Reagan Was Not a Neoconservative (He Was a Christian Realist)

BRANDON J. WEICHERT | THE WEICHERT REPORT

By now, the term “neoconservative” is as overused as it is tired–and inaccurate. Yet, when it first came into being during the late 1970s (supposedly by The New York Times), it was a contradiction in terms (“Neo” meaning “new,” and “conservative” being anything but new). However, the unlikely term–used to describe a band of hawks whose rise coincided with the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency–stuck over the years.

For far too long, President Ronald Reagan, one of the most consequential Republican presidents in modern history, has been wrongly associated with neoconservatism. In fact, this erroneous association allowed for many in the media to paint George W. Bush as the intellectual successor to Reagan in the 21st century.

Thus, the worst excesses of the Bush years (extreme deficit spending and endless wars) were seen as an extension of the Reagan ethos that dominated the 1980s.

They weren’t! 

Thanks to this unfair conflation in the media between the neocons and Reagan, today, the term “neoconservatism” evokes consternation and confusion in the minds of most people (including the neocons themselves) whenever it is brought up in public.

And, despite the irresponsible parallels made in the public’s mind between Reagan and neoconservatism, the neoconservative “movement” has been one of the most important political movements in American political history.

We must understand what it is to a) disassociate those wrongly associated with it (and identify those who are) and, b) to avoid the policy pitfalls that neocons propose. Namely, neoconservativism as it exists today–while it is associated with the Right–is actually a bipartisan concern.

For, as you’ll see, there is very little division between the neoconservatives on the Right and the neoliberals of the American Left.

In fact, I prefer to view these elements as part of one, unofficial political party which tends to dominate elite circles in the United States–from Washington, D.C. to New York (and other coastal enclaves).

My friend, Michael Walsh refers to this group as the “Permanent Bipartisan Fusion Party.” The former head of the CIA’s Bin Laden Unit describes Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Joe Lieberman as being “War Boys.”

Personally, I prefer the more academic term of “democratic globalists.” Although, the late Dr. Charles Krauthammer–most assuredly a neoconservative in his own right–argued in 2004 that he was, in fact, a “democratic realist.” 

Please Pass the Definition

Just to prove the bipartisan nature of “democratic globalism,” the likes of Former Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of Massachusetts and today’s Senator John McCain (R-AZ) are included in this lot. In the 1970s, Moynihan argued that Neoconservatism was simply a “modern version” of Wilsonian progressivism. Daniel Bell of Harvard fame asserted that he (and his fellow Neocons) were/are “right-wing social democrats.”

A clinical definition of “neoconservatism” can be found at Britannica‘s online database, which claims that neoconservatism is:

“variant of the political ideology of conservatism that combines features of traditional conservatism with political individualism and a qualified endorsement of free markets. Neoconservatism arose in the United States in the 1970s among intellectuals who shared a dislike of communism and a disdain for the counterculture of the 1960s, especially its political radicalism and its animus against authority, custom, and tradition.”

Irving Kristol, the intellectual godfather of neoconservatism, asserted that neoconservatism was less of a movement and more of a “persuasion” or a “tendency.” He also argued in 2003 that, “Neoconservatism is the first variant of American conservatism in the past century that is in the ‘American grain.’ It is hopeful, not lugubrious; forward-looking, not nostalgic; and its general tone is cheerful, not grim or dyspeptic.”

Kristol further claimed that “[Neoconservatism’s] twentieth century heroes tend to be [Teddy Roosevelt], Frankin D. Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan. Such Republican and conservative worthies as Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Dwight Eisenhower, and Barry Goldwater are politely overlooked.”

As a brief aside, proving how improper it is to lump Reagan in with the neoconservative cabal, Reagan often cited his admiration for Calvin Coolidge as being one of his inspirations for embracing his economic policies of low taxes and deregulation–policies that (as you’ll see) the neocons unfairly claim as part of their own belief set.

In other words, today’s neocons are nothing more than new age Progressives of the sort that existed in both the Republican and Democratic Parties until the rise of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency.

Toward that end, Kristol himself stated in a 1972 essay entitled “What Is a ‘Neoconservative,'” that “if the political spectrum [in the United States] moved rightward” the neoconservatives would become “neoliberal tomorrow.”

Well, friends, this is precisely what happened in 2016.

It’s no surprise that the same, tired “experts” who had been clogging the intellectual pipes of the American Right since the 1970s–the “true conservatives”–had so vociferously denounced Donald Trump (who, to be fair, was a highly controversial and unorthodox candidate).

Not only did they denounce his presidency, but many of the neocons did, in fact, become neoliberal when they willingly signed on to the Clinton campaign (the Clintons were avowed practitioners of neoliberalism).

As an aside, neoliberalism is best defined as:

“ideology and policy model that emphasizes the value of free market competition. Although there is considerable debate as to the defining features of neoliberal thought and practice, it is most commonly associated with laissez-faire economics. In particular, neoliberalism is often characterized in terms of its belief in sustained economic growth as the means to achieve human progress, its confidence in free markets as the most-efficient allocation of resources, its emphasis on minimal state intervention in economic and social affairs, and its commitment to the freedom of trade and capital.”

Indeed, primordial neocons, such as Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, began their intellectual lives as Democrats. Not only were the first generation neocons Democrats, they were Trotskyists (which explains why the late, great Christopher Hitchens–an unapologetic Trotskyist himself, found a home in American neoconservatism)!

For the uninitiated, Trotskyism is:

“a Marxist ideology based on the theory of permanent revolution first expounded by Leon Trotsky (1879–1940), one of the leading theoreticians of the Russian Bolshevik Party and a leader in the Russian Revolution. Trotskyism was to become the primary theoretical target of Stalinism (q.v.) in Russian Communist circles in the 1920s and 1930s.”

These folks were creatures of the Left.

However, where they differed with most of their contemporaries, was that they recognized the Soviet Union for what it was: a totalitarian cesspool that deprived its citizens of their humanity, and enslaved all in a backward, unpleasant, unfeeling ideology. But, try as they might today, the neocons cannot detach themselves from their initial connection with the Far Left.

In 1977, Irving Kristol looked back lovingly on his time as an avowed Trotskyist:

“I was graduated from City College in the spring of 1940, and the honor I most prized was the fact that I was a member in good standing of the Young People’s Socialist League (Fourth International). This organization was commonly, and correctly, designated as Trotskyist (not “Trotskyite,” which was a term used only by the official Communists, or “Stalinists” as we called them, of the day).”

Neoconservative Economics

Now that we’ve shown how the neocons were–and remain–members of the Left, it’s time to look at individual policies. Early on, the neocons effectively “made peace” with the Welfare State that FDR had erected in the United States (and a succession of presidents–Democratic and Republican alike–expanded upon).

While the neocons carped about the extent of centralization in the welfare state, they were not “at war” with it in the way that traditional conservatives were.

Expanding on his definition of neoconservatism, Kristol states that neoconservatives are devoutly committed to “cutting tax rates in order to stimulate steady economic growth.” The Godfather of Neoconservatism acknowledged the controversial nature of the neocon economic policy:

“The cost of this emphasis on economic growth has been an attitude toward public finance that is far less risk-averse than is the case among more traditional conservatives. Neocons would prefer not to have large budget deficits, but it is in the nature of democracy, because it seems to be in the nature of human nature, that political demagogy will frequently result in economic recklessness, so that one sometimes must shoulder budgetary deficits as the cost (temporarily, one hopes) of pushing economic growth.” 

In this way, the neocons did inherit their economic policies from the Reagan years. Yet, Reagan did not set out to expand America’s debt woes through ceaseless deficit spending. In fact, Reagan strove to balance the budget and rein in excess spending. According to Steven F. Hayward, Reagan viewed his failure to pass a “taxpayer bill of rights” (which included a balanced budget amendment) to be one of his greatest failures as president.

Of course, the Reagan years ended up being defined by massive debt creation. Most of this was from the Reagan defense buildup.

I think most Americans would agree with the fact that the buildup was well worth it–especially since the arms race played heavily into the ultimate defeat of the Soviet Union in the Cold War (the United States under Reagan broke the Soviet budget).

Although–against the neocon judgment–Reagan had attempted to make deals with the Democrats on Capitol Hill that would have allowed for the stabilization of America’s spending problem.

As the Heritage Foundation argued in 2004:

“Sure, President Reagan would have preferred to minimize the deficits by eliminating wasteful spending. However, the only way to persuade a Democratic Congress to accept a defense buildup and pro-growth tax cuts was to agree to their domestic spending demands.”

During the George W. Bush years–when the country was at Peak Neocon–everyone from Vice-President Dick Cheney to Paul Wolfowitz were operating on the concept that “deficits don’t matter.”

Naturally, when a country is experiencing a massive boom economy, such as the United States was during the Bush years (the housing bubble), all things are possible. In 2003, when Kristol was writing about the glories of “risk-taking” in the economy, frankly, he could afford to write such drivel.

After the Great Recession of 2008, and the nearly $22 trillion in debt the country has racked up, I’m not so sure this kind of mentality should continue dominating Washington, D.C.

Still, the neoconservative economic predilections flew in the face of that which Reagan actually believed (yes, he wanted to cut taxes to stimulate growth, but he also loathed the unbalanced budget that he had been handed–and that he was forced to worsen, in order to defeat the Communists).

Culture Wars

The one area where Reagan and the neocons shared a common vision was in the realm of culture. The group most responsible Reagan’s election was the traditional religious groups–the so-called “moral majority”–that worried America’s culture was deteriorating at the hands of secular progressive ideology (the result of the “Cultural Revolution” that dominated the country’s politics from the 1960s onward).

The neocons, refugees from the New Left-dominated Democratic Party, believed similarly that the culture was going to Hell. While they did not necessarily share the Evangelical Christian views of the “moral majority,” they did share their concerns over our shared culture.

That was enough for a viable political coalition to be formed with Reagan at its head. These forces would again conspire to elevate George W. Bush into the Oval Office nearly 20 years thereafter.

Some common beliefs were a strict adherence to anti-abortion policies; deep skepticism about certain forms of social engineering (a desire to cut the Department of Education or, at the very least, seriously curtail it); yearning for “cleaner” films and music–an all-out disagreement over the state of the country’s Pop Culture, which they (correctly) viewed as degenerate.

These ideas united the neoconservatives with the Moral Majority.

Foreign Policy

Interestingly enough, it is the foreign policy of the neoconservatives that is most renowned today. And, despite the fact that the neocons were generally hawks, they did not have a true foreign policy in the same way that they favored tax cuts to stimulate growth, traditional cultural values as an antidote to the Cultural Marxism espoused by the New Left, and or their standing on the welfare state.

Much as Irving Kristol described above, the neoconservative outlook on foreign policy was attitudinal; it was a set of tendencies. They were explicitly anticommunist and from there, all things fell into place.

And, thanks to their strident anticommunist views (and their negative opinion of how the United States handled its retreat from the Vietnam War), the neoconservatives became obsessed with American power.

While President Reagan most certainly did have a cadre of neoconservatives in his advisory circles–and a retinue of important supporters in the neoconservative intellectual community–he was not a neoconservative.

This is a point that his former confidant and secretary of state, George Schultz, made repeatedly throughout his memoir Turmoil and Triumph. According to Schulz, by the midpoint of his presidency, Reagan had become “uneasy” whenever his more hawkish (read, neocon) advisers would enter the Oval Office.

Who could blame Reagan? What with the Strangelovian talk about “megadeaths” and “mutual assured destruction.” Reagan famously mocked his neoconservative advisers when he wrote in his memoir that they sounded as though they were “following a baseball game” when they spoke about troop levels and the size of the nuclear arsenal compared to the Soviet capabilities.

For Reagan, a staunch Christian, it was all very macabre.

Reagan and Christian Realism

If anything, Reagan was a classical Evangelical Christian (a dirty word in today’s culture, but key to understanding the man).

No, he didn’t want to burn the world in a nuclear hellfire in order to usher in the return of Christ, like some Iranian mullah–as the Left (and the Soviets) portrayed him at the time–Reagan wanted peace. Therefore, Reagan acted in accordance with strong biblical teachings in mind. This was in stark contrast with the ham-fisted neoconservative approach to the Soviets.

Certainly, Reagan happily engaged in a period of escalation directed against the Soviets. Yes, he spoke about the Soviet Union in Manichean terms that offended the moral relativists on the American Left–and put the fear into Moscow.

But, these were part of a larger strategy on Reagan’s part.

No, he was not interested in fighting World War III against the Reds. Yes, he was interested in ending–truly ending–the Cold War. Reagan was communicating with the Kremlin using the language (and logic) of force.

President Reagan was setting parameters that he wanted the U.S.-Soviet relationship to live by–parameters that, Reagan (correctly) believed, would anticipate the peaceful resolution to the Cold War.

Thus, rather than being a neoconservative, it is more than likely that President Reagan fell into a new category of American leader that Reinhold Niebuhr referred to as a “christian realist.”

The thing about Christian Realism is that it, too, cut across party lines and it was espoused by Niebuhr around the time that Reagan was coming into his own (remember, Reagan began his political life as a New Deal Democrat of the 1940s).

Christian Realism is best defined as:

“is a political theology in the Christian tradition. It is built on three Biblical presumptions–the sinfulness of man, the freedom of man, and the validity and seriousness of the Great Commandment. The key political concepts of Christian Realism are balance of power and political responsibility. This political-theological perspective is most closely associated with the work of the 20th century American theologian and public intellectual Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr argued that the Kingdom of God cannot be realized on earth because of the innately corrupt tendencies of society. Due to the injustices that arise on earth, a person is therefore forced to compromise the ideal of the kingdom of heaven on Earth. Niebuhr argued that human perfectibility was an illusion,  highlighting the sinfulness of humanity at a time when the world was confronted by the horrors of experiences such as the Second World War, the reigns of both Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, and the Holocaust The movement was in part a reaction to the Social Gospel movement.”

Eric D. Patterson believes that Reagan outed himself as a Christian Realist in his famous “A Time for Choosing” speech in 1964.

According to Patterson, all of the themes that Niebuhr outlined as pertaining to Christian Realism can be found in Reagan’s epic speech supporting the failed Republican presidential bid of Barry S. Goldwater.

When Skepticism Becomes Denialism

It’s important to keep in mind that the neoconservatives during this period were highly skeptical of Reagan’s peace attempts with the Reds. It’s not because the neoconservatives were evil or had some alternative interest in prolonging the Cold War.

It was just that they viewed the world in such stark terms that they could not comprehend an opportunity, such as Gorbachev’s perestroika program, when it presented itself.

Compare and contrast this with what happened during the George W. Bush Administration. At any point, the neoconservatives–many of them the same folks who came up during the Reagan years–could have easily advised former President Bush to reach out to one of America’s various enemies (from a position of strength since, let’s face it, most rivals view Republican leaders as tougher than their Democratic counterparts), and attempt to broker a lasting peace agreement.

George W. Bush had a real chance to break bread with the Taliban and cleave them away from al Qaeda. Instead (and this is understandable, given that the Taliban did harbor al Qaeda and the fact that 9/11 was still so raw in people’s minds), Bush made no distinction between terrorists and the regimes that either harbored or lent support to them (except for Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, of course).

This was entirely the formulation of Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney. It became known as the Bush Doctrine. Even when the Bush Doctrine was not explicitly implemented, the hawkish, neoconservative approach blinded the Bush Administration to pristine–cheap–diplomatic opportunities that would have potentially enhanced U.S. national security and simultaneously saved American taxpayers a lot of money, and American families much grief.

No matter how evil Saddam Hussein was–and, boy, was he evil–he was still preferable to the alternatives that followed. Imagine what could have happened had Bush made an anti-terrorism deal with Saddam of the sort that he signed with Libya’s Gaddafi.

Presently, Iran is America’s greatest geopolitical rival in the Middle East. This had been the case since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Yet, after witnessing the efficient toppling of Saddam Hussein in neighboring Iraq (before realizing how unprepared for the post-war situation in Iraq the United States was), the mullahs desperately floated a highly generous peace deal to the United States through the Swiss embassy. The hard-asses in the Bush Administration poo-pooed the whole endeavor as “unserious.”

Remember, at this time, no one believed that American troops would have remained in Iraq beyond September 2003. I have it on good authority, that many planners at the Bush era National Security Council were essentially planning to “exit Iraq via Iran.”

Dexter Filkins was understating things when he called the “Global War on Terror” the “forever war.”

Lastly, the North Korean situation got worse under the hawkish approach of the George W. Bush Administration. At no point did anyone take serious the idea of actually riding out and meeting the then-North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-il.

Of course, Kim Jong-il was dissimilar from his son, Kim Jong-un (with whom President Trump has had such luck negotiating with). However, the neoconservatives didn’t even try. Not only did they not try, but the neocons in the George W. Bush Administration were disdainful of anyone who even voiced a desire to at least hear Pyongyang out.

Imagine if Reagan had listened to his hawkish, neoconservative advisers on the Soviet Union. He would have never even taken the chance. Reagan understood that fortune favored the bold.

In much the same way, then, that the current American leader, Donald Trump, took a chance in meeting with the North Korean leadership in Singapore, Reagan took the initial bold step of at least sitting down with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to see if there was any hope for peace.

Throughout the process, the neoconservatives were obsessed with the idea that the Soviets were not only planning to fight–and win–a preemptive nuclear war, but that they had resolved to engage in such a fight (and wanted to use the Reagan talks as a means of lulling the United States into a false sense of security).

As John Patrick Diggins reminded readers in 2004:

“Many neocons came to hate Mr. Reagan, saying he lost the cold war since he left office with communism still in place. Some even believed that the cold war would soon be resumed. Dick Cheney, as President George H. W. Bush’s defense secretary, dismissed perestroika (”restructuring”) as a sham and glasnost (”opening”) as a ruse, he insisted that Mr. Gorbachev would be replaced by a belligerent militarist; and warned America to prepare for the re-emergence of an aggressive communist state.”

Whatever the Soviet intentions truly were, the fact that Reagan believed in space-based missile defense as a means of rendering nuclear arms obsolete (something that few in the Reagan Administration thought was anything more than a creative bargaining tool to use against the Soviets), implied that Reagan was as skeptical about Soviet intentions as the neoconservatives. It’s just that Reagan had a constructive view on how to counter the threat that did not preclude him from meeting with Gorbachev.

Besides, the real problem with the neoconservatives isn’t that they’re hawkish. I’m a hawk. It’s that neoconservatives are hawkishly one-dimensional. They believe only that the expansive application of American hard power is the only way to achieve foreign policy goals.

Certainly, that option can never be taken off the table.

In the context of either the Cold War or the current spate of threats posed by rogue, nuclear-armed states, the neocons have taken skepticism of the intentions of American rivals, such as North Korea, to such extremes that they effectively lock the United States into the most dangerous and destructive course imaginable: war.

And, as we’ve seen in the post-Cold War era, neoconservatives started tethering these views to amorphous, non-strategic goals (like genocide prevention–or, “humanitarian warfare”).

As George F. Kennan, the father of containment against the Soviet Union at the start of the Cold War, once stated, “a foreign policy aimed at the achievement of total security is the one thing I can think of that is entirely capable of bringing this country to a point where it will have no security at all.” This is a riff on Frederick the Great of Prussia, who once told an adviser that, “if you defend everything you are, in fact, defending nothing.”

The Wilderness Years

Anyway, the neoconservatives started losing sway over Reagan, when it became clear that the Soviets wanted to negotiate a real settlement with the United States. By the Iran-Contra Affair, in which many leading neoconservatives of the time were tarnished (and, in the case of Eliot Abrams, were convicted of criminal behavior), the neoconservatives were on the proverbial outs.

In his epic history of the neoconservative movement, Imperial Designs: Neoconservatism and the New Pax Americana, Gary Dorrien explains how the neocons entered into a sort of wilderness period.

Yes, a handful were retained during the George H.W. Bush Administration. But, they were outweighed by the presence of realists, such as Brent Scowcroft, U.S. Army General Colin Powell, and then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney (you read that right)–to say nothing of President George H.W. Bush himself.

The overriding influence that the realists had in the George H.W. Bush Administration was most evident in the way that Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Paul Wolfowitz was utterly sidelined after his draft of the 1992 Defense Planning Guidance document leaked to The New York Times. 

According to The New York Times in 1992:

“The classified document makes the case for a world dominated by one superpower whose position can be perpetuated by constructive behavior and sufficient military might to deter any nation or group of nations from challenging American primacy. Rejecting Collective Approach.”

After the document was leaked, it was rewritten and Wolfowitz was sidelined by the Bush national security team. Yet, the assumptions made by Wolfowitz were quickly internalized by both Wolfowitz and the rest of the neoconservatives in Washington–most of whom had landed in cushy jobs at think tanks and other academic institutions (what Jacob Heilbrunn brilliantly referred to as the “military-intellectual complex”).

With the shock election of Bill Clinton to the presidency in 1992, the neocons existed in the private sector. While they may have been discredited, as time wore on, their influence again began to rejuvenate–particularly as nuclear-armed rogue states and terrorism came to the fore. Plus, the neoliberals of the Clinton Administration found much in common with the neoconservatives who nominally belonged to the Right.

Evoking Dorrien, during this time, the neoconservative movement really split into at least two similar, yet distinct, fashions. Irving Kristol and his son, Bill Kristol, as well as Norman Podhoretz and his son, John Podhoretz, championed the cause of democratic globalism.

Meanwhile, Dr. Charles Krauthammer began to call for democratic realism. Although, both democratic globalists and democratic realists agreed on the big picture. They simply disagreed on the scope.

Even fewer neoconservatives–like Jeanne Kirkpatrick–joined with Patrick J. Buchanan to call for America to become a “normal country in a normal time” (please note: this essay is only available for purchase from academic sources). She and Buchanan were both lampooned for their troubles.

Naturally, they had the last laugh, as history of late has proven their calls to be more prescient than anything the neocons or the neoliberals wanted.

Ultimately, the democratic globalists morphed over time. Yes, the Left hit the Bush Administration for the excesses (and failures) of the Iraq War in 2003, but, given how the Obama foreign policy ended up going, there was no real difference between the neoliberal approach to foreign policy and the neoconservative one.

Hence, why I believe that the term “democratic globalist” not only applies to those neocons who bought into the notion of permanent global liberation and totally laissez-faire capitalism, but also to those neoliberals who dominate the Left.

Both viewpoints share a universalist, Left-leaning worldview–and both are more than willing to use force to achieve their ends.

Democratic globalism is the ideology of America’s funny sort of empire. It demands that the United States go abroad in search of foreign monsters to destroy–and that it do so out of a misplaced sense of moralism (which justifies the continued expansion of America’s military and economic base–which most democratic globalists personally and professionally benefit from).

One of These Things Is Not Like the Other…

Given all that I’ve described above, please do everyone a favor and quit associating Ronald Reagan with neoconservatism. Yes, they shared a handful of similar goals and Reagan did employ a group of neocons.

Yet, as any Reagan era insider would have told you, these were not the folks who ultimately held sway over Reagan. Also, such individuals–if anything–complicated the president’s ability to make a lasting peace deal with the Soviets.

Like I said above, Reagan was more of a Christian Realist than he was a neoconservative. He certainly shared some similarities with the hawkish neoconservatives. But, where similarities existed, they were superficial. Reagan was never a neocon and, as evidence suggests, he was especially weary of neoconservatives.

Just because Reagan took a “peace through strength” approach that neocons advocated, it does not mean he was a neocon himself–as so many during the George W. Bush years argued.

Instead, it simply meant that Reagan held the classical Christian view of Mankind as a fallen being capable of immense sin. Where the differences between Reagan’s Christian Realism and, say, George W. Bush’s neoconservatism appear, the results are shockingly stark.

Moving forward, Americans should understand that Donald J. Trump is not a neoconservative. But, like Reagan, he has employed a large cohort of individuals who are considered to be of the “neoconservative persuasion.”

So far, the president has managed to avoid taking a Max Boot-level neoconservative approach to foreign policy (you never go full Max Boot). However, just as with Reagan and his desire to peacefully end the Cold War, it remains to be seen if the neocons win the day in the ongoing policy battles.

All of the talk of the Deep State, whether you agree with the assertions made about it or not, underscore a larger concern among many Americans–can a duly elected president (regardless of party and irrespective of their foreign policy preferences) enact the programs they were elected to implement without the risk of a vast, administrative state undoing or undermining those policies?

 

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