Liberate Max Boot

The 58th post on the Journal of American Greatness originally published in April, 2016.


Casual no less than regular readers of the Journal of American Greatness know that we yield to no one in our vehement opposition to Max Boot. We suspect that there are readers, even if they share our dislike for the “democracy agenda,” of which Boot is a prominent cheerleader, who might suspect there is something gratuitous or malevolent in our anti-Boot evangelism. After all, there remain plenty of true believers in the democracy agenda out there, on the left and the right. Unlike Max Boot, some of these believers have actually served in positions of real responsibility and thus have less of an excuse for drinking the Kool-Aid. Why pick on one young-ish writer for a once-venerable magazine?

We freely grant that there might be something to this charge, though in our defense we have matched our anti-Boot efforts with vigorous anti-Kagan family efforts—not to mention the most fair-minded, and least ad-hominem, explanation you’ll find anywhere as to why America should turn the page on democracy promotion. Yet Max Boot, precisely as a young-ish true believer in a doctrine well-past its best-by date, should interest us as a case study in the failure of America to produce competent people to direct and think about our foreign policy. I have no doubt that Max Boot is personally a fine individual. He seems an irony-free patriot—if a bit too willing to subject his patriotism to some imagined, global democratic ideal. But in his shallow grasp of history, his dismal foreign policy judgment, and his total misreading of the political realities of current American life, Max Boot is, unfortunately, an example of our collective failure.

The Egypt Test

In the last few years, world affairs have offered a single easy litmus test as to whether one has any business at all writing about or practicing foreign policy—namely, how one has reacted to developments in Egypt. Now it’s obviously gratuitous to sing elegies to praetorian regime currently ensconced in Cairo. Having a bit of familiarity with Egypt, we think in fact that some conservatives have gone far too far in their praise of General Al-Sisi as a potential “great reformer” of Islam. That said, one has to say that America is simply lucky that Al-Sisi and his generals managed to prevail (for now) over the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. These are the only two forces that could potentially hold power in Egypt now—whatever the unorganized, inexperienced, and generally and regrettably hopeless liberal Egyptians say. At the time of Mubarak’s ousting, it may have been plausible for America to press for some favored alternative candidate. In the event we were caught flat footed, almost totally ignorant, of what was even happening in Egypt. This, combined with our relentless ideological posturing, has partially led Egypt back into the welcoming arms of the Russians. In 2016, It takes an ideologue of the highest order to argue that America must turn against or pressure the Al-Sisi regime because of its anti-democratic tendencies. Democracy, as Angelo Codevilla so well says, simply reflects the demos. And the contemporary Egyptian demos would give us back the Muslim Brotherhood.

Like Robert Kagan, Max Boot has resoundingly failed the Egypt test. In 2013, after the army regained control of the country, Boot called on the U.S. government to cut off all aid to Egypt. Support for Al-Sisi would produce a “cost in American standing” and would create “terrorist blowback” in the United States. The three years of relative quiet in Egypt—including a welcome respite for the Christian Copts after Morsi’s ruthless terror campaign of against them, and al-Sisi’s insipid but better-than-nothing campaigns against Islamic fighters—have left Boot undeterred. Max Boot has rather blamed Al-Sisi for squeezing out “anti-violent” dissent, a move that would ensure regime opposition will grow more violent. In other words, Boot continues to argue for “blowback”—a concept if not invented by the radical left at least put to the best use by the far left. “The war in Vietnam is unwinnable because of blowback, all wars are unwinnable because of blowback, etc.” Max Boot might cringe with being associated with the far left, but nothing seems to get in the way of Boot’s efforts to make us seem like we are living up to some ill-thought through democratic ideals. Just in passing, we’ll note that Boot has employed the “blowback” argument again in his anti-Trump writings. In perhaps his worst column to date, Boot argued that Donald Trump “could not possibly do more damage to our security if he were an actual ISIL agent.” I’m not sure Noam Chomsky could do much better than that one.

The Education of Max Boot

Let us leave aside the case of Trump. Max Boot’s disastrous views on Egypt should compel us to politely accord him less influence over what people believe or do in foreign policy. But the interesting question is how we’ve gotten to a point where Max Boot could both attain a position of real influence and remain in it despite his costly errors of judgment. We’ve written elsewhere, and indeed everywhere, on the problem of the entrenchment of outdated ideas and institutions in American conservatism. What I want to stress here is the failure of our education—indeed our unbelievably narrow sense of what constitutes an education in foreign policy.

As far as I can see, Max Boot has done precisely nothing in life other than write or attend university. A cognitively-intelligent, hard-working child of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Boot took a BA at Berkeley and an MA in diplomatic history at Yale, where he no doubt encountered professors who combine real learning—the names of Donald Kagan, John Gaddis, and Paul Kennedy come to mind—with a firm adherence to very old orthodoxies on the conservative and liberal sides of the Cold War era. Now in a way it’s of the nature of universities, and especially contemporary universities, for old ideas to decay into ideologies. Obviously we’d prefer truly free, clear, and penetrating minds, but we don’t hold it against university professors too much that they become wedded to doctrines whose relevance has become merely historical. But it is one thing to say one was exposed to some interesting viewpoints in foreign policy class, it is quite another to believe that one is equipped for conducting the foreign relations of the United States because one was an enrolled student in a “grand strategy” seminar at Yale. I do not know Boot’s particular course history, but it seems to me that Boot fits into this category. Take a few theory-heavy courses in international relations, memorize a few arguments about the superiority of the Western to the Eastern system, and voilà: ready to start opining immediately on questions of foreign policy.

Perhaps Boot remembers some of the Russian he grew up with—perhaps he even studied it seriously or else some other languages and history. I’m willing to be corrected, but I would also be surprised. Boot’s writing surely gives little indication that he has actually mastered the history, languages or even contemporary political or business dynamics of the foreigners with whom we have to interact. At any event, Boot began to immediately write about foreign policy and military history after getting his degree. He has styled himself a “military historian” even though it’s unclear if he’s ever participated in war or even seen it up close beyond one of those U.S. military Potemkin village tours David Petraeus would give friendly foreign journalists in Iraq.

Towards Experience in Things of the World

In a way, however, even the very best university training for foreign affairs, which would include rigorous language, history, and time abroad requirements, is not enough for true foreign policy expertise. Let the obvious not be forgotten. Foreign policy is about transacting with foreigners, and one will not know what one is doing unless one actually knows these foreigners: who they are, what motivates them, what they love and hate, and how they expect to make their bottom lines both economically and politically. Some good book learning is necessary for this, but it it surely not sufficient.  A further complicating factor: what the people say they want and what the rulers want are not always the same, and in some countries the views and characters of the ruling classes are extremely opaque. A lot of imaginative thinking is required. We thus need people with actual experience in the world, doing high-level things with high-level foreigners. For all the political classes contempt for mere “businessmen,” and true but ultimately just-so political-philosophic opinion that the political art is different than the business art, engaging in high-level business with foreigners is in our day the best possible preparation for engaging in foreign affairs. Now this is not always possible. And if that’s the case, we would prefer the old American way of making sure people get some experience running or managing something at home before deigning to speak about how people do it or should do it abroad. While our ways and foreign ways are different, at least the analogue can be a fruitful source of intellectual comparison.

Not everyone is in place to get this experience, but is it too much to ask that we expect from our thought leaders at least some of it? Churchill literally spent the ages of 18-33 engaging in a vast range of different preparatory “life experiences”—in the military, technology, business, and travel—before seeking the political career and high office that he always knew he wanted. We can’t all be Churchill, but we shouldn’t just have to recite a few half-remembered lines of Churchill to consider ourselves well-qualified to exercise foreign policy judgment. We can’t all be in wars (although there are many going on right now for the enterprising who want to have a look), but can reading a few history books (some even written by foreigners: in English translation, of course) substitute for the grittiest experiences in the things of the world? Perhaps America was always naïve in what it demanded from its foreign policy elite. Surely the record of the last century is not a source of confidence.

We’ll know American foreign policy is on a better track when we have fewer Max Boots and more people who turn to foreign policy writing and thinking after serious activities in the military, business, and finance, or have demonstrated deep knowledge of foreigners through living with them. The latter path offers the danger, coeval with dealing with foreigners, of “going native” and forgetting one’s primary allegiance. But we’d gladly take that danger over our current naïve, posturing foreign policy elite of the left and right who have learned nothing and forgotten everything.


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