Citing public opinion polls and Congress’s vote to require a timetable for the United States to leave Iraq, conservative stalwart commentator William F. Buckley suggests that the very existence of the Republican Party is at state.

William F. BuckleyThis seems a real stretch, given that the Democratic Party not only survived Vietnam but in fact routed the Republicans just one presidency later.

But the situation for the Republicans is indeed dire, as Buckley argues in referring to the chances of a positive outcome for the United States in Iraq:

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? General Petraeus, in his Pentagon briefing on April 26, reported persuasively that there has been progress, but cautioned, “I want to be very clear that there is vastly more work to be done across the board and in many areas, and again I note that we are really just getting started with the new effort.”

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.

The problem for the Republicans is simple, actually. The appeal of their party is mainly to classical liberals (which is the political position to which Buckley has most often adhered), and their conduct in Iraq has entirely contradicted the classical liberal worldview. Nation-building is simply not a proper function for government, according to classical liberal thinking.

Here is why. 

Classical liberalism holds that government should not intervene in voluntary agreements, and that its proper role is in fact to help enforce them. A government should intervene in human actions only when they harm others. Then, and only then, does government have a reason for action.

The classical liberal position would be as follows:

  • Every nation is sovereign.
  • Every nation is entitled to conduct its own affairs as it chooses unless its actions affect other nations.
  • When actions affect other nations, those nations have a right and indeed a responsibility to their own citizens to remedy the situation. The obligation on the part of the reacting nation is to conform its response to redress the offense and ensure that there will be no imminent repetition of it.
  • An affected nation responding to a wrong has no right to impose major consequences on a nation, even if the intended effect it so ensure that the offender will not resume the offending activities beyond the immediate future.

That is clearly a principled position that provides a definite guide for action against foreign aggressors while upholding the principle of national sovereignty that is crucial to the protection of any people and their government.

Just as obviously, this is not what the United States has done in Iraq.

Changing Iraq’s government and overseeing their writing of a constitution certainly stepped well over that line. Assisting the new Iraqi government in pacifying the nation and policing it were grossly unjustified and remain so.

But is there anything we can do now, now that we’re in Iraq and have no way of getting out without that very unhappy place very likely descending into even greater chaos and madness?

Yes, there is.

It appears to me the only logical and justifiable course for the United States is to leave Iraq and to let the Iraqis work out their problems themselves.

If that results in imminent or real harm to the United States and its citizens, appropriate intervention will then be justified—but only then.

If it results in violence within Iraq, that is unfortunately the nature of that place at this time, and will differ only as a matter of degree from what is now happening there and what was going on while the previous government, the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, was in power.

Will the United States bear some responsibility for any ensuing problems there? Certainly. Will Iraq have some reason to call upon us for help? Yes. Should the United States respond with help? Yes, in the form of money and humanitarian aid. But nothing else. We have no right to impose a new government on them, and any military activity would only be a means of doing so.

Would a military pullout from Iraq leave us with egg on our faces?

Yes, of course.

But it would still be the right thing to do.

After taking the wrong course, going farther in the wrong direction will not bring one closer to one’s correct destination. Only a return to the right course will do that.

Upon leaving Iraq, eradicating Al Qaeda is the international action on which the United States should concentrate.

Leaving Iraq, however embarrassing it would temporarily be, would put the United States on a principled course in international affairs. That is far more important than any immediate political considerations, either national or international.