Over the weekend, C-SPAN’s program “After Words” broadcast an interview with George Will, which was conducted by David Broder. It is a fascinating and wide-ranging interview; Will covers topics that include our increasing “impatience with the imperfection of life,” his belief as to why books are still the primary carrier of ideas, and his thoughts on the presidential race and conservative and liberal sensibilities. Will tells why he fears we are “saturated with the ephemeral,” argues that journalism is distorting reality, insists that Americans are not deeply divided with “daggers drawn and heading to the barricades,” and explains why campaign finance reform legislation is an assault on the first amendment. The interview is a reminder of why Will is among the finest and most informed columnists in generations.
Part of the interview focused on Iraq. Will was asked if he really believes, as he wrote in his book One Man’s America, that the Iraq war will qualify as “perhaps the worst foreign policy debacle in the nation’s history.” Will responded this way:
Well, to be fair to the current Administration, it is too soon to say. If five years from now, there is a functioning, multi-party democracy – a secular democracy in the heart of the Middle East, exerting a power of emulation on neighboring countries, then it was worth it. Otherwise, no.
He calls Iraq a “war of choice” and “colossally mismanaged,” and adds this:
Subject to correction by history – and I hope I am refuted by a happy outcome five to ten years from now – but subject to that, I think it ranks up there with Vietnam… perhaps over.
When asked what the odds are for a “happy outcome,” Will says that there is “some encouraging evidence that politics is breaking out in Iraq” and that what is sometimes reported as distressing news – contentious political debates among the Iraqi people – is in fact a healthy sign and the “transaction costs of freedom.”
Will’s comments are interesting for several reasons. It is, first of all, a good reminder why one ought to be cautious in making sweeping conclusions about a war that is still unfolding. People in the North could have said – and indeed, they were saying – much the same thing about Lincoln and the Civil War. There were periods in which the war seemed horribly mismanaged (which at times it was), far too costly (all told, more than 600,000 lives were lost in a nation of only 31 million; a war of equal magnitude today would kill roughly six million Americans), and worth giving up on.
By early July 1864, according to the Lincoln biographer David Herbert Donald, “a visitor found Lincoln deeply depressed. War weariness was spreading, and demands for negotiations to end the killing were becoming strident.” Yet Lincoln had made adjustments and persisted, the war was won, the union was preserved, and Lincoln has taken his place atop the list of our greatest presidents. War, like life, is contingent and can change quickly and dramatically.
Second, Will is framing things in exactly the right way. The judgment of Iraq depends on the final outcome, which is still uncertain. But a decent outcome, and even victory, is now within our grasp – and if we achieve it, the war will not only not qualify as the worst foreign policy mistake ever; it will have been, on balance, a net plus.
Third, Will has himself traveled a fascinating journey (as have many of us) as it relates to Iraq. He was a strong advocate for the war before it began, telling PBS’s Charlie Rose on October 8, 2002
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 . . .
Will spoke in favor of bringing “instability” to the Middle East and even to Egypt (“What is so wonderful about the stability of Egypt?”). When asked, “Do you think [Iraq] will be a quick and easy conflict, if it comes to that,” Mr. Will answered, “Fairly quick, yes.” He also distinguished between Afghanistan and Iraq when it comes to nation-building, saying, “It’s different in Iraq because Iraq is a big, rich country with a middle class, with universities…”
Will then turned hard against the war, in part because he came to believe that Arab culture was incompatible with democracy. The problem with Iraq, Will said in a Manhattan Institute lecture, is that it “lacks a Washington, a Madison, a [John] Marshall – and it lacks the astonishingly rich social and cultural soil from which such people sprout.” There is no “existing democratic culture” that will allow liberty to succeed, he argued. And he scoffed at the assertion by President Bush that it is “cultural condescension” to claim that some peoples, cultures or religions are destined to despotism and unsuited for self-government.
Unlike many people who turned against the war, however, Will is willing to acknowledge the success of the surge, the encouraging political developments within Iraq, and to rethink his earlier judgment in light of new evidence.
George Will’s views on Iraq are much more ambiguous than they once were, which is true for most everyone who has written on the subject. The early hopes of an easy victory and a quick journey to democracy, and an early American exit, were dashed. The concern that Iraq was irredeemably lost, in turn, were wrong. And today there is widespread agreement among responsible voices that regardless of where one stood originally on the war, we now need to prosecute it to a successful end; and if we do, the war, despite the enormous mistakes along the way, will have been worth it.
George Will admits his claim that the Iraq war was the worst foreign policy debacle in American history is subject to correction by history. Thanks to President Bush’s surge and General Petraeus’s brilliantly executed strategy, that correction is under way. Will, a patriot who has been right on many of the important political questions of the last several decades, will be, I think we can say with some confidence, delighted to be proven wrong.