Boot v. Boot

by Joshua Foust on 5/13/2009 · 5 comments

Now I like and respect Andrew Exum, but what is this?

Elsewhere, Max Boot — always among the more intellectually honest of the thinkers known as “neoconservatives” and someone I admire — has an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times largely praising the team President Obama has assembled for Afghanistan.

Boot could easily be right about Obama’s decision-making, though it’s kind of fun to recall some of the battier things he said about Obama’s leadership skills when he was working for John McCain’s presidential campaign. But, “one of the most intellectually honest” of the neocons? MAX BOOT? That’s stretching things. Let’s compare how Max Boot’s attidues toward war has changed𔃉repeatedly—as he worships at the feet of whomever is in charge (who has been, for a few years, General Petraeus).

On Afghanistan’s prospects and U.S. military leadership:

  • The coalition officers that I spoke with expressed confidence that with the U.S. reinforcements now flowing into the country, they will be able to score victories against insurgents who have been given free reign in some areas because of a paucity of NATO resources. But even before the 17,000 additional U.S. troops arrive, the situation is hardly critical. (March 12, 2009)
  • No one in Afghanistan–from the American commander, Gen. David McKiernan, to those village elders–underestimates the difficulties that lie ahead. But no one we spoke to on an eight-day journey (arranged for us by Gen. David Petraeus, the head of the military’s Central Command) that took us from Kunar Province on the Pakistani border to Farah Province near the Iranian frontier doubted that we succeed, or that we must do so.
  • Anyone who is familiar with the military will tell you that McChrystal has a much more impressive reputation than McKiernan, who is widely viewed as a decent enough armored officer but as the wrong kind of leader for a complex counterinsurgency. (May 12, 2009)
  • When I visited Afghanistan recently, I spent a couple of hours with McKiernan. He struck me as competent but too conventional and too colorless, not the rare kind of dynamic leader who could turn around a campaign in trouble. He was no George Patton, Matthew Ridgway, Creighton Abrams — or David Petraeus. (May 13, 2009)

On the U.S. Presidency:

  • Ask yourself which presidential candidate an Ahmadinejad, Assad or Kim would fear the most. I submit it is not Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama or Mike Huckabee. In my (admittedly biased) opinion, the leading candidate to scare the snot out of our enemies is a certain former aviator who has been noted for his pugnacity and his unwavering support of the American war effort in Iraq. Ironically, John McCain’s bellicose aura could allow us to achieve more of our objectives peacefully because other countries would be more afraid to mess with him than with most other potential occupants of the Oval Office — or the current one. (February 12 2008)
  • President Obama and his aides continue to impress with their handling of Afghanistan. Not only have they approved a major troop increase and a de facto commitment to nation-building, but now they have shifted personnel to make the most effective use of the added resources and turn around a failing war effort. (May 13, 2009)

On the use of air strikes:

  • Although few in number and lacking in armor or artillery, the Special Forces in Afghanistan were, in a sense, the most powerful infantrymen in history because they fought not with shoulder-fired weapons, whose range and power is severely limited, but with GPS locators, satellite radios, laptops, and laser-designators that could summon pinpoint air strikes with the push of a button. Roughly 60 percent of all U.S. munitions employed in Afghanistan were precision guided — six times greater than in the Gulf War. (November, 2006)
  • The concerns Kilcullen raises are legitimate. In a better world I too would favor calling off the drones. As I have argued repeatedly, long-range precision strikes are not a very effective tool for counterinsurgency. If we can put a lot of boots on the ground, that’s a strategy much more likely to succeed. That’s why I’ve favored the surges in Iraq and Afghanistan and rejected limited counter-terrorism strategies as urged by the likes of Joe Biden. (May 5, 2009)

On Pakistan:

  • Early last week, Pakistan announced the arrest of a dozen Islamist radicals who had been plotting attacks on the U.S. embassy and other targets. This comes shortly after the capture of some 25 other jihadists, including a computer expert, Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan, whose arrest led to the exposure of an al Qaeda cell in Britain that was said to be plotting attacks on New York, Newark, and Washington. Recall that until 9/11 Pakistan was a leading supporter of Islamist militants. Portions of its intelligence service and military maintain their links with these fanatics, but Islamabad has become much more responsive to U.S. concerns… Pakistan has done much more since President Pervez Musharraf was almost killed in two assassination attempts in December 2003. (The Weekly Standard, September 6, 2004)
  • Taliban fighters receive training and support in Pakistan, possibly still from their historic patrons in the Inter-Services Intelligence Agency which reports to none other than Mr. Musharraf. There have even been a number of incidents in recent months of Pakistani troops providing covering fire from their side of the border for Taliban militants assaulting Afghan army positions. Mr. Musharraf has been useful, but he is either unwilling or unable to do enough to combat the terrorists in his country. (June 11, 2007)

Bonus, outside-of-Afghanistan example:

  • IHAVE NEVER been a dogmatist on the issue of troop levels. I was not one of those who criticized the original invasion force in 2003 for being too small. There were enough troops to take Baghdad… By now it should be obvious that the “light footprint” approach has not worked. It has increased, not decreased, resentment of the United States. (June 28, 2006)
  • To see why Tuesday’s “retirement” of Navy Adm. William “Fox” Fallon as head of U.S. Central Command is good news, all you have to do is look at the Esquire profile that brought about his downfall… Not only was Fallon “quietly opposed to a long-term surge in Iraq,” as Barnett notes, but he doesn’t seem to have changed his mind in the past year. He has tried to undermine the surge by pushing for faster troop drawdowns than Petraeus thought prudent. (”He wants troop levels in Iraq down now.”) The president wisely deferred to the man on the spot — Petraeus — thus no doubt leaving Fallon simmering with the sort of anger that came through all too clearly in Esquire. (March 12, 2008)

This is just stuff I pulled up after a few minutes of googling. It’s not even a well-organized examination of his whimsical shifting to the winds. Now, my own opinions and views have changed—about many topics, even in this space—but at least where I have a written record of them, I have explained why: I no longer believe opium legalization will work in Afghanistan because they don’t have the regulatory or law enforcement infrastructure to handle it, I no longer believe invading Iraq was the right thing to do since I learned just how blatantly my government lied to me about it, I no longer think the U.S. military is properly oriented toward winning the war in Afghanistan. And so on. Boot’s positions on America’s seem to change without warning or notice, often just as soon as he learns what the people in charge are saying about them.

Is that being “one of the more intellectually honest” neocons? Actually, it very easily could be. But that’s not exactly much of a standard to hold someone to.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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jbd May 13, 2009 at 11:52 am

Amen and well executed.

T. Greer May 13, 2009 at 5:30 pm

Really jbd? I am unsure if the examples he uses cut it. Lets start top to bottom and look at what each quoted statement is trying to communicate.

On Afghanistan’s prospects and U.S. military leadership:

Statement one: The Af/Pak situation is not as bad as you think. American commanders tell me that the troop surge will bring victory.

Statement two: No one I talked to, including McKeirnan, underestimates the challenges ahead. Everybody is committed to victory.

Statement three: McChrystal is better at COIN than McKeirnan.

Statement Four: McKeirnan never struck me as particularly brilliant, so I think it was for the better that he has been replaced.

Now, I must ask, are any of these positions in contradiction with each other? Is it not possible to say that the situation in Afghanistan is not as bad as you think, that America will emerge victorious if new tactics and troops are used to resolve the conflict, that the guy who is leading American troops seems optimistic, and then say that optimism is not enough to win a campaign and that another guy will do better at with the new troops/tactics than the first?

Likewise for the rest of the quotes. Stating that you expect Obama to be a pansy during the campaign season is hardly contradictory with expressing delight over the fact that he has not turned out to be such a pansy after all. Stating that you didn’t think troop levels mattered too much and then admitting that events on the ground has proved you wrong is not much of a contradiction either. This applies to the airstrikes and Musharraf cases as well; Boot goes out of his way to say that the old thought on the matter is incorrect In both posts/articles.

To be clear, I am not defending the merit of Boot’s words. But I do think it is simply unfair to call him out as wishy-washy when the quotations used are not contradictory or happen to be separated by major changes in strategy/regional dynamics (i.e. the “surge”).

Joshua Foust May 13, 2009 at 9:04 pm

Well, hang on, though. I think there’s a bit of a difference between being wishy washy (i.e. the accusations against John Kerry in 2004 of being a “flip flopper” and unable to make up his mind) and changing what you say based on who is in charge.

On McKiernan, for example, if Boot had come out and said he found the man competent but probably not inspirational enough to do the job during all his ooo-rah essays about his week-long helicopter tour, then I’d actually be lauding the man for being prescient. Instead, he writes these florid essays about how any hint that we’re going to lose is a big liberal lie, then waits for General Petraeus to give him the (ahem) boot, and only then does he come out and say bad things about McKiernan.

Indeed, General Petraeus is one of the constants in Boot’s writing life—I think Boot is a smart guy, but he has subsumed himself in the Petraeus hagiography to such an extent that he’ll reverse himself, even if only at the margins, just to go along with what the Great Four-Star says. (You can see a similar dynamic in Boot’s treatment of Donald Rumsfeld—not a negative peep until the guy was almost out the door of the Bush administration.)

Now, this is nothing on Petraeus. Aside from some quibblings over the minutae of strategy, I have no real complaint against the man. It is about Boot, and—to take your Obama analogy—his complete inability to notice problems or challenges with leadership until the establishment has already declared them on their way out.

It’s nothing as obvious as Peggy Noonan being filmed calling the Sarah Palin candidacy “bullshit” then trying to walk it back in her Wall Street Journal column. Boot is far too smart to do that. But the obsequious attitude before power is the same, and that is what I am highlighting here.

T. Greer May 13, 2009 at 10:45 pm

@Joshua: That is fair. Certainly I agree that Boot’s tendencies to blindly follow the military authority remain a good reason to question his judgment. Yet his inability to see through brass stars is not reason enough to name him dishonest. He trusts authority, reputation, and experience, remaining cautious with new ideas until they have been adopted by men is such positions. This is not the mark of an intellectually dishonest man- it is simply the mark of a conservative one.

Joshua Foust May 14, 2009 at 4:24 am

It’s funny — you can call Boot’s methodology “trusting authority and experience,” but I don’t see how that makes him honest per se. Because he doesn’t trust authority or experience, he parrots it. Even understanding the respectable William F. Buckley “standing athwart history” ideal, the two are different. Blindly accepting whatever a general officer says is not a conservative ideal, nor is publicly changing your viewpoint when a GO does.

That’s not conservatism, and it’s certainly not honest. I would compare that very unfavorably with conservatives like Buckley or Will, who respected authority without removing their own thinking from it.

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