Within the past week, conservative stalwart George Will has come out in The Washington Post for getting out of Afghanistan (September 1) and Iraq (September 4). This marks a clear cleavage within conservative ranks to match that among liberals. Fellow conservatives such as William Kristol have been adamantly against Will on these two issues. The intensity of the conservative divide rivals that between Democratic doves and “realists” like Hillary Clinton. The country is divided about both wars, and the division doesn’t fall along liberal-conservative lines. This has to be good news for those of us who want to draw both interventions to a close.
Will’s critiques of the two wars actually reflect many of the arguments made by pragmatic liberals who are skeptical of the prospects of either war. Based on widely accepted principles of counterinsurgency, Will argues that the requisite commitment of hundreds of thousands of troops to Afghanistan for a decade or more is inconceivable. Instead, he calls for doing “only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and small, potent Special Forces units, concentrating on the … border with Pakistan, a country that actually matters.”
Similarly, on Iraq, Will argues that we should take the Iraqi government at its word and wind down our involvement there, as specified in the 2008 security agreement: “The United States should treat this as a Dirty Harry moment: Make our day.” He points out that two more years of US presence cannot determine whether Iraq will descend into civil war.
His fundamental point in both articles parallels the arguments of a wide range of pragmatic skeptics, that our continued military presence cannot conceivably succeed in assuring peace and development (much less democracy) in either country. Hence, we should stop spending lives and fortunes there.
The Iraq intervention already appears to be on the road to an end, due precisely to the 2008 agreement, in which the Iraqi government insisted on setting a firm deadline for US withdrawal, over the objections of the Bush administration. Current thinking in the Obama administration seems to echo that of its predecessor: follow the agreement, but hang around and hope the Iraqis ask for more help. But the US presence is deeply unpopular except perhaps among the Kurds, and we should see that there is nothing more we can do there.
Afghanistan seems to be headed the other way. Obama made clear in the campaign that while the Iraq intervention was ill-advised and illegitimate, Bush had put Afghanistan, a more just war, on the back burner. In office, Obama has broken his promise to end the Iraq intervention, but has moved to escalate our intervention in Afghanistan, as promised. The gamble seems to be that a “surge,” like that in Iraq during 2008, can stabilize Afghanistan and keep the Taliban at bay. But this is a recipe for an indefinite occupation, when it must be clear to all that the American public will not accept that.
The threat of Islamist terrorism is not effectively addressed by invasions, but by thoughtful politics. They hate us for what we have done to harm them. First, we need to stop supporting repressive and corrupt regimes in the Middle East, such as that in Saudi Arabia, and get serious about promoting social justice. Further, we need to get serious about a truly even-handed policy between Israel and the Palestinians. This issue is even more powerful than Iraq and Afghanistan in promoting Islamic and Arab nationalist resistance to us.