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When William F. Buckley Jr. first started expressing doubts about the Iraq war, my colleagues at the American Conservative, where I then worked, joked that the National Review founder was going to find himself denounced as an “unpatriotic conservative.” Well, that didn’t happen but Richard Brookhiser seems to think Buckley’s Iraq stance made him a scornful, indifferent conservative. As Austin Bramwell puts it in a generally favorable review of Brookhiser’s Right Time, Right Place (alongside Christopher Buckley’s Losing Mum and Pup):
By the end, however, he is puzzling over WFB’s late ambivalence about the Iraq War. Charitably enough, Brookhiser rejects first racism (WFB had no faith in dark-skinned peoples), then venality (WFB sought money or praise) and finally callousness (WFB had no sympathy for the oppressed) as the reason. Finally, he concludes that WFB had simply grown weary. WFB had lost his stomach for the good fight.
It seems to me that Buckley’s concerns about the Iraq war were pretty straightforward: he was shocked by the failure to locate the promised weapons of mass destruction and came to doubt that invading and occupying Iraq was the best way to protect America after 9/11. “With the benefit of minute hindsight, Saddam Hussein wasn’t the kind of extra-territorial menace that was assumed by the administration one year ago,” said Buckley in 2004. “If I knew then what I know now about what kind of situation we would be in, I would have opposed the war.” And Buckley was said to have asked Norman Podhoretz, “Aren’t you embarrassed by the absence of these weapons?”
Say what you will of these objections — I know plenty of conservatives who still endorse more robust claims for the WMD and Saddam Hussein’s ties to al Qaeda than the Bush administration was willing to — but these are precisely the same reasons a majority of the American people turned against the Iraq war. However horrible Saddam was and the insurgent terrorist groups inside Iraq are, many Americans no longer believed our invasion of Iraq had been essential to our security. And they also began to wonder about the commander-in-chief who had sky-high approval ratings when he launched the war. As former National Review reporter Byron York put it, “The reason that Saddam supposedly posed a threat to us always came back to WMD, and the fact is that the dire scenarios sketched by the Bush administration in the run-up to the war did not turn out to be accurate.”
Buckley was influenced both by a Cold War conservatism that emphasized American ideals and an older conservatism that understood the rootedness of normal countries in history and place. Believers in the latter have sometimes been guilty of indifference in the face of tyranny. Believers in the former without any regard for the older conservatism’s sobriety tend to be guilty of something else: liberalism.