Max Boot Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Small Wars 
    and U.S. Foreign Policy: Conversation with Max Boot, Olin Fellow at the Council 
    on Foreign Relations, New York; with Professor Thomas G. Barnes, Professor 
    of History, UCB; March 12, 2003, by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

Page 6 of 7

U.S. Foreign Policy in the Post-9/11 World

Do you think that our forces now are configured to fight the kind of engagements that are now required, where I guess in your terms you would say that the American empire has to do its business and meet its responsibilities?

The thin green line on the edge of the empire protecting our interests while America sleeps! I think our forces are pretty darn good! Not only the best in the world today, but obviously, the most powerful in world history. That said, there are some areas of possible improvement. We're stretched very thin right now and we'll be stretched especially thin with the task of occupying Iraq, which is going to tie down probably two or three army divisions. I think the Marines, for example, need to step into the breech and get more involved in some of these nation-building activities that they've tried to get away from [during] the last fifty years. I also think we probably need a somewhat larger force, and need to spend somewhat more on the military, because we took a procurement holiday in the 1990s, and our forces are out there with antiquated equipment, in many cases.

But all that said, I think we do have the most tremendously capable military in history, and they've done a tremendous job. They've shown that they can meet any challenge that they confront. Afghanistan was a particularly dramatic example of that, because if you'll think back to September and early October of 2001, if you listen to what the pundits were saying, all the talk was about quagmires, another Vietnam. "This will be like the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan," and "Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires," the "dreaded Afghan winter," and all that kind of stuff. In retrospect, it's obvious the Afghan winter was a lot like the winter in Key West. It wasn't that dreadful. But more importantly, the American military showed they were capable of fighting in a tremendously challenging environment, and prevailing, despite what all the greater pundit opinion was. In general, it's the case that if you let our forces use their initiative, if you set these young twenty-year-old junior officers and NCOs free to do what they can do, they will achieve amazing results. The only thing that can hold them back is wrong-headed directions from their commanders or from Washington.

Today is the 11th of March, 2003. It's worth noting because this is a historical program. Before very many days have gone by, there is a very real likelihood that the United States troops will be, in fact, committed in Iraq. Is it going to be the "mother of all battles"? Not from Saddam's perspective, but from ours? Is it, in fact, going to be the quintessential infantry battle of mobility? Is it going to be much less reliant upon big blue 82s, 20,000 tons of stuff going into the ground, set the dial and you can get down to 55 feet -- a little less, 45 feet, a little less of all the high-tech targetry things that you were discussing a moment ago and fundamentally will get down to essentially platoon company and, at most, perhaps, battalion-level type operations in conceivably an urban environment?

Well, first, let me note that this is dirty trick asking me a question ...

Of course, it is.

... asking me to prognosticate about what happens, intending it for people who are going to view it after the fact!

No, no, no, no. I'm just asking...

It's, obviously, impossible to predict ahead of time exactly what shape the battle will take. I am confident that our forces will be victorious in relatively short order, for two reasons: one is our overwhelming technological advantage, which has only grown since the 1991 Gulf War; and the second is our tremendous manpower or, if you like, person-power advantage, which is that we have these superbly trained troops who are much more motivated, much more trained, and much more battle-ready than anything the Iraqis can throw against them. I think the combination of that will lead to overwhelming victory.

We've talked about the forces and we've talked about this group who thought about these problems in a period when it wasn't easy to talk about. Another key element comes in, which is our commitment to the notion of the American ideal and how it can change the world -- Wilsonianism, in short. I'm curious about your sense of the importance of that tradition as a resource for our soldiers, for our leaders, and for resonating with the American people with regard to that mission.

That's a tremendously important point to bring up, that in some ways the most potent weapon in our arsenal is the promise of freedom that American troops bring with them. That is the reason why, when American troops entered Paris, where they enter Pristina, where they entered Kabul, or, shortly, Baghdad, we are greeted as liberators, not as oppressors, because people know that we do not come to establish an empire, we come to give them freedom. That is a tremendously potent tool that we can use to the fullest, and we should use to the fullest. Any foreign policy that doesn't take advantage of that is not being truly "realistic," because there's a school of "realist" foreign policy which eschews idealism and wants to concentrate on hard power. I think that is very short-sighted, because some of our most potent power is the power of our ideals. The most successful foreign policy presidents are those who can combine high ideals with an understanding of the power politics needed to implement them. I'm thinking specifically of presidents like Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Ronald Reagan, and I think George W. Bush is showing himself to be part of that tradition.

One of your predecessors as Nimitz Lecturer was Joe Nye. He was particularly interested in getting across the importance of soft power. How soft can the soft power be before it ceases to be power at all?

You can exaggerate the impact of soft power. Tom Friedman had this famous "McDonald's theory" of conflict prevention, which is that no two nations with a McDonald's ever go to war with one another -- which sounded great until 1999, when the U.S. and Serbia went to war. They both had McDonald's. So there are limits to how much you can expect from Madonna and McDonald's and all this other American "soft power" spreading around the world. That's not going to be the ultimate guarantor of our national interest and security. People who think it is are falling prey to the same illusion that was prevalent before World War I, when so many people thought that the growing interdependence of the world made war an impossibility. Clearly, if history shows anything, it shows that that is not the case. We have to back up our soft power with hard power, and we need a lot of that hard power.

The reason why soft power works, the reason why peaceful commerce takes place, the reason why we can have this interchange with the world, is because America serves as the global policeman. We are guaranteeing and underwriting the security of this world order. It's the same way that normal commerce functions in any city in the United States. How does Berkeley, or New York, or any other city function? You don't have to have omnipresent police power, but you have to have a threat of force in the background to make sure that peaceful people are not going to be set upon by predators, that the rules will be obeyed and people will follow the law. You need to have some kind of force that guarantees that happens. In the international sphere, very often there's really no alternative to the United States as being that guarantor.

So we're going to be Rudy Giuliani in New York? Okay. How much of the small crime do we have to deal with in order to get rid of the big crime? In other words, out there in this world, how about the guys who are cleaning your windshield and you don't want them to be doing it, are you going to go after those guys?

I'm not sure we need to worry about turnstile jumpers in Baghdad, but obviously, you have to choose your moments and pick your targets. We don't have the resources to literally police the entire world the way that the NYPD polices New York. But we certainly have to focus on the more egregious cases. We've seen some of them in the past decade in places like Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, or Rwanda, where I wish we had done more to stop the slaughter. Those are the kinds of places where there is an overwhelming case for American intervention. There's going to be petty wrongdoing or oppression going on in many countries that we just don't have the resources to address.

Getting back to this Wilsonian motif, was it this younger cohort of neoconservatives who revived that and brought it to center stage in the current Bush administration?

Oh, maybe. I think the Wilsonian stand has always been very strong in American foreign policy. People don't often think of him this way, but Ronald Reagan was one of our great Wilsonian presidents. He championed these ideals and talked about tearing down the [Berlin] Wall, and championed human rights in the Soviet Union, and did all these kinds of things, which turned out to be very powerful weapons in bringing down our adversaries in the Soviet Union. That strain was absent, largely, from the first Bush administration, much to their detriment. They were much more worried about stability, and they didn't want to finish Saddam Hussein. They were afraid about the Soviet Union breaking up. Historians, in retrospect, will judge much of that to be misguided and mistaken, and leaving us with a fairly high bill to pay for the cleanup a decade later.

Bill Clinton was fairly Wilsonian, but I don't think he was very adept at deploying the power necessary to champion these American ideals. George W. Bush has struggled with this a little bit. He came into office very wary of nation-building and some of these other constructs that offend a realpolitik conception of foreign policy. But since 9/11 he's changed his views, and that was the pivotal event that led him to see that we have to be more aggressive about exporting our ideals, because we cannot live with the status quo in the Middle East. The status quo in the Middle East is killing us, literally, and we have to change it before another 9/11 occurs.

I'm going to play devil's advocate here and ask you, does our commitment to this idealism put us outside of history and the rules of power? One thinks of things like "power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely." Is there a concern in your mind that the idealism will confuse us about what our power can accomplish? Or is it the case that our idealism will free us, that our commitment to these values is a secret resource that will free us from the rules of power that theorists have talked about throughout Western civilization?

I don't think it will free us from the rules of power. We have to be very wary of the limits of power and use our power wisely. But at the same time, I do think that our idealism is a powerful force, not only for good but for American interest. People talk about the dangers of imperial over-stretch and getting overcommitted and all that kind of stuff, and that's legitimate to think about that. But we also need to think very hard about the dangers of undercommitment and not being strong enough to defend our interest. In the 1920s and 1930s, we saw a good example of what happens when there is no global policeman, when Britain essentially abdicated its pre- World War I role of serving as the benevolent hegemon of the international system, and America did not choose to enter the void. The result was that the whole world spun into chaos, and tyranny, and war, and we paid a huge, huge price for that on December 7, 1941.

It's very important that we not fall prey to that same isolationist temptation in the post-Cold War order, that we stay actively engaged, because the consequences of undercommitment are far worse than of overcommitment.

What about this problem of prioritizing? Let's assume that the Iraqi business goes well. Who is the next candidate? Will that candidate force themselves on us by their actions, say, in Iran, moving rapidly to acquire a nuclear capability, or in North Korea, even pushing itself to the top of the list because of its actions, while we're engaged there? What is the process in a democracy for picking where you go next?

I hope that we don't have to go anywhere next. I hope that people will see the success of Iraq and suddenly be converted to goodness and light, and all things sweet, and decide not to challenge us in the future. Now, assuming that probably won't happen, we will have to think about future challenges, and I don't know where they lie, although you mentioned two obvious candidates, and the other members of the Axis of Evil.

Just because we're defending American interests doesn't mean that we have to do it militarily. In Iran, for example, there's a huge student uprising that's going on. There's a lot of protest against the mullahs. I think there's a good shot that before long, the clergy might actually be toppled from within, which would be a tremendously encouraging achievement, like the Velvet Revolution of Eastern Europe.

But if that doesn't happen, if we have to use military force, if our interests are threatened -- and certainly, the North Korean situation seems very threatening at this time -- it will go through the normal democratic process, just like every other use of force has gone through, whether it was the new Iraq expedition or the original Gulf War. The president makes a decision; if there's time, and certain defenses are right, he'll ask for Congress's approval and it will go through the normal, political process. I mean, this is not ... we're not going to Zaire, the president can't just suddenly go and attack somebody out of the blue for no good reason. There has to be a large level of support from the American public before we use force. That's always the case when we do use force.

Does it go through the UN next time?

I don't think it has to. Certainly, if you look at the past records, very few of our interventions under presidents, Republican or Democratic, have gone through the U.N. Bill Clinton didn't go to the UN for Bosnia, or Kosovo, or Iraq. And I don't think we're obligated to do so in the future. It's just a joke to say to say that no use of military power is legitimate without the support of the UN, because then you would have to say that pretty much every use of military power by any country since 1945 has been illegitimate. But a law that's not enforced is not a law.

But this has suddenly become a trite and even conventional argument that, "Oh, we can't. We can't. Oh, we can't go without U.N. sanction." It's not enough to have a coalition of the willing, no matter how big it is.

Let me put it his way. If we were still waiting for UN sanction, the killing would still be going on in the Balkans, Bosnia, and Kosovo. There would still be ethnic cleansing there today, if we were waiting for the UN to act.

But there wasn't the same outcry that is now afoot. It's not as conventional. It was not as conventional then as it is now.

Right. I think this is just a matter of political expediency, because the strongest lobby for the UN in the United States tends to be in the Democratic Party, and they're not going to protest to loudly when a Democratic president is stiffing the UN. But oh my God, if a Republican does it, there'll be hell to pay. The only rule that we can deduce from here is that only Republican presidents are required to seek UN approval for their military interventions.

The neoconservative agenda and its success in American politics is associated with a revival of a recognition of the importance of spiritual values -- of religion, and finding the appropriate place for it. Interestingly enough, what we're confronting in this new world of terrorism is religion that has been hijacked by terrorists. Is the present environment different from the history that you were covering, in the sense that those cases were often isolatable from the rest of the world? Whereas, as we begin these probes and conflicts in the Islamic world, there is a transnational identification. Islam is not the enemy, but Islam can be used by nefarious terrorists to provoke opposition to what we're doing -- random incidents of violence, even, God forbid, getting a hold of weapons of mass destruction -- which puts our new agenda in an entirely different light. It's much more complicated than what we did in an earlier period of our history.

I don't think that's the case. It would be a mistake to see us as waging war on a billion Muslims around the world, because we're not. We're waging war on a very small band of Islamist fanatics who have hijacked aspects of Islamic theology and combined it with this weird mˇlange of fascist and communist ideas to produce the hateful ideology that people like Osama bin Laden espouse. I don't think that's the mainstream of the Muslim world. In fact, the challenge we face today is a good deal less than the challenge we faced confronting Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, much more powerful countries. People forget that up until a decade ago, we faced the prospect of nuclear annihilation of having every major American city being incinerated by Soviet ICBMs. Now that's an existential threat.

The problems we face today are severe. But they don't rise nearly to that level. Even if they get their hands on some weapons of mass destruction, it's not the same thing as facing an all-out Soviet strike. We have to put our current problems in perspective. They are very severe, and I don't want to make light of them, but we've overcome greater challenges in our history, and so I'm confident that we can overcome this challenge.

In particular, it's a mistake to think that if we take strong action against the terrorists and the Islamic fanatics, that this will cause an uprising among the "Arab street" and will turn the whole Muslim world against us. I don't think that's what history shows. If you look at the past decade, al Qaeda rose to prominence in the 1990s when America was pursuing the policy of trying to placate the Muslim street. We were pursuing the Arab - Israeli peace process. We were not striking back very hard at terrorists. We were allowing Afghanistan to become a training ground for terrorists and not invading it. We were doing our best not to include Iraq, and it only earned us their contempt. In their writings, Osama bin Laden talks about America as a paper tiger, that we're toothless. "If you kill a few Americans, you can chase them out of your country." He has contempt for us. He thinks that he defeated the Great Empire, the Soviet Union, and we're an easy case by comparison. We're next. If he can knock off the Soviets, he can certainly knock us off.

We paid a very high price on 9/11, and since then, for allowing this contempt of the United States to exist. Whereas, when we took strong action in Afghanistan, there was no uprising there in the street. It was only on 9/11 when America was struck down that there was rejoicing and literally dancing on Arab streets. It's very important that we not look like a victim. If we look strong and if we look like we're going to be victorious, there are going to be a lot fewer people who are going to take up arms against us.

Will some of the conservative regimes in the Middle East, beside Iraq, have to be on the "watch list" if they don't agree to this transformation of the Middle East by the democratic ideal?

Well, as President Bush said, "You're either with us or you're against us." Those are words to live by, and they're words that the Saudis should keep in mind, in particular, because they've played a double game for several decades now -- on the one hand, professing great friendship to the United States, and in some ways really helping us out on some things, but at the same time, opening up their checkbooks and writing checks to the most hateful madrasas around the world, and also to people like Osama bin Laden who, of course, is a Saudi himself. They've been playing this double game where they've been trying to have it both ways. Before long, they have to choose sides and decide, are they with us or against us? They'd better know that if they're against us, there is going to be a severe penalty to pay for that.

Next page: Conclusion

© Copyright 2003, Regents of the University of California