HOLMES: What would Reagan do?

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Feb. 6 will be the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birth.

More than any other leader, Reagan is responsible for making national security a pillar of the conservative movement. He understood that all of America’s freedoms are contingent on the presence of a strong military to defend them.

But what does that mean today? What would Reagan say about defense spending in this age of runaway deficits and unfathomable debt? Would he throw his lot in with those who want to reduce defense spending even though the nation is still at war?

What would he say about the war in Afghanistan? Would he support those who think it is too expensive and not worth the fight? We can never know for certain what Reagan would say or do today. But we can learn from what he said and did and draw some definite conclusions about what he believed.

On national defense, the lessons are clear. Reagan came to office after years of neglect of our armed forces and launched a military buildup that we live off to this day. He let the threats, not the bottom line, determine defense spending. He revived the B-1 bomber program that President Carter canceled and initiated many other defense programs. He famously told his military planners, “Defense is not a budget issue. You spend what you need.”

And by the time he left office, he boosted defense spending 35 percent.

If not for Reagan’s military buildup, we would not have had the advanced weaponry and excellent fighting force that won the Persian Gulf and Iraq wars with historically low U.S. casualties.

Nothing in Reagan’s presidency even hints that he would support drastically cutting the defense budget. Yes, he would have wanted the Pentagon to operate efficiently and find savings whenever possible. But there is no evidence he would have mortgaged America’s future by slowing military modernization or reducing the size of the armed forces exclusively to save money.

Nor is there evidence from Reagan’s presidency that he would have wanted us to do anything else in Afghanistan but win. Seared by the demoralizing loss of the Vietnam War, Reagan said time and time again that America should win its wars. His entire approach to the Soviet Union was to bury detente and “roll back” communism. That was what the Reagan Doctrine was all about. And when he used military force, he did so decisively, as in Grenada.

Some suggest that Reagan’s intervention in Lebanon should be a model for Afghanistan. But it’s impossible to see how that could be used to justify withdrawing from Afghanistan. The 1982 humanitarian peacekeeping intervention in Lebanon was temporary, intended to stabilize it and facilitate the Palestine Liberation Organization’s withdrawal from Beirut. Unlike Afghanistan, which harbored Osama bin Laden before Sept. 11, 2001, and was a source for the attacks on Americans, Lebanon was not a base for attacks on the American homeland.

Thus, Lebanon then was nowhere near the security threat to America that Afghanistan is today. A withdrawal then was a tactical military decision that had no direct bearing on the security of the American homeland. That cannot be said of Afghanistan today.

Many voices, to their disgrace, advocated withdrawing from Iraq at the very moment the surge starting working. They were like those whom Abraham Lincoln excoriated in his famous quip about “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.”

Hopefully, they will not make that mistake again in Afghanistan.

Today, however, fiscal conservatives face a moment of temptation. Having driven the country deeper into debt, the president has become widely unpopular. We rightly believe his profligate domestic policies must be opposed and stopped. But liberals know that driving debt high enough through prodigal domestic spending could induce some conservatives to cut everything, including defense.

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