Updated: Sep 18, 2022
The Washington Post on September 15 carried a column “A conservative think tank turns away from Reagan and toward Trump” attacking Kevin Roberts, president of the Heritage Foundation. Bylined to foreign affairs columnist Josh Rogin, the column uses mostly
anonymous sources to criticize Mr. Roberts for the alleged sin of abandoning Reagan’s “peace through strength” doctrine in favor of Donald Trump’s “America First” foreign policy.
The first tell that the criticism of Kevin Roberts is more personal than political is that it appears in the Washington Post; in my 40+ years in Republican politics, conservatives have rarely debated and resolved their differences on the pages of the Left-leaning Washington Post.
More importantly, Mr. Rogin, although an accomplished observer of foreign policy, doesn’t seem to know much about conservative politics, otherwise he wouldn’t have fallen for the fiction that the long held conservative doctrine of “peace through strength” began with Ronald Reagan.
“Peace through strength” has been a foundational principle of American conservatism going back to George Washington. Then Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, our sixth President and son of Founder and second President John Adams put it this way in 1821 in an address to the House of Representatives:
America, “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well‐wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom.”
In the 111 years between the ratification of the Constitution and the Spanish-American War the United States largely followed Adams’ formula and didn’t try to export liberty at the point of a bayonet.
In the lead-up to World War II the conservative America First movement was the foremost advocate of rearming the United States while keeping America out of what, up until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, was a war in far off Asia and Europe.
The America First Committee formed to advance four main principles:
The United States must build an impregnable defense for America.
No foreign power, nor group of powers, can successfully attack a prepared America.
American democracy can be preserved only by keeping out of the European war.
"Aid short of war" weakens national defense at home and threatens to involve America in war abroad.
While the pre-war America First Committee found itself mired in the controversial anti-Semitic remarks of some of its early proponents, such as industrialist Henry Ford, it attracted a broad swath of patriotic Americans to its cause. Americans, from conservative Republican senators Gerald P. Nye of North Dakota and Henrik Shipstead of Minnesota, to aeronautical pioneer Charles Lindberg, to World War I ace Eddie Rickenbacker and even World War II hero and future Democratic President John F. Kennedy supported the notion that the best way to protect American constitutional liberty and keep America out of war was to build an impregnable defense for America or peace through strength.
In the post-World War II era conservative Republican Senator Bob Taft of Ohio was the principal proponent of peace through strength. The 1952 Republican nomination for President pitting Taft against Eisenhower was very much a debate between conservatives who advocated “peace through strength” and the globalist Republican establishment.
Eisenhower won the nomination, and the presidency, only to conclude his second term by warning against the influence of the military-industrial complex. Taft, who died not long after Eisenhower was inaugurated was not around to say, “I told you so.”
Having established that “peace through strength” is a conservative principle long predating Ronald Reagan let us examine the specifics of the attack on Kevin Roberts.
Sourced to mostly anonymous former employees of the Heritage Foundation, the charge is that by opposing the Democrats’ blank check to Ukraine because it could draw America into a war with Russia and was full of pork and “woke” policy riders, Mr. Roberts has abandoned the immaculate principles of Ronald Reagan for the odious policies (at least to the Washington foreign policy Blob) of Donald Trump.
But as a practical matter what did Reagan’s doctrine of “peace through strength” actually look like on the ground?
One might fairly argue that Reagan had only one foreign policy goal and principle – destroying the Soviet Union and with it the specter of world Communism. Or as he told Richard V. Allen, his first National Security Advisor, his policy was, “We win, they lose.”
But Reagan’s war with the Soviet Union was largely economic and political, not kinetic. Reagan had a horror of nuclear war and his goal of a 600-ship navy, the development and deployment of the “Star Wars” missile defense system and the deployment of a new generation of ICBMs and aircraft drew the Soviets into an economic competition they could never win – all without firing a shot.
The only President since Reagan to match that investment in national defense was Donald Trump with the $738 billion 2020 national defense appropriation – the largest military budget in history.
That sounds a lot like peace through strength to me.
Indeed, Reagan’s successful battle to break-up the Warsaw Pact and split Eastern and Central Europe from the Soviet Union wasn’t fought with guns and bombs – it was fought by pumping-up Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, sending Xerox machines to the Solidarity movement in Poland and other democratic-oriented movements and enlisting the Pope, the Polish Saint John Paul II, in the battle.
To those who will argue “Muh, what about Afghanistan?” to use Reagan to justify intervention in the Russian attack on Ukraine one might profitably look at the results of that effort. True, the Soviets were driven from Afghanistan, but Reagan’s successors lost the peace. They allowed the rise of the Taliban, 911, America’s 20-year involvement in a war in Afghanistan and ultimately Joe Biden’s disastrous defeat and withdrawal last year.
And President Reagan was quick to take the lesson of the dangers of intervention without clear American national security interest. Reagan withdrew from Syria after the Beirut Barracks bombing that claimed the lives of 241 American service members. While the Pentagon allegedly had the tasking orders all drawn up to use American airpower to flatten Hezbollah and key targets in Iran, Reagan chose to pull out, concluding that the cost of a land war in the Middle East was not in America’s interest.
Would such an attack have checked Iran’s malign influence? We will never know, but looking at the cost in lives and treasure of America’s Middle East wars – and the absence of positive results – one can’t help but conclude that Reagan’s decision to withdraw was right.
Using Ronald Reagan to criticize Donald Trump for his oft expressed desire to get America out of Afghanistan and Kevin Roberts for his skepticism of Biden’s actions in Ukraine is disingenuous at best and clearly at odds with history.
History tells us that American intervention abroad is fraught with unintended, unforeseen and unforeseeable consequences and our greatest conservative Presidents, statesmen and thinkers back to the foundation of the Republic recognized this and advised against involving the United States in the disputes of other nations.
In the 235-year history of our country periods of the ascendance of interventionism and neocon urges to use the military to solve the disputes and civil wars of other nations have thankfully been brief. And the record cleansed of revisionism shows that Trump and Reagan were a lot closer in their thinking, actions and trends in conservative thought than the critics of Kevin Roberts claim.
Neocons, now out of work and discredited because their policies failed – at the cost of thousands of American lives and trillions of dollars – shouldn’t be allowed to get away with attacking the Heritage Foundation and Kevin Roberts with claims that Donald Trump’s America First foreign policy is somehow not conservative based on specious reinterpretations of Ronald Reagan’s policies and record.
George Rasley is editor of Richard Viguerie's ConservativeHQ.com and is a veteran of over 300 political campaigns. He served as an event producer and advance representative for ten presidential campaigns. A member of American MENSA, he served on the staff of Vice President Dan Quayle, as Director of Policy and Communication for then-Congressman Adam Putnam (FL-12) then Vice Chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee's Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs, and as spokesman for retired Rep. Mac Thornberry, formerly Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
American First foreign policy
Peace through strength
America First Committee
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