What does it mean to be a Reaganite on foreign policy and why does it matter? The latter question is easier to tackle. It goes to the felt need for Republican politicians, particularly those new to the political scene, to identify with a familiar, strong and respected figure who is credited with helping to bring down the Soviet Union (at least for 30 years) and was a twice-elected popular president to boot. The desire for foreign policy legitimacy is even more acute as the Obama administration’s foreign policy has gone into a death spiral and the public is more aware than at any time since the aftermath of Sept. 11 that the world is a very dangerous place.
We can start with the premise that saying you are a Reaganite on anything is immaterial to the issue as to whether you are a Reaganite on foreign policy. Even left-wing liberals venerate Reagan for all sorts of reasons, interpreting him selectively. Reagan is cited as a dove, a hawk, an interventionist, a realist, a human rights advocate and a master of realpolitik, depending on how you slice and dice his career.
That said, we know the general policies Reagan propounded and we have his speeches, many preserved with the heavily edited comments he made. And right there is one thing we can say about Reagan: Although a governor, he was extremely well versed in foreign policy and had spoken about, written on and studied communism for much of his adult life. He did not run for office claiming not to have expertise or not to have thought through issues.
Now, it is legitimate to ask whether Reagan should be the model or whether the world has changed to such a degree that he is an inapt model. However, since virtually no Republican is willing to reject the Reagan model, it’s worth seeing how they compare to each other and to him on some of these issues. l’ll look at some of the elements of the Reagan foreign policy approach and see how various 2016 contenders might stack up.
Here, we’ll look at defense spending and maintaining our nuclear arsenal. To be blunt, Reagan was for these while President Obama has undertaken unprecedented defense cuts and has sought substantial reductions in our nuclear arsenal. Obama Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel signed on to the so-called Global Zero plan, which includes an option for unilateral disarmament. The president pushed ahead with START but has done little to register objections to Russia violations, to the chagrin of members of Congress. He talks about a nuke-free world, but less so since the North Koreans and Iranians have made a mockery of the idea.
At the Conservative Political Action Conference, former ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton declared, “Reagan called a strong defense budget the vital margin of safety, and we are losing that vital margin of safety all around the world. We are not going to get peace through strength because we are not devoting the budget to it, but we’re not going to get peace through weakness either. We’re going to get what we see today in the Ukraine where Vladimir Putin has a strategy and Obama has nothing, where Putin has a growing defense budget and ours is shrinking.” Bolton is the only one of the widely mentioned GOP 2016 candidates who actually worked in the Reagan administration.
After some years of defense cutting for the sake of budget discipline, the GOP House has now come to its senses. In very Reaganite language, its budget reaffirms defense as the primary function of the federal government and slams the president for over $1 trillion in defense cuts.
As House Budget Committee chairman, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), among the 2016 potential candidates, can be put in the “pro-defense rebuilding” category. He has spoken for years about the need to avoid balancing the budget on the backs of defense. (“If we continue on our current path, the rapid rise of health care costs will crowd out all areas of the budget, including defense.”)
The objection to hollowing out our military has been echoed consistently by Sen. Marco Rubio. He remarked last month:
Every day, we are reminded that the world remains as dangerous as ever and that we need a modern military to protect the American people and U.S. interests abroad. It is vital that we maintain a strong U.S. military that serves as a capable deterrent, ensures freedom of the seas, and provides security for ourselves and our allies. We also need a military that is able to project force globally when crises emerge, sometimes at a moment’s notice. I am concerned that the budget announced today will put all of these goals at risk. Reducing the size of the Army to its lowest levels in 70 years does not accurately reflect the current security environment, in which the administration’s own officials have noted the threats facing our country are more diffused than ever. Cutting key Air Force and naval capabilities just as we are trying to increase our presence in the Pacific does not make strategic sense. I am concerned that we are on a path to repeat the mistakes we’ve made during past attempts to cash in on expected peace dividends that never materialized — mistakes that caused our allies to question America’s staying power and encouraged our enemies to test us.
This is essentially the view of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who as a presidential candidate repeatedly expressed alarm over the decrease in military spending, with particular concern about the hollowing out of our Air Force and Navy. (His top foreign policy adviser now works for Sen. Ted Cruz.) In a speech during his 2012 campaign he told a group of religious conservatives that “we must never put the military on the chopping block for arbitrary budget cuts as part of some political horse-trade. . . [The issue is] not what we can afford to spend on our military, but what it costs to remain secure and free.”
Cruz has been somewhat more nuanced. In a recent speech to the National Security Action Summit, he criticized the administration for its decision “to dramatically reduce the size of our army, in fact, to shrink our army to pre-World War II levels.” But he also declared:
Yesterday I had the opportunity to question Secretary Hagel. I asked him why the Pentagon is continuing to spend $170 million on algae fuel that costs four times as much as regular fuel and is instead cutting Army infantry troops. I asked him why they are we spending $7 billion on renewable energy projects, including $14 million on wind turbines in Alaska in a place where there was no wind… why do they continue to pour that money down a rat hole. And rather than cut that waste they propose cutting the Army’s Brigade Combat Teams. . . . Before you cut a solider, let me suggest the Secretary of Defense should find out every penny that’s being wasted in this building and take that penny and use it to support the men and women in our military and to defend our national security.
According to Cruz’s office he has not yet reached a conclusion about the proper level of defense spending, or even the direction it should take. It is worth noting that, however ludicrous the wasteful items he and other cite, they may be miniscule when compared to the trillion dollars slashed from defense. By hewing to something middle ground, however, Cruz keeps one foot in the libertarian camp, which is convinced we’re spending way too much on national defense.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has been the most outspoken advocate of defense frugality, consistent with his views on national security. He contends we need fewer troops and bases abroad. He wants to audit the Pentagon, as he does the Federal Reserve, and has repeatedly objected to sending money “overseas.”
On nuclear deterrence we see a stark contrast among some of the potential candidates. Paul has hired as a key former policy adviser the former ambassador to Germany, New York Times reporter and U.S. chair of Global Zero Richard Burt, and he ultimately voted to confirm Hagel. A series of GOP senators on the Armed Service Committee, including Jeff Sessions of Alabama, James Inhofe of Oklahoma and Kelly Ayotte, ripped Hagel on Global Zero. Bolton has also ridiculed the idea. Cruz’s staff confirms that he strongly believes unilateral disarmament is not advisable now and it wasn’t advisable before. He is in favor of modernization of our nuclear arsenal and puts “no limit” on development and deployment of missile defense. He voted against Hagel’s confirmation. Marco Rubio has publicly slammed the administration for not enforcing START violations by the Russians and voted against Hagel.
As for governors, Ohio’s John Kasich, when House Budget Committee chairman, went up against the Pentagon hammer and tongs, for example, trying to kill the B-2 bomber program. (It survived and become a key weapons system.) It remains to be seen whether the rest of them line up on the Bolton/Rubio/Perry end of the spectrum or closer to Paul.