When it comes to foreign policy, Mr. Bush, you're no Ronald Reagan

December 02, 2003|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO -- When Texas Gov. George W. Bush gave his first major foreign policy address as a presidential candidate, he could have spoken at the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum in College Station, Texas. He didn't.

He spoke at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, Calif. Ever since, he's worked so hard to style himself as the reincarnation of the Gipper that when he leaves office, I half expect him to enroll at Notre Dame.

The efforts have paid off. Lately, whenever Mr. Bush opens his mouth on the subject of foreign policy, commentators draw on all their analytical skills and historical perspective and conclude, "Why, that man sounds just like Ronald Reagan!"

After a speech on his recent trip to London, The Wall Street Journal said Mr. Bush "echoed Ronald Reagan's exposition of America's Cold War principles during his famous speech to Parliament in 1982." When he invoked Mr. Reagan in an earlier speech to the National Endowment for Democracy, The Washington Post said "the philosophy was pure Reagan."

But any resemblance between the two presidents on foreign affairs is strictly rhetorical. Yes, Mr. Reagan tirelessly preached the virtues of freedom for all the world, but Mr. Bush is hardly the first president to follow that example. In the realm of actual policy, Mr. Bush has about as much in common with Mr. Reagan as Crawford, Texas, has with Hollywood.

Overlooked in all this is a huge irony: The Iraqi dictator recently deposed by Mr. Bush is the same Iraqi dictator that Mr. Reagan chose to help during the 1980s, when Saddam Hussein was fighting a war with Iran. Nor did Mr. Reagan agitate for democracy in that part of the world. When Mr. Bush accuses Western nations of "excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East" for the last 60 years, he might mention that his most recent Republican predecessors were as guilty as anyone.

This may sound like a minor inconsistency. In fact, it goes to the heart of Mr. Reagan's approach to foreign policy. However stirring his rhetoric, Mr. Reagan was a model of hard-headed prudence when it came to putting American lives and resources at risk. He didn't liberate Eastern Europe by attacking the Soviet Union; he simply built up our military power to discourage Soviet expansion. That's exactly the opposite of Mr. Bush's approach to Iraq.

Where Mr. Reagan tried to "roll back" the Soviet Empire, it was only in peripheral places such as Afghanistan and Nicaragua. Even then, he didn't mount an American invasion -- he furnished arms and money and let others do the dying.

The arguable exception was Grenada, where the risks of direct intervention were minimal. When he faced a belligerent Arab tyrant who supported anti-American terrorism, namely Muammar el Kadafi, he ordered a bombing raid on Libya, but that was about all.

Mr. Reagan's most significant military commitment was in Lebanon, where he sent troops as peacekeepers following Israel's 1982 invasion. But when a bomb blew up a Marine headquarters in Beirut, killing 241 U.S. servicemen, the president did just what conservatives are now telling Mr. Bush not to do -- he pulled out.

That change of course demonstrated his refusal to expose the nation to major risks. "Reagan accepted the limitations on the employment of American military power that were underscored by the Vietnam experience," wrote Johns Hopkins University foreign policy scholar Robert W. Tucker in 1989. Mr. Reagan's "version of globalism would require very little treasure and, even more significant, no American blood at all."

Mr. Bush has vowed to do whatever is necessary to ensure success in Iraq. By contrast, noted Mr. Tucker, Mr. Reagan's "message was that sacrifice was unnecessary and that the nation might aspire to great ends without having to endure arduous means." In Iraq, Mr. Bush is discovering the limits of public support for sacrifice -- something Mr. Reagan understood all along.

Mr. Reagan did press for democratic change where the United States had leverage, such as South Korea and the Philippines. But the democratic revolution that washed across the Soviet Empire and much of the rest of the world didn't happen courtesy of the 82nd Airborne. The Berlin Wall fell because East Germans rose up against communism, and because Mikhail S. Gorbachev chose not to use force to preserve the Soviet Empire.

Mr. Reagan saw democracy as the wave of the future, but he wasn't inclined to go to war for it. As a president, he had plenty of faults. But in the realm of foreign policy, what Mr. Bush rejects are Mr. Reagan's virtues.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper, and his column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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