George Will’s Churchill Problem, And Ours

Whenever conservative pundits start mooning over Winston Churchill, which is often, it’s a good bet that they’re getting ready to insist that America must “get serious” about something or other, “getting serious” usually translating as “blow something up.” So it is with George F. Will, whose piece today is the latest entry in the “Obama must get tough on Iran” campaign that went into high gear with the release of Jeffrey Goldberg’s Atlantic article.

Granted an interview with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Will notes that Netanyahu keeps a photograph of Winston Churchill in his office. Will thinks this is very significant:

Netanyahu, his focus firmly on Iran, honors Churchill because he did not flinch from facts about gathering storms. Obama returned to the British Embassy in Washington the bust of Churchill that was in the Oval Office when he got there.

Will doesn’t bother to explain what these “facts” about Iran actually are, but that’s not the point. The point is that Netanyahu doesn’t flinch! Even when refusing to honor Israel’s past commitments to the United States, something that really bothers conservatives when other countries do it. But, apparently for Will, scoring points on President Obama with the most overused and uncreative historical analogy in the canon is more important than protecting American credibility against recalcitrant client states.

As for the right’s ongoing love affair with Churchill, you’ll excuse me for quoting from a May 2008 piece in which I noted that, for conservative ideology to function properly, “it must always be 1938, the storm must always be gathering. There must always be new Hitlers to confront”:

But what if we discarded the facile conservative equation of “national security” with “the willingness to use force,” understanding that real national security involves having the judgment to know when and how to use force productively? Let’s grant for the moment President Bush’s contention that Iran is the new Nazi Germany. Given the fact that the policies of George Bush have done so much to empower the Nazis in Europe … oops, I mean Iran in the Middle East, it’s clear that in this interpretation, the role of Neville Chamberlain is played by George Bush. […]

Bush and his allies presented the invasion of Iraq as the act of a Churchill, a bold and heroic (so heroic!) thrust at the heart of tyranny. Five years later, a strong consensus regards the Iraq invasion as a feckless and impetuous blunder based on a serious misapprehension of the region and a total lack of appreciation of the potential consequences. It was the act of a Chamberlain.

Just as Churchill had to deal with the consequences of Chamberlain’s misjudgment of the historical moment, so Obama continues to wrestle with problems created and exacerbated by the incompetence of his predecessor, George W. Bush. It is no small irony that Bush and his bungling enablers imagined themselves to be Churchill’s heirs.

Hopefully, Obama will have the wisdom to ignore such facile comparisons as Will’s, which are intended to pressure him into a more belligerent posture toward Iran — a posture from which his critics, of course, intend to make it impossible for him to climb down. At the very least, though, isn’t it time to find some other historical figures to lazily misapply to current debates (I’m sure Victor Davis Hanson could be a huge help here), and give poor Winston a rest?

Finally, a note: In place of Churchill’s bust, the Oval Office now has Martin Luther King, Jr’s. Will should consider whether that’s a trade that bothers him, and why.