A Battle of Wills

The dispute that, predictably enough, erupted yesterday in the ranks of the right over George Will's call for U.S. disengagement from Afghanistan underscores just how marginalized Will's traditional conservatism has become within the movement that calls itself conservative when it is actually anything but.

Will's Washington Post column should not have come as a surprise. He was always a skeptic about George W. Bush's war in Iraq, fearing, rightly, that once we had deposed Saddam Hussein, we would be saddled with bringing order to a country that had been held together only by tyrannical rule. Similar arguments inform his new column, though in the case of Afghanistan, nation building is even tougher than it is in Iraq, since, as Will writes, Afghanistan "has never had an effective central government."

Will doesn't dispute the importance of keeping al-Qaeda in check, to which end he recommends the use of drones, airstrikes, special ops, and the like. But as he sees it, the prerequisites for establishing a stable Afghanistan are nowhere to be found. The Afghan army has no inclination to fight, the government is hopelessly corrupt and controls no more than a third of the country, the economy rests on the cultivation and sale of opium, the national state doesn't really exist. In Will's Afghanistan, like Gertrude Stein's Oakland, there's no there there.

And far be it for the United States government to try to instill that there. U.S. Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, notes Will, "speaks of combating Afghanistan's culture of poverty.' But that took decades in just a few square miles of the South Bronx."

Credit Will for consistency. He doesn't believe government can do much to combat poverty here in the U.S., much less in such inhospitable climes as that of Afghanistan. In the tradition of such classic conservatives as Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk, he sees most governmental action as imprudent, if not impudent, folly, seeking to bend human behavior in ways it won't be bent. His opposition to health-care reform, to legislative attempts to combat global warming, and to our presence in Afghanistan are of a piece, a seamless garment of skepticism toward government's capacity to meliorate anything.

In America, however, our most Burkean conservatives can't help but defend capitalism, even when it proves more destructive and destabilizing, than government. Richard Posner, the Chicago-based conservative jurist, has authored a volume arguing, rightly, that our current economic crisis is a crisis of capitalism pure and simple but resisting the idea that a capitalism regulated by government would be less prone to imploding. Will's position on regulation is a bit more nuanced: The Burkean in him affirms Social Security as, by now, an old oak of social stability, even as he opposes the extension of the welfare state to create such additional pillars as universal health care. Will's conservatism is sufficiently empirical to note capitalism's downsides, sufficiently traditional to lament the cultural changes that capitalism brings (see, for instance, his recent diatribe against blue jeans, of all things), but so skeptical of efforts to reform capitalism that he leaves himself powerless to oppose many of the changes that appall him.

Still, Will's contradictions are those inherent in traditional American conservatism, with its love-hate relationship toward capitalism's creative destruction. They are as nothing next to the contradictions of self-professed conservative hawks like William Kristol, who responded to Will's column yesterday on The Washington Post's "Post-Partisan" blog. Kristol's argument is a retread of his own case for the Iraqi surge and, for that matter, of the 1960s' arguments for escalating U.S. involvement in Vietnam. "If the Afghan army is expanded," Kristol writes, "and if there is a surge of several brigades of American forces to bridge the gap between current Afghan capacity and their future capacity'" -- he's quoting fellow neo-con Fred Kagan there -- then the U.S. would be able to wage a successful counterinsurgency war.

Where Will appeals, as conservatives do, to past and present experience -- specifically, to the inability of Afghanistan to create a national army, government or state -- Kristol appeals to nothing more than the hope, grounded in no known experience, that the Afghan army's future capacity will not only exceed its current capacity but will exceed it to the point that it can defeat the Taliban and safeguard a national regime. And who will bring about this miraculous transformation of the hitherto unwilling, unstable, and often unarmed Afghan legions? Why, the U.S. armed forces, when they're not otherwise busy securing provinces from the Taliban and creating a viable Afghan economy and a coherent Afghan state.

Abroad, Kristol's U.S. government can do no wrong. At home, it can do no right, or more precisely, it should do no right. In his 1994 and 2009 memos counseling his fellow Republicans on Clinton-care and Obama-care, respectively, Kristol cautioned GOP legislators not to let the Democrats create universal health care, lest it win them the support of a grateful nation. That government is best, Kristol believes, that governs least at home and transforms nations abroad.

Kristol's neo-con incoherence remains a major tendency in American conservatism, no matter the total discrediting of its case for the Iraq War. Championing radical anti-statism at home, and such anti-statist demagogues as Sarah Palin, while radically overestimating our government's capacity for nation-building abroad, Kristol has produced a body of thought that is an intellectual nullity -- an intellectual nullity, moreover, that is the centerpiece of what passes for Republican and right-wing thinking. In such a party and such a movement, George Will's coherence and conservatism make him little more than a quaint relic.

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