Published in the New York Times, Monday, January 29, 2007
January 29, 2007, 5:44 pm
The Growing Chorus of Antiwar Conservatives
In many ways, the war in Iraq is looking more and more like the last days of the Vietnam War. It is becoming increasingly clear that the situation is hopeless and the administration’s strategy is incapable of achieving victory. Yet the president insists that additional resources can still turn the situation around. Although he has little credibility left, many continue to support him in some vain hope that the sacrifices of our soldiers can somehow be vindicated and given meaning.
But unlike in 1973 and 1974, when political conservatives rallied around President Nixon, growing numbers of those in the conservative intelligentsia have concluded that the war was wrong to begin with and is now unwinnable. Even as Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity and other right-wing talk show hosts have, over the last year, loudly ratcheted up their support for the war, the number of conservative critics has been growing almost daily.
As long ago as June 2004, William F. Buckley Jr., founder of the National Review magazine, was quoted in The New York Times saying, “With the benefit of minute hindsight, Saddam Hussein wasn’t the kind of extra-territorial menace that was assumed by the administration a year ago. If I knew then what I know now about what kind of situation we would be in, I would have opposed the war.”
By 2006, the voices of prominent conservatives pronouncing the war and its conduct to be deeply flawed were becoming a chorus. In April, Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, told students at the University of South Dakota, “It was an enormous mistake for us to try to occupy that country after June of 2003. We have to pull back and we have to recognize it.”
In June, John Derbyshire of National Review published a mea culpa in that magazine, calling the Iraq war “obviously a gross error.” He went on to say, “It’s a tough thing, to admit you were wrong. It’s way tough if you’re a big-name pundit with a reputation to preserve. For those of us down at the bottom of the pundit pecking order, the stakes aren’t so high. I, at any rate, am willing to eat some crow and say: I wish I had never given any support to this fool war.”
The following month, Milton Friedman, the free-market economist who died in November, told The Wall Street Journal that he had opposed the Iraq war from the beginning. “I think it was a mistake, for the simple reason that I do not believe the United States of America ought to be involved in aggression.”
Since President Bush announced a “surge” of 21,500 additional troops to Iraq in early 2007, many more conservatives have spoken out. On Jan. 11, General William Odom of the conservative Hudson Institute wrote an article in The New York Daily News opposing the surge and calling for an immediate pullout. “Write off the democracy goal as a draw, declare a tactical victory, and withdraw in good order,” Odom wrote. “Of course a terrible mess will be left, but more troops and money can only make it worse, not better.”
That same day Rod Dreher, a former editor at National Review, spoke out against the war in a deeply felt commentary on National Public Radio. Dreher said:
As President Bush marched the country to war with Iraq, even some voices on the Right warned that this was a fool’s errand. I dismissed them angrily. I thought them unpatriotic. But almost four years later, I see that I was the fool.
In Iraq, this Republican President for whom I voted twice has shamed our country with weakness and incompetence, and the consequences of his failure will be far, far worse than anything Jimmy Carter did.
The fraud, the mendacity, the utter haplessness of our government’s conduct of the Iraq war have been shattering to me. It wasn’t supposed to turn out like this. Not under a Republican President.
I turn 40 next month – middle aged at last – a time of discovering limits, finitude. I expected that. But what I did not expect was to see the limits of finitude of American power revealed so painfully. I did not expect Vietnam.
As I sat in my office last night watching President Bush deliver his big speech, I seethed over the waste, the folly, the stupidity of this war. I had a heretical thought for a conservative – that I have got to teach my kids that they must never, ever take Presidents and Generals at their word – that their government will send them to kill and die for noble-sounding rot – that they have to question authority.
On the walk to the parking garage, it hit me. Hadn’t the hippies tried to tell my generation that? Why had we scorned them so blithely? Will my children, too small now to understand Iraq, take me seriously when I tell them one day what powerful men, whom their father once believed in, did to this country? Heavy thoughts for someone who is still a conservative despite it all. It was a long drive home.
Even Republican loyalist Peggy Noonan, a speechwriter for Ronald Reagan and columnist for The Wall Street Journal, had to admit that she saw little hope for success in Bush’s latest effort. On Jan. 12, she wrote:
I had the odd and wholly unexpected experience of feeling supportive of a troop increase until I saw the president’s speech arguing for it. What a jarring, furtive-seeming thing it was.
Surely the Iraq endeavor and those who’ve fought in it and put their hopes in it deserve more than collapse, withdrawal and calamity. But . . . 20,000 more troops, who’ll start to arrive over the next few months, and we’ll press the Iraqi government to be tougher? A young journalist who is generally supportive of the president said, “So this is it? The grand strategy is to repeat a strategy they weren’t able to execute the first time they tried it?”
What a dreadful mistake the president made when he stiff-armed the Iraq Study Group report, which had bipartisan membership, an air of mutual party investment, the imprimatur of what remains of or is understood as the American establishment, and was inherently moderate in its proposals: move diplomatically, adjust the way we pursue the mission, realize abrupt withdrawal would yield chaos. There were enough good ideas, anodyne suggestions and blurry recommendations (blurriness is not always bad in foreign affairs – confusion can buy time!) that I thought the administration would see it as a life raft. Instead they pushed it away.
William Buckley was also unimpressed by the president’s new strategy. In a Jan. 15 column, he opposed the surge, saying, “A geographical division of Iraq is inevitable. The major players are obvious. It isn’t plain how America, as an outside party, could play an effective role, let alone one that was decisive, in that national redefinition. And America would do well to encourage non-American agents to act as brokers – people with names like Ban Ki-moon.”
Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer was equally unimpressed. In a Jan. 19 column, he opposed the surge on the grounds that the present Iraqi government is untrustworthy. He called for a pullback from Baghdad, but not from Iraq, until the sectarian civil war had fought itself out or the government was able to restore control.
For now, National Review and other conservative publications remain officially in favor of the war, despite the defection of some of their longtime contributors. However, political reality may soon force a break with the White House. Conservative columnist Robert Novak reports that Republican politicians are increasingly restless over Iraq and that their opposition has risen since Bush’s troop surge announcement: “What was whispered privately is now declared publicly.” He went on to quote a prominent Republican strategist as saying, “Iraq is a black hole for the Republican Party.” Novak cited a Republican pollster who predicted losses greater than 2006 if Iraq is still an issue in 2008.
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- Plainfield resident since 1983. Retired as the city's Public Information Officer in 2006; prior to that Community Programs Coordinator for the Plainfield Public Library. Founding member and past president of: Faith, Bricks & Mortar; Residents Supporting Victorian Plainfield; and PCO (the outreach nonprofit of Grace Episcopal Church). Supporter of the Library, Symphony and Historic Society as well as other community groups, and active in Democratic politics.