What's Really Behind Conservative Pundit George Will's Call for Total Withdrawal From Afghanistan?
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On Sept. 1, conservative columnist George Will published a seemingly out-of-nowhere, eye-popping op-ed for the Washington Post titled, "Time to Get out of Afghanistan." The piece, which called for "a comprehensively revised policy" involving drastic troop reductions, prompted a battery of rebuttals from right-wing pundits.
But although Will was accused of everything from bald cowardice to faulty arithmetic, his so-called 'defection' was miles from a random maneuver. Rather, it was a calculated provocation -- one sensitive to a political climate in which our prickly discourse on Afghanistan has immense transformative power.
Will, above all else, understood the landscape onto which he was discharging his ideas. About 2 1/2 months before he published his op-ed, members of the House voted down an amendment proposed by Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., that called on the Pentagon to draft an exit strategy for Afghanistan.
Democrats, undoubtedly balancing the political viability of continuing President Barack Obama's "good war" against increasing public distaste for said war, were split on the decision: 131-114 (57 percent to 43 percent). Republican representatives, whose party M.O. has in recent years been characterized (and to some degree nourished) by an indiscriminate hawkishness, did not echo the Dems' recalcitrance. They walloped the proposal 164-7.
There were no real wild cards among the seven GOP defectors. John "Jimmy" Duncan, a self-proclaimed "Robert Taft conservative" from Tennessee, had enunciated his anti-war position rather clearly in 2003, when he compared the invasion of Iraq to "the University of Tennessee football team taking on a second-grade football team -- it's unbelievable."
Then there was Illinois Rep. Timothy V. Johnson, another fiscal conservative, who in 2007 was comparably vocal about his contempt for President George W. Bush's surge: "People believe, and I believe, that we are at a point in history where, unless we have dramatic change in direction, we can wind up being mired and continue to lose large numbers of lives -- American, Iraqi and others -- indefinitely," Johnson said at the time. "I'm not going to be a part of it."
Joining Duncan and Johnson were Howard Coble, R-N.C.; former Democrat Walter Jones Jr., R-N.C.; Dana Rohrbacher, R-Calif.; Ed Whitfield, R-Ky.; and Ron Paul, R-Texas. Their combined vote -- cast when a majority of Americans (57 percent, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll) believed the U.S. should maintain a presence in Afghanistan until the country is stable -- was a self-consciously empty, if prideful, political exercise more akin to a nerd struggling feebly in a bully's headlock than to a real ideological coup. It posed no threat to the Republican paradigm.
No threat, that is, until Will delivered his seething critique of the U.S.'s Afghanistan policy. In his unambiguously titled piece, Will argued that Afghanistan was a country whose political climate has never been stable enough to accommodate the U.S.'s "hold and build" goals.
All of a sudden, conservative critiques of Afghanistan were not only plausible -- they were shoved to the forefront of debate.
"Counterinsurgency theory concerning the time and the ratio of forces required to protect the population indicates that, nationwide, Afghanistan would need hundreds of thousands of coalition troops, perhaps for a decade or more," Will wrote. "That is inconceivable."
"Forces should be substantially reduced to serve a comprehensively revised policy," he concluded. "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."
The piece, broadly viewed as a "bombshell" defection, accomplished two things. It: a) reached millions, and b) obscured a once-unquestioned logical link between Republicanism and hypermilitancy. For these reasons, it was immediately panned by a gaggle of hawkish, right-wing analysts whose definition of conservatism had never endured such a two-pronged gouging.
Writing for the Washington Post, William Kristol argued that Will's plan said "nothing of the broader consequences of defeat in the Afghan theater in the war against the jihadists."
The National Review's Fred Kagan attempted to call attention to some of Will's "factual inaccuracies" and later accused him of advocating "pre-emptive suicide."
Even Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sounded off: "The last time we left Afghanistan, and we abandoned Pakistan," she told CNN, "that territory became the very territory on which al-Qaida trained and attacked us on Sept. 11th. So our national-security interests are very much tied up in not letting Afghanistan fail again and become a safe haven for terrorists.
"It's that simple. If you want another terrorist attack in the U.S., abandon Afghanistan."
Other conservatives, such as Peter Wehner, Rich Lowry and Jules Crittenden, outlined slightly different criticisms, but the general opinion was that Will had forgotten the breadth of America's security interest in Afghanistan. Leaving, they blogged in digital chorus, would be a huge mistake; Will is nothing short of a traitor to the party.
To some degree, they were right. Will's Afghanistan defection did indeed fail to drop within the concrete (if considerably dented) parameters of modern Republican thought. It did not at all correspond with a conservatism that has for years vociferously prioritized war as the sole means of maintaining "national security."
Overnight, it seemed, Will had become walking brand dilution, and it was up to "true" Republicans to preserve their party's integrity. This of course meant Will's swift and unequivocal ostracism from the ranks.
But what critics on the right failed to realize was that Will's move was not as simple as a cut-and-run plea. Rather, it was a calculated provocation.
Consider the political atmosphere: Since the June 25 vote, public support for the war in Afghanistan has been in a steady nosedive, with the amount of Americans who believe we should maintain a presence there dipping 7 percentage points in three months (it's now at 50 percent). Republican support has dropped 4 percentage points.
Will, whose foreign-policy bloodlust has never approached the intensity of other conservatives (he has been immensely critical of the war in Iraq, for example, and penned a scathing piece about our involvement there just three days after his Afghanistan commentary), recognized Afghanistan as an opportunity for a shift in conservative thought: his column, sensitive of America's growing unease with the war, was a lifeline to an ideology teetering on combustion.
It was, in short, a sort of ideological snapshot, employed to determine (and perhaps restructure) the topography of a foundering conservative movement.
That's not to say it was completely pragmatic, especially given the influence of established neocons like Kristol and Rice. But the right's "adamant and vociferous rejection of Will," as Benjamin F. Carlson writes for the Atlantic, was certainly more than a simple "testimony to his lingering influence"; it was also the panicked yelp of conservatives whose foreign policy posture has -- thanks to eight years of George W. Bush, a poorly strategized war in Iraq, and broad shifts in public perception regarding Afghanistan -- become largely anachronistic.
Almost two weeks after Will's column was published, Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine and member of the Senate Armed Service Committee, expressed doubt about proposed troop escalations in Afghanistan.
"I just don't know that more troops is the answer," she said on CNN's State of the Union. "We're dealing with widespread corruption, a very difficult terrain, and I'm just wondering where this ends and how we'll know if this succeeded."
Nine days later, Tim Johnson, the Illinois representative who was among the minority to vote in favor of a withdrawal timetable in June, claimed that Afghanistan was a war with "no endgame."
"I believe that our men and women are there in a mission that is ill-defined," Johnson said at a town hall meeting on Sept. 22. "I think we're losing people by the day, here and over there, with no even indirect relationship to our national security.
"We've had a succession from Vietnam to Iraq to Afghanistan, and the net result has been thousands of lives lost, and very little progress made."
Afghanistan, bizarrely enough, has become an immense political opportunity for conservatives. Criticizing its muddled trajectory -- a trajectory that, conveniently for those on the right, is now being determined by a Democratic president -- could be the key to etching a new worldview less focused on pre-emptive defense and imperial war.
But as the divisiveness of Will's piece illustrates, such criticism also has the potential to rip the GOP to shreds.