Responding to George Will's Realism

Peter Wehner
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Posted: Aug 16, 2006 9:39 AM

George Will is one of the outstanding columnists of our time, and he has significantly shaped conservatism (including my own) over the years. But his latest column about the President's foreign policy agenda in the Middle East is misguided and wrong in several important respects.

1. Mr. Will writes, "Foreign policy 'realists'' considered Middle East stability the goal. The realists' critics, who regard realism as reprehensibly unambitious, considered stability the problem. That problem has been solved."

Let's see if we can untangle some of this. 

The notion that prior to the Bush Administration (and The Freedom Agenda) we had achieved "stability" in the Middle East is historically unserious. Would Mr. Will count as an example of "stability" the 1967 Arab-Israeli war? The 1973 Arab-Israeli war? The previous Israeli clashes with Hezbollah (which led to an 18-year Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon)? The two Palestinian intifadas that took place in the last 20 years? The Iran-Iraq war (which saw more than one million casualties)? Perhaps the Iraq-Kuwait war? The Syrian occupation of Lebanon? The 1982 massacre in Hama? The Jordanian expulsion of thousands of Palestinians in the early 1970s? Does Mr. Will count as "stable" the nations that produced the men who on September 11th flew planes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and downed a jet liner in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania?

In his essay in the latest Commentary magazine, Norman Podhoretz writes the "50 years of peace" (to use a formulation by Brent Scowcroft) brought us about two dozen wars. This hardly qualifies as "stability."

As for Mr. Will's claim that the "problem has been solved": let's first be clear about what we are talking about. The Bush administration believes the problem isn't simply the faux stability of the Middle East; it is, more fundamentally, the lack of political liberty and free institutions in the Arab Middle East. And in attempting to correct this deeply rooted problem, one might hope Mr. Will would grant a bit more than a year or two or three for it to succeed.

Past Middle East policies were unsustainable; after all, oppression allowed bin Ladenism to take root and grow. Having identified the problem and begun to address it doesn't mean the problem is solved. We are at the outset of what may well be a historic transition -- and such transitions can be jolting and uneven. The Bush administration's "solution" is not to create "instability." It is to assist in the rise of liberty and civic habits in the Middle East. That will take longer to achieve than the historical blink of an eye. And one thing we know for sure: we were never going to get there under a policy that looked away from, or even promoted, tyrannical regimes in the Arab world.

It's worth asking Mr. Will: does he believe what is needed in the Middle East is more repression, more violence, more mass graves, more Saddam Husseins, more Hafez al-Assads, and more Yasir Arafats? Would these things lead to more "stability" in the Middle East? Would they advance American interests? Would they advance human rights or human liberty or the common good?

2. Here is some of what Mr. Will wrote about the Middle East during those peaceful, sedate, tranquil "years of stability" he now longs for:

"The existence of Israel, and of 'the Palestinian question,' usually has precious little -- and often, as in this case, nothing -- to do with the largest and most dangerous doings in the Middle East. Today it is especially apparent that Israel is the all-purpose but implausible alibi for the various pathologies that convulse many Arab nations and relations between them." (August 3, 1990)

"There are 21 nations in what is called 'the Arab world,' but no real democracy. In recent years, political pluralism and popular government have been sprouting green shoots in previously stony ground from Latin America to Eastern Europe. But the Middle East has remained a region riven by political primitivism that is fueled by religious fanaticism and tribalism masquerading as nationalism. A sense of falling further and further behind other modernizing nations exacerbates Arab feelings of cultural inferiority. Those feelings are deepened by the sterility of the truculence and militarism that are supposed to assuage such feelings." (January 18, 1991)

"The Palestinian Authority has comprehensively violated the Oslo agreements, including the undertaking to stop antisemitic propaganda. On Friday, Palestinian Authority television aired a Gaza imam's harangue telling the faithful that it is their duty to kill Jews wherever they find them. In President Clinton's final months of office, the Middle East is more aflame than when he began ministering to it." (October 19, 2000)

"The Middle East is one coup (in Egypt or Jordan) away from a convulsion radically inimical to Israel. However, as Netanyahu said Wednesday by telephone from Jerusalem, Islamic radicalism regards Israel as Nazi Germany regarded Belgium -- as a small steppingstone toward a much larger conquest." (September 14, 2001)

3. And what might be the corrective to the "various pathologies that convulse many Arab nations"? In 1992, Mr. Will seemed to think democracy was a pretty neat idea. Here is what he wrote on January 12, 1992:

"Desert Storm was supposed to serve a new world order, but Bush has not seriously tried to translate Kuwait's moral debt to America into something truly new -- an Arab democracy. Instead, Bush's itch to tidy up the Middle East has translated into an adversarial relationship between America and the only democracy in the region, Israel."

In fact in those days, Mr. Will was troubled by "established order" -- and criticized President George W. Bush's father for his "preference for order before freedom." Here is how he put it in the same January 12, 1992 column:

"[President George H.W. Bush's] preference for any established order abroad explains the gray, leaden spirit of Secretary of State Baker's remarks in Belgrade (June 21, 1991) urging preservation of the doomed Yugoslav state. It explains Bush's Kiev speech, (Aug. 1, 1991) telling Ukrainians, in effect, that their proper future was in a Soviet Union run by Gorbachev. It explains Bush's appeasement of his acquaintances (from his ambassadorial days) in China's bloodstained gerontocracy. Bush's preference for order before freedom is apparent in his neo-mercantilist approval of 'managed' trade with Japan."

And on September 9, 1990, Mr. Will wrote this about Iraq:

"As U.S. forces, and policy, settle into the sand for a long stay, a question insistently asked is: Will we become 'bogged down' there? The answer is: Of course, and that is good, or at any rate the least bad outcome. The alternative to being bogged down there is Iraq rampant there. That is, the alternative to being bogged down is not to have gone there. A quick resort to force might have been satisfying, but catharsis is not an acceptable purpose of foreign policy. It might have been wise, but it certainly would have been no guarantee of a short stay. One reason the Berlin Wall is down is that U.S. forces were 'bogged down' in Europe 45 years after the war ended. It is now 483 months since President Truman committed forces in Korea, and the world is better because some U.S. troops are still there. For many years, concern for oil supplies, and for Israel's safety, have caused America to seek a permanent presence on the ground in the Middle East. To those who say we are now 'bogged down' there, others reply: It's about time."

4. Mr. Will writes about "the intellectual contortions required to sustain the illusion that the war in Iraq is central to the war on terrorism..."

Mr. Will might want to consult with Islamic terrorists on this matter. After all, it is Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri (the top two leaders of al Qaeda) who have declared Iraq to be precisely what George Will denies. "This Third World War is raging" in Iraq, Osama bin Laden has said. In his words, "The whole world is watching this war" -- and it will end in "victory and glory, or misery and humiliation."

In his 2005 letter to the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al-Zawahiri wrote, "[Iraq] is now the place for the greatest battle of Islam in this era... The first stage: Expel the Americans from Iraq. The second stage: Establish an Islamic authority or amirate, then develop it and support it until it achieves the level of a caliphate... The third stage: Extend the jihad wave to the secular countries neighboring Iraq." And Mr. Will may have forgotten that there is a terrorist organization called al Qaeda in Iraq.

Mr. Will may think it is an "illusion" that Iraq is central to the war on terrorism -- but the terrorists think exactly the opposite. And in this instance, their opinion matters more. Iraq is a central front in the war on terrorism because they have made it so. Wishing it were not the case -- even writing that it is not the case -- won't change that reality.

5. Mr. Will writes, "Cooperation between Pakistani and British law enforcement (the British draw upon useful experience combating IRA terrorism) has validated John Kerry's belief" that the war on terrorism is "primarily an intelligence and law enforcement operation that requires cooperation around the world."
To successfully stop attacks by Islamic fascists obviously requires a law enforcement component -- which is why the Bush administration has devoted enormous resources to law enforcement to fight terrorists. And we have succeeded in derailing plots as a result. Much of the counterterrorism work done by the Department of Homeland Security is law enforcement of one type or another; the same is true when it comes to the FBI. So to say that fighting terrorism requires a law enforcement component is to state what is blindingly obvious -- and it is to state what no sentient person would disagree with.

But the terrorists who attack us clearly see themselves as at war with us -- and to underplay the role of the military in this epic struggle is deeply unwise. After all, it was the American military that deposed the Taliban regime, which gave safe haven to al Qaeda. That remains the single most important blow that has been struck against the terrorists. And virtually no one could have predicted that a half-decade after the attacks on September 11th, we would not have been hit again. Such things don't happen by coincidence.

6. Mr. Will is right that cooperation between Pakistani and British law enforcement stopped the latest attack, and that was a very good thing indeed. But he should bear in mind that law enforcement alone is not perfect by any means; witness the successful terrorist attacks in Madrid, Riyadh, Amman, Bali, London, and many other other cities.

Here is how The New York Times put it in the aftermath of the London bombings on July 7, 2005: "The officials said there was no warning or even a hint that an attack was imminent among the blizzard of intelligence accumulated in recent days by the Metropolitan Police and by MI5, the domestic intelligence services. 'There was no intelligence in our possession that these attacks were going to take place today,' said Brian Paddick, deputy assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. 'We were given no warning from any organization that this was going to happen.'"

7. Mr. Will now ridicules the idea of using the military to win the war against Islamic fascists ("F-16s are not useful tools against terrorism that issues from places such as Hamburg ... and High Wycombe, England."). That is something of a shift for him. Here is what Mr. Will wrote in his September 23, 2001 column:

"If the nation is to think clearly about war, it must ration its use of two recurring words: 'justice' and 'tragedy.' The goal is not to 'bring terrorists to justice,' which suggests bringing them into sedate judicial settings -- lawyers, courtrooms, due process, all preceded by punctilious readings of Miranda rights. Rather, the goal is destruction of enemies. And what America suffered at the hands of its enemies was not a 'tragedy.' ... What erupted on Sept. 11 is a war of aggression. Hence the suitability of the swift response from NATO, a defensive alliance."
And this (from his December 27, 2001 column):

"It is a reasonable surmise that a reformed terrorist is a very rare terrorist, and that the rate of recidivism will be high among terrorists who are forced to surrender but continue to believe they are doing God's will when they commit mass murder of infidels. So, as far as is consistent with the rules of war and the husbanding of the lives of U.S. military personnel, U.S. strategy should maximize fatalities among the enemy, rather than expedite the quickest possible cessation of hostilities."
And this (from his November 22, 2001 column):

"However, while [Sir Michael] Howard says terrorists - he has, for example, Ireland in mind - want to provoke overt armed force against them, bin Laden cannot be pleased by what he has brought down upon himself. And what choice did America have? The terrorists have achieved mass destruction before they have acquired weapons of mass destruction, and regimes, or the minds of regimes, must be changed before these terrorists can be beaten. Thus America has a military problem -- or a problem with a large military dimension."
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, there was an intensity and urgency in George Will's words. He understood we were in a war and that the military must play a vital role in prosecuting it. But now time has passed and for some, memories have dimmed and faded. This has occurred precisely because we have succeeded (so far) in preventing attacks on the American homeland. Some in America have shifted from a war footing to a law enforcement footing. Such inconstancy is not particularly problematic when it is found in a columnist -- as opposed to, say, in a Commander-in-Chief.

The status quo in the Middle East was a downward spiral of oppression, officially-sanctioned conspiracy theories, economic stagnation, growing radicalism, and an ideology of violence. Mr. Will's kind of "stability" and "realism" -- a kind of world-weary belief that nothing can be done and so nothing should be tried -- would eventually lead to death and destruction on a scale that is almost unimaginable. He wants what never was and cannot be: stability and peace anchored in oppression. His brand of "realism" is divorced from both reality and history. It ought to be rejected.

Peter Wehner is deputy assistant to the President and director of the White House's Office of Strategic Initiatives.