Reagan Versus the Neo-Cons

Mikhail Gorbachev: More dangerious than Stalin, according to Commentary magazine

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the tendency of neo-conservatives such as Norman Podhoretz to celebrate Ronald Reagan as a great president is more than a little disingenuous. Back when Reagan was actually in power, the neo-cons supported the president against his liberal and leftist critics but had their own problems with the Gipper, who they regarded as a weak appeaser all too willing to negotiate with an implacable enemy, Soviet Communism. This neo-conservative critique of Reagan was especially virulent in President’s second term when he came to the conclusion that Gorbachev was a sincere reformer worth doing business with.

In his book The New American Militarism, Andrew Bacevich acutely sums up this phase of neo-conservatism:

Podhoretz found much to like in Reagan’s rhetoric, but he warned against confusing words with actions. The two differed, often drastically. To take Reagan’s famous condemnation of Moscow’s “evil empire” at face value was “to fall victim to a campaign of disinformation.” In practice, Reagan had proven himself “unwilling to take the political risks and expend the political energy” to break with the Nixon-Ford-Carter policy of détente. Like his immediate predecessors, the president seemed obsessed with making the world safe for Communism, thus implementing “a strategy of helping the Soviet Union stabilize its empire.” Indeed, to Podhoretz, Reagan appeared “ready to embrace the course of détente wholeheartedly as his own.”

For all of his high-sounding talk, the fortieth president of the UnitedStates, Podhoretz reluctantly concluded, lacked backbone. Although he “seems to have a few strong convictions,” wrote Podhoretz in 1985, Reagan “invariably backed away from acting on them” if they threatened to “cost him more political approval than he might gain by tacking and trimming.” As late as 1986—three years before the fall of the Berlin Wall—Podhoretz was still insisting that “‘the present danger’ of 1980 is still present today, and the question of whether ‘we have the will to reverse the decline of American power’ still hangs ominously as it did then in the troubled American air.” As the end of the 1980s approached, the threat posed by Communism was becoming, if anything, greater than ever. That Reagan was apparently falling victim to Mikhail Gorbachev’s charm offensive was almost unbearable. In Podhoretz’s eyes, to parley with the enemy was to appease him.


There are a few other fairly amusing examples of neoconservative thought from this period that are worth recalling. In a 1988 article in the Canadian conservative journal The Idler, David Frum tried to offer what he thought was a balanced assessment of Reagan’s legacy. After praising some aspects of Reagan’s foreign policy, Frum offered this critique:

In the current Soviet effort to look reassuring, even liberal, there has been no more gullible collaborator than Ronald Reagan. The first duty of an American president, in his dealing with the Soviet Union, is to tell the truth about that society. Since Gorbachov [sic] came to power, Reagan has flubbed that duty. Recent polls suggest that Americans are now more frightened of their Japanese allies than their communist enemies. In just three years, America’s will to continue the struggle against the Soviets has been sapped. After Regan has clinked glasses with Gorbachov so often and so cordially, it’s going to be awfully hard for the next president to explain why anyone should object to those nice Russians installing themselves in Central America. [David Frum, “Reagan Had Aides,”  Idler #20 (November and December 1988)]

There there is Hilton Kramer’s essay “The Importance of Sidney Hook” which ran in the August 1987 issue of Commentary, then edited by Norman Podhoretz. Near the end of the essay, Kramer compares the Soviet Union under Stalin with Gorbachev’s regime:

The world has changed, but has it really changed for the better as far as the power and influence of democracy are concerned? Are we less endangered now than we were then? Communism was then clearly and correctly perceived to be a worldwide threat to the survival of democratic institutions, but it actually controlled the fate of far fewer inhabitants of the globe than it does today. Under Stalin, both the military power of the Soviet Union and its vast espionage apparatus were seen to constitute a danger to every non-Communist society in the world – yet Gorbachev commands a far greater war machine than any Stalin ever had at his disposal, and if recent revelations are any guide, a no less effective espionage network. By every significant measure, the Soviet Union is a far more formidable adversary today than it was forty years ago, and one of the things that makes it more formidable is its unbroken record of conquest in the intervening years. It already enjoys an unchallenged hegemony in more parts of the world than it did forty years ago, and the momentum of its drive to seek further conquests shows no sign of abatement. [Hilton Kramer, “The Importance of Sidney Hook,” Commentary (August 1987)]


So there you have it: in 1987, Gorbachev was more dangerous than Stalin. Kramer’s vision of geopolitics was, of course, breathtakingly unhinged from reality. In the actual universe that we inhabit, Gorbachev had already initiated a reform program that would, in a little over two years after Kramer’s essay was published, lead to the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Warsaw Pact, and the unmaking of the Soviet Empire. In 1999, Kramer reprinted this essay in a collection entitled Twilight of the Intellectuals but, with an appropriately Cold War willingness to rewrite history, excised the passage quoted above. (With that charming lack of shame and self-awareness that marks all his writing, Kramer spent a few pages in Twilight of the Intellectuals attacking writers like Susan Sontag for suppressing embarrassing essays they wrote while younger.)

Why are these absurd essays from the past worth recalling now? For two reasons. One, it is important to distinguish between Reagan the historical figure (who had many flaws but was also flexible and open to change) and Reagan the unflinching conservative hero (a figure that exists only in the conservative imagination). Secondly, the habits of thought that the neo-cons revealed in the 1980s are still characterize their foreign policy thinking: now, as then, they are a static, one-dimensional thinkers unresponsive to historical change who see foreign policy in simplistic us-versus-them terms, with little regard to the complexity, ambiguity, and fluidity of the real world. For the neo-cons, foreign policy is a morality play. For serious adults, foreign policy is about looking after our national interests by dealing with other countries and peoples in a realistic way.

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