Many of the people you now see on your television offering advice about what to do next in Iraq weren’t terribly prescient the first time around. They or their bosses thought the war likelier to last six days or six weeks than six months. They feared a nuclear-armed Saddam Hussein.
“The United States overestimated the threat from Saddam Hussein in 2003,” David Frum acknowledges in 2014. “Without an active nuclear-weapons program, he was not a danger beyond his immediate vicinity. That war cost this country dearly.”
Perhaps the war pundits’ flawed track record is understandable. “Rarely do wars, once begun, work out as anticipated,” wrote Pat Buchanan on the eve of the Iraq war.
But some people anticipated more than others. Buchanan predicted the initial invasion would go well. “An Iraqi air defense, unable to shoot down a single U.S. plane in 40,000 sorties in ten years, cannot long withstand U.S. air power that can deliver 1,000 smart bombs and cruise missiles on target each day,” he observed. “And Iraqi ground forces cannot long resist Abrams tanks that can guarantee the kill of an Iraqi armored vehicle with every shell fired.”
The occupation, however, would be another story. And instead of washing in a tidal wave of liberal democracy across the region, Buchanan warned a prolonged campaign in Iraq might empower anti-American, anti-Western and anti-Israel political forces.
“What would it profit America to march to Baghdad,” he asked, “only to have Cairo fall to anti-American mobs?”
After the Muslim Brotherhood interlude in Egypt, it’s no longer an open question.
Of war with Iraq, Buchanan asked, “how can Iran not be the beneficiary?” He argued, “By eliminating the counterweight to Iranian domination, we guaranteed that either we become that counterweight, or there is none.”
Concerning Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, for which we were warned the “smoking gun” might be a “mushroom cloud,” Buchanan maintained “there is serious doubt Saddam is close to a nuclear weapon.”
If Iraq was complicit in the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America, Buchanan reasoned, “Saddam’s regime should be destroyed and the pounding not stop until he is dead or gone.” In the absence of such evidence, however, the United States should stay out.
For saying things many Iraq war supporters would now concede were true, Buchanan was lumped in with the “Unpatriotic Conservatives.”
Nor did Buchanan play Pollyanna on the subject of withdrawal. He called U.S. troops “the most effective, if not the only reliable, units preventing all-out sectarian civil war and defending the government, the contractors, the aid workers and the Green Zone.”
“If we draw them down, how secure will the Americans left behind, and the friends of America, be in Iraq?” Buchanan asked, later inquiring, “how will ending the surge and pulling out those troops cool, rather than unleash, the passions for killing?”
Hard to argue with much of this now.
Buchanan is popularly known as a reactionary, a culture warrior who pines for the social mores of the 1950s. (He would likely plead guilty as charged.) So how is it that he is so often ahead of the curve — or at least ahead of his critics?
Does anyone now doubt, as Buchanan was among the first conservatives to argue, that mass immigration has made the electoral map much more difficult for the Republican Party than it was in the heyday of Nixon and Reagan?
After Mitt Romney’s defeat in 2012, Real Clear Politics elections analyst Sean Trende suggested the Republican Party could potentially win again by “abandoning some of its more pro-corporate stances.”
Trende continued, “This GOP would have to be more ‘America first’ on trade, immigration and foreign policy; less pro-Wall Street and big business in its rhetoric; more Main Street/populist on economics.”
Who does that sound like?
Buchanan was also among the first conservatives to worry about the stagnant wages of working-class Americans. Among the sources of that stagnation, wrote David Frum in “The Vanishing Republican Voter,” “a great shift from a national to a planetary division of labor.”
“Less-skilled Americans now face hundreds of millions of wage competitors,” Frum continued, and “abundant low-skilled immigration hurts lower America by reducing wages.”
“I don’t think you can have a pro-middle-class conservatism while supporting an amnesty that will incentivize a flood of cheap labor into this country,” writes the Washington Free Beacon’s Matthew Continetti. “Nor do I think you can have a pro-middle-class conservatism that politely overlooks the issue of global trade and the economic and strategic and moral costs of our Most Favored Nation trading relationship with China.”
For making similar observations, Buchanan was once decried as “America’s last leftist.”
The Persian Gulf War certainly didn’t go as Buchanan predicted. George H.W. Bush went to war with a broad international coalition and stopped short of Baghdad. Buchanan was indisputably right that Desert Storm would be followed by more wars in the Middle East.
“In 1990,” Buchanan later wrote, “the U.S. had an open-and-shut case of naked aggression by Iraq that even the U.N. could recognize and our enemies could not deny.” Not so in 2003.
Some form of free-market populism is likely a preferable alternative to Wall Street Republicanism than full-scale Buchananite protectionism. One could also argue against restarting the Cold War without enlisting Vladimir Putin as an ally in the culture war.
When it comes to many of the challenges facing America since winning the Cold War, however, Buchanan was right from the beginning.