So George Will, who strongly supported the Iraq war before he strongly opposed it, is now strongly opposing the Afghanistan war after he once strongly supported it. In Will’s words, “forces should be substantially reduced to serve a comprehensively revised policy: America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, air strikes and small, potent special forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters.”
It is a column that could have been written in Japanese aboard the USS Missouri.
I plan to take up at a later time a substantive analysis of why Mr. Will’s column — an astonishingly weak column, it must be said, particularly given his high standards over the years — is deeply flawed. Before doing that, however, it’s worth examining his track record on both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mr. Will’s shifting stands on these wars is vertigo-inducing. To understand just how much this is so, consider Iraq. Once upon a time, supporting the Iraq war was fashionable; large majorities of the public were behind it. So was most of the political class. And so was George Will. Yet that understates things quite a lot. Will was not just in favor of the war; he was as passionate and articulate champion of it as you could possibly find. In an October 8, 2002, interview with PBS’s Charlie Rose, for example, 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. . . .
Mr. Will applauded bringing “instability” to the Middle East and countries like Egypt. “What is so wonderful about the stability of Egypt?” he asked. And when asked, “Do you think [Iraq] will be a quick and easy conflict, if it comes to that,” Mr. Will answered, “Fairly quick, yes.”
Will then 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. . . .
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.
A year after the war began, Will’s enthusiasm for it dampened — but he understood how catastrophic defeat would be:
What is to be done in Iraq? As Robert Frost said, the best way out is always through. We are there. We dare not leave having replaced a savage state with a failed state—a vacuum into which evil forces will flow. Our aim should be the rule of law, a quickened pulse of civil society, some system of political representation. Then, let us vow not to take on such reconstructions often.
Things began to turn slightly surreal when Will started arguing against the very case he himself made in October 2002, to the point that he was ridiculing phrases he once used. To wit: 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” ([Scott] 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).
Will eventually came to believe the Iraq war was a grave error — “perhaps the worst foreign policy debacle in the nation’s history,” he wrote.
In January 2007, President Bush announced a new counterinsurgency strategy for Iraq. By September almost every conceivable metric was showing that the so-called surge was succeeding, faster and better than virtually anyone had anticipated. Yet that encouraging fact was lost on Will, who wrote:
The surge has failed, as measured by the president’s and Petraeus’s standards of success. . . . 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.
At the point when the surge’s success was so obvious as to be incontestable, Mr. Will more or less ceased writing about Iraq. (In his 2008 book, One Man’s America, the most recent of Will’s volume of collected columns, he alerted the reader: “Consider this volume an almost entirely Iraq-free zone.” This was a wise decision, I think, given his track record.)
On Afghanistan, Mr. Will’s record follows a similar pattern. He, like almost every American, supported Operation Enduring Freedom. Will was overflowing with praise for the Bush administration — except when he was counseling it that “U.S. Strategy should maximize fatalities among the enemy rather than expedite the quickest possible cessation of hostilities.”
But today Will writes that the “war already is nearly 50 percent longer than the combined U.S. involvements in two world wars” — neglecting to mention, of course, that the number of American casualties is, thankfully, blessedly, a tiny fraction of what they were in those two world wars.
By late 2004, Will was celebrating elections in Afghanistan:
Tuesday’s winner will not start from scratch but from where we are now, standing with the women of Bamiyan, Afghanistan. Back in Washington recently, Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, said those women were warned that Taliban remnants would attack polling places during the Oct. 9 elections. So the women performed the ritual bathing and said the prayers of those facing death. Then, rising at 3 a.m., they trekked an hour to wait in line for the polls to open at 7 a.m. In the province of Kunar an explosion 100 meters from a long line of waiting voters did not cause anyone to leave the line. Which candidate can be trusted to keep faith with these people? Surely not the man whose party is increasingly influenced by its Michael Moore faction.
Yet today Will, sounding more like Michael Moore than Henry Kissinger, wrote this:
Even though violence exploded across Iraq after, and partly because of, three elections, Afghanistan’s recent elections were called “crucial.” To what? They came, they went, they altered no fundamentals, all of which militate against American “success,” whatever that might mean.
During the last presidential election, Senator John McCain, who was being criticized by Democrats for his support of the surge, was asked if he would accept that the surge policy represented the McCain doctrine. “No,” McCain answered, “but I am willing to accept it as a McCain principle. That is when I sign up, when I raise my hand and vote to go to war, that I want to see the completion of the mission.”
That is an admirable principle, one George Will should reflect on far more carefully than he has. It appears to be Will’s principle that when he signs up and speaks out, when he marshals his eloquent and influential words on behalf of war, he will strongly support that war, but only for a season; only so long as it goes quickly, smoothly, and without complications. If, however, the conflict gets hard — if progress is slow and setbacks are incurred, if lives are lost and the war doesn’t end on his time line — Will is ready to declare, as he does in his column today, that “Genius . . . sometimes consists of knowing when to stop.” Translation: he’s ready to up and quit.
Here is a disturbing fact to ponder: If George Will were commander in chief, we would, under his leadership, have begun and lost two wars of enormous consequence. The damage to America — militarily, geopolitically, and morally — would be staggering. The boon to militant Islam — militarily, geopolitically, and in terms of morale — would be incalculable. Yet nowhere in his most recent column does Will even begin to grapple with what surrender in Afghanistan would mean — to that country, to Pakistan, to jihadists around the world, to confidence in America’s word and will, and to our national-security interests. And while Afghanistan, like Iraq, is a very difficult undertaking, declaring defeat at this stage is unwarranted and terribly unwise. If General David Petraeus thinks the task is hopeless, then I will take a hard second look at the war. But if George Will declares it hopeless, I will simply take a hard second look at his record.
Mr. Will has earned the reputation as one of the finest columnists alive, and one of the better ones our country has ever produced. I have admired him in the past, and I learn from him still. But on Iraq and Afghanistan, he has been wrong, unreliable, and unsteady.
In 1983 the French journalist and intellectual Jean-Francois Revel wrote How Democracies Perish. It was a withering critique of the West’s loss of nerve and will in the face of the totalitarian threat it faced. In his book, Revel wrote, “Democracy tends to ignore, even deny, threats to its existence because it loathes doing what is needed to counter them.” In a column praising Revel’s book, George Will wrote, “Defense of democracy depends on pessimists who are not defeatists. It depends on spirited realists such as Jean-Francois Revel.”
Now, like then, America needs spirited realists, not defeatists. We need individuals who believe a nation must be willing to fight for what is right even when it is hard. We need people who are going to resist the temptation to eagerly support war at the outset and then prematurely give up on it.
What we need, in other words, is what George Frederick Will once was.