Conservative Foreign Policy & Reagan's Legacy

Conservative Foreign Policy & Reagan's Legacy

By Colin Dueck - March 22, 2011

America's current armed conflict with Muammar Gaddafi raises a cluster of familiar questions about U.S. intervention, democracy promotion, and nation building, not only in relation to Libya but also in relation to ongoing cases such as Egypt and Afghanistan. Conservatives and Republicans are wrestling with these questions, like everyone else, but with their own distinct values and priorities in mind. Let us take a step back to consider what a conservative foreign policy might look like on issues of democracy promotion and intervention.

When American conservatives reflect on concrete examples of undeniably successful, modern, conservative foreign policy presidents, they think first of Ronald Reagan. Indeed the vast majority of conservatives hold up Reagan as a model of how to conduct U.S. foreign and defense policy, but they do not always agree on the day to day implications of that Reaganite model.

For example, when Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, a longstanding American ally, was confronted with a popular protest movement earlier this year, some leading conservatives like William Kristol invoked the Reaganite legacy of democracy promotion in urging the U.S. to help topple the Egyptian autocrat. Other conservatives like Dick Cheney, Newt Gingrich, John Bolton, and Charles Krauthammer pointed out the danger that Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood might ultimately fill the gap left by Mubarak's departure.

Since Republicans seem to agree that Reagan set the standard, it is worth asking: what exactly was his approach toward democracy promotion abroad?

There is no doubt that Reagan believed democracies to be more peaceful, more trustworthy, and more just in their foreign policy behavior than authoritarian forms of government. Indeed he created the National Endowment for Democracy in 1983 to help provide training, technical aid, and financial support toward the promotion of democratic practices including free and fair elections overseas. In relation to U.S. adversaries at the time, including the Soviet Union and its client states, Reagan viewed the theme of democracy promotion as not only morally imperative but strategically useful as a pressure point against hostile dictatorships. He therefore issued sharp rhetorical and ideological challenges indicating his belief that the entire Communist system of government was immoral, illegitimate, dysfunctional, and doomed. Obviously Reagan was not shy about stating his sincere conviction in the inherent superiority of democracy. Yet in relation to U.S. allies, he was usually quite circumscribed and subtle in his efforts at democracy promotion.

Reagan clearly believed, within the context of the Cold War, that there could hardly be anything worse for either democratic values or U.S. interests than the international spread of Communism. In this he was very much in agreement with his administration's first ambassador to the United Nations, leading neoconservative Jeane Kirkpatrick. Kirkpatrick argued, quite rightly, that former President Jimmy Carter had unintentionally aided the rise of radical and violently anti-American forces in Nicaragua and Iran by pressuring allied governments in those countries on democracy and human rights issues.

Reagan's fundamental instinct therefore, especially on first coming into power in 1981, was to bolster America's anti-Communist allies worldwide rather than to hector them.In cases such as El Salvador and South Africa, allied governments were quietly nudged in a positive direction on democratic human rights, while reassured of ultimate American support. In practical terms Reagan was also willing to materially aid a wide range of anti-Communist insurgencies in Afghanistan, Nicaragua, and Africa whether or not they lived up to strict standards of liberal propriety.

A significant turning point for the Reagan administration came in 1986, when Filipino dictator and longtime U.S. ally Ferdinand Marcos faced possible overthrow by domestic opponents. Reagan's initial instinct in the Filipino case, as always, was to back up his anti-Communist ally. But the main opposition to Marcos inside the Philippines was neither Communist nor anti-American, and when virtually the entire U.S. foreign policy establishment emerged in favor of easing the aged Marcos out of power, Reagan was finally convinced to do so.

Other U.S. allies in places like Chile and South Korea were pressed more aggressively on democracy and human rights issues during Reagan's second term. The final outcome by the time he left office in January 1989 was that numerous allied governments in East Asia and Latin America had moved in a democratic direction. Yet this was not simply the result of U.S. criticism and pressure. It was also very much the result of complicated internal factors, combined with positive American assistance and reassurance regarding core security concerns.

The main lines of Reagan's record on democracy promotion can therefore be summarized fairly briefly: Reagan distinguished between allies and adversaries. In relation to U.S. adversaries, Reagan issued ringing and sincere denunciations of undemocratic practices in order to indicate moral concern as well as to weaken hostile regimes. In relation to American allies, on the other hand, Reagan was usually much more circumspect, because he understood that to destabilize an autocratic but U.S.-aligned government might very well lead to something worse. There was certainly some movement toward more pointed forms of pro-democracy pressure on U.S. allies during Reagan's second term, but even then, Reagan's first instinct was always to bolster, support, and reassure allies, rather than to critique them.

What are the implications of Reagan's example today? Over the past three months the Arab world has been caught up in a maelstrom of revolutionary political pressures, mostly against U.S.-allied but autocratic governments. The United States has once again been forced to confront classic questions of whether and how to support, channel, or resist these pressures. Of course the parallels to Reagan's day are not exact, but there are still certain lessons to be learned from past examples. Conservatives, of all people, understand that political revolutions frequently end up leading to violent, terrible outcomes unanticipated by the liberal, the idealistic and the well-meaning.

Certainly Reagan understood this. Revolutions create power vacuums that are often filled by relatively small groups of well-organized political radicals, militants and extremists. During the Cold War, the most important such groups internationally were Communists. Today the most important such groups are Islamist extremists. To be sure, today's radical Islamists do not control a global superpower, but they do command the sympathy and support of millions of Muslims, and constitute a kind of loose transnational insurgency with a demonstrated capacity for violence. In Egypt, the leading organization of radical Islamists is the Muslim Brotherhood. It is the best-organized force in that country outside of the nation's army, and well positioned to take advantage of hurried elections this fall. Especially as it works in coalition with leftist political movements, the Brotherhood has a chance to assume meaningful degrees of political power in the coming years. So what are its intentions?

Western journalists have tended to suggest during the last few weeks that the Muslim Brotherhood is nothing to worry about, and that it has now evolved to the point where it poses no pressing danger to prospects for a peaceful, liberal, democratic Egypt. Of course this is exactly what the most sophisticated and militant Muslim Brothers would like Western opinion to think, as it makes their task of achieving power a good deal easier. There are certainly interesting factional debates going on within the Brotherhood. Yet the stated position of leading Brothers in recent years includes: the ejection of Western influence from the region; an end to the alliance with the United States; termination of Egypt's peace treaty with Israel; noxious anti-Semitism; applause for terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians; the establishment of strict Islamist rule; and support for indigenous attacks on U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. This is not an encouraging record, to say the least.

The point is not that we know exactly what the Brothers would do if they took power in Egypt. The point is that we don't know - and that's precisely the problem. Maybe they would live up to every liberal's dream of peaceful, democratic political Islam. More probably, they would not. Yet an amazing number of Western commentators and officials earlier this year were prepared to publicly and abruptly push Hosni Mubarak out the door, risking the possibility that in the end a deeply anti-American Muslim Brotherhood will assume increased power in a country of critical regional importance. Whatever this policy amounts to, it is not what Ronald Reagan would have favored in relation to a U.S. ally.

Of course, the political situation inside Egypt is still extremely fluid, which is exactly why the United States should act energetically to ensure that the Muslim Brotherhood does not assume power, even in coalition. American technical and financial support for democratic practices and free elections in Egypt are entirely appropriate under the circumstances, but need not be distributed in a universal manner to all competing parties. During the late 1940s, Washington dispensed Marshall Plan aid on the clear understanding that Communists would be excluded from power in Western European governments - and they were. This was a geopolitical and moral success for the United States, as it was for liberal democracy in Europe.

We are under no obligation to provide direct or indirect support to parties inside Egypt which are fundamentally hostile to both the United States and liberal democratic principles. The U.S. should use what time, influence and resources it has to support truly liberal forces within Egypt - but let's not delude ourselves that such forces are preponderant inside that country simply because Mubarak has gone.

Colin Dueck is associate professor of public and international affairs at George Mason University, and the author of the forthcoming book Hard Line: The Republican Party and U.S. Foreign Policy since World War II (Princeton, October 2010).

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