Is Bill Buckley 'George Bush's Walter Cronkite'?

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Listeners to
talk radio and readers of mainstream conservative publications and
websites are by now thoroughly acquainted with what passes for debate
on the Iraq war in those venues. All good, patriotic conservatives
agree with President Bush's policies, and anyone who doesn't is
a traitorous liberal. Rarely is the subject of conservative or libertarian
opposition to the war raised – although Sean Hannity deserves credit
for having Pat Buchanan on his radio show fairly regularly – and
when it is, such antiwar types are deemed "unpatriotic."
The only debate permitted in these quarters centers on tactics,
not the fundamental morality of the war.

Even the president
has framed the issue in this way. Speaking to the Veterans of Foreign
Wars on January 10, he said:

The American
people know the difference between responsible and irresponsible
debate when they see it. They know the difference between honest
critics who question the way the war is being prosecuted and partisan
critics who claim that we acted in Iraq because of oil, or because
of Israel, or because we misled the American people. And they
know the difference between a loyal opposition that points out
what is wrong, and defeatists who refuse to see that anything
is right.

In short, the
only "responsible" debate involves nibbling around the
edges of the war, discussing tactics; questioning the war itself
is "irresponsible" and "partisan."

That was then;
this is now.

William F.
Buckley, Jr., for better or for worse one of the founding fathers
of the modern conservative movement, has jumped ship on the Iraq
project. In a column titled simply, "It
Didn't Work,"
the founder and editor-at-large of National
Review, the very magazine that declared all right-wing opposition
to the war treasonous in a
now-infamous cover story
, bluntly stated: "One can't doubt
that the American objective in Iraq has failed."

Buckley then
elucidated on this a bit:

Our mission
has failed because Iraqi animosities have proved uncontainable
by an invading army of 130,000 Americans. The great human reserves
that call for civil life haven’t proved strong enough. No doubt
they are latently there, but they have not been able to contend
against the ice men who move about in the shadows with bombs and
grenades and pistols.

That is, a
civil war, which most observers not blinded by the Bush administration's
prewar propaganda predicted without even consulting their crystal
balls, has broken out among deeply divided groups of people who
were previously held together only by force, as even Buckley cagily,
without quite attributing this belief to himself, admitted. "It
would not," averred Buckley, "be surprising to learn from
an anonymously cited American soldier that he can understand why
Saddam Hussein was needed to keep the Sunnis and the Shiites from
each others' [sic] throats."

Now Buckley
went on to urge President Bush – and, by extension, conservatives
in general – not to give up on the idea of transforming some parts
of the world into friendly democracies through military action,
especially if we would just get over our hang-ups with firebombing
and nuking civilian cities, as the Allies did in World War II. (I'll
direct you to Justin Raimondo's column here
for a fuller dissection of Buckley's piece.) Still, for the eminence
grise of modern-day conservatism to declare explicitly that
the Iraq mission has failed signals a potentially seismic shift
in the terms of the debate. Now, perhaps, we can get down to the
business of debating the policy itself, not just whether or not
there was enough body armor for the troops.

Reaction to
Buckley's column on the right was swift and, for the most part,
predictable. The intellectual giants at, ever tolerant
of dissent from the Bush party line, responded
with such thought-provoking gems as:

Buckley is
getting old. Some weaken with age, some don't. It's sad though.

I haven't
read any of Buckley's tripe for years. It's good to once again
realize why every now and again.

Good thing
Buckley isn't in charge. I don't like quitters.

He [Buckley]
may have been the father of the 50s Conservative Movement, but
he's one step in his grave now.

I remember
when Barry Goldwater started goings [sic] senile.

And that is
just a sampling from the first 50 responses; the Freepers went on
to make another 344 similarly intellectual retorts.

Even Buckley's
own magazine felt the need to distance itself from his comments,
that "declarations of defeat in Iraq" such as the column
by their editor-at-large "are pre-mature. . . . Defeatism is

However, one
very noteworthy conservative voice took a much less combative stand.
Perhaps because he considers Buckley "like a surrogate parent
in a way," Rush Limbaugh was much less quick to condemn Buckley's
opinion as the ravings of a senile old defeatist. In fact, Limbaugh
made what must have seemed a startling admission to most of his

You know,
a lot of people look at conservatism and see a monolith. You know,
one conservative is the same as all, and as you know, as being
a conservative, most of you are yourselves. There are many different
derivatives out there of our so-called movement. I mean, you’ve
got some great social conservatives who are protectionists. You
have some other great conservatives who have one view on foreign
policy that differs from the president’s. Some would say the
president is not actually a conservative when it comes to foreign
policy. (Emphasis mine.)

Stop the presses!
A conservative has actually admitted that Bush's foreign policy,
in the view of "some other great conservatives," does
not itself qualify as conservative! This had to have come as a shock
to the Dittoheads who have, for the past four or five years, been
subject to Bush-worship of the highest order and the denigration
of anyone who disagrees with Bush as a treasonous liberal.

Limbaugh went
on to describe, in more or less perfect detail, the standard conservative
foreign policy view of the pre-9/11 era:

Now, if you
go back, the James Baker wing of foreign policy, and many – I
could – who’s another? Well, Brent Scowcroft, who was one of the
early opponents. . . . . Their brand of foreign policy can essentially
be summed up like this: If there’s no vested, stated national
security issue, then it’s none of our business to get involved
– Pat Buchanan might fall into this, as a derivative, in a way.
Doesn’t involve us, it’s none of our business, trying to bring
democracy to people, if it doesn’t help us, is foolish. It’s a
waste of time, it’s a waste of our army, it’s a waste of our treasure,
and so forth.

This, by the
way, would also be the foreign policy of George H.W. Bush, who wrote
in his memoirs:

Trying to
eliminate Saddam . . . would have incurred incalculable human
and political costs. Apprehending him was probably impossible.
. . .We would have been forced to occupy Baghdad and, in effect,
rule Iraq. . . .[T]here was no viable “exit strategy” we could
see, violating another of our principles. . . . Had we gone the
invasion route, the United States could conceivably still be an
occupying power in a bitterly hostile land.

Bush's secretary
of defense, Dick Cheney, agreed:

I think that
the proposition of going to Baghdad is also fallacious. I think
if we were going to remove Saddam Hussein we would have had to
go all the way to Baghdad, we would have to commit a lot of force
because I do not believe he would wait in the Presidential Palace
for us to arrive. . . . And once we’d done that and we’d gotten
rid of Saddam Hussein and his government, then we’d have had to
put another government in its place. . . .

I think it
is vitally important for a President to know when to use military
force. I think it is also very important for him to know when
not to commit U.S. military force. And it’s my view that the President
got it right both times, that it would have been a mistake for
us to get bogged down in the quagmire inside Iraq.

For Limbaugh
and other conservatives and neoconservatives, however, "after
9/11, everything changed." No longer would prudence and a careful
consideration of the limitations of military force enter into the
picture when making foreign policy decisions. From now on it was
pure Wilsonianism, making the world safe for democracy regardless
of the cost in blood and treasure.

Thus a fair
question can be asked: Whose principles have changed? The conservatives
who held to the relatively restrained (but hardly isolationist)
foreign policy they had espoused throughout the preceding decades,
or those who believed that their principles, and not just with regard
to foreign policy, had to be jettisoned after 9/11? Can anyone claim
that the former are any less conservative or patriotic for not wavering
in spite of immense pressure to jump on the Bush bandwagon? Are
the latter truly conservative if they are so willing to make a complete
turnaround in their stated beliefs because of one event?

The Pittsburgh
Tribune-Review, a largely Bush-sympathetic newspaper, editorialized

For Lyndon
Johnson, it was Walter Cronkite. Will it be Bill Buckley for George
Bush? LBJ felt he had lost the American people when the former
CBS News anchor said victory in Vietnam was not possible. Now
Mr. Buckley, the conservative icon, says "our mission has
failed" in Iraq. Certainly the beginning of America's endgame
in Iraq is upon us.

Let's hope
the editors are right.

4, 2006

Tennant [send him
] is a software developer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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