Today’s opinion piece by William F. Buckley, the father of American conservatism, highlights the difference between traditional conservatives and the Bush Administration’s efforts in foreign policy, along with a host of other arenas. While the Left has railed about conservatives — especially the dreaded neocons, a term that has an accusatory hint of “Zionist” to it — they have missed the true historical parallels between the post-9/11 policy and that of an American president of almost a century earlier.
Buckley puts pen to paper to declare the American intervention in Iraq a failure, a position which undoubtedly many leftists will hail as a new schism on the right:
One can’t doubt that the American objective in Iraq has failed. The same edition of the paper quotes a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute. Mr. Reuel Marc Gerecht backed the American intervention. He now speaks of the bombing of the especially sacred Shiite mosque in Samara and what that has precipitated in the way of revenge. He concludes that “The bombing has completely demolished” what was being attempted — to bring Sunnis into the defense and interior ministries.
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.
The Iraqis we hear about are first indignant, and then infuriated, that Americans aren’t on the scene to protect them and to punish the aggressors.
One hesitates to get into an argument with the icon of conservative philosophy, but in this case, Buckley isn’t reversing course; he’s expounding an argument that conservatives (paleoconservatives, if you will) have always made in terms of foreign engagement. His argument appears sound on a superficial level because it only addresses the actions of the moment. The insurgents won an important but momentary victory when they successfully collapsed the shrine of Askariya, but what Buckley wants to do is to grant them the war by default.
Buckley also erects somewhat of a strawman in this passage, one that exposes the real intent of his essay:
It would not 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’ throats.
And here we have the essential Buckley, revealed. The traditional conservative position reached its most potent expression in the policies of Brent Scowcroft, the last bastion of realpolitik in government. Conservatives for decades fought against foreign entanglements and the liberation of people from tyranny for its own sake, only espousing military intervention when clear and short-term American economic or strategic interests came under threat. Buckley and Scowcroft would never have suggested that the US depose Saddam Hussein, mostly because they would not have thought that the oppression and genocide of Iraqis was worth the expense and headache of liberation. That thought kept the US from pushing through to Baghdad in 1991, when Scowcroft had Bush 41’s ear, and when Saddam could have easily been toppled.
Bush 43 is not a conservative in foreign policy, at least since 9/11 taught him that genocidal tyrannies in Southwest Asia could produce immediate and existential threats to the American homeland. He has been much closer to Woodrow Wilson than his father or even Ronald Reagan in his reaction to the world.
The parallels with Wilson are rather striking. Originally elected due to a schism in the powerful GOP between an interventionist Teddy Roosevelt and an isolationist Republican establishment, Wilson believed in foreign interventions only to expand the role of liberty and democracy. He refused to ally with the West in World War I because he (correctly) believed that the entire conflict was little more than a land dispute between a number of empires and would-be imperialists. He got re-elected in 1916 primarily because he kept America out of the war, despite the sinking of the Lusitania over a year earlier. It wasn’t until the Zimmerman note — a clumsy and stupid German diplomatic effort to get Mexico to declare war on the US to keep America out of Europe — that Wilson finally agreed to join the war effort.
Even then, Wilson made plain that America did not side with imperialists. He declared the US as “associates” of Britain and France, not allies, and publicly declared that US interests in the war focused on liberation and not acquisition. Much to the surprise of the British, Wilson meant what he said, and it caused severe problems at the end of the war — problems that find their echoes in the current conflict.
When the Western forces broke the German/Austrian effort, Wilson wanted to dictate the terms of the peace along the same philosophy as when he entered the war. The British and French had other ideas. Most famously, they destoyed the German economy by imposing impossible reparations demands and forced the abdication of the monarchy in favor of a republic. They then undermined the republic’s credibility by forcing it to agree to the Versailles codicils that led to the economic collapse.
Less famously, the British and the French rushed to carve up the Middle East as fast as possible, and attempted to force the US to assist them. The Sykes-Picot Agreement led to even less coherent arrangements, creating Iraq out of whole cloth and establishing “mandates” which became a new form of colonialism. Wilson opposed these efforts to cash in from the war, wanting to establish democracy and self-determination as the guiding principle for the areas that formerly comprised the Ottoman Empire. He tried to use the new League of Nations to enforce this, but the isolationist and conservative Senate (in control of the GOP) refused to ratify the American entry into the League — which allowed the British and the French to create the Mandates as a dictate of the League itself.
Why did the British and the French install these petty despots as hereditary rulers? It was the lowest-cost solution in immediate terms. It didn’t require any lasting commitment to establish a new rule of law. They relied on strongman rule instead of self-determination because self-determination would have taken too long.
Wilson, like George Bush, saw democracy and self-determination as the only strategy that would deradicalize and modernize the Middle East. Instead, the isolationists and conservatives left the area to the imperialists, who quickly set up petty monarchs that in many cases had no historical connection to the regions they ruled. Those decisions have resulted in the morass that we have seen in the Middle East ever since.
Now, almost a century later, Bush has launched a second Wilsonian effort to use democracy as a transformative agent to reduce or eliminate the radicalism borne of oppression and the terrorism borne of radicalism in the region. This is true liberalism, not the leftist/socialist tripe that hijacked its name — the effort to spread liberty and individual freedom as a forward strategy against the evils that oppression breeds. Buckley may be proven correct in the long run, but given that the traditional conservative impulse in this region led us to the century of war and conflict that culminated in the 9/11 attacks, we can afford to spend more time and effort to see if Wilsonian impulses fare any better.
UPDATE: Mark Coffey notes that Glenn Greenwald attacks me for attacking Bill Buckley. Huh? I called him a conservative. That’s not an attack, it’s an accurate description. I’m not “preparing a noose” for Buckley, nor am I patting him on the noggin and pushing him over a cliff. I’m just disagreeing with him, that’s all. Nor does Greenwald actually bother to deal with my argument, but instead gets himself in a tizzy because I dared to post my opinion on Buckley’s assessment.
Apparently Greenwald cannot conceive of free thinking among conservatives. First he assumes we all act in lockstep, then he screeches when we disagree. That’s what passes for analysis on the Left, I suppose — namecalling and hyperbole.