Will's Testament: The Dean of Conservative Columnists Turns to Robert Taft

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AS BARACK OBAMA weighed his decision whether to send additional troops to Afghanistan, former Vice President Dick Cheney grew impatient. "The White House must stop dithering while America's armed forces are in danger," Cheney said. "It's time for President Obama to do what it takes to win a war he has repeatedly and rightly called a war of necessity." Most conservative commentators cheered Cheney's broadside, but George F. Will was not amused.

"A bit of dithering might have been in order before we went into Iraq in pursuit of nonexistent weapons of mass destruction," Will said on ABC's "This Week." "For a representative of the Bush administration to accuse someone of taking too much time is missing the point. We have much more to fear in this town from hasty than from slow government action." Thus the dean of Washington conservative columnists refused the helping of red meat being served up by the Spiro Agnew of our time, siding instead with a liberal Democratic president.

One might be tempted to conclude that Will has merely become the latest media figure to be starstruck by Obama, his onetime dining companion. The president has been known to send a thrill up grown men's legs before. Except that when Obama decided he would dispatch 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan after all, Will was just as scathing: "George W. Bush waged preventive war in Iraq regarding (nonexistent) weapons of mass destruction. Obama is waging preventive war in Afghanistan to prevent it from again becoming 'a staging platform for terrorists,' which Somalia, Yemen or other sovereignty near-vacuums also could become."

Will argued in his syndicated column that to sustain such a commitment, "U.S. forces might have to be engaged in Afghanistan for decades before its government can prevent that by itself." "The president's party will not support his new policy, his budget will not accommodate it, our overstretched and worn down military will be hard-pressed to execute it, and Americans' patience will not be commensurate with Afghanistan's limitless demands for it," he concluded. "This will not end well."

The emergence of George Will as a skeptic of the hyperinterventionist foreign policy favored by many on the Right--the sorts Will describes as the "most magnificently misnamed neoconservatives" who "are the most radical people in this town"--has been one of the most surprising developments in the Washington debate. He seldom deviated from the neoliberal-to-neoconservative consensus on foreign affairs in the past, and his newfound restraint has come at an interesting time.

The deaths of William F. Buckley Jr. and Robert Novak have left Will the most respected conservative columnist in the country. Only Cal Thomas appears in more newspapers; only Will's fellow Washington Post scribe Charles Krauthammer is comparably influential among conservative elites. Will is unique in that he is both widely read by rank-and-file Republicans and also widely listened to by GOP powerbrokers. But the passing of Buckley and Novak has also left Will almost alone among the top conservative columnists as a critic of foreign adventurism--Novak had opposed post-Cold War interventionism from the start, Buckley had begun to turn against it late in life.

As Will has become more outspoken in assessing the distance between conservative foreign-policy rhetoric and reality, his critics on the Right have tried harder to ostracize him as a pseudoconservative elitist along the lines of New York Times columnist David Brooks. After Will's first column urging U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Weekly Standard editor William Kristol hit back in the Washington Post: "Let's be honest. Will is not calling on the United States to accept a moderate degree of success in Afghanistan, and simply to stop short of some overly ambitious goal. Will is urging retreat, and accepting defeat."

"What is fascinating is how Will writes as if Sept. …