Why “realism” is not the answer — Peter Wehner responds to George Will

Yesterday, George Will wrote a column called “The Triumph of Unrealism” in which he again attacks the Bush administration for undermining “stability” in the Middle East and for rejecting John Kerry’s view that, while the war on terror will be “occasionally military,” it is “primarily and intelligence and law enforcement operation. . . .” Here is Will’s punch line:

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.

Peter Wehner, the deputy assistant to the president and director of the White House’s Office of Strategic Initiatives, has long been an admirer of Will (as I am). However, Wehner has written a powerful response to Will’s piece in an “on the record” email. The full response is too long to reprint here, but I’ll try to summarize it.

Wehner’s first point is that the Middle East was not stable prior to the Bush administration and, in fact, past Middle East policies were unsustainable. He cites a long list of Middle East wars, two intifadas, and various massacres and major terrorist events. He then asks:

[D]oes [Mr. Will] 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?

Wehner next produces a series of past statements in which Will took the position that the Middle East was far from stable and that the status quo there was not acceptable. On August 3, 1990, Will wrote that “Israel is the all-purpose but implausible alibi for the various pathologies that convulse many Arab nations and relations between them.” On October 19, 2000, he wrote, “In President Clinton’s final months of office, the Middle East is more aflame than when he began ministering to it.” On September 14, 2001, he wrote, “Islamic radicalism regards Israel as Nazi Germany regarded Belgium – as a small steppingstone toward a much larger conquest.”

Will was also quite sympathetic to the idea that democracy might well be the corrective to the region’s “pathologies.” After the first Gulf War, on January 12, 1992, he criticized the Bush-I administration for “not seriously [trying] to translate Kuwait’s moral debt to America into something truly new – an Arab democracy.” In the same column, he also criticized the administration for its “preference for order before freedom.” Earlier, on the subject of Iraq, Will had argued (on September 9, 1990) that it would be a good outcome or “at any rate the least bad outcome” for the U.S. to become “bogged down” there. In defense of this counter-intuitive notion, Will explained that “one reason the Berlin Wall is down is that U.S. forces were ‘bogged down’ in Europe 45 years after the war ended.”

Next Wehner turns to Will’s contention that only “intellectual contortions” can “sustain the illusion that the war in Iraq is central to the war on terrorism.” Wehner responds that the world’s leading terrorists (not noted for their intellectual contortions) have declared Iraq to be the place where the “Third World War is raging” (Osama bin Laden) and “the place for the greatest battle of Islam in this era” (Ayman al-Zawahiri). Iraq, Wehner concludes, “is a central front in the war on terrorism because [the terrorists] have made it so. Wishing it were not the case – even writing that it is not the case – won’t change reality.”

As to Will’s embrace of John Kerry’s belief that the war on terrorism is primarily an intelligence and law enforcement operation, Wehner counters that law enforcement, while obviously important, is imperfect and therefore not enough. As evidence, he cites successful terrorist attacks in Madrid, Riyadh, Amman, Bali, London, and elsewhere. In the case of the July 7, 2005 London bombings, British officials have said that they had no warning or even hint that an attack was imminent despite a blizzard of accumulated intelligence.

Under these circumstances, says Wehner, “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.” Moreover, in the days after 9/11 Will himself recognized the central role of the military, writing that “America has a military problem – or a problem with a large military dimension.” (November 22, 2001)

Wehner concludes as follows:

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.

SCOTT adds: Our friends at RealClearPolitics have posted Wehner’s email as a column: “Responding to George Will’s realism.”


Books to read from Power Line