I’ve written many times about how Republicans have invented a fictional Ronald Reagan, St. Ronald the Magnificent, and projected upon him every view they currently hold. Peter Beinart offers another example of how the real Reagan differs from St. Ronald and relates it to the current criticism of Obama for negotiating with Iran and Syria.
If Obama cuts a deal with Iran that requires any American compromise at all, “Reaganites” will label him an appeaser hoodwinked by an Iranian regime that hasn’t really changed at all. As usual, Benjamin Netanyahu is leading the way, having already called Rouhani a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
But the same “Reaganites” who will bash Obama for compromising with Rouhani once bashed Reagan for compromising with Gorbachev. As late as December 1987, Charles Krauthammer was writing that “the fundamental misconception about Gorbachev is that he has somehow broken the ideological mold.” Until virtually the day the Soviet empire collapsed, Rep. Dick Cheney was calling glasnost a fraud. In 1988 George Will accused Reagan of having “accelerated the moral disarmament of the West … by elevating wishful thinking [about Gorbachev] to the status of public policy.” When Reagan brought the intermediate missiles deal to Congress for ratification, a right-wing group called the Anti-Appeasement Alliance took out newspaper ads comparing Reagan to Neville Chamberlain.
Yes, those political struggles were easier for Reagan because he hailed from the political right. But that wasn’t the only reason he triumphed over the “Reaganites” who now take his name in vain. He triumphed because he had the moral imagination to envisage a relationship beyond confrontation and war. Musing in late 1987 about the opponents of his nuclear deal, Reagan declared that “some of the people who are objecting the most … whether they realize it or not, those people basically down in their deepest thoughts have accepted that war is inevitable.” Because Reagan refused to accept what others considered inevitable, he achieved one of the greatest successes in the history of American foreign policy. Now it’s Obama’s turn to imagine a future that his critics cannot and to have the guts to make it real.
When it comes to foreign policy, the neo-conservatives (as opposed to paleo-conservatives, who tend to be isolationist — not all conservatives think alike) are almost like young gang members who think that the only possible pose one can take is to be hard and tough and always on the verge of violence. Any attempt at diplomacy whatsoever is viewed as weakness or appeasement. Intelligence and thoughtfulness are anathema; only belligerence and “resolve” matter. There is no room for pragmatism or for understanding what kind of domestic pressures an opponent may be under. The enemy is not a human being, for all practical purposes, they are an abstract evil thing that can only be vanquished, not reasoned with. That is their pose, now and forever. And that pose is very attractive to simple-minded hyper-patriots, which is largely what their base is made up of — mostly men who suffer from an excess of pseudo-machismo who think that acting like a tough guy is a rational foreign policy.