Friday, June 11, 2004


British blogger Oliver Kamm is a moderate Leftist who supports the Iraq war -- much like his Prime Minister. In his postings of 7th he has an interesting survey of the claim that Ronald Reagan turned into a peacenik in the latter part of his Presidency. The claim is not as ridiculous as it seems. Reagan definitely did have the very idealistic aim of de-nuclearizing the world. And he went close to achieving it. He and Gorbachev at Reykjavik actually agreed to scrap all nuclear weapons on both sides. It was only Reagan's refusal to scrap his missile defence program that scuppered the agreement. And it may also be noted that Reagan was no warmonger. The overseas military operations he initiated were tiny compared to what his three successors as President have done and tiny compared to the great but fumbled intervention in Vietnam. Reagan's concentration was on building up American strength at home rather than on intervening abroad.

Like various others in that small subsection of the Left which takes a genuine interest in reality, Kamm takes all this as evidence that Reagan was as much a Leftist as a Rightist. That shows very little understanding of conservatism, however, and of American conservatism in particular. Reagan's "America first" strategy is in fact a good example of the isolationism that ruled among American conservatives right up until Sept. 11, 2001. American conservatives have always wanted to let the rest of the world to go to hell in its own way and it was DEMOCRAT presidents that got America into both world wars, Korea and Vietnam. America has to be under serious threat for American conservatives to take any notice of the rest of the world at all. It was only Saddam's serious threat to oil supplies that got George Bush Senior into the first Gulf war and he pulled out as soon as that threat was removed. It was only when 9/11 showed beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt that America was under serious and lasting threat from implacable Islamic hatred that George Bush II began his interventions in the Islamic world.

And Reagan's refusal at Reyjavik to abandon missile defence is a perfect example of conservatism. Whatever else it may be, conservatism from Burke onwards has been cautious and Reagan's desire to have a defence in case nuclear disarmament did not completely succeed was clearly caution -- and caution that he rigorously insisted on above all else. There was nothing in that of the unilateral disarmament nonsense that the peaceniks of the Left were always preaching at that time. As always, of course, Reagan himself summed it up best in his well-known maxim: "Trust but verify". There was idealism there indeed: Very high ideals. But it was never allowed to overcome good conservative caution.

In the end, however Kamm does arrive at an essential insight: "My own interpretation of this idiosyncratic record is that, having established his anti-Communist credentials, Reagan's 'soft diplomacy' approach worked well at exactly the time it was needed. It was puzzling, but effective, and probably no one else could have done it". In other words, Reagan was no rigid ideologue. Ideals are not ideology. Ideology and grand theories are for Leftists. Conservatives are pragmatic and flexible. Conservatives have ideals but in pursuing those ideals they go by what works. And our Ron showed that flexibility and pragmatism to brilliant effect.


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