It’s hard to imagine what Ronald Reagan would make of the GOP presidential contenders who will gather to debate at his presidential library next Wednesday. One imagines he would admire Michele Bachmann’s debate and media savvy, and Rick Perry’s campaign and people skills.
On his record, though, things are a bit more complex. Reagan famously stood in Berlin and said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” But he also negotiated seriously with the Soviet leader on arms control and apparently regretted the failure of an abortive agreement to rid the world of nuclear weapons entirely. He condemned the Iranian theocracy vigorously in public and his NSC attempted to woo its members with cakes and guns in private. His policy on apartheid in South Africa began with “constructive engagement” and shifted to endorsing sanctions, including an arms embargo.
It’s normal to see more subtleties, not to say contradictions, in any president’s eight-year record than in the statements of candidates aspiring to occupy the office. But from Perry’s website, whose national security section fails to mention any of the nations of the world; to Newt Gingrich, who called vigorously for military action against Libya less than a week before opposing it; to Mitt Romney’s retracted call for the US to begin to exit Afghanistan; to Herman Cain’s desire to administer loyalty oaths to Muslim officeholders, the views of this year’s crop seem particularly under-developed.
Here, then, in the spirit of Ronald Reagan, are five questions I’d like to see moderators Brian Williams and John Harris ask Wednesday night:
1. Pat Buchanan, who served as President Reagan’s director of communications for two years, opposes military action against Iran and has called those conservatives who favor it “the war party.” Under what circumstances would you launch a third war in the Middle East, and how close are we to such circumstances in Syria and Iran?
2. For their part, Tea Party leaders have often seemed to be at odds with the GOP foreign policy establishment, both its neoconservative wing and leading GOP realists like head of the Council on Foreign Relations Richard Haass; former Secretaries of State Rice, Powell and Baker; and former National Security Advisors Scowcroft and Hadley. What branch of the movement best fits your views, and why?
3. On Thursday, as the debt reduction “super-committee” holds early meetings, Senators Kyl and Graham will join Bill Kristol, Heritage Foundation officials and other members of Congress at a discussion warning of the dangers of further cuts to the defense budget. Do you agree that deficit reduction should proceed without any change to the 55 percent of discretionary spending taken up by the Pentagon?
4. President Reagan supported arms control and eventual elimination of all nuclear weapons – even before the end of the Cold War. Yet Mitt Romney and other GOP candidates have spoken out against the New START treaty that modestly limits U.S. and Russian nuclear forces even though the Cold War is over. If you think Reagan’s arms treaties were wise, then why shouldn’t voters conclude that your opposition to Obama’s arms treaties is just unprincipled partisanship?
5. President Reagan’s policy of aiding Afghan and Pakistani mujahideen helped repel Soviet invaders from Afghanistan without the use of U.S. troops, but also helped propel Osama bin Laden and other extremist groups to power and prominence. Last month, 58 percent of Americans told pollsters the U.S. should not be involved in fighting in Afghanistan right now. Do you agree? Is it time for the U.S. combat role there to end?