Listening to John Kerry in the debates, one could be forgiven for thinking that his running mate is Ronald Reagan. He has invoked Reagan's name more often than that of John Edwards. And he has mostly done it in the context of foreign policy, suggesting that his approach to the world will be Reaganesque.
This is a grotesque example of political body-snatching, as dishonest in its way as, say, David Duke invoking Martin Luther King Jr. to bolster his civil rights credentials. "I'm going to run a foreign policy that actually does what President Reagan did, President Eisenhower did, and others," Kerry said the other night. "We're going to build alliances. We're not going to go unilaterally. We're not going to go alone like this president did." Kerry is attempting to boost his own toughness by the association with Reagan, but he is baldly distorting Reagan's foreign policy in the process.
It is absurd to argue that the thrust of Reagan's policy was somehow building alliances. Yes, Reagan inherited a stable system of Cold War alliances appropriate to the threat the United States was facing at the time (a luxury President Bush hasn't had since 9/11). But otherwise Reagan pursued confrontation with America's enemy, the sort of confrontation Kerry considered inappropriate then and still opposes today in the context of the war on terror.
Reagan rejected detente, the Nixon-era policy of attempting a negotiated accommodation with the Soviet Union. He thought the Soviet empire a monstrous evil that had to be defeated. He met the Soviets on the battlefield with proxy forces throughout the Third World, and embarked on an arms buildup meant to bankrupt the Soviets. He swathed these policies in moralistic rhetoric and identified the United States with the spread of freedom around the world.
There was much here to make Kerry, the dovish accommodationist, blanch, and he duly blanched. Kerry opposed every component of the Reagan policy, surely one of the reasons he considered the Reagan years a time of, as he put it, "moral darkness."
In the mid-1980s, he attacked Reagan's buildup as wasteful and counterproductive. "[The] biggest defense buildup since World War II has not given us a better defense," Kerry intoned. "Americans feel more threatened by the prospect of war, not less so." He was a fierce critic of Reagan's proxy war against the Soviets in Nicaragua. He pronounced himself "alarmed that the Reagan administration is repeating the mistakes we made in Vietnam."
Reagan's grand strategy was never to negotiate with the Soviets until he could do so from a position of strength. Kerry thought this folly: "The Soviet Union is not going to bargain with the United States from a position in which we have grabbed the upper hand through the development of some new technology." To complete his perfect record of wrongness, he criticized Reagan's missile-defense initiative -- "a dream based on illusion, but one which could have real and terrible consequences" -- that helped make the Soviets realize they could never keep up with the United States technologically.
Kerry, naturally, has flip-flopped on Reagan during his current campaign. In the Democratic primaries last year, he spoke of Reagan as a nasty force that he was right to oppose: "I'm proud that I stood against Ronald Reagan, not with him, when his intelligence agencies were abusing the Constitution of the United States and when he was running an illegal war in Central America." It is only now -- when it is convenient to try to erase his long record of dovishness -- that Kerry invokes Reagan positively.
It is Bush, of course, who has the national-security policy organically connected to Reagan's, featuring the same strength of purpose and moral resolve. The connections are brilliantly illuminated in the new feature film documentary on how Reagan won the Cold War, "In the Face of Evil" (www.inthefaceofevil.com). Defeating a vicious enemy involves much, much more than "building alliances," something Kerry didn't understand then and apparently doesn't understand now.