Commentary Magazine


Contentions

Loss of Will

In his most recent column George Will writes:

Many of those who insist that the surge is a harbinger of U.S. victory in Iraq are making the same mistake they made in 1991 when they urged an advance on Baghdad, and in 2003 when they underestimated the challenge of building democracy there. The mistake is exaggerating the relevance of U.S. military power to achieve political progress in a society riven by ethnic and sectarian hatreds. America’s military leaders, who are professional realists, do not make this mistake.

This is in keeping with what Will has written in recent years. He may be the most visible conservative critic of President Bush’s Freedom agenda—that is, the effort to bring liberty to the Iraq and the Arab world. For example, in his May 4, 2004 column, Will wrote:

This administration cannot be trusted to govern if it cannot be counted on to think and, having thought, to have second thoughts. Thinking is not the reiteration of bromides about how “all people yearn to live in freedom” (McClellan). And about how it is “cultural condescension” to doubt that some cultures have the requisite aptitudes for democracy (Bush). And about how it is a “myth” that “our attachment to freedom is a product of our culture” because “ours are not Western values; they are the universal values of the human spirit” (Tony Blair).

It was not always thus. In an October 8, 2002 interview with PBS’s Charlie Rose, Will said:

I think the answer is that we believe, with reason, that democracy’s infectious. We’ve seen it. We saw it happen in Eastern Europe. It’s just—people reached a critical mass of mendacity under those regimes of the East block, and it exploded. And I do believe that you will see [in the Middle East] a ripple effect, a happy domino effect, if you will, of democracy knocking over these medieval tyrannies . . . Condoleezza Rice is quite right. She says there is an enormous condescension in saying that somehow the Arab world is just not up to democracy. And there’s an enormous ahistorical error when people say, “Well, we can’t go into war with Iraq until we know what postwar Iraq’s going to look like.” In 1942, a year after Pearl Harbor, did we have a clear idea what we were going to do with postwar Germany? With postwar Japan? Of course not. We made it up as we went along, and we did a very good job . . .

And more. Mr. Will spoke in favor of bringing “instability” to the Middle East and even to Egypt (“What is so wonderful about the stability of Egypt?”). His argument, which he made impressively, was that it is in America’s interest to bring about modernity to the Arab world—a prospect about which he was sanguine.

When asked, “Do you think [Iraq] will be a quick and easy conflict, if it comes to that,” Mr. Will answered, “Fairly quick, yes.” And Will said this about Afghanistan and nation-building:

[Afghanistan is], to put it mildly, a work in progress. The president, I think, admits this. This was part of his education as president, to say that his hostility to nation-building was radically revised when he saw what a failed nation, Afghanistan, a vacuum, gets filled with. Political nature abhors a vacuum, and when it fills up with the Taliban and the leakage of violence to these private groups, essentially, like al Qaeda, then you have to say, “Well, I’ve revised that. We’re going to have to get into the nation-building business.”

Will also distinguished between Afghanistan and Iraq when it comes to nation-building:

It’s different in Iraq because Iraq is a big, rich country with a middle class, with universities…

He added:

But you know, regime change didn’t just arise as a subject recently. We did it in Grenada, Panama, Serbia. Would the world be better off if Milosevic were back in Serbia? Noriega in Panama? I don’t think so.

Prior to the war to liberate Iraq, then, George Will thought Iraq and the Arab world were quite ready for democracy. He was a strong advocate for regime change and nation building. And he thought Iraq would be an easier undertaking than Afghanistan.
It’s fine—it can even be admirable—for an individual to change his mind in the face of new facts and circumstances. But some appreciation for one’s previous views should also be taken into account.

George Will ranks among the finest columnists ever to pick up a pen (quill or otherwise). Over the years his arguments and words have shaped a generation of conservatives, including me. And I wish the best thing I have ever written were half as good as the worst thing George Will has ever written. But it’s fair to ask that he not write as if he always knew better, as if any conservative worth his Burkean salt should have known that the effort to spread democracy to Iraq was Wilsonian foolishness that was fated to fail.

It wasn’t (and isn’t)—and once upon a time George Will thought so, too.


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