As can be said for so many elements of modern Republican-party philosophy, it was Ronald Reagan who first articulated the ideas that now underlie the foreign policy of George W. Bush. Although Bush’s policies have been attributed to the work and views of a small group of so-called neocons, these policies are in fact an adaptation of Reagan’s idealism to a new and wholly different challenge. With the handover of sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government, and by calling on Arab governments to democratize, President Bush has begun a process that is analogous to Reagan’s challenge to the Soviet Union.
Reagan saw the confrontation with the Soviet Union as an ideological conflict as much as a military one. In a speech at Westminster in June 1982, he outlined a foreign policy that, in addition to enhancing US military power, proposed to use American ideology–the powerful ideals of freedom and democracy–as an instrument for rolling back the Soviet Union and its empire. Most of the critical commentary about Reagan’s speech focused on its potential for provoking the Soviets through a military buildup; Reagan’s views about pressing democracy and freedom as ideologies were simply dismissed as naïve American chatter.
But Reagan was serious about ideas and their power to shape events. At Westminster he declared that “[t]he objective I propose is quite simple to state: to foster the infrastructure of democracy, the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities, which allows a people to choose their own way to develop their own culture, to reconcile their own differences through peaceful means.” Later actions–referring to the Soviet Union as an evil empire and calling on Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall”–were all part of Reagan’s effort to encourage opposition to the Soviets within their empire. Now we know, after the collapse of the Soviet Empire and the Soviet Union itself, that Reagan’s words delegitimized Soviet rule even in the eyes of the Russian people and gave the peoples of Eastern Europe the courage seek freedom and democracy for themselves.
Despite its success in confronting the Soviet Union, Reagan’s idealist view of foreign policy lay dormant until September 11, 2001. The 1991 Iraq war was a realist’s war, restoring stability but seeking no wider goals. But when the United States itself was attacked, a new president faced an entirely different set of challenges that were in many respects more complex than those Reagan confronted. Although George W. Bush had campaigned for the presidency with a foreign-policy approach that would have reduced America’s role in the affairs of other nations, the events of September 11 required a change in this outlook. It seemed clear that military power alone was insufficient to dispel the dangers posed by the Islamic terrorists who planned or carried out the 9/11 attacks.
Just as Reagan saw that the Soviet Union could be deterred but not defeated solely by military strength, so Bush apparently came to see that the Islamic radicals who had attacked the United States could not be defeated by military measures alone. Indeed, since these were suicide attacks, and not the work of a nation-state that could be attacked in return and thereby subdued, it was not clear that the deranged group behind this threat could ever be effectively deterred. Something more than military power was necessary to overcome the ignorance about and hatred of the United States and contemporary civilization that festered in the failed societies of the Arab world.
In these circumstances, Bush turned to the Reagan view that the American values of democracy and freedom, when adopted by other countries, would foster peace and security for our own. Just as Reagan had seen the ideology of democracy and freedom as the key to achieving peace in the bipolar world of the 1980s, so President Bush now appeared to see the introduction of democracy into the Middle East–beginning with Iraq–as a way to address a challenge that U.S. military power alone cannot overcome. Democratic states, Bush argued, will not allow their territories to be used for attacks on other states, and free peoples will not be a source of terrorism. Iraq, then the most militarily threatening of the Arab states, could become–as a secular democracy–a powerful example for all the peoples of the Arab world. Bush’s latest initiative, promoting democracy in the Middle East through the G-8, shows how serious he is about this idea.
Bush’s intellectual debt to Reagan in this respect cannot be doubted. As he said in a speech at Whitehall in London in November 2003, after praising Reagan’s 1982 address at Westminster, “The deepest beliefs of our nations set the direction of our foreign policy. We value our own civil rights, so we stand for the human rights of others. We affirm the God-given dignity of every person, so we are moved to action by poverty and oppression and famine and disease. The United States and Great Britain share a mission in the world beyond the balance of power or the simple pursuit of interest. We seek the advance of freedom and the peace that freedom brings.”
Ronald Reagan could have said that. The fact that George Bush actually did reflects yet another case in which Reagan has led his party to a new consensus.
–Peter J. Wallison is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He is a former White House counsel for Ronald Reagan and the author of Ronald Reagan: The Power of Conviction and the Success of His Presidency.