McCain’s Mad Dog Advisor Max Boot
While most all of Bush’s neo-conservatives have been discredited, a new generation of imperialist cheerleaders stands to grasp the reins of foreign policy in the event that John McCain wins the November election. One up and coming hopeful is Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and an informal adviser to the Arizona Senator’s campaign.
I first became aware of Boot as a college undergraduate at UC Berkeley in the late 1980s. At that time, Boot was a columnist for the campus newspaper, The Daily Californian. While I don’t recall the exact content of his articles, Boot’s tone stuck in my mind. Haughty and dismissive, Boot seemed to relish his status as a right winger crusading against the excesses of the local radical scene.
A history major like myself, Boot and I wound up in the same seminar in senior year. The class, which was taught by German Fulbright scholar Nikolaus Hohmann, covered modern European history. I didn’t speak to Boot over the course of the semester, though I do recall listening to him once as he read from a paper he had written. As I recall, Boot’s essay concerned Otto von Bismarck and realpolitik in 19th century Prussia. Boot’s paper was well researched but uncritical towards Bismarck’s policies. I couldn’t help thinking, listening to Boot from the other end of the seminar table, that somehow my classmate admired the Iron Chancellor.
In light of his student journalism and my own personal observations of him in class, I wasn’t too surprised to hear that Boot later made a career out of espousing expansionist U.S. foreign policy abroad. Apparently Boot’s time at university didn’t make much of a political impact on my former classmate. Indeed he later remarked that his “core beliefs about liberty and foreign policy and defense” were “not shaken” as a result of his time at Berkeley.
After graduating from school, Boot went on to work as a writer and feature editor at the Wall Street Journal and in 2002 published The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power. In a New York Times book review, Atlantic Monthly books editor Benjamin Schwartz wrote that Boot was “at pains to portray American actions and motives in the best possible light (he’s particularly generous in his depiction of what can most charitably be described as America’s brutal conduct in the Philippines insurrection [during the Spanish-American War]).” Boot’s discussion of U.S. overseas counter-insurgency wars served to buttress the author’s overall argument: that America had a “moral-and what he characterizes as an imperial — duty to act as a global gendarme.”
In light of his historical writings justifying U.S. imperialism, it’s perhaps not surprising that Boot would later help to make the case for war in Iraq. In October, 2002 with the Bush White House spin machine now going into overdrive Boot wrote a column for the New York Times entitled “Who Says We Never Strike First?” In it, Boot sought to justify pre-emptive invasion by citing previous imperialist misdeeds.
“It is certainly true that pre-emptive wars are not the norm in history,” he remarked. “But they are not as rare as President Bush’s critics suggest. The president’s pre-emption doctrine — and its first application, in Iraq — is firmly rooted in centuries of tradition. Although England [which attacked the Spanish Armada], Prussia [which invaded Saxony and Bohemia in 1756 when assailed by France, Russia and Austria] and Israel [in the 1967 war] all technically struck the first blow, the consensus is that they were smart to do so.” Boot did not define who constituted the vital “consensus” on these weighty historical matters (surely not the Palestinians).
It’s a sorry reflection on the New York Times that the paper could publish such a nakedly crude endorsement of imperialism, though perhaps not too surprising given the propagandistic reporting of Judith Miller who peddled the administration’s faulty intelligence claims on Iraq.
But Boot was just getting warmed up. Writing in the New York Times in February, 2003 Boot sarcastically derided the French and Germans for believing that the U.S. sought to invade Iraq in order to control Middle Eastern oil. Boot took comfort in the fact that “Although Americans are divided on the wisdom of an invasion, only 22 percent of us subscribe to the cynical view that it’s just about oil.”
Fundamentally, Boot argued, the problem with the Europeans was that they had once pursued imperialist policies “driven by avarice.” To be sure, Boot concedes, in the understatement of the century, “Nobody would claim that America’s global intentions have always been entirely pure.” On the other hand, U.S. foreign policy “from the Barbary war to Kosovo — has usually had a strain of idealism at which the cynical Europeans have scoffed.”
Making the case for Rumsfeld and Bush’s propaganda machine, Boot then asserted “Oil revenues make Saddam Hussein much more dangerous than your run-of-the-mill dictator, because they give him the ability to build not only palaces but also top-of-the-line weapons of mass destruction.” Ending his column with his typical heavy-handed flourish Boot wrote “In the case of Iraq, they [the Europeans] just can’t seem to accept that we might be acting for, say, the general safety and security of the world. After more than 200 years, Europe still hasn’t figured out what makes America tick.”
Fortunately, many people at the time saw through Boot’s lies and bogus historical claims. In cities across the country, demonstrators took to the streets to counter the imminent U.S. attack on Iraq. Not surprisingly Boot had nothing but contempt for the protesters. In a Weekly Standard column dripping with sarcasm, Boot returned to Berkeley to assess the state of student activism at his alma mater.
Here’s an excerpt from Boot’s column: “anti war crowds are taking to the streets in London and Madrid, Washington, and San Francisco. But what about Ground Zero? No, not New York. That’s Ground Zero for terrorism. I mean Berkeley, California, Ground Zero for antiwar sentiment.”
Continuing on in his usual haughty tone, Boot wrote “Ever since Mario Savio and the Free Speech Movement electrified the nation in 1964, this city has been famous for its protests against anything and everything. Berkeleyites have marched against apartheid, the contras, sweatshops, plans to build on People’s Park, and CIA plots to water down their lattés. Okay, I made that one up.”
Boot then took a stroll down memory lane, heading to Sproul Plaza. Surveying the landscape, he spotted “a grungy, middle-aged man sat behind a folding table with a large sign that said ‘F— Bush, F— the War.’ The students hurrying by didn’t pay him much heed; they’re used to the crazy street people who populate the area, some of whom look like they haven’t bathed since I graduated more than a decade ago. The times, they are a’changing here in Berzerkeley.”
Proceeding to Berkeley’s Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps, Boot delivered some lectures on “liberal imperialism.” “I expected that such hawkish talk would draw hordes of antiwar protesters, like Deadheads to marijuana brownies,” Boot wrote. “Just a decade ago, conservative speakers routinely were booed down and sent packing. Not this time.”
Boot then declares smugly, “My feelings were hurt. Was I too unimportant to draw protests? But then I thought back to the first Gulf War, when as an insignificant columnist for The Daily Californian I had the campus in an uproar with my articles supporting American military action.”
Boot then pronounced “I almost miss the old Berkeley, now as dated as a Jefferson Airplane LP, though it left some tasty relics behind. For instance, there’s Alice Waters’s world-class restaurant, Chez Panisse, where I ordered dinner off ‘A Menu for Peace.’ Well, if consuming $8.75 baked Sonoma goat cheese and $18.75 fried quail constitutes a protest against the war, then sign me up. And don’t forget the groovy Zinfandel.”
It seems nothing can shake Boot’s “core belief” system. In a New York Times column appearing in November, 2003 Boot lamented the fact that the U.S. was getting bogged down against the Baathists and jihadis in Iraq. Boot’s solution to the escalating violence was not to turn the country over to Iraqis but to prosecute a different kind of counter-insurgency war.
Astonishingly, Boot cited the Phoenix program in Vietnam as a worthy plan for U.S. forces to emulate in Iraq. What proved most “effective “in Vietnam, Boot writes, “were not large conventional operations but targeted counterinsurgency programs like Phoenix.” True, Boot concedes, there were assassinations under the Phoenix program, but “far more cadres were captured (33,000) or induced to defect under Phoenix (22,000) than were killed (26,000).” Boot chirped, “We need better intelligence to identify and neutralize Iraqi insurgents, as in Phoenix.” Kenneth Roth, the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, pointed out the realities of programs like Phoenix. Writing in the Times, Roth remarked in a letter to the editor that “Whether occupying forces themselves use torture, ‘disappearance’ or summary execution — the usual dirty war tools — or subcontract these tasks to Iraqis, international law flatly prohibits such brutality. A wink and a nod from United States troops would be no defense to American criminal liability. Brutality…is a recipe for the resentment on which insurgency thrives. That is a lesson from Vietnam that Mr. Boot does not mention.”
Boot continues to make the case for U.S. imperialism on the Lehrer News Hour and on the pages of conservative papers across the country. He’s just waiting for John McCain to win in November. With a Republican in the White House, Boot can help to maintain forces in Iraq “for a hundred or a thousand years” if necessary. No one’s going to get in his way, least of all those pesky radicals from Berkeley.
NIKOLAS KOZLOFF is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008)