Max Boot Interview (2006): Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
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I have a big-picture question for you. You are identified as a neoconservative but I think it's fair to say that you're a Wilsonian, really. Because of where you were born and what you saw as you made this transition to America, you have a sense of the power of American ideals. You are aware of those issues, but on the other hand, you're grounded in history in terms of the technology and so on. I guess the question is, we're seeing a disjunction between American ideals and how they might transform the world, and the implementation and the effective use of military technology that makes the difference when you come to war. Do you have further thoughts about how one integrates those two to make effective policy for the U.S. as a global power? Obviously in the case of Iraq, this equation has not worked.
Well, when you say that I'm a Wilsonian or neocon, I could just as easily say that I'm a Rooseveltian or a Reaganite. I'm somebody who believes, as have so many of the great leaders of the United States, that the United States does well when we do good, that our power is not only the raw economic or military power we have, but the power of our ideals, the things that we stand for, and that we ought to be championing those ideals in world affairs, not just to help others but to help ourselves.
Of course, as we try to implement our ideals we have to be prudent in their implementation, and we have to be aware of the limitations of our power. I think what we're seeing in Iraq is a lesson, just as we saw in Vietnam, in some of the limitations of our power, that we don't have the kind of organization necessary to run a country of 26 million people. It may be that we don't have the will to run a country of 26 million people. So, obviously we have to be prudent in engaging in those kinds of nation-building exercises if we don't have the resources or the will to carry it out. At the same time, I don't think we can just pursue the cynical realpolitik approach to foreign policy. I don't think that's ever been terribly successful.
We can still promote our ideals, not necessarily in military ways. Sometimes you use military power but not most of the time, and I think the war on terrorism is a lot like the Cold War where you have to use all the instruments of national power, not just the military. This is one of the weaknesses that we see, which is that in many ways the military is the most competent branch of our government. They can put tens of thousands of people in the field with organization, with structure, with equipment. They can do things. But many of the people that we actually need to get the job done in places like Iraq or Afghanistan are not in uniform. They're people from the CIA or State Department, or the U.S. Agency for International Development, or the Treasury, or the Agriculture Department, or from nongovernmental organizations, all these other resources that we have that we're not tapping into.
Everything is kind of falling onto the military by default because we're not utilizing the other resources of our government and of our society. Part of it is an issue of will but also an issue of organization. We don't have a very effective instrument for making all the different branches of our government work together. The State Department, for example, is not used to operating in war zones. There has to be a change in mentality and a change of structure so that we get better at these kinds of engagements, but we also have to realize that the most successful interventions are not going to be military, they're going to be pre-military. We have to get involved before we get to the issue of using military force. Just think about how much good we could have done in Afghanistan in the 1990s when the country was sliding into chaos. If we had gotten proactively involved and tried to stand up a representative government before the Taliban took over, we might have been able to have avoided 9/11, and we certainly could have avoided the long-term military engagement that we're involved in now.
So, that's what I really argue, as a "Wilsonian" or "neocon," or whatever you want to call me. I think we have to be a global leader, we have to be engaged in the world, we have to take the leadership position, and yes, we have to use the military sometimes, but we also have to get much more effective at using non-military instruments of power.
I guess the question now that I want to ask is this: given your book, War Made New and all the lessons you draw from that, if I asked you to apply that book to the Bush administration and the leadership of Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld, what grade would you give them and then what evaluation would you write in the side note in the blue book?
Well, at this point I'd have to give them a D- or maybe an F+. I don't think they have been tremendously effective, and this is, in many ways, the puzzle of the Bush administration, because I think that their ideals and the goals that they espouse are right on. I think those are in the best tradition of American foreign policy, and I think it's what the country and the world need now.
The issue has been implementation, and their implementation has been abysmal, which is in some ways a mystery because if you look at, for example, Don Rumsfeld, successful CEO; Dick Cheney, successful CEO; George W. Bush, the first MBA president. Going in, you would have thought that management and implementation would have been the strong suit of these guys, but it really hasn't been, and this goes back to the theme of my book, War Made New, which is the importance of organization for harnessing military power.
We have tremendous technology, we have tremendous people in the armed services and in other agencies of government, but they haven't really been utilized very well, they haven't had the right structures or the right leadership to take advantage of what we have. We've had an ad hoc approach in places like Iraq which hasn't been effective in dealing with the problems that we face. So, I don't think it's an issue of overarching vision which I generally support, it's an issue of how do you carry out that vision. That's our real problem today.
What do you think the consequences of these episodes, especially the one in Iraq, will be for the long-term relationship of the civilian leadership to the military, and also for the revitalization of the military? We still have to do transformation, it's not going to go away just because this particular war was a fiasco.
It's very possible that you may see long-term damage to civil - military relations of the kind that you saw after Vietnam, with a lot of people in the military possibly pointing fingers at the civilian leadership and saying, "We were stabbed in the back," and a lot of these same kinds of ideas that were prevalent after Vietnam. It would be unfortunate if it were to happen because there's no question that the military has not had great civilian leadership, but the military has lots of problems of its own, including bad military leadership. When you look at who's most responsible for a lot of the problems that we face in Iraq, it's not just people like Don Rumsfeld or Jerry Bremer, it's also people like General Tommy Franks and General Ricardo Sanchez. A lot of the people in uniform have made huge mistakes as well, which anybody in uniform will tell you. So, you can't just put all the blame on the civilians. The military also has to look within.
Right now, one of the positives that I see coming out of Iraq so far is that defeat concentrates the mind and defeat is a powerful impetus for reform. It can break through institutional barriers to reform. Right now you're seeing a lot of very positive reforms happening within the military because of the demands of Iraq. For example, a new counterinsurgency manual is coming out, and the kind of training troops get before going over there has changed completely from these tank-on-tank engagements to training in stability operations in occupation. You're seeing changes in military curricula, more emphasis being placed on understanding foreign languages and cultures. There's a lot of positive things going on, and I think it's vitally important going forward, whatever happens in Iraq, that these changes persist. But there's a real danger that they won't, and there's a danger you may have this kind of post-Vietnam backlash where the military turns its back on change, turns its back on the civilian leadership and says, "We want to get out of this business, we don't want to do counterinsurgency, we want to go do something else," which would be deeply unfortunate, because the more we show that we're not able to do counterinsurgency, the more we will face precisely those kinds of wars, because that's what our enemies will try to exploit.
Max, on that note, let me first show your book and recommend it to our audience to get a historical background about what revolution means in military affairs, and also a lot of insight on the revolution we're going through now. So, thank you very much for being with us today. You're always welcome back in Berkeley.
Always a pleasure to be with you, Harry. You're a great interviewer.
Thank you. We didn't mention that you're an alumnus, so you're coming back in a dual role, as an alumnus and also as an author.
Always happy to come back.
And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.
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