are in a war of terror being waged by people who take ideas with lethal
seriousness, and we had better take our own ideas seriously as well.
What I will say tonight about the war on terror draws heavily on my earlier life
as a professor and student of political philosophy. A long life in journalism
and around Washington, D.C., has taught me not just that ideas have
consequences, but that only ideas have large and lasting consequences. We are in
a war of terror being waged by people who take ideas with lethal seriousness,
and we had better take our own ideas seriously as well.
I think the beginning of understanding the war is to understand what happened on
9/11. What happened was that we as a people were summoned back from a holiday
from history that we had understandably taken at the end of the Cold War.
History is served up to the American people with uncanny arithmetic precision.
Almost exactly sixty years passed from the October 1929 collapse of the stock
market to the November 1989 crumbling of the Berlin Wall sixty years of
depression, hot war, and cold war, at the end of which the American people said:
"Enough, we are not interested in war anymore." The trouble is, as Trotsky once
said, "You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you." And this
was a war with a new kind of enemy suicidal, and hence impossible to deter,
melding modern science with a kind of religious primitivism. Furthermore, our
enemy today has no return address in the way that previous adversaries, be it
Nazi Germany or Stalin's Russia, had return addresses. When attacks emanated
from Germany or Russia, we could respond militarily or we could put in place a
structure of deterrence and containment. Not true with this new lot.
Our enemy today refutes an axiom that has governed international relations for
nearly 400 years, since the Peace of Westphalia, when the nation-state system
began to emerge in Europe. The axiom was that a nation could only be mortally
threatened or seriously wounded by another nation by massed armies and fleets
on the seas, and an economic infrastructure to support both. This is no longer
true. It is perfectly clear now that one maniac with a small vial of smallpox
spores can kill millions of Americans. That is a guess, but an educated guess
based on a U.S. government simulated disaster that started in an Oklahoma
shopping center. Smallpox is a strange disease; it has a ten-day incubation
period when no one knows they have it. We are mobile people, we fly around, we
breathe each other's airplane air. The U.S. government, taking this mobility
into account, estimated that in just three weeks, one million Americans in 25
states would die from one outbreak like that.
On the other hand, the enemies who attacked us on 9/11 failed to ask themselves
the question, "But then what?" That is the question Admiral Yamamoto asked when
the Japanese government summoned him in 1940 and asked him to take a fleet
stealthily across the North Pacific and deliver a devastating blow against the
American navy at Pearl Harbor. Yamamoto said he could do that if his government
would design some shallow running torpedoes and a few other things. He said he
could run wild in the Pacific for six months, or maybe a year. But he asked his
government, "Then what?" Yamamoto knew America, and he loved America. He studied
at Harvard and had been back to the U.S. as a diplomat in Washington. He knew
that after Pearl Harbor, Japan would have an enraged, united, incandescent,
continental superpower on its hands, and that Japan's ultimate defeat would be
implicit in its initial victory. Our current enemies will learn the same thing.
Meanwhile we have worries and these are not new worries. In 1946, Congress
held what are today remembered, by the few who remember such things, as the
"Screwdriver Hearings." They summoned J. Robert Oppenheimer, head of the
Manhattan Project, and asked him if it would be possible to smuggle an atomic
device into New York City and detonate it. Oppenheimer replied that of course it
would be possible. Congress then asked how it would be possible to detect such a
device. Oppenheimer answered: "With a screwdriver." What he meant was that every
container that came into the city of New York would have to be opened and
uranium is an enormous, complex process that requires scientists and
vast physical plants. But once you have it, making a nuclear weapon
requires only two or three good physics graduate students. And there is
an enormous amount of fissile material floating around the world.
This year, seven million seaborn shipping containers will pass through our
ports. About five percent will be given cursory examination. About 30,000
trucks crossed our international borders today. If this was a normal day, about
21,000 pounds of cocaine, marijuana, and heroin were smuggled into our country.
How hard would it be, then, to smuggle in a football-sized lump of highly
enriched uranium sufficient to make a ten-kiloton nuclear weapon to make
Manhattan uninhabitable for a hundred years?
To enrich uranium is an enormous, complex process that requires scientists and
vast physical plants. But once you have it, making a nuclear weapon requires
only two or three good physics graduate students. And there is an enormous
amount of fissile material floating around the world. In 1993, some officials
from the U.S. Energy Department, along with some Russian colleagues, went to a
Soviet-era scientific facility outside Moscow and used bolt cutters to snip off
the padlock the sum of all the security at this place. Inside, they found
enough highly enriched uranium for 20 nuclear weapons. In 2002, enough fissile
material for three weapons was recovered in a laboratory in a Belgrade suburb.
And so it goes. The Soviet Union, in its short and deplorable life, deployed
about 22,000 nuclear weapons. Who believes they have all been accounted for? The
moral of this story is: you cannot fight terrorism at the ports of Long Beach or
Newark. You have to go get it. You have to disrupt terrorism at its sources.
This is a gray area. It's a shadow war. But it is not a war that we have any
choice but to fight.
This leads us directly to the doctrine of preemption, with which there are
several problems. First, we do not yet have as it has been made painfully
clear the intelligence capacity that a doctrine of preemption really requires.
The second problem with preemption is encapsulated in Colin Powell's famous
"Pottery Barn principle," which Mr. Powell explained to the President before the
second war with Iraq began: If you break it, you own it. Iraq is broken; we own
it for the moment. And we are therefore engaged in nation building.
This is particularly a problem for conservatives, who understand that societies
and nations are complex, organic things not put together and taken apart like
Tinker Toys. The phrase "nation building" sounds to many conservatives much the
way the phrase "orchid building" would sound. An orchid is a complex, wonderful,
beautiful, natural thing, but it is not something that can be built.
Conservatives know it took thirty years in this country to rebuild the south
Bronx. And now we have taken on a nation to build.
There are those who say that neoconservatives and most of my friends are
neoconservatives, although I am not quite have exported the impulse for social
engineering that conservatives have so rightly criticized over the years at
home. There is, of course, an element in this critique of President Bush's
policies that echoes in part the contemporary liberal version of isolationism.
The old isolationism of the 1920s and 1930s was a conservative isolationism, and
it held that America should not go abroad into the world because America is too
good for the world. The contemporary liberal brand of isolationism the Michael
Moore view of the world is that America should not be deeply involved in the
world because the world is too good for America. This is not a serious argument,
even though seriously held.
better. They know there was a long, 572-year uphill march from Runnymede
to the Philadelphia Convention of 1787. Even more sobering, our
Constitutional Convention was followed in less than 75 years by the
bloodiest Civil War the world had ever seen, to settle some leftover
constitutional questions. We know from our history how difficult regime
The serious argument over nation building is an argument conducted between
conservatives of good will with one another. On the one hand, we have a school
broadly called the realist school, and on the other hand, there is a school
associated with Woodrow Wilson and his crusading zeal for the export of
democracy. President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, two intelligent
and very good men, have in them a large share of Wilson's crusading messianic
spirit, a spirit that is quite natural to America. Once you enunciate a country
founded on principles that have universality written in them, as our Declaration
of Independence does i.e., "all men are created equal . . . endowed by their
Creator with certain unalienable rights" a kind of universal eligibility for
these rights is postulated. What the realists remind us is that over time, it is
the details that matter.
President Bush has said, in a phrase he got from Ronald Reagan, that it is
cultural condescension to say that some people are not ready for democracy. Tony
Blair, in July 2003, after the fall of Baghdad, came before a joint session of
Congress and gave a wonderful, generous, good ally speech, in which he said that
it is a "myth" that our values are simply "Western values," or simply a product
of our culture. Our principles, he said, are "universal," embraced by all
"ordinary people." The problem is that this belief that every person is at
heart a Jeffersonian Democrat, that all the masses of the world are ready for
democracy might lead you not to plan very carefully for post-war nation
building. If this is true, then nation building should be a snap, because
everyone is ready for democracy.
Realists know better. They know there was a long, 572-year uphill march from
Runnymede to the Philadelphia Convention of 1787. Even more sobering, our
Constitutional Convention was followed in less than 75 years by the bloodiest
Civil War the world had ever seen, to settle some leftover constitutional
questions. We know from our history how difficult regime change is. When the
president speaks of regime change, he is using a term from Aristotle. For
Aristotle, changing a regime did not mean substituting a few public officials
for other public officials. For Aristotle, a regime meant the habits, mores,
customs, dispositions, public philosophy, and culture of politics that sustain
public institutions. Therefore, regime change is statecraft and soulcraft; it is
changing the temperament of a people. It is very complicated.
Major League Baseball managers often say in spring training that they are just
two players away from a World Series. Unfortunately, the two players are Ruth
and Gehrig. Likewise, Iraq is just four statesmen away from sturdy
constitutionalism. All they need is a George Washington, a charismatic figure to
unify the nation; a James Madison, a genius of constitutional architecture; an
Alexander Hamilton, who can create from whole cloth a functioning economy; and a
John Marshall, a jurist who knows how to change a constitution from words on
parchment into a breathing, functioning document. Most of all, of course, they
need the astonishingly rich social soil of America in the second half of the
18th century from which Washington, Madison, Hamilton and Marshall sprang. All
of which is to say that Iraq may not be close to constitutional democracy just
The Miracle of
I say this not to disparage the Iraqi people but to increase our appreciation of
what a miracle the United States is. John Adams said that the American
Revolution was accomplished before the Battles of Lexington and Concord.
Everyone used to learn we do not learn these things anymore Emerson's great
poem about the battle of Concord's bridge: "by the rude bridge that arched the
flood/their flag to April's breeze unfurled/here once the embattled farmers
stood/and fired the shot heard round the world." But before that shot was fired,
according to John Adams, independence had already been accomplished, because the
spirit of independence was in the hearts and minds of the American people, a
people prepared to shed blood in defense of their God-given natural rights.
gave a speech in which he said, "We have not journeyed all this way
across the centuries, across the oceans, across the mountains, across
the prairies, because we are made of sugar candy." No, we are not. We
are much tougher than our enemies understand.
One of the mistakes our enemies have made and one of the reasons I wish our
enemies would study American history to disabuse themselves of some of their
grotesque errors is their belief that we are squeamish about defending freedom
and about the violence of war. They persist in the assumption that we are
casualty averse. Osama Bin Laden said as much after the Somalia debacle when
President Clinton, after suffering some casualties, immediately withdrew
American forces. Whether or not we should have been in Somalia is another
matter, but the means by which we left Somalia clearly convinced our enemies
that we were paper tigers. People have been making that mistake since General
Howe made it in the Battle of Brooklyn Heights in the Revolutionary War. He
chased us across the East River and figured that was that. It was said again
after the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862 up to that day the bloodiest day in
American history. Many observers thought the North would sue for accommodation
and, in the words of Horace Greeley, let our erring sisters go in peace. It did
not turn out that way.
A few days after Shiloh, some men were seen on the still corpse-strewn fields of
northern Maryland, men carrying strange devices. They were from Mathew Brady's
photography studio in New York, and they took pictures. Three months later,
these photos became an exhibit of devastating impact in Manhattan called "The
Dead of Antietam." It was the first time graphic journalism had brought the real
face of war to a democratic public. And it raised the question that to this day
affects us and troubles political leaders: Does graphic journalism first
photography and then, of course, television that brings war into our living
rooms, in real time, cause nations to crack when they see the real face of
The First World War produced the worst carnage the world had ever seen, but not
once during the war did a picture of a dead Brit or dead Frenchman or dead
German or dead American soldier appear in a newspaper of any of those countries.
In the Second World War, the first picture of an American soldier dead in the
surf in the Pacific did not appear in Life magazine until it had been held up in
the War Department (as the Pentagon was then known) for nine months. The war in
Vietnam produced more anxiety about graphic journalism, where it was suggested
that in fact it was television that caused the American will to break. In fact,
the American will never broke but that is another matter. This has been a
constant recurring anxiety in America, as Winston Churchill could have told us
and in fact did tell us when he came to North America immediately after Pearl
Harbor. Churchill gave a speech in which he said, "We have not journeyed all
this way across the centuries, across the oceans, across the mountains, across
the prairies, because we are made of sugar candy." No, we are not. We are much
tougher than our enemies understand.
Character and the
Power of Ideas
One hundred years ago, people believed not only that war was inevitable, but
that war was good for us. Without it, they thought, we would have to look for
strenuous domestic challenges that would be the moral equivalent of war
something elevating that would pull us out of ourselves and into great
collective endeavors as war does. Tocqueville said, "war almost always enlarges
the thought of a people and elevates its heart." Stravinsky, the great composer,
said war is "necessary for human progress." All of these men echoed Immanuel
Kant, who said "a prolonged peace favors the predominance of a mere commercial
spirit, and with it a debasing self-interest, cowardice, and effeminacy and
tends to degrade the character of the nation."
There is much to be said for the commercial spirit, because the commercial
spirit is a civilizing spirit. It is a spirit conducive to cooperation among
peoples and within a political community. We are today engaged in a great race
to see if we can integrate China into the community of nations with less
catastrophic violence then that which accompanied the attempt 100 years ago to
integrate the newly muscular and buoyant and dynamic nation of Germany into the
community of nations. In the 33 years since President Nixon went to China in
1972, Republicans and Democrats alike have followed the same national policy,
which holds that if we can only suffuse China with the commercial spirit, it can
be tranquilized and made civilized. The reason for believing this is that
commerce, entrepreneurship, and all the various elements of capitalism form an
enveloping, civilizing culture.
Capitalism requires the diffusion of decision-making and the diffusion of
information. Capitalism requires contracts a culture of promise-keeping
enforced by the judicial system. It requires banks to make self-interested,
calculated, and rational allocations of wealth and opportunity. It sublimates
the troublesome passions of mankind into improving the material well-being of
people. It is for this reason that what we want to do with the fever swamps of
the Middle East that produce our enemies is to try and drain those swamps and
bring to them enterprise cultures. It is altogether right that Paul Wolfowitz,
one of the architects of the war against Iraq, is now going to the World Bank
where he can try and help the next stage of development, which is to spread the
commercial spirit. In some ways, this is the American spirit.
On the other hand, as Tocqueville warned us, if a people is only concerned with
material well-being, only concerned with commercialism, they lack something
they lack the heights of nobility and character and aspiration. But first
things first: get people into this enveloping culture of capitalism. Nor is this
to say that we Americans are a materialist people. The stupidest political
slogan I have heard in three-and-a-half decades in Washington was the Clinton
slogan in 1992, "It's the economy, stupid." The American people almost never
vote their pocketbook as is commonly said, and almost never vote merely on
economics. We are a much more morally serious and complicated people than that.
In the 1790s, our party system began to coalesce with, on the one hand,
Jefferson advocating a sturdy yeoman republic, a static society of the kind he
lived in, and, on the other hand, Hamilton urging a speculative, entrepreneurial
society with a system of credit, a dynamic urban society. Hamilton's "Report on
Manufactures" was obviously couched in economic terms, but it was not about
economics at all. It was about national character and what kind of people we
would be. Later, Andrew Jackson defined modern democratic populist politics with
his attack on the Bank of the United States. It was not about a bank; it was
about morality. He argued that speculators earn their dishonest living through
banks. Jackson did not understand much about the modern world or capitalism, but
he held that people who earn their living that way are bad people. He thought it
was bad for the soul. And throughout our history it has not mattered whether we
were arguing about abolitionism, immigration, prohibition or desegregation. All
of the great arguments that have roiled American politics over the years have
not been pocketbook issues. They have been about the soul of the country and
what kind of people we would be.
Our enemy has
ideas. They are vicious, bad, retrograde, medieval, intolerant, and
suicidal ideas, but ideas nevertheless. And we oppose them with the
great ideas of freedom and democracy, which America has defined better
than anyone in the world. And we turn to these people with an energy
they could not have counted on.
Well, the kind of people we are is a people who rise to the challenge of the new
kind of enemy we have today. Our enemy has ideas. They are vicious, bad,
retrograde, medieval, intolerant, and suicidal ideas, but ideas nevertheless.
And we oppose them with the great ideas of freedom and democracy, which America
has defined better than anyone in the world. And we turn to these people with an
energy they could not have counted on. Edward Grey once said, "The United States
is like a gigantic boiler. Once the fire is lighted under it, there is no limit
to the power it can generate." And these enemies improvidently lit a fire under
We have done this before. In September 1942, General Les McGraw of the Army
Corps of Engineers bought for the government about 90,000 acres of Tennessee
wilderness. There was nothing there no roads, no towns, nothing. It was along
the Clinch River, in eastern Tennessee, not far from Knoxville. But very soon
there were streets and shops and schools and homes and some of the finest
physics labs the world had ever seen. And 35 months later, on a desert in New
Mexico, there was a flash brighter than a thousand suns and the atomic age
began. Thirty-five months from wilderness to Alamogordo. That is what America
does when aroused, because, as I say, we are not made of sugar candy.
Today we are the legatees of all the giants on whose shoulders we stand. We live
in circumstances our parents did not live in, or our grandparents. We live in a
time in which there is no rival model to the American model for how to run a
modern industrial commercial society. Socialism is gone. Fascism is gone. Al-Qaeda
has no rival model about how to run a modern society. Al-Qaeda has a howl of
rage against the idea of modernity. We began in 1945 an astonishingly clear
social experiment: We divided the city of Berlin, the country of Germany, the
continent of Europe, indeed the whole world, and we had a test. On one side was
the socialist model that says that society is best run by edicts, issued from a
coterie of experts from above. The American model, on the other hand, called for
a maximum dispersal of decision-making and information markets allocating wealth
and opportunity. The results are clear: We are here, they are not. The Soviet
Union tried for 70 years to plant Marxism with bayonets in Eastern Europe. Today
there are more Marxists on the Harvard faculty than there are in Eastern Europe.
We must struggle today with the fact that the doctrine of preemption is
necessary, and with the serious problems it entails. But what we must have
overall is the confidence that our ideas are right. I grew up in Lincoln country
and I am reminded that in 1859, with war clouds lowering over the country,
Abraham Lincoln gave a speech at the Wisconsin State Fair. In the course of this
speech, Lincoln told the story of an Eastern despot who summoned his wise men
and gave them an assignment. Go away and think, he said, and come back and give
me a proposition to be carved in stone to be forever in view and forever true.
The wise men went away and came back some days later, and the proposition they
gave to him was: "And this, too, shall pass away." Lincoln said: perhaps not. If
we Americans cultivate our inner lives and our moral selves as industriously and
productively as we cultivate the material world around us, he said, then perhaps
we of all peoples can long endure. He was right. We have and we shall persevere,
in no small measure because of the plucky brand of people, true to these ideas,
such as those that have formed around the college we here celebrate tonight.
George F. Will. "The Doctrine of Preemption." Imprimis 34, no. 9
(September 2005): 1-7.
Reprinted by permission from Imprimis, the national speech digest of
Hillsdale College (www.hillsdale.edu), 33 East College St, Hills dale, Michigan
49242. Subscriptions to Imprimis, are free upon request, ISBN
George F. Will writes a twice-weekly column that appears
in more than 450 newspapers and a biweekly column in Newsweek. He also appears
regularly on ABCs This Week on Sunday mornings. In 1977, he won the Pulitzer
Prize for commentary. He has published seven collections of his columns as well
as several other books, including
Statecraft as Soulcraft: What Government Does
Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball
which topped national best-seller lists in the number-one position for over two
months. Will was born in Champaign, Illinois, and was educated at Trinity
College in Hartford, and Oxford and Princeton universities. Prior to entering
journalism, Will taught political philosophy at Michigan State University and
the University of Toronto, and served on the staff of U.S. Sen. Gordon Allott.
Until becoming a columnist for Newsweek, Will was Washington editor of
the National Review, a leading conservative journal of ideas and
The above is adapted from a speech delivered on May 23, 2005, at a Hillsdale
College National Leadership Seminar in Dallas, Texas.