Monday, May 03, 2004

William F. Buckley, Jr. discusses with "Public Affairs," host Jeff Berkowitz the achievements and mistakes of the Conservative Movement over the last fifty years, the current state of the Conservative Movement and the War in Iraq. ___________________________________________________

Jeff Berkowitz: We are standing here on April 30, 2004. We are at the Philadelphia Society meeting in Chicago and we are speaking with William F. Buckley, Jr. Let me ask you to reflect back, Mr. Buckley, over the last 50 years or so, perhaps starting with the [birth of the] National Review- what do you think of the [current] state of the Conservative Movement?

William F. Buckley, Jr.: Well, I think it is much more vigorous than it was then- better formulated and better researched. In the last fifty years, there has been an enormous amount of scholarship done in history, economics, and political science. Taking the experience of those fifty years and attempting to translate it into lessons that are informative to legislators, to the judiciary and to thinkers, it has been a very active fifty years and I am delighted to have lived through it.

Berkowitz: Do we have the kind of freedom and liberty that you moved so hard for in those fifty years? Did we accomplish that with [President] Ronald Reagan and is it continuing now?

Buckley: Of course, the major accomplishment was coping with the Soviet [Union] threat; that was a seventy-year nightmare in the course of which 150 million people were enslaved for generations. So, that was a signal accomplishment of our time. That was the important achievement in my judgment of the last fifty years. In terms of the domestic situation, there is enlightened thinking based on the failures of socialism both empirically and philosophically, so I think that people have the right to be more cheerful now than they were fifty years ago when they saw socialism sort of sweeping western Europe- a feeling also that the thunderbolt of the Soviet Union might be released yet again; that has been coped with. Now we have other problems; we will always have other problems- but still that was the most consolidated threat of our time.

Berkowitz: Is terrorism now a comparable threat to that [threat] which we faced from the Soviet Union and specifically as to Iraq, has the United States taken the right action in taking military action in Iraq?

Buckley: It is not comparable to the Soviet Union and 3500 nuclear warheads; nothing is comparable to that. What it is- is a terrible problem in part because it is not a consolidated threat. It is a threat in the sense of a free enterprise threat. A lot of these people who are marching against Israel and who are engaging in terrorism do so without any sense that they are related to a missionary enterprise that is something we can draw fingers on. So, it is an important threat and one that we have to confront but not one that is as readily confrontable as another superpower with which you can bargain.

Berkowitz: Is there a clash of civilizations now between Western Civilization and the civilizations of the East? And, will the West win?

Buckley: I think it is too early to say there is such a clash, in part because the Muslim group is not consolidated. It is not one for which we are entitled to say that the extremists represent the Muslim Brotherhood; In fact, the Imams of the senior Muslims deplore what is being done by the extremists. So, it has not reached the point at which one could say this is a clash of civilizations. What needs to be done obviously is to confront these extremists. That has to be done primarily by the Muslims themselves, with aid from us, and, obviously, without any sense that we are engaged in a “winner take all,” civilization battle.

Berkowitz: So, getting back to the current situation, did the United States make the right move in taking military action to remove Saddam Hussein?

Buckley: I think they made the right move given what we knew then. What we know now makes it necessary to confront a series of problems that arose from these miscalculations. We did not anticipate resistance of this temperature and our failure to anticipate that meant that the engagement as it went forward wasn’t as subtle as it might have been. I think that we are now engaged. We must absolutely prevail. We will prevail, but at a cost much higher than anticipated.

Berkowitz: Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently in terms of advancing the cause that I know you hold dear: the conservative movement, liberty and freedom?

William F. Buckley, Jr.: Well, I think that the conservatives made mistakes down the line, not, I think, any major ones, but I think we weren’t as far forward as we might have been on the civil rights movement. We depended too much on a kind of hopeful evolutionary process in the South, whereas I think we know now it needed the prod of a federal fingerprint- so, I think that was a mistake. By and large, I think the conservatives have done useful work, encouraged useful people and have been critical in such matters as bringing Ronald Reagan to the Presidency. Thank you so much.

Jeff Berkowitz: Thank you so much, William F. Buckley, Jr.
William F. Buckley, Jr., interviewed by Jeff Berkowitz prior to Mr. Buckley giving the keynote address on April 30, 2004 at the 40th National Philadelphia Society Meeting. The interview will air in a forthcoming episode of “Public Affairs.”