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…