Think Again: Ronald Reagan: The Gipper Wasn't the Warhound His Conservative Followers Would Have You Believe

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PETER BEINART

"Ronald Reagan Was the Ultimate Hawk."

NOT SO MUCH. These days, virtually every time someone on the American right bashes President Barack Obama for kowtowing to dictators or failing to shout that we're at war, they light a votive candle to Ronald Reagan. Former presidential candidate John McCain has called his own foreign-policy views "a 21st-century policy interpretation of the Reagan Doctrine." His running mate Sarah Palin invokes the Gipper so frequently that some now speculate that she might launch her 2012 presidential bid in his hometown. As Dick Cheney put it a few years back, speaking for his fellow conservatives, "We are all Reaganites now."

No, actually, you're not. Today's conservatives have conjured a mythic Reagan who never compromised with America's enemies and never shrank from a fight. But the real Reagan did both those things, often. In fact, they were a big part of his success.

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 E 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."

Nicaragua and El Salvador weren't the only places where Reagan proved squeamish about using military force. In February 1988, federal courts in Florida indicted Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega for drug smuggling. With the U.S. media in a frenzy over drug addiction and Noriega virtually imprisoning Panama's elected president, Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams--backed by his boss, George Shultz--began pushing for a U.S. invasion. Reagan refused and instead tried to convince Noriega to relinquish power in return for having the charges dropped. When the deal fell through, Abrams redoubled his push for war. Reagan, however, adamantly rejected any action that would require him to "start counting up the bodies." It was left to his supposedly "wimpy" successor, George H.W. Bush, to depose Noriega with 27,000 U.S. troops.

"Reagan Banished the Vietnam Syndrome."

YES, BUT NOT HOW YOU THINK. Reagan's political genius lay in recognizing that what Americans wanted was a president who exorcised the ghost of the Vietnam War without fighting another Vietnam. Although Americans enjoyed Reagan's thunderous denunciations of Central American communism, 75 percent of them, according to a 1985 Louis Harris survey, opposed invading Nicaragua. …