Commentary Magazine


George Will’s Dizzying Shift on the Iraq War

In his column today, George Will writes this:

The last eleven years have been filled with hard learning. The 2003 invasion of Iraq, the worst foreign-policy decision in U.S. history, coincided with mission creep (“nation building”) in Afghanistan. Both strengthened what can be called the Republicans’ John Quincy Adams faction: America ”goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”

On Iraq, he’s simply wrong. Because of the success of the surge, the Iraq war–unlike, say, the Vietnam War–was won. (For the record, the number of Americans who died in the Vietnam War was around 58,000; in the Iraq War, it was around 4,500.) As Charles Krauthammer wrote:

Al-Qaeda in Iraq had been routed, driven to humiliating defeat by an Anbar Awakening of Sunnis fighting side-by-side with the infidel Americans. Even more remarkably, the Shiite militias had been taken down, with U.S. backing, by the forces of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. They crushed the Sadr militias from Basra to Sadr City.

Al-Qaeda decimated. A Shiite prime minister taking a decisively nationalist line. Iraqi Sunnis ready to integrate into a new national government. U.S. casualties at their lowest ebb in the entire war. Elections approaching. Obama was left with but a single task: Negotiate a new status-of-forces agreement (SOFA) to reinforce these gains and create a strategic partnership with the Arab world’s only democracy.

But as Krauthammer argues, President Obama blew it by failing to secure the SOFA; and in blowing it, Mr. Obama lost the war. That failure is not attributable to what happened in 2003; it’s attributable to what happened in 2011.

I do want to add a few more thoughts on George Will and the Iraq war. Prior to it, there was no more articulate advocate for the war. 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. . . .

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.

Mr. Will is a marvelous writer who helped shape my own political and philosophical views. I admire him, and it’s certainly fine for people to change their mind. But I do believe that now that he’s claiming Iraq is “the worst foreign-policy decision in U.S. history,” Will might want to admit from time to time that he believed, pre-Iraq war, it was a terrific and necessary idea.

Beyond that, it might be helpful, and it would certainly be interesting, for Mr. Will to explain his own fairly dramatic evolution on national security and foreign policy. He’s in a very different place philosophically than he was during the 1970s through the mid-2000s. (Let’s just say he was not then a member of the “John Quincy Adams faction” of the GOP.) Let me suggest, in a genuinely respectful way, that given his influential place in conservatism, Will owes us an explanation for these changes–and an explanation for why he now believes he got so much wrong then and why he’s so right now.

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5 Responses to “George Will’s Dizzying Shift on the Iraq War”

  1. DAVID PATTEN says:

    That anyone at all, no less an educated conservative, could call the Iraq War “the worst foreign-policy decision in U.S. history” is evidence to me of how poisonous partisan rhetoric can be. Iraq is in far better shape now than it was under the Baathists, and America’s interests are much better served by the present Iraqi administration than it was by Saddam. Neither of those claims can be disputed by a reasonable person. While many legitimate criticisms can be raised regarding the manner in which the administration conducted the war, and of the decision to become an occupying power, it is obvious that the decision to topple Saddam has proven to be wise.

    A few months ago President Obama was widely mocked for having dismissed ISIS as a JV team. But he was right. ISIS is a JV team, but not in the way Obama meant. I mean ISIS is a far less threatening force than Iraq was under Saddam. Yet nearly 70% of the country is suddenly scared out of their minds and screaming for U.S. intervention in Iraq to stop this horrible menace. These people must be experiencing considerable cognitive dissonance. It is somehow obvious to them that we should do something militarily to stop ISIS, the JV team, but yet so many of them, like George Will, also still think it was stupid to have intervened to eliminate the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein. This is despite the fact that Saddam invaded two of his neighbors, and had designs on others; was sponsoring Islamist terrorists inside his rivals’ borders to keep them unstable; was an enthusiastic user of weapons of mass destruction, and had the intention and capacity to develop even more menacing weapons (though, as it turns out, he did not have the stockpiles of these weapons that everyone believed he had). He routinely imprisoned, tortured, or assassinated anyone he perceived to be a potential rival to his leadership at any level; or he just went ahead and massacred whole communities en masse if they couldn’t be kept in line. He raped and murdered, and forced his underlings to do the same so that their fate would be tied inextricably to the regime’s.

    What is worse, the United States had no coherent plan for dealing with him. When asked if it was worth half a million dead Iraqi children to make sanctions work, Madeline Albright famously answered ‘we think the price is worth it.’ But sanctions were not working and our policy was pointlessly leading to the deaths of many innocent Iraqis. Further, under Clinton we were conducting a long term military campaign in Iraq, asserting control over a majority of its air space. Our pilots were bombing Iraq and being shot at on a daily basis, with no end game in sight.

    So why on Earth do so many Americans insist that President Bush’s decision to finally invade Iraq and cast Saddam’s murderous regime to the dustbin of history was disastrously foolish? That is an intellectually indefensible position. Yet it has become common wisdom – even among many who supported the decision at the time. I can’t think of any explanation for this depressing phenomenon other than that history is being written by the pundits.

  2. JAY GOLDSTEIN says:

    I don’t know about “worst foreign policy decision in history”, but, at least in retrospect, I would say that Preisdent Bush failed to sell this war. I am always impressed by how many propoganda films the US made during WW2 to keep up support for the war, and that war was clearcut justified and good, according to most Americans. If a President is going to make war, he needs to have a plan to maintain or increase public support. President Bush completely failed to do that. In addition, I believe that justifying the war solely because of suspision that Iraq had chemical or other “weapons of mass destruction” was ultimately dishonest. I always thought it was justified because of Saddam’s violations of the terms that ended the first gulf war.

    • DAVID THOMSON says:

      President Bush was a Republican—and the MSM and the Hollywood elites were not going to help him “sell this war.” FDR was a Democrat. That makes all the difference in the world.

  3. PAUL M LION says:

    You write:
    “On Iraq, [Will is] simply wrong. Because of the success of the surge, the Iraq war–unlike, say, the Vietnam War–was won.”

    Yet the difference between the two wars is not as great as you think. In both cases there was an initial period of ineffective strategy. In both cases, this period was about 3 years. In Iraq, the change came with the surge in 2006; in VN, the change came when GEN Abrams replaced GEN Westmoreland in 1968. During the following period, both wars were effectively won in the field. In the final phase, these victories were undone by politicians in Washington. In Iraq, Obama withdrew our forces prematurely. In Vietnam, Congress broke our promise and refused to resupply South Vietnam when they were invaded from the north.
    For an account of the latter, I suggest “A Better War,” by Lewis Sorley, or “Lost Victory” by William Colby, or “Triumph Forsaken” by Mark Moyar, or “Unheralded Victory” by Mark Woodruff. In addition, there is this video by Bruce Hershensohn:
    In both cases, the decisions were made by Democratic politicians: Pres. Obama in Iraq, the Dem Congress in 1974. In both cases they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
    Mike Lion

  4. ERIC SCHUMANN says:

    Mr Wehner: An excellent post. Many on the Right who changed their minds on Iraq made a decent effort to explain the shift. Personally, I have no problem holding each of the following views: It was right to go in and topple Saddam. It was wrong to plan to stay and engage in nation-building (we could’ve put Chalabi or someone else serving as “our SOB” in charge). Once we decided to stick around, it was wrong to be half-hearted during the pacification stage. It was right to turn things around and execute the surge. It was wrong to abandon Iraq. Things aren’t so simple in life. I am still comfortable with my initial position: It was right to topple Saddam. What followed must stand on its own, and does not affect that initial position. Criticize the constituent parts of the subsequent history all you want – but toppling Saddam was justified.

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