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CFR scholar Max Boot assesses Obama’s lack of engagement in Afghanistan and too much engagement in Iran policy.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

HH: As I wrote today at, we have a four-pronged appeasement policy underway in the United States. But whether or not I’m overstating it, well, we’ll leave that up to my guest, Max Boot, senior fellow at the Council On Foreign Relations, joins me now. Max, first your reaction to the announcement on Friday about the Iranian super secret facility, then the launch of the Iranian long range missile, and then the push back by our European allies until December of any meaningful deadline, if that’s even a meaningful deadline for Iran. How are you assessing the world reaction to the nature of the threat that we have here?

MB: I would say that Iran is getting pretty much what it wants, which is they’ve continued developing its nuclear weapons program while the world clucks in disapproval but does very little of a substantive nature. And the Obama administration is now talking about getting meaningful sanctions through the U.N., to which I can only say good luck, because the countries you would need, such as China, are heavily dependent for tens of billions of dollars in dealings with Iran, and they have no desire to cut off Iran. So how they’re going to get these sanctions through, even with these new revelations, I have no idea.

HH: Now some of my Democratic friends really bristle when I use the term appeasement. And I point out to them that appeasement has a genealogy, it has a specific approach to world affairs, it has a specific way of dealing with aggressive regimes. Is it fair for me to use the term appeasement, Max Boot, in relation to the world’s response to Iran?

MB: Well, it’s an incendiary term, but I think in the current case, it more or less applies, because here you have Iran doing outrageous things in violation of international accords, and the reaction from the world is basically to meet with Iran, and to talk about serious consequences, but not really deliver those serious consequences. So yeah, I mean, if that’s not appeasement, I’m not sure what is.

HH: Now the Wall Street Journal yesterday reported stories out of Le Monde in Paris that French president Sarkozy is very upset with the Obama administration and with the president, because of the tepid response to Iran. Do you credit those reports as sounding, or perhaps even on the basis of what you know, are in fact based in reality?

MB: Well, it is a strange situation that’s come to pass where the leader of France is being more hawkish than a president of the United States, but I think that’s in fact where we are. But you know, for all of Sarkozy’s hawkish rhetoric, again, I don’t see France sending its aircraft to bomb the Iranian nuclear facilities. The reality is it’s all going to be up to us or up to Israel to do something meaningful, if we’re up to it, about the Iranian nuclear program.

HH: Do you think, Max Boot, that Israel has the capacity to at least significantly slow down the Iranian program through military means?

MB: I certainly think that Israel has the capacity to hit the Iranian sites and do some damage. How long they can put those sites out of operation, I have no idea. I mean, there is certainly classified intelligence estimates about that, and Bob Gates indicated in some comments not long ago that the most that you could hope for is a delay of something like three years. You know, whether that’s in fact accurate or not, I don’t know. I don’t think the intelligence community knows enough to really say.

HH: Now let me ask you, let me turn to the story in the Washington Post today, Max Boot, about how much success we’ve had against al Qaeda in the last nine months in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and from…you know, I certainly hope that is true. I pray that it’s true. But I also am suspicious of the timing of this, coming as it does at the same time as the McChrystal report urging a surge of troops there. Number one, what do you make of the Washington Post story? Number two, is it an excuse, in your mind, for not surging troops into Afghanistan?

MB: There’s no question that some people would like to rely on the counterterrorism strategy, and would like to point to a success in Pakistan, and it has had some success in the last year, because we’ve stepped up strikes because the Pakistanis have done more. I mean, that’s actually a big part of it, which we have to focus on as well. It’s not just the fact that we suddenly have these Predators overhead. It’s the fact that the Pakistanis have sent tens of thousands of troops into the Swat Valley, into Waziristan, to some of these other areas, where they’re flushing the militants out of their hiding holes. So in some ways, they’re doing the kind of on the ground strategy that General McChrystal wants to execute in Afghanistan, but he doesn’t have enough troops for. So I don’t think that the limited success we’ve had against al Qaeda in Pakistan in any way obviates the need for a larger scale effort in Afghanistan. And in fact, it is a larger reflection of a larger scale effort going on in the past year in Pakistan.

HH: Are you concerned that we are witnessing preparation of the political battlefield for a withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan?

MB: I doubt that we would see a complete withdrawal, but clearly, there are elements in the administration that would like to draw down our force levels, and ignore the consequences, which I think would be spreading chaos and Taliban control throughout a major chunk of Afghanistan. I don’t, you know, from everything I read and see and hear, I don’t think the president has made up his mind yet, but clearly he is getting cold feet about the counterinsurgency strategy that he announced with so much fanfare in March, and is now rethinking. So I don’t know which way it’s going to go, but I don’t think that the evidence is there yet that the administration has decided to pull out, and is laying the groundwork for that.

HH: On 60 Minutes on Sunday night, General McChrystal was asked how often he had spoken with the president since he assumed the command of the Afghanistan operation. He said once. He said he didn’t lack for direction, but a lot of us were stunned, given what we understood to be President Bush’s engagement with commanders on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. How did you react to that statement, Max Boot?

MB: I also think it’s a stunning level of disengagement from one of the most important things that the United States is doing right now, one of the two big wars that we’re in the midst of fighting. And the commander in chief is not even talking to his on the ground commander? That really bespeaks a level of, a lack of interest in the war compared to his involvement in the nuts and bolts of health care or other domestic issues, which I think that’s a very dangerous situation. And you know, the White House explanation that he reads memos weekly from the commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan doesn’t really cut it as an excuse, because you know, I’ll tell you, reading government memos does not convey the flavor of what’s going on in the same way as actually talking with the guy who’s there.

HH: You know, by the end of the week, he will have spent more time with commissioners of the International Olympic Committee than he has been with General McChrystal.

MB: (laughing) Well, to be fair, I think Obama is starting to get more involved, and there is a video teleconference going on with General McChrystal, but it’s belated, and there’s really a sense that even though the president announced an increase in our involvement in Afghanistan earlier this year, his heart was not really in it, and he doesn’t really see himself as a war president above all. It’s not just that he hasn’t been talking to McChrystal, it’s that he hasn’t been talking to the American people. He hasn’t been really explaining what we’re doing there and why it’s important. And so I think he’s been sort of ambivalent, and I think you’re seeing that ambivalence reflected in the foot-dragging reaction to McChrystal’s initial assessment.

HH: Is this ambivalence dangerous for the United States, Max Boot?

MB: Yes, I think it is dangerous, because if you’re fighting a war, you have to fight to win, and you have to do what it takes to prevail. Otherwise, you shouldn’t be asking men and women in uniform to risk their lives. And that’s the danger that we face, is that we may be fighting a war half-heartedly, because the president doesn’t really believe in it, because despite his rhetoric to the contrary…so he’s got to figure out is he for it or against it, and either provide the resources necessary to win, or explain to the American people and the world why he doesn’t think it’s important to win.

HH: And what time frame, Max Boot, last question, do you believe he has to make that decision and that announcement in to be responsible?

MB: He doesn’t have a lot of time, because General McChrystal has warned that if he doesn’t get the resources he needs in the next year, the war could be lost. And it takes a long time to get troops moving. So you know, he’s got a matter of, I would say, weeks rather than months to figure out if we’re all in or not, if we’re going to try to win. And if we are, we’ve got to start giving deployment orders to the necessary troops, so they can get on the battlefield next year.

HH: Max Boot, it is always a pleasure to speak with you. Thanks for spending time with me from the Council On Foreign Relations. He also blogs at Commentary’s Contentions blog. Thank you, Max Boot.

End of interview.

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