Today's conservative movement is so passionately pro-war these days, it's hard to believe the movement's heritage is staunchly antiwar. It wasn't until Bill Buckley commandeered the movement and the rise of neoconservatives to power, that the conservative movement turned ardently pro-war.

One of the myths neocons spread is that Ronald Reagan was the "Ultimate Hawk." But as Peter Beinart writes in Foreign Policy magazine, the reality is ...

Not so much.

Sure, Reagan spent boatloads -- some $2.8 trillion all told -- on the military. And yes, he funneled money and guns to anti-communist rebels like the Nicaraguan Contras and Afghan mujahideen, while lecturing Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down that wall. But on the ultimate test of hawkdom -- the willingness to send U.S. troops into harm's way -- Reagan was no bird of prey. He launched exactly one land war, against Grenada, whose army totaled 600 men. It lasted two days. And his only air war -- the 1986 bombing of Libya -- was even briefer. Compare that with George H.W. Bush, who launched two midsized ground operations, in Panama (1989) and Somalia (1992), and one large war in the Persian Gulf (1991). Or with Bill Clinton, who launched three air campaigns -- in Bosnia (1995), Iraq (1998), and Kosovo (1999) -- each of which dwarfed Reagan's Libya bombing in duration and intensity. Do I even need to mention George W. Bush?

In fact, Reagan was terrified of war. He took office eager to vanquish Nicaragua's Sandinista government and its rebel allies in El Salvador, both of which were backed by Cuba and the Soviet Union. But at an early meeting, when Secretary of State Alexander Haig suggested that achieving this goal might require bombing Cuba, the suggestion "scared the shit out of Ronald Reagan," according to White House aide Michael Deaver. Haig was marginalized, then resigned, and Reagan never seriously considered sending U.S. troops south of the border, despite demands from conservative intellectuals like Norman Podhoretz and William F. Buckley. "Those sons of bitches won't be happy until we have 25,000 troops in Managua," Reagan told chief of staff Kenneth Duberstein near the end of his presidency, "and I'm not going to do it."

On October 23, 1983, after Reagan had sent troops into Lebanon, a terrorist attack blew up the U.S. barracks killing 241 troops. Weeks later, Reagan pulled the troops out of Lebanon, saying:

Perhaps we didn’t appreciate fully enough the depth of the hatred and the complexity of the problems that made the Middle East such a jungle ... that it did not create in us the concern for the marines’ safety that it should have.

In the weeks immediately after the bombing, I believe the last thing that we should do was turn tail and leave. Yet the irrationality of Middle Eastern politics forced us to rethink our policy ... If that policy had changed towards more of a neutral position and neutrality, those 241 marines would be alive today.

Yes. Ronald Reagan was more like Ron Paul than George W. Bush. Boy how times have changed, uh? Considering our federal government is virtually bankrupt and American taxpayers are tapped out too, I'd say it's time we follow Ronald Reagan's example, and "rethink our policy" in the Middle East.

Was Reagan the Ultimate Hawk?

Reagan’s comparably humble foreign policy is worth noting ... it is hard to imagine Reagan launching, or enduring, wars as foolish and long as what the U.S. currently finds itself bogged down in. Reagan had an aversion to prolonged military conflict, something either forgotten or intentionally ignored by his pro-war champions today.

Columnist George Will asks us to consider the American Conservative Union’s David Keene’s take on Reagan’s relatively tame foreign policy:

“He resorted to military force far less often than many of those who came before him or who have since occupied the Oval Office. . . . After the [1983] assault on the Marine barracks in Lebanon, it was questioning the wisdom of U.S. involvement that led Reagan to withdraw our troops rather than dig in. He found no good strategic reason to give our regional enemies inviting U.S. targets. Can one imagine one of today’s neoconservative absolutists backing away from any fight anywhere?”

The answer? No. Neoconservatives will almost always commit troops anytime, anywhere and for any reason, whereas Reagan was hesitant most of the time, wary of where he might commit and liked having a good reason. If Reagan’s actual foreign policy record could become mainstream again, it would be a trend toward something far saner than what both parties subscribe to today.

Indeed, it would "be a trend toward something far saner" than what we call foreign policy today. America's greatest military leader, General George Washington, tried to teach us about war, saying his "first wish is to see this plague of mankind, war, banished from the earth," and that our policy should "steer clear of entangling alliances with any portion of the foreign world."

It's time we follow the wisdom of George Washington and Ronald Reagan, two of our most humble leaders, a wisdom echoed by a majority of our Founding Fathers. War is not strength. War is failure. America has been turned upside down.

UPDATE:

    • John David Galt

      I agree that Reagan didn't want a war, but he was an extreme "hawk" in the broader sense: he was willing to take actions that might provoke Communist countries to attack the US. Besides the actions you listed, Reagan worked with Pope John Paul II to smuggle American fax machines into Catholic churches in Poland, then used them to smuggle Western news stories into that country all through the Solidarity "crisis" -- an action that deserves credit for bringing down the Iron Curtain.

      I want a President who cooperates with those who would do the same thing to Iran and Burma and Cuba and Saudi Arabia today.

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