The Great Withdrawer: George Will repudiates the Hawks

Conservative columnist George Will, having argued earlier this week for a US withdrawal from Afghanistan, today says we should get out of Iraq sooner rather than later.

Will’s main arguments are:

1. The past 6 1/2 years in Iraq have produced 4,327 American dead and 31,483 wounded
2. The US military is exhausted and needs a break
3. Afghanistan is spiralling down
4. It is a poor use of US troops to deploy them for a) nation-building or b) baby-sitting and correcting other peoples’ politicians
5. The Iraqi government is an ingrate and makes no secret of its belief that it does not need US troops
6. It may be true that Iran will inherit Iraq as a client if the US leaves, but this outcome is unavoidable and cannot be forestalled by a longer US stay
7. An extension of the US presence in Iraq will not succeed in ensuring Iraqi democracy, which is fragile and may not survive regardless of what the US does
8. A longer US stay cannot prevent Iraq from falling back into civil war
9. Either the surge succeeded or it did not. If it did, then Iraq is secure and the US isn’t needed. If it did not, then no further surge is likely to, either.

Will alleges that deaths from political violence have increased since the US stopped patrolling the cities, but as I argued earlier this week, the two-month average of civilian and security forces’ deaths in Iraq since US patrols ceased is lower than some recent months when the US was in charge. (We are not talking about ordinary criminal murders here, as some of Will’s Neocon critics imply; we are talking about guerrilla attacks for political purposes; Washington DC doesn’t routinely have the facade of government buildings torn off by massive bombs).

Will, like myself, was a skeptic on the surge and he points to Iraq’s obvious continued instability as evidence that the surge (the addition of 30,000 troops for counter-insurgency in 2007) only papered over long-term trends toward violence that are now re-emerging. Me, I say violence did decline, but that it was mainly as a result of the ethnic cleansing of the Sunnis from Baghdad. Shiite militias cannot kill Sunnis in their neighborhoods if there are not longer any Sunnis in their neighborhoods.

So is Will right? On the whole, yes. The US cannot afford a large, long-term military commitment to Iraq, either in blood or in treasure. The Iraqis don’t want us there. The US military cannot, whether it stays 2 years or 5, forestall Iran being highly influential in Shiite Iraq, and nor could it probably forestall an Arab-Kurdish civil war. (It could not stop the Sunni-Shiite civil war of 2006-2007 from unfolding under its nose in Baghdad– and it is weak up north, so how could it stop Arab-Kurdish violence?) Will and I probably disagree about US obligations to help with Iraqi rebuilding (and resettling the 4 million displaced Iraqis the US helped create). But we can agree, at least, that the US military is not the right agency for nation-building or for telling Iraqi politicians what to do.

Anyway, the Iraq withdrawal is in my view a done deal. Bush negotiated it with the Iraqi parliament, and Obama is committed to it. Iraqi parliamentarians and militias will not put up with a long-term US military presence in Iraq. The dwindling band of Neoconservatives, who believe in force-feeding “democracy” to colonized peoples, are virtually the only ones who even demur. Iraq is not a good candidate for democracy. It has severe ethnic divisions and grievances, a very valuable primary commodity in the form of petroleum, and a low real per-capita income (which is distorted by the oil wealth, which, however, is not shared with the population directly). The three characteristics I just mentioned are highly correlated with substantial internal violence, and do not bode well for stable democracy. I wish Iraq well, but Will is right that three or four more years of US troop presence are not going to change these dynamics. And, what the Neoconservatives ignore is that the US troop presence is viewed as an occupation by most Iraqis and by virtually everyone in the Arab world, so that it is provoking opposition and instability, not forestalling them. Most Neoconservatives don’t know anything serious about Iraqi society or indeed about the actually-existing Middle East. I think some of them want the US in Iraq for reasons that have to do with their devotion to Israel; and while the US should work for the security of all its allies, the Neocons are just wrong that US troops in Iraq help with that. Since they cannot allow themselves to see that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank is a huge catastrophe, likewise they cannot admit to themselves that the US presence in Iraq is a disaster.

Will would have strengthened his argument if he had pointed out that the new Iraqi military has had some success in restoring basic order to Basra, Amara and Nasiriya, and that if anything the Iraqi army seems to be getting better at domestic security provision. (His gaffe in thinking that violence has increased on average since July 1 may have made this argument difficult for him to put forward.) Will’s tough-guy rhetoric about not caring if Iraq sinks or swims is the one element of his article with which I strongly disagree. I care, I just think its swimming can be arranged for in ways other than the US infantry.

In making his argument about Iraq, Will essentially supported Obama against the Neoconservatives in his own party. He might even be signalling that he thinks Republicans would be foolish to run on staying in Iraq in the 2010 congressional midterms, contrary to the advice they would get from John McCain, the Weekly Standard, the American Enterprise Institute, and Sarah Palin (none of whom Will likes very much).

Thus, although the form of the argument was similar, the Iraq article differed significantly in its political implications from his Tuesday piece on Afghanistan.

Obama has put a lot of the eggs of his presidency in the AfPak basket. Will is saying that was a mistake. Obama may end up having to depend on Republican support to prosecute the Afghanistan War. Will is saying that the Republicans are mistaken to back the war and implying that Obama could drag his party down on this issue. The Neoconservatives attacked Will on that column, as well. But I think he, and not his Neoconservative critics, has the greater chance of seeing his ethos prevail over time in the Republican Party. Any Republican presidential candidate in his or her right mind will run against the Afghanistan War in 2012. If the Republicans rally to support of Obama’s war, they will deprive themselves of a key critique that is increasingly popular with the US public, and will doom themselves to “me-too-ism,” always dangerous to a political opposition party. Will’s critics will mainly come from the ranks of those whose palms are greased by the military-industrial complex. The war industries are an important component of the Republican Party, but they don’t always get their way there; and they are perfectly capable of throwing their support to the Democrats, if they think the latter will keep the bomb-manufacturing factories open and producing.

Will is repudiating his hawkish stances in the 1980s and through 2003. It would not be fair to accuse him of 1930s style isolationism. He just is not exercised by the alleged threat from the Muslim world in the way he was about International Communism. Either he is becoming an outlier in the party, or he is in the vanguard of a sea change in Republican philosophy.

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