Earlier this week, Mitt Romney penned an op-ed for the Washington Post on how he would handle Iran's nuclear program differently than Barack Obama. That his "plan" was basically identical to President Obama's actual policy is certainly worthy of note -- but perhaps even more interesting was Romney's statement that "the overall rubric of my foreign policy will be the same as Ronald Reagan's: Namely, "peace through strength."
For those curious as to what a foreign policy agenda might look like with Mitt Romney in the White House such a statement provides helpful insight. If his words are to be believed, he'll govern like Ronald Reagan did. But there's one problem: Romney (like many of his fellow Republican presidential aspirants) appears to have very little understanding of what Ronald Reagan's foreign policy "rubric" actually looked like. If he did, he'd find himself articulating a very different and more pragmatic approach to managing America's global responsibilities.
To be sure, Romney's understanding of "peace through strength" is reflected in part by his proposals to build up the U.S. Navy and bolster the current ballistic missile defense system. Here, Romney demonstrates a general grasp of the "military build-up" part of Reagan's approach to foreign policy -- even if the Reagan build-up occurred in a completely different global context (i.e. the existence of a bipolar, superpower-dominated world). But not much else of the way in which Romney talks in this op-ed and elsewhere about foreign policy jibes with Reagan's approach to the world.
Indeed, Iran is a good place to start. Romney posits that the Iranian hostage crisis ended not because President Jimmy Carter was able to negotiate an agreement to end the impasse -- but rather because incoming President Reagan scared the snot out of them. "The Iranians," Romney writes, "well understood that Reagan was serious about turning words into action in a way that Jimmy Carter never was." According to the website Politifact, which interviewed seven scholars of the era in question, this is a "Pants On Fire" lie. Rather, the release of U.S. hostages had almost nothing to do with Iranian fears of what a Reagan presidency would foretell for their nation.
From this re-write of recent history, Romney uses his "Reagan model" to argue that the key for U.S. policy toward Iran today is firm "resolve." But Romney elides over a key historical fact; a central element of Reagan's policy toward Iran was not resolve but rather negotiation and diplomacy as part of an effort, wait for it, to free U.S. hostages (in this case ones held by Iranian-backed terrorist groups in Lebanon).
Also unmentioned is that, in this episode, Reagan violated another "Romney principle" of foreign policy, namely that the United States must never negotiate with terrorists.
But Romney's Iran confusion is in keeping with the GOP's larger misunderstanding about Reagan's foreign policy record. He was, in reality, the furthest thing from the resolute, unwavering, peace through "military strength" caricature they have created. Sure, there was the first-term Reagan: The strident anti-communist who ratcheted up the anti-Soviet rhetoric, increased defense spending, and supported authoritarian regimes and anti-communist rebels in Latin America, Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and Afghanistan -- during perhaps the single most dangerous period of the Cold War.
But that image of Reagan tells a very incomplete tale. He was also the sort of pragmatic commander-in-chief that seems anathema to the modern GOP. He sent troops to Lebanon -- and then "cut-and-run" after U.S. Marines were killed by terrorists. He allowed his U.N. ambassador, Jeane Kirkpatrick, to join in a Security Council condemnation of Israel for bombing the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq -- an event that if it were to happen today would probably lead to impeachment proceedings against Obama. On immigration, Reagan even allowed for amnesty of millions of illegal immigrants in the United States. Such a proposal today would get one laughed out of Republican presidential debates.