense was the best form of attack.

George W. Bush's main achievement, to date, has been only rhetorical, in recognizing that building alliances with intolerant or authoritarian regimes was and is a mistake if you are after promoting FAD. His extensive deployment of U.S. military power has revealed that such power is a means rather than an end. If, indeed, it proves possible to create democracies from scratch by means of military force, his idealistic view of nation-building may become yet another celebrated philosophy in foreign policy, a sort of purified neoconservatism. Until then, let us hope that the neoconservatives do not discover any more mortal enemies to be defeated, because the cost of one more such victory may be more than we can stand.

One thought arising: what would have happened if in 1985 the Kremlin had selected a neo-Stalinist hard-liner, rather than the reformist Gorbachev? Someone who reacted more rashly to Reagan's military buildup, and who was not afraid to respond by raising the temperature of the Cold War? Would the USSR have violently imploded at some point, or precipitated widespread conflict in an economically degenerating and rebellious Eastern Europe and Baltic? Reagan took his opportunity well, but he was lucky to have such an opportunity: no amount of speech-making on his part could have persuaded another Brezhnev to relax his grip on absolute power.