There are two sure things every Sunday on This Week with George Stephanopoulos: George Will and the heartbreaking “In Memoriam” segment listing the week’s war victims.
Apparently, the former has just started paying attention to the latter.
In two columns this week, George Will announced that he’s against not only the war in Iraq, but also the war in Afghanistan—wars which, for years, he argued in favor of in his role as dean of the conservative commentariat. Commentary’s Peter Wehner cites Will’s 2002 hypothesis: “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 … ‘We’re going to have to get into the nation-building business.’”
Compare that to his belief now: “If there is a worse use of the U.S. military than ‘nation building,’ it is adult supervision and behavior modification of other peoples’ politicians.”
Forget that it should have been obvious that a substantial component of nation-building is, in fact, “supervision and behavior modification of other peoples’ politicians.” Will’s (dare we say it?) flip-flop on the wars marks an especially insidious strain of chicken-hawkery, bringing the conservative thought process on war in the Middle East full circle: attack first, develop rationalization later, equate dissent with treason, abandon ship.
Will argues that we’ve paid enough of a price in American blood and treasure and that now it’s time to go home: 4,340 killed/31,495 wounded in Iraq; 808 killed/3,807 wounded in Afghanistan. Maybe it’s no longer in our national interest to occupy Afghanistan, but why did it take him so long to figure it out? He is against “nation building”—which makes perfect sense as a political philosophy—but not if you’ve been arguing for nation-building for six or seven years, only to fold up shop when it becomes difficult and costly.
If nation building were easy, it’d be called nation boosting, nation betting or nation being.
Will says our strategy in Afghanistan doesn’t work because “Taliban forces can evaporate and then return, confident that U.S. forces will forever be too few to hold gains. Hence nation building would be impossible even if we knew how, and even if Afghanistan were not the second-worst place to try.” Maybe so, but if that’s true, he should have made that argument as soon as we cut off hot pursuit of al Qaeda in 2003.
Will notes that Afghanistan is centuries behind the developed world and has never had a strong central government. True again, but these were also points that we knew going in.
Getting out of Iraq is an easier call. As The Root’s Jack White writes, “We went there on a lie and too many brave young men and women as well as tens of thousands of civilians have died as a result.” Violence is likely to escalate when the U.S. withdraws, but at least our withdrawal is taking place under the aegis of the Status of Forces Agreement—a formal compact with the Iraqi government that they want us out and we’re ready to leave.
The danger with Afghanistan is that Will, known to be the studied, non-town hall type of conservative, does artfully, but identically the same thing garden-variety conservatives do. He pitched for both wars, but now wants to wrap them up. And yet, it’s easy to imagine that if Obama had started out his presidency differently, initiating a speedy, six-month drawdown in both theatres, Will would have been at the head of the line of critics declaring that Obama, with his “negligible national security experience,” was naïve, beholden to peaceniks and creating of his own version of the Saigon embassy panic.
One reason we’re mired in two wars eight years after 9/11 is that authoritative voices like Will made the case for going in. He wants his new view to be taken as a cold, rational assessment of the limits of American power. But what he’s really saying is: “We’ve done all that we can do for these bloody savages, now let’s get the hell out of Dodge.”
Obama’s slogan has been “to be as careful getting out as we were careless getting in.” Will changed his from “You broke it; you bought it” to “See ya. Wouldn’t want to be ya.”
This week on This Week, Will is almost sure to deploy some faux-erudite quip about Custer or Napoleon, or maybe a line from “The Charge of the Light Brigade” as a staging point for defending his revised thinking on Afghanistan. But as much as he wants to think of himself as a conservative iconoclast, he is now synonymous with mainstream right-wing hypocrisy on both wars.
By concluding so dramatically that we no longer have unfinished business in Afghanistan, Will tries to give aid and comfort to anyone who decided years ago that Afghanistan wasn’t a splashy enough war in the first place—those who thought it best to let bin Laden fade into the mountains of Pakistan while we invaded and occupied Iraq.
Oh, wait. He’s against that war now, too.
David Swerdlick is a regular contributor to The Root.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.