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.
Will’s Loss of Nerve
Must-Reads from Magazine
Podcast: Is it a purge or a plan? Or both!
On the second of this week’s podcasts, I get into it with Noah Rothman on whether the president’s behavior toward his attorney general and the new White House communications director’s conduct toward the White House chief of staff constitute a “plan” of action or whether we are just living through nihilistic chaos. Where does Abe Greenwald come out? You’ll have to give a listen.
Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes.
Posturing, not policy.
On Wednesday morning, at 8:55 a.m., President Trump tweeted: “After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow…” Many in the Pentagon wondered if he was announcing military action against North Korea, which, according to new intelligence estimates, is set to field a nuclear-tipped ICBM as early as next year. Not until nine minutes later was the suspense lifted with another presidential tweet: “…Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military.”
Alarm in defense circles soon turned to befuddlement: Why was Trump making this announcement? And why now? There was no immediate indication that the president had consulted with Defense Secretary James Mattis, who is on vacation, or notified other senior military leaders. The Pentagon referred all inquiries to the White House. When pressed for details, the White House had none. “That’s something the Department of Defense and the White House will have to work out,” a spokesman told reporters.
So the president is tweeting first and then leaving it to someone else to work out the actual policy he just announced.
This is all the odder because Mattis had committed to a comprehensive, six-month study, not due to be finished until December, of whether the military should accept new transgender recruits. Several GOP congress members, meanwhile, had introduced legislation to prevent the military’s health insurance plan from paying for gender reassignment surgery (which costs ten times less than what the military spends annually on erectile dysfunction medications—$84 million). What Trump announced is far broader—a ban not only on new transgendered recruits or on future gender reassignment surgeries but also a ban on existing transgendered personnel.
The only comprehensive study on transgendered service personnel, conducted by Rand last year, found that roughly 2,450 are currently serving and that they have a “minimal impact on readiness and health care costs.” “The limited research on the effects of foreign military policies indicates little or no impact on unit cohesion, operational effectiveness, or readiness,” Rand reported. “Commanders noted that the policies had benefits for all service members by creating a more inclusive and diverse force.”
The leadership of the Defense Department is certainly not agitating to boot out transgendered personnel who serve honorably and bravely. In fact, they’d rather not deal with this issue at all. Sen. John McCain, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, spoke for many, especially younger military personnel, when he said, “Any American who meets current medical and readiness standards should be allowed to continue serving. There is no reason to force service members who are able to fight, train, and deploy to leave the military—regardless of their gender identity.”
So why would President Trump, out of the blue, issue a momentous policy pronouncement for which there is no pressing need and no preparation? It is hard to explain this other than to suggest that it is Trump’s way of distracting attention from the multiple crises besetting his presidency—from his bizarre feud with Attorney General Jeff Sessions to his inability, so far, to pass health-care legislation through a Republican-controlled Congress. Trump’s attacks on Sessions, a favorite of his nationalist-conservative base, have been especially costly, leading even longtime allies such as Newt Gingrich to criticize him.
The transgender ban is a symbolic way to try to stay in the good graces of the religious right and to simply change the subject. Indeed, Zeke Miller of Time tweeted: “White House official tells me admin[istration] is thrilled media is focusing on transgender service member issue.”
This may be good politics, but it’s bad policy. If Trump really cares about enhancing military effectiveness, rather than simply grandstanding for his populist rooting section, he would focus on repealing the sequestration act that, as Sen. Tom Cotton noted, makes defense budgeting arbitrary and unpredictable. Trump also needs to work with Congress to simply increase the defense budget to make up for years of neglect. But that would require the kind of heavy legislative-lifting in which the president has shown no interest.
A double standard is, in fact, a standard. Just an immoral one.
Really it should come as no surprise that the scientist and outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins is the latest public figure to have fallen victim to a disinviting mania. After all, if a darling of the left feminist like Germaine Greer can face a campaign to silence her over her views on transgenderism or a woman of color like Ayaan Hirsi Ali can face similar attempts to have her free speech on campus canceled, why should Dawkins be spared?
The English geneticist was slated to give a talk in Berkeley, California in August on his new book Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist. Over the weekend, however, the organizers (the local community radio station KPFA) announced that they are canceling the event because, apparently, it had been discovered that Dawkins is, in fact, an Islamophobe. They explained that, while their station “emphatically supports serious free speech,” that nevertheless KPFA “does not endorse hurtful speech.”
Disappointingly, the statement from KPFA Radio doesn’t elaborate on what constitutes serious free speech. Nor does it define where the bounds of hurtful speech lie. Of course, it should go without saying that those who wish to do away with all speech that might ever be deemed hurtful to someone don’t actually take the value of free speech that seriously at all.
For what little good it will do him, Dawkins has hit back by insisting that his criticism of the “appalling misogyny and homophobia of Islam” has been made in defense of the rights of Muslims. As he put it in an open letter to the radio: “far from attacking Muslims, I understand–as perhaps you do not–that Muslims themselves are the prime victims of the oppressive cruelties of Islamism, especially Muslim women.”
Given Richard Dawkins’s pretty damning view on religious belief in general, you would have thought the event organizers might have anticipated that this arch-secularist wouldn’t have anything very complimentary to say about Islam either. Yet there is something rather troubling in KFPA’s statement on their discovery of Dawkins’s “hurtful speech.” As the radio station explained: “We had booked this event based entirely on his excellent new book on science, when we didn’t know he had offended and hurt–in his tweets and other comments on Islam, so many people.”
This leaves a question. If Dawkins’s incriminating tweets on Islam eventually came to the organizer’s attention, what about all of his other pronouncements on religion? As in, the many writings and speeches that deal with insulting all the other religions. Are KPFA Radio still yet to stumble upon Dawkins’s international best-selling The God Delusion? Imagine their sense of horror when they learn of all those hurt Jewish and Christian feelings. After all, Dawkins has had some pretty fiery things to say on the “God of the Old Testament”.
Unless, of course, the organizers already knew all about Dawkins’s past comments on the other religions, but it only became a problem for them when they found out that Dawkins had been saying similar things about Islam. Had Dawkins been silent on Islam and only derided Christianity and Judaism, would he then have still been welcome at the Berkeley event? It rather sounds like it.
Presumably, few would claim that because of his views on the Hebrew Bible, Richard Dawkins is an anti-Semite? Yet these days it seems that it is rather easier for militant secularists to fall foul of the Islamophobia charge. Dawkins has himself spoken out against the Islamic practice of serving apostates with the death penalty. Would calling such things barbaric cross the line into Islamophobia?
And what of atheists more generally, who presumably believe that without exception, all the prophets of the world’s great religions were either wildly self-deluded, or otherwise shamelessly and knowingly fabricated their various holy texts? Would making such a claim about the founder of Islam be classed as insulting the prophet? Judging by previous cases, making such a claim would steer one dangerously close to the borders of Islamophobia, or worse.
Canceling an event with an internationally renowned atheist on the grounds that he has offended the feelings of religious people is, of course, absurd.
That KPFA Radio in Berkeley feel they would like to impose something akin to blasphemy laws now is no less bizarre. Acting in defense of the hurt feelings of one religion is a far more concerning development.
Hopefully, whoever’s job it is at Berkeley to safeguard equal opportunities for religious and ethnic groups will be taking this matter in hand.
Democrats will regret treating this as a partisan issue.
Whenever a former Obama administration official’s name comes up in the process of investigating the Trump campaign’s alleged links to Russian sources, Democrats take the position that the right’s penchant for “whataboutism” neutralizes the implication of wrongdoing. The Democratic objective is to shame those who are committed to crafting a full and unbiased portrait of the events of 2016 into ignoring inconvenient facts, but the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee remains unintimidated.
This month, the committee has met with a variety of senior Obama officials behind closed doors amid its probe of the Russia affair, including former Chief-of-Staff Denis McDonough, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and National Security Advisor Susan Rice. The committee will meet with former United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power on Friday.
These interviews are apparently being conducted in the effort to get to the bottom of why incoming Trump administration officials who were inadvertently captured in intelligence intercepts of foreign targets were conspicuously “unmasked” with their names and the details of their conversations leaked to the press. Trump administration opponents call the issue a distraction, but it’s a matter of grave national importance.
Those who are disinclined to look too deeply into the issue of “unmasking” have latched onto a comment from Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr like flotsam in a shipwreck. “The unmasking thing was all created by Devin Nunes,” Burr said of the House Intelligence Committee chairman whose reckless conduct compelled him to recuse himself from the investigation into the Trump campaign’s conduct. “I’ll wait to go through our full evaluation to see if there was anything improper that happened,” he added. Fewer have, however, paid much attention to Burr’s full quote. “Clearly,” he added, “there were individuals unmasked. Some of that became public which it’s not supposed to, and our business is to understand that, and explain it.”
Indeed, there is a lot to explain. Only weeks into the new Trump administration, unnamed former Obama administration officials began telling reporters to expect to see details involving the surveillance of administration officials and Trump associates’ communications with their Russian counterparts. The New York Times, for example, revealed how these Obama officials left a “trail” of evidence of these contacts for investigators to uncover.
A month earlier, the Washington Post disclosed that former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn had privately discussed U.S. sanctions with Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, in phone calls prior to the inauguration. The transcript of those intercepted communications was related to reporters, despite its highly classified nature. This revelation contradicted the transition team’s repeated denials that any such conversations between Flynn and Kislyak took place and it served as just cause for Flynn’s termination.
Flynn was a liability and should never have been placed in such a sensitive role. His dismissal was a relief, but the methods by which he was discredited established a dangerous precedent. If a private citizen swept up in routine intercepts of communications with foreign agents can be “unmasked” to achieve a political purpose, even if that purpose is defensible, it won’t be long before that precedent is applied toward more ambiguous ends.
Now, Attorney General Jeff Sessions appears to have been the target of a politically motivated intelligence reveal. As reported by, again, the Washington Post, the attorney general apparently misled U.S. officials and members of Congress with regard to the nature of his contacts with Russian officials. According to communications intercepted by “U.S. spy agencies,” Kislyak related the details of two conversations he apparently had with then-campaign advisor Sessions to his superiors in Moscow. Sessions was not personally swept up in those intercepts, but Kislyak mentioned his name and the substance of those intercepts was related to Post reporters.
The outlet stressed that it could not confirm the authenticity of the intercepts as they could in Flynn’s case, but President Trump went ahead and did that for them. “A new INTELLIGENCE LEAK from the Amazon Washington Post, this time against A.G. Jeff Sessions,” the president declared on Twitter. “These illegal leaks, like [former FBI Director James] Comey’s, must stop!”
This particular leak was widely viewed within the context of the ongoing public feud between the president and his attorney general, but it should not be so quickly dismissed. In cryptic testimony before Congress, Comey revealed that Sessions’s recusal from the investigation into the Trump campaign’s links to Russia had nothing to do with Justice Department rules. He said he knew that recusal would be forthcoming, but he could not say why in an unclassified setting. Comey’s disclosure and this leak may not be unrelated.
Trump administration opponents who celebrate these unprecedented disclosures because they damage the administration are being extraordinarily parochial. This is an assault on the American social compact. The precedent being established now erodes the prohibitions on using intelligence gathering as a tool to discredit your political enemies. Democrats can bet that this practice will be deployed against them in the foreseeable future. In the process, political actors will render intelligence products suspect, weakening their utility for policymakers and, thus, making America less safe.
It is a tragedy that Democrats have not followed the lead of Senator Burr and other Republicans who are treating the issue of “unmasking” as seriously as they are the unprecedented efforts by Moscow to shape the course of American political affairs in 2016. Like the hacks of Democratic targets, this is not a partisan issue. The “unmaskers” will one day come for Democrats, and they will regret their silence in this pivotal hour.
Has Mattis gone rogue?
At the core of the Qatar dispute is the question of Qatar’s support for extremism. While many Gulf states have histories of donating to or promoting radical Islamism, many have made real reforms. Saudi Arabia, for example, became much more serious about the need to curtail support for radical groups after the Kingdom started suffering blowback with terrorists targeting foreigners living in Saudi Arabia and senior Saudi officials. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, meanwhile, has cracked down not only on the Muslim Brotherhood but has also moved to sever the life-line Egypt often provided Hamas leaders in Gaza. Qatar, however, continues to set itself above the rest in its support for Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and other moderate Arab states are rightly confused, if not frustrated, by the muddled U.S. response so far. After all, diplomats and official from these states say, both Democratic and Republican administrations in the United States have both long beseeched them to take a no-nonsense approach to extremism and to operate in a coordinated fashion against regional threats.
When they finally do, the White House flip-flops and the State Department urges compromise and negotiation. Evenhandedness is not a virtue when one side is right and the other wrong. To negotiate with regard to the acceptance of terrorist groups is, however, a very dangerous precedent. If the United States re-engaged in Afghanistan to eliminate al-Qaeda’s bases there or began operations in Syria to counter the Islamic State, Washington would greatly resent outside powers demanding that the United States compromise with either.
In the wake of the Qatar crisis, now in its second month, Turkey set up a military base in Qatar, much to the outrage of the states seeking to pressure Qatar into compliance. That base’s closure remains a key demand among moderate Arab countries.
Now word comes that the U.S. military is planning to conduct military exercises in Qatar with the Qatari and Turkish militaries. Daily Sabah, a once independent paper which was seized by Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government and transferred to his son-in-law, quoted Qatari Defense Minister Khalid bin Mohammed al-Attiyah as saying, “Qatar, Turkey and the U.S. regularly conduct military drills in Qatar. In the near future, a joint drill will begin by the three countries.”
Like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has sought to temper President Trump’s impetuousness on a number of foreign policy issues. While this can often be a good thing when done behind-the-scenes and in the course of a normal policy process through the National Security Council, the Pentagon conducting its own private foreign policy creates confusion and risks antagonizing allies.
Mattis already displayed a tin ear for timing when, just days after Trump sided with the moderate Arab states and called Qatar out on its funding of extremists, the Pentagon announced a multi-billion dollar arms sale to Qatar. To conduct military exercises in Qatar with Turkey suggests Mattis is choosing sides and endorsing the positions of Qatar and Turkey. Perhaps he is motivated by the desire to maintain access to the al-Udeid Air Base. If this is the case, though, he confuses the Pentagon’s preference for the status quo with broader U.S. interests. To prioritize preservation of the al-Udeid Air Base over broader interests effectively tells Doha that it need not reform its behavior and that it can use the U.S. presence as a “get out of jail free card.”
Should Qatar’s announcement of military drills be true and should Mattis go ahead with the exercises, he also risks undercutting efforts to repair the damage which the Obama administration caused with America’s traditional allies Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt. Those governments remain furious with how they believe President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry threw them under the bus.
Mattis may be more refined than Tillerson in his efforts to blunt Trump’s excesses. To conduct his own foreign policy, however, is bad in any instance. To do so in such a counterproductive way and to again betray moderate states, which have only done what successive U.S. administrations have asked them to do, may risk damaging alliances beyond the point of no return.