Ronald Reagan made the point, in his first inaugural address as president, that it was inappropriate to presume that military might alone made a country great–or secure.
"Above all, we must realize that no arsenal, or no weapon in the arsenals of the world, is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women," Reagan declared in 1981. "It is a weapon our adversaries in today’s world do not have."
Reagan believed in a strong national defense.
But the 40th president sought to express the traditional Republican value that said the point of a strong defense was to defend — not to offend.
A nation built defenses to avoid having to use them, not to flaunt them or to abuse their awesome power.
The Reagan premise was "peace through strength" and prodded by a muscular Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign in the United States and anti-nuclear campaigners in Europe, Reagan moved from sloganeering to actual disarmament negotiations with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. It was Reagan who told Gorbachev: "Our people would cheer if we got rid of the missiles."
When the two men began negotiating toward that end, the then-influential Conservative Caucus (think of it as a Tea Party movement without the facade of populism) bought full-page advertisements in newspapers and magazines that accused Reagan of "appeasement."
"The administration hasn’t co-opted the peace movement," complained an embittered Terry Dolan, the chairman of the National Conservative Political Action Committee. "The peace movement has co-opted the administration."
For those who followed Reagan’s career, that may sound like a strange statement coming from an self-avowed conservative.
But no stranger than former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin’s surreal statement about President Obama’s observation that the United States is a military superpower "whether we like it or not."
Palin, who can see Russia from her house (just about), pronounced herself to have been duly "taken aback" by Obama’s choice of words.
"I would hope that our leaders in Washington, D.C., understand we like to be a dominant superpower," she announced. "I don’t understand a world view where we have to question whether we like it or not that America is powerful."
Palin was, of course, deliberately mischaracterizing Obama.
The president was making a case for the United States using its power–perhaps more aggressively than some liberals and anti-interventionist conservatives would prefer.
"It is a vital national security interest of the United States to reduce these conflicts because whether we like it or not, we remain a dominant military superpower, and when conflicts break out, one way or another we get pulled into them," said the president. "And that ends up costing us significantly in terms of both blood and treasure."
In that, Obama sounded quite a bit like Ronald Reagan — and Dwight Eisenhower and a host of other Republicans presidents, secretaries of state and senators.