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The Rights to Reagan

Two Factions Claim GOP Icon's Mantle

August 29, 2004|Jacob Heilbrunn | Jacob Heilbrunn is a Los Angeles Times editorial writer.

WASHINGTON — The Republican convention this week is certain to look like a lovefest of party unity. Republican moderates such as Rudolph W. Giuliani will be trotted out alongside social conservatives such as Rick Santorum. They'll stand solidly united behind President Bush. And they'll also stand united in their reverence for another Republican president: Ronald Reagan.

What won't be on display is the pitched battle underway behind the scenes over which strain of contemporary Republicanism can most legitimately claim the Reagan mantle.

Depending on whom you listen to, Reagan was either the original neoconservative, with a bold vision to forge democracies around the world, or a cautious pragmatist, leery of involvements abroad, a man who would never have embarked upon Bush's ambitious crusade against terrorism.

The first camp, neoconservatives who champion active American involvement in democratizing the Middle East, cites the Reagan legacy of confronting communism and promoting democracy in Eastern Europe. In their view, Reagan would have applauded U.S. engagement in Iraq.

Indeed, in the the latest issue of Commentary magazine, neoconservative grandee Norman Podhoretz issues a 37-page blast titled "World War IV: How It Started, What It Means, and Why We Have to Win." In it, he notes approvingly that, again and again, Bush has demonstrated that he is "a fiery follower of Ronald Reagan."

In another move by neocons to claim the Reagan mantle, Arizona Republican Sen. Jon Kyl (along with Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, who is the closest thing Democrats have to offer the neocon movement) has recently revived the Committee on Present Danger, which spearheaded the anti-Soviet drive in the 1950s and again in the 1970s, to warn about what it sees as the peril posed by Islamic totalitarianism to the West.

No less than Nazism or communism, Kyl and Lieberman argued in a recent Washington Post article, the U.S. and its Western allies face a global challenge that must be confronted whenever and wherever possible: "Too many people are insufficiently aware of our enemy's evil worldwide designs, which include waging jihad against all Americans and reestablishing a totalitarian religious empire in the Middle East."

But to traditional conservatives, with their more isolationist worldview, the neocon appropriation of the Reagan legacy is appalling. This camp holds that Reagan was always reluctant to use force and that he was a pragmatist who shunned ideology.

In their new book "America Alone," Stefan Halper, who served in the administrations of presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, and Jonathan Clarke, a fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, argue that "the neoconservative assertion of a line of descent from Reagan's foreign policy is far-fetched." They maintain that Reagan did not conduct an open-ended campaign for democracy, and that he sought to avoid the direct use of U.S. force in any conflict, from Central America to Afghanistan.

Similarly, Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, an influential member of the Foreign Relations Committee, sets out an agenda in the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs magazine that emphasizes Reagan's optimism and sense of limits of U.S. foreign policy: "This purpose reflects neither the hubris that comes with great power nor the conviction that our power and resources are without end."

But perhaps the most urgent (and dangerous) call to arms against neoconservatism comes in paleo-conservative Pat Buchanan's new book "Where the Right Went Wrong."

Buchanan essentially calls for a return to isolationism ("We must give up the empire, bring troops home, let lapse the old treaty commitments"); likens, in a blatantly anti-Semitic reference, former Bush advisor Richard Perle to Charles Dickens' Fagin instructing young Oliver Twist; and insists that the party must return to the true Reagan: "President Bush's men may describe their call for world democratic revolution 'Reaganite,' but this is not what Ronald Reagan preached or practiced."

Buchanan urges conservatives to eschew what he sees as a new kind of globalist nonsense that is nothing less than traditional Democratic Party Wilsonianism infiltrating the GOP via the neoconservatives. Small wonder that Francis Fukuyama worries in the latest issue of National Interest magazine that the bungled Iraq occupation has opened the door to the Buchananite hordes.

Who's got it right? The truth is that both sides do.

In his first term, Reagan was everything the neoconservatives say he was -- truculent, bellicose and uncompromising. Whether he was calling the Soviet Union an "evil empire" or aiding the Nicaraguan Contras in their fight against the Sandinistas, Reagan single-handedly revived the American and European peace movements, which called for nuclear freezes and warned that doomsday was just around the corner.

But in his second term, Reagan softened. The advent of Mikhail Gorbachev allowed him to pursue nuclear arms treaties and abandon talk of an evil empire.

This conciliatory approach infuriated neoconservatives at the time, who accused him of selling out his principles.

Perhaps Bush will follow suit. In a second term, he could well retrench and abandon talk of more preemptive wars. If he wins reelection and wants to become the true heir to Reagan, he might follow more closely in his footsteps than many imagine.

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