Monday, April 30, 2007

Buckley Surrenders

The Waning of William F. Buckley

PSOMETHING PSAD. He's got nothing to apologize for, I suppose, but it is time at last for him to stop playing at being the wise elder statesman delivering truth from on high. He's a spent force and anyone reading him should bear that in mind. Today's column is a good example. It's called The Waning of the GOP.

He begins by accepting at face value George Tenet's whiny attempts to cover his massively exposed rear end for the CIA's failures during two presidential administrations:

George Tenet, former head of the CIA, has just published a book which seems to demonstrate that there was one part ignorance, one part bullheadedness, in the high-level discussions before war became policy. Mr. Tenet at least appears to demonstrate that there was nothing in the nature of a genuine debate on the question.

Aver, yes. Demonstrate? Hardly. He has already been refuted on some of his factual statements, and his self-pitying presentation of "his side" on 60 Minutes last night seemed more like the hysterical imprecations of a divorcee than a correction of the record by a former head of one of the most ruthless government agencies in the world. The CIA's job is to provide information and perhaps advice, but there's no guarantee they will be invited to all the meetings. In Clinton's day, they weren't invited to any meetings. But perhaps Mr. Buckley is more amenable to the sobs of sleighted bureaucrats than he was in his salad days. Also, seemingly, more susceptible to scare-mongering by a man whose list of unanticipated catastrophes would be enough to transform any ex-spook into a carpet-chewing paranoid:

A measure of George Tenet’s respect for the reach and malevolence of the enemy is his statement that he is puzzled that Al Qaeda has not, since 2001, sent out “suicide bombers to cause chaos in a half dozen American shopping malls on any given day.” By way of prophecy, he writes that there is one thing he feels in his gut, which is that “Al Qaeda is here and waiting.”

Yep, if there's a gut we've all learned to trust, it's George Tenet's. Buckley seems to. It fills him with despair.

But beyond affirming executive supremacy in matters of war, what is George Bush going to do? It is simply untrue that we are making decisive progress in Iraq. The indicators rise and fall from day to day, week to week, month to month.

Has he been spending his weekends sailing with John Murtha and Harry Reid? He's certainly caught the bug of redefining words in convenient ways, as they do. For Murtha and company, 'terrorists' are 'insurgents,' 'professional soldiers' are 'kids,' and 'surrender' will be called 'redeployment.'  In fact, Buckley has gone them one better. Where they have redefined the War in Iraq as 'civil war,' he has rejiggered it as a 'disease':

When the Romans were challenged by Christianity, Rome fell. The generation of Christians moved by their faith overwhelmed the regimented reserves of the Roman state. It was four years ago that Mr. Cheney first observed that there was a real fear that each fallen terrorist leads to the materialization of another terrorist. What can a “surge,” of the kind we are now relying upon, do to cope with endemic disease? The parallel even comes to mind of the eventual collapse of Prohibition, because there wasn’t any way the government could neutralize the appetite for alcohol, or the resourcefulness of the freeman in acquiring it.

A colorful turn of phrase it most certainly is. And maybe at Buckley's age, there's no real downside to imbibing a stew of mixed metaphors conflating Roman Catholic history with viral biology, Prohibition, and Greek mythology for the purpose of going gentle into that good night. But it doesn't do the rest of us a damn bit of good.

He's a bit off his head. He seems chiefly worried, as his title suggests, about the fate of the Republican Party:

General Petraeus is a wonderfully commanding figure. But if the enemy is in the nature of a disease, he cannot win against it. Students of politics ask then the derivative question: How can the Republican party, headed by a president determined on a war he can’t see an end to, attract the support of a majority of the voters?..

The general makes it a point to steer away from the political implications of the struggle, but this cannot be done in the wider arena. There are grounds for wondering whether the Republican party will survive this dilemma.

If Buckley believes, as he at least implies, that Islamist terrorism is a genuine threat, then he also knows there is no alternative to defeating it. If we don't, it doesn't matter a rat's ass whether there's still a Grand Old Party or not. When New York City is flattened by a hydrogen bomb, the blast will take out the Yale Club too. But that probably won't be the headline.

I can understand that he may be more taken in than most conservative diehards by the false but popular notion that time is running out. It's not. We have all the time that may be required to stabilize Iraq and drive al qaeda out of that country. (No matter how bad things get, we could always execrcise the option of finally getting serious with Syria, Iran, and their accomplices...) What is running out is our resolve to invest the resources and the ingenuity required to persevere until our goals are achieved. The disease comparison is particularly odious. Any student of history -- such as Buckley is -- knows that those who fought Hitler's armies, or Napoleon's, must have regarded them as a multiplying plague, along the lines of Cheney's implicit Hydra reference. Every time you kill one, you face more.

But if you kill enough of them, they eventually lose heart and subside or surrender. And, yes, I know, it won't always be as easy as it is right now(!) to confront our terrorist enemies on an actual battlefield. So their resemblance to a hydra that grows two new heads for each one you hack off can seem more accurate and ominous. But there's another myth that applies, if you want to play semantic and semiotic games. It's the story of Cadmus and the dragon's teeth:

In Greek myth, dragon's teeth feature prominently in the legends of the Phoenician prince Cadmus and Jason's quest for the Golden Fleece. In each case, the dragon's teeth, once planted, would grow into fully armed warriors...
Cadmus, bringer of literacy and civilization, killed the sacred dragon that guarded the spring of Ares. The goddess Athena told him to sow the teeth, from which sprang a group of ferocious warriors called the spartoi. He threw a precious jewel into the midst of the warriors, who turned on each other in an attempt to seize the stone for themselves. The five survivors joined with Cadmus to found the city of Thebes.

The west -- against all its own most delf-destructive efforts -- still possesses the brightest jewel of all, the personal, political and economic freedom to build a civilization fifteen centuries more comfortable and rewarding than the teeth will ever find in that suffocating dragon's mouth. The jewel is so dazzling that the only way it can fail to divide and conquer the fanatics in the long run is if we decide to throw it tiredly or recklessly away.

Buckley knows that, and he should go on reminding those who need the reminding, not fretting circles around a transitory state of disarray he has seen several times before -- after the surprise defeat of Dewey, the crushing defeat of Goldwater, and the ignominious resignation of Nixon, to name just three. Those are the times you have to stand up and fight like hell. The alternative is a disaster I guarantee he knows word for word:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all convictions, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity...

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Buckley can fall apart if he wants, but we can't afford to.

UPDATE. Despite Buckley's endorsement of Tenet's mea non culpa, I'm not the only one who was singularly unimpressed -- no, make that offended to the core -- by his sliming of the administration that forgave his many sins. Glenn Reynolds linked to almost-as-nasty posts by Roger L. Simon and Christopher Hitchens (h/t Malkin, too). But mine from Thursday was first, funnier, and farther reaching.

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