Bill Buckley, Rebel with a Cause
William F. Buckley may have died before completing that final column his son said he appeared to be working on, but in death Buckley was vibrantly declarative. While Buckley is said to have husbanded the conservative zeitgeist of at least three decades, the reactions to his passing elucidate the begrudging insularity of today's conservative ethos-or, rather that of self-identified conservatives. Indeed, when the standard-bearers of the Right were faced with the inconvenience of eulogizing their erstwhile comrade, they culled (cherry picked, if you will) Buckley's challenge to their most dogged positions on the paramount issues of today: Iraq and Iran.
The discordance between Buckley's conservatism and today's movement has been widely noted, and that incongruity is indeed put into focus with his passing. And it would not have been surprising to see the opinionati of the Right suitably downplay Buckley's dissenting opinions. But a graceful downplaying of Buckley's defections eluded them. Instead, it has delivered a whitewash. Such disregard of Buckley's positions, which he clearly arrived at with reticence, is difficult to justify. And yet Buckley (had he been able to observe the epilogue to his final chapter) may have viewed such mischaracterization with aplomb, humor or the almost mournful detachment with which he seemed to view the world in his final years.
Buckley eventually delivered blunt criticism of President Bush and the Iraq War. And while it is true that he came to conclude that Bush was not a conservative, at other times he demurred on that point, elliptically saying that Bush failed to adhere to conservative precepts but was himself a conservative.
Buckley's hand wringing on that score may have been beside the point. It is true that some conservatives today have held that the Iraq war and the zeal that prevailed in the run-up to the invasion represent only a fringe of the Right, namely the neoconservatives, which Buckley was straightforwardly critical of. In an interview with Bloomberg in March 2006, he said
The neoconservative hubris, which sort of assigns to America some kind of geo-strategic responsibility for maximizing democracy, overstretches the resources of a free country.
But it would appear, conversely, that the true luminaries of the Right have become the fringe group, conversing with and animating each other, arriving at incisive commentary on foreign policy that is then disregarded by the mainstream right-and the left. Such conservatives may be prominent, but they do not seem to be penetrating culturally beyond their eclectic constituencies.
And while the neoconservatives as a group, and as individual members, have lost considerable prestige given the ongoing failure in Iraq, many of their ideas remain trenchant to many Americans today. The conflation of neoconservatism and still-ascendant American nationalism continues to have a broad, almost pop-culture appeal. And that conflation characterizes today's rank-and-file Right, rather than the more salient observances of realists and others on the hazards of expending the nation's superpower collateral.
The National Review is not only one of the leading megaphones of today's Right, it is also the magazine that Buckley founded and of which he remained stalwartly proud up to his last days, despite the probing of many interviewers to the contrary. Yet in the final years, Buckley also revealed a seeming mournfulness about the change of the guard at the magazine, by equating the advent of a new editor with the inevitability of death-a statement that was open to interpretation.
Importantly, the magazine that purports to have been much in thrall with Buckley's ideas failed to reflect his significant positions on Iraq, Iran and neoconservatism in its remembrance of him. While Buckley ruminated about potential failure in Iraq as early as 2004, it was his column of February 24, 2006, titled (unequivocally), "It Didn't Work," that has generated much commentary. "One can't doubt that the American objective in Iraq has failed," wrote Buckley, and added:
Mr. Bush has a very difficult internal problem here because to make the kind of concession that is strategically appropriate requires a mitigation of policies he has several times affirmed in high-flown pronouncements. His challenge is to persuade himself that he can submit to a historical reality without forswearing basic commitments in foreign policy.
He will certainly face the current development as military leaders are expected to do: They are called upon to acknowledge a tactical setback, but to insist on the survival of strategic policies.
Yes, but within their own counsels, different plans have to be made. And the kernel here is the acknowledgment of defeat.
And in a July 22, 2006, interview with CBS's Thalia Assuras, Buckley asserted: "If you had a European prime minister who experienced what we've experienced [in Iraq] it would be expected that he would retire or resign." In the same interview, Buckley also took exception with some of the more alarmist assertions on Iran, rejecting a preemptive air strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. He said: "If we find there is a warhead there that is poised, the range of it is tested, then we have no alternative. But pending that, we have to ask ourselves, 'What would the Iranian population do?'"