George Will’s take on the death of Robert McNamara starts out as a critique of the skewed assumptions at the heart of the former defense secretary’s worldview. McNamara was a stat fiend who believed, as Will puts it, that “things that can be quantified can be controlled. And everything can be quantified.”
He rightly notes that “the behavior of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong did not respond as expected to America’s finely calibrated stimuli, such as bombing this but not that, and bombing pauses.”
But the real target of the scorn of the esteemed high Tory columnist of the Washington Post isn’t McNamara. It’s contemporary neoconservatism.
In a piece devoid of the staple intellectual rigor through which the columnist established his reputation for brilliance, Will seeks to establish a tenuous link between current advocates for a stronger policy against Iran and McNamara’s foolishness. He tells us the Public Interest quarterly was created by neoconservatives such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who sought to counter McNamara’s mentality by pointing out that “The function of social science is not to tell us what to do but to tell us what does not work.”
Fair enough. But what really interests Will is this:
The world McNamara has departed could soon be convulsed by attempts to modify Iran’s behavior. Since a variety of incentives have been unavailing, more muscular measures — perhaps “surgical strikes,” a phrase redolent of the McNamara mentality — are contemplated.
Some persons fault the president for not having more ambitious plans to prompt and guide Iranians toward regime change. That outcome is sometimes advocated, and its consequences confidently anticipated, by neoconservatives whose certitude about feasibility resembles that which, decades ago, neoconservatism was born to counter.
If Will is attempting to merely sound a note of skepticism about an assumption that America can remake Iran by just pushing the right reset button, he’s not completely off the mark. Such conflicts, as we discovered in Iraq, are complicated.
But one senses that Will’s approach to Iran is based more on an unwillingness to face the danger and act, than mere skepticism. Will’s position is obviously informed by his prior opposition to the war in Iraq. But though he may still think that position was correct, a change in military tactics there eventually turned what looked like a failure into something that even most of those unsympathetic to the war now concede looks like a success. While the analogy is far from exact, the change in tactics in Vietnam after McNamara exited the Pentagon also changed that war in our favor even though that result was eventually reversed by American abandonment of our allies due to anti-war sentiment at home that failed to take into account the awful consequences of allowing the North Vietnamese to win.
The point is that Will’s notion that those who supported the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s tyranny — who are also the people he presumes are pushing for action to halt Iran’s nuclear threat — are blind adherents of McNamara-like behaviorism or proponents of a simplistic statistical view of the world, is essentially false.
Far from indulging in social-science fantasies, such as those that Daniel Moynihan lambasted in the 1960’s, neoconservatives are today urging the Obama administration to look at Iran and the rest of the world as it really is and not try shoehorning it into the president’s preconceived notions of how “engagement” and apologies for past sins can solve the world’s problems.
It’s true that we don’t know exactly what will happen if tough international sanctions are placed on the regime led by Khamenei and Ahmadinejad or how best to aid the regime’s internal foes in creating a more democratic and less dangerous Iran. Nor can we be entirely sure what the result will be if strikes (whether they are “surgical” or more comprehensive) are launched against Iran’s nuclear plants.
But we do know what will happen if we seek to appease Tehran or fail to act. We will be facing a radical Islamist regime with nuclear capability that will present an existential threat to the State of Israel as well as a strategic peril to moderate Arab states and the West. Will seems to counsel inaction because he views neoconservative advocacy for action in averting such a disaster as antithetical to true conservatism. But rather than a clear-eyed look at the situation, such an unwillingness to face up to the danger of a nuclear Iran is neither an enlightened version of conservatism nor good public policy. It is, alas, merely an excuse to do nothing. The proper term for such a view is isolationism, not conservatism.