Buckley: We Did Win (Sort Of)

Well, William F. Buckley had me confused for a minute – but I think I have him figured out now.

As most everyone knows, the conservative icon declared Iraq a lost cause a few days ago. Buckley’s earlier missive was steeped in the language of failure and defeat. Now, he follows up with a piece that seems to argue that defeat is in the eye of the beholder:

President Bush will be seen commanding his troops to march on. He will speak of victory. One’s guess is that there will be attenuation in the definition of victory. Three years ago (March, 2003) I wrote in this space, “What Mr. Bush proposes to do is to unseat Saddam Hussein and to eliminate his investments in aggressive weaponry. We can devoutly hope that internecine tribal antagonisms will be subsumed in the fresh air of a despot removed, and that the restoration of freedom will be productive. But these concomitant developments can’t be either foreseen by the United States, or implemented by us. What Mr. Bush can accomplish is the removal of a regime and its infrastructure. The Iraqi people will have to take it from there.”

The special challenge that Mr. Bush now faces is political. How to pull away leaving the sense of mission accomplished? He has presided over a great deal. The deposition of Saddam, his imprisonment and (never-ending) prosecution; the institution of the working rudiments of democracy. A government. And a continuing effort to train natives to take over policing the rebaptized state.

All of this is marred by shortcomings. Some observers believe them critical, enough so to conclude that the war to change Iraq’s society has not been won, and cannot be won without in investment of time and resources we are not willing to make in Iraq. Other challenges loom, in North Korea and in Iran, which will tax us contingently, on a larger scale than the Saddam/Iraq war. These will need to take precedence.

Mr. Bush is entitled to maintain, doggedly and persuasively, that he took the right steps—up through the overthrow of Saddam and the exposure of an armory without weapons of mass destruction. From that point on, the challenge required more than his deployable resources. His political reputation will rest on his success in making that point and ceding realistically to realities we are not going to cope with, and ought not to attempt to cope with.

Is there a contradiction here?

Not really…going back to this eye of the beholder business, I think Buckley is saying that Iraq is a lost cause and a victory at the same time, but not for the same people. For Buckley, the war can be held to be a (much qualified) success; we overthrew Saddam and started a process that we can neither anticipate nor much influence.

For Bush, though, the war must be seen as a failure if it stops short of transforming the Middle East; for Bush has defined the struggle in terms that transcend the overthrow of a tyrant and the removal of a threat, imminent or otherwise. He has defined the mission in Iraq as a stop in the far longer War on Terror, a war that cannot be won without winning hearts and minds, and our presence in Iraq is not likely to accomplish that (I think Buckley is saying) without incurring an unacceptable cost in lives and treasure, at a time when we need the flexibility to respond to other threats.

Do I agree? No…but I must issue a qualification of my own. I still believe the war is winnable, on Bush’s terms, as well…but I will admit we have entered a very risky period. There must be progress on two fronts for the Bush view to prevail: (1) an acceleration of efforts to form a legitimate government acceptable to most parties (all parties is probably a pipe dream), and (2) the militias (or, if you prefer, death squads) must be dealt with.

If there is no improvement in either of these areas in the next few months, the Buckley view may begin to look quite prescient…

UPDATE 4:31 p.m.: Bush helpfully supplies his definition of prevailing in an interview with ABC’s Elizabeth Vargas:

…[T]he definition of prevailing is Iraq that can govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself, an Iraq that is not a safe haven for people like Zarqawi or al Qaeda and its affiliates, an Iraq which becomes an ally in the war on terror.

We’re not there yet…

17 comments to Buckley: We Did Win (Sort Of)

  • megapotamus

    Hey man, what US government or any other in history was acceptable to all parties involved? I’m more optimistic than you or most folks in that, in my book, the Iraq war is over and won. This is Reconstruction or the Marshall Plan phase. Now, the GWOT is of course a far different question and Iran looms most provocatively there but to the extent Iraq is severable, it’s won. A new sovereignty, new habits of democracy and prosperity are already inexpungable from Iraq. Bush has given the Arab autocracies a nasty tumour right in the belly. Yes, it’s terminal. Yea!

  • Well, I agree that the war is already a success in many ways…but I can also see that in many ways, we have not achieved what we set out to do…

    I think Buckley overstates things to say that all is lost, though…I think even in the areas that are unacceptable, we can still prevail, but I worry that our patience is running thin…

  • too many steves

    There is an inalterable truth in what Buckley wrote earlier:

    “We can devoutly hope that internecine tribal antagonisms will be subsumed in the fresh air of a despot removed, and that the restoration of freedom will be productive. But these concomitant developments can’t be either foreseen by the United States, or implemented by us. What Mr. Bush can accomplish is the removal of a regime and its infrastructure. The Iraqi people will have to take it from there.”

    The success or failure of this phase of the Iraq “engagement” rests on the shoulders of the Iraqi’s. We can push, cajole, negotiate, and, even, force the issues and discussion, but at the end of the day they will determine the final outcome.

    The longer they take to decide, the more we should focus on a date certain to depart.

  • dmac

    If a civil war is inevitable, it may have an endgame effect of convincing the Sunnis that the only option left for them (after the inevitable bloodletting) is a political solution. Sometimes a nation must have a civil war, in order to settle long – standing grievances and grudges.

    Once we leave the Shias to the tender mercies of the Shia majority, you could make a good case that they’ll suddenly start singing a different tune (and stop supporting the foreign – based terrorist attacks) in order to save what’s left of their culture (and people).

    That doesn’t mean I wish for a civil war to happen, but we cannot get caught up in a wider war over the ensuing months – the public won’t tolerate it. We’ve basically served the part of the honorable and non – partisan midwife for their democracy – our efforts cannot be judged for many years down the road.

  • dmac

    Whoops, meant to say “once we leave the Sunnis to the tender mercies of the Shia…”

  • I figured that’s what you meant…sounds like a lot of D’08ers wouldn’t have too big a problem if we began a troop drawdown, eh? Or are you guys there yet?…

  • I worry about the notion of “our patience running thin.” My fear is that the initial call to war (namely to disarm an Iraq with weapons of mass destruction) could have and probably should have been given a different framework. The war in Iraq, in my eyes at least, is not just a war in the name of security for the United States, but rather a war to spread democracy in a land that so desperately needs it. Although I doubt that Bush could have authorized an invasion of Iraq solely in the name of promoting democracy, I wish that he could have. The problem with the whole thing, the whole war, on my view, is that so many Americans have lost sight of exactly what it is that has made us the powerful nation that we are-democracy. To make a long spiel short, I think that withdrawal at this point is not an option. If we stay the course we can send the world (ie. North Korea and Iran) the message that democracy is and should be the way of freedom and the way of the future….

  • Mason, I’m all for your idea of the war, and I wish it had been framed in different terms, too…something Christopher Hitchens, among others, has been quite eloquent on. I guess all the negativity is having an effect on me…but there’s the rub for the Bush administration – if even hardcore war supporters like me are starting to get the blues, that means Bush needs to (yet again) go on the offensive in terms of selling the war and our objectives…he was doing a good job, but the NSA story and the Cheney non-story seem to have got him sidetracked, to say nothing of the bombing of the shrine…

  • peter

    So you think that our government ought to be in the business of invading other countries to force our form of government on them?

    While it is easy to recommend staying the course from a computer keyboard, the soldiers who are actually in Iraq consider the war to be unwinnable, and 72% think we should withdraw within a year (29% say immediately):


  • No, peter, not to force our form of government on them – to change the dynamic in the Middle East by ridding it of a long-term threat to security and an indisputedly evil tyrant. If nothing else good comes of the Iraq adventure, we did put Saddam out of business.

    We can’t do this everywhere, of course – but Bush was right that the status quo in the Middle East had to change – how soon you seem to have forgotten what happened in Lebanon, and the voluntary disclosure of Libya’s WMD program, along with its dismantlement.

    I know you’re an opponent of the war, but if you just want to spread doom and gloom, as I’ve said before, I don’t think that’s very productive. Suit yourself, however….

  • peter

    The post was in response to Mason, who does seem to advocate implanting democracy through military force.

    As for changing the dynamic of the Middle East: it has changed for the worse. The threat posed by Hussein to American interests was minimal, and we replaced it with a much larger threat: expanded Iranian influence in Iraq and throughout the Middle East. Say what you will about Hussein, but his regime was a countervailing force to Iran. I don’t see the point in losing American lives and treasure to remove a dictator when the result is to strengthen an even more worrisome foe, which has (or will soon have) real weapons of mass destruction.

    As for spreading gloom and doom: I call them as I see them (and, apparently, as the soldiers on the ground also see it). As Ronald Reagan said, facts are stubborn things, and the situation there is indisputably gloomy. The only way to find a solution to the problem is to look at it with clear eyes, and if the result is a gloomy one, then so be it.

  • Well, and Stalin kept things together nicely in the Soviet Union, didn’t he? Of course, like Hussein, he had to murder his own countrymen indiscriminately, but hey, the Soviet Union was a whole lot more stable than Russia is now…

  • Of course I’m being facetious – this is an argument that could go on for days…yes, you’re entitled to be gloomy, of course…

  • dmac

    …”but his regime was a countervailing force to Iran.”

    Specious argument, and illogical as well.

  • peter

    Of course Iraq was a counterweight to Iran. They have been regional enemies for centuries and fought each other in the 1980′s. Just as Bush is in India today to cultivate them as a countervailing force to China, the existence of Hussein’s army was a restraining force on Iranian ambitions. Now that Iraq is divided along ethnic lines, the Iranians are able to exercise considerable influence among Iraqi Shia. For example, the Prime Minister who was appointed two weeks ago has extensive ties to Tehran.

    Moreover, the mullahs see the American Army bogged down next door and are now more aggressive in flaunting the rest of the world with their nuclear program. Iran turned out to be the big winner from the Iraqi invasion.

  • megapotamus

    “Say what you will about Hussein,”

    And what shall we say of those who declare Hussein immaterial? Not much good….

  • Sean P

    I’m suprised this needs to be repeated, but Iraq isn’t the only nation that borders on Iran that has a major deployment of US troops and which we have accused Iran of meddling in.

    Remember Afganistan? The country that was descending into anarchy when our reconstruction efforts weren’t proceeding fast enough? Al Queda and the Iranian government, among others, have simply diverted their efforts from Afganistan towards Iraq. Probably the right move politically from their part, as the Iraq war never had the same level of support here in the US that the Afganistan war did, but the move is a zero sum game for Al Queda and Iran’s standpoint, as they seem to lack the ability to wage a full scale operation against the US in two countries. Of course, if the US DOES pull out of Iraq before the Iraqis can govern themselves, guess where Al Queda and Iran’s resources will go next?

    As far Iran’s influence on Iraq, as Hitchens noted, that cuts two ways. The people in Iran have witnessed several free and (largely) democratic elections, ones in which the candidates and outcome were not preselected. The people in Iran have also had a chance to observe an Ayatolla who is content to act as a spiritual advisor and does not seek to rule the nation outright. The violence in Iraq is terrible, but not more so than Iran (where opponents are literally whipped to death, in public, for merely questioning the regime) , and certainly less than what occurred during Saddam’s rule (and of course, most of the violence being committed in Iraq is done by henchmen of Saddam’s regime, so it seems extremely obscene to blame the US for those deaths).

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