Buckley Throws in the Towel

Posted: Mar 14, 2006 12:56 PM

My old friend and longtime colleague Bill Buckley has thrown in the towel on Iraq. In a column dated Feb. 24, he declares, "One can't doubt that the American objective in Iraq has failed," and concludes that President Bush must face up to "the acknowledgment of defeat."

The precipitating factor seems to have been the terrorists' bombing of the Shiites' Golden Mosque in Samarra. Buckley believes that this event conclusively ended whatever hope there was that the Iraqis would suspend their religious divisions and submit to a "political structure that guaranteed them religious freedom." Together with what he considers our failure to "succeed in training Iraqi soldiers and policymakers to cope with insurgents bent on violence," he believes it is plain that we cannot succeed in Iraq without resorting to "measures (we used these against Hirohito and Hitler) which we simply are not prepared to take."

Bill generously leaves it to Bush to work out the details of the disengagement, but it is pretty clear that it would be an appallingly messy process. Sens. Joseph Biden, D-Del., and John McCain, R-Ariz., men of strong but differing opinions on many subjects, neither of whom has hesitated to disagree publicly with Bush in the past, are both on record as insisting that we must remain in Iraq. As a matter of fact, the Republicans in Congress are by and large united on this, and the Democrats, though divided, have a large contingent of hawks, including Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y.

When Tim Russert, on "Meet the Press," called Buckley's conclusion to the attention of Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the general suggested mildly that Bill would do well to visit Iraq and see for himself how things are going there. It's not bad advice; between the journalistic instinct to dwell on bad news and the bitter hostility of most American reporters toward Bush, nobody supposes that the purveyors of news from Iraq have been doing the administration any favors.

But it is probably true that there are enough factors in play to justify almost any conclusion one wants to reach concerning Iraq. Bush is condemned regularly by the Democrats for invading the country, even though many of them endorsed his doing so. Certainly, the world's intelligence agencies were united, at the time, in believing that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, and it would surely have been irresponsible of Bush to disregard the implications of that belief.

But once we had invaded, and it had been established that no such weapons were there, the remaining justification for the invasion was the hope that post-Hussein Iraq could be transformed into a democracy and a beacon of light for the rest of the tormented nations of the Middle East. Unquestionably, bringing about that transformation has proven, in military terms, a vastly more difficult process than Bush envisioned in the happy days following the toppling of Hussein. And political progress, though perhaps rapid when compared with similar developments in the histories of the United States and Europe, has seemed dangerously precarious. It is these problems that have finally exhausted Buckley's patience and led him to declare that "the administration has, now, to cope with failure."

Well, maybe. But the moment when a strategy as comprehensive as America's in the Middle East becomes unsustainable can be hard to discern. The bombing of the Golden Dome was a blow, no doubt about it, but it is already receding in memory. And our individual abilities to put up with bad news vary, both from others' and internally.

As I said in a recent column, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi can't oust the United States from Iraq and he knows it. The United States can, and will, prevail there if it is determined to do so. But success can be delayed and made more costly by the terrorist tactics of suicide bombings, etc., and it can be replaced by total defeat if -- but only if -- the American people lose the will to go on.