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CFR’s Max Boot ON What Happens If We Say No To Syrian Action

Sunday, September 8, 2013

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HH: This hour, we start with the Jeane Kirkpatrick fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Max Boot, written extensively on terrorism, on the Middle East, new book out. Max, welcome back, good to talk to you.

MB: Thanks very much, Hugh.

HH: How would you advise Congress to vote next week and why?

MB: I think they have to vote yes, because for all the qualms they might have about whatever course of action President Obama might embark on, and I have some qualms myself, the bottom line is at this point a no vote is a vote for American retreat and isolationism, and it will send a terrible, terrible signal to WMD proliferators in places like Iran and North Korea. We just cannot afford to shoot down the Syria resolution.

HH: Last hour, Charles Krauthammer argued that it would be even worse if Assad were to emerge from the smoke of a pinprick strike laughing at us. Your response to that?

MB: I agree. That would not be a good outcome, which is why I think it’s imperative that members of Congress vote as lopsidedly and whole-heartedly as possible to authorize a wide-ranging resolution, and to encourage President Obama to do what it takes to finally topple Assad, instead of lobbing a few symbolic Cruise missiles. But voting against this resolution, make no mistake about it, is going to give Assad a big victory without the U.S. having fired a shot, whereas I think if President Obama does engage, there’s the possibility that the engagement will be more robust than initially signaled.

HH: Now Max Boot, your organization, the Council on Foreign Relations, puts out a magnificent magazine, Foreign Affairs. I’m looking at the latest issue, Who Is Khamenei: The Mind Of Iran’s Supreme Leader by Akhbar Ganji. I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to read it, yet. But it’s deeply disturbing, things I did not know, such as the fact that he is the fellow who translated Sayyid Qutb’s ideological wanderings for the Muslim Brotherhood into Farsi and other things. How would Khamenei view a no vote coming out of this Congress?

MB: I think a no vote from Congress would be a green light for the Iranian nuclear weapons program. I mean, already it’s very hard for President Obama to make credible threats against Iran to get them to cease and desist from developing nuclear weapons. But it will become impossible if he cannot rally Congress to attack Syria, even after Syria has already used chemical weapons. That is going to send to Iran a signal that we will do nothing to stop them, and it will ensure that either we will have to fight Iran, or Iran will go nuclear. So I think the signal it sends, either way, will be a terrible one.

HH: Is there anything the President should say, in your opinion, to change the minds of the people you have been speaking with? And I know, Max, that you are sought out by members on the Hill by both parties, one of the architects of the surge, and a serious non-partisan influence on this. So what do you think the President should say to change minds?

MB: Well, I think there is a substantial faction of Congress in both the Republican and Democratic parties which wants nothing to do with this, and is essentially committed to a course of quasi-isolationism. But I think that there are also more reasonable members of Congress, like Marco Rubio for example, who voted no on the resolution, who could be convinced to support it if they were, if they saw that President Obama was serious about toppling Assad, that this was not just going to be a symbolic Cruise missile strike, that it would achieve nothing, but in fact be part of a plan to significantly degrade Assad’s military capabilities, and enable the more moderate factions of the rebel forces to advance into topple this Iran-backed regime. So I would urge President Obama to understand that he’s not going to win over the isolationists, but he needs to win over the hawks. And right now, unfortunately, he’s not even winning over the hawks.

HH: No, he’s not. I am speaking with Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations. Max, it is a coincidence that 70 years ago today, Winston Churchill, in the middle of the War, was in the United States, and he spoke at Harvard, and we have that speech. And I want to play for you four paragraphs, a minute and a half of it, and get your reaction to it, 70 years later. Here’s Winston Churchill in [Harvard's] Sanders Theatre.

WC: Twice in my lifetime the long arm of destiny has reached across the oceans and involved the entire life and manhood of the United States in a deadly struggle.

There was no use in saying “We don’t want it; we won’t have it; our forebears left Europe to avoid these quarrels; we have founded a new world which has no contact with the old. “There was no use in that. The long arm reaches out remorselessly, and every one’s existence, environment, and outlook undergo a swift and irresistible change.

What is the explanation, Mr. President, of these strange facts, and what are the deep laws to which they respond? I will offer you one explanation – there are others, but one will suffice. The price of greatness is responsibility. If the people of the United States had continued in a mediocre station, struggling with the wilderness, absorbed in their own affairs, and a factor of no consequence in the movement of the world, they might have remained forgotten and undisturbed beyond their protecting oceans: but one cannot rise to be in many ways the leading community in the civilized world without being involved in its problems, without being convulsed by its agonies and inspired by its causes.

If this has been proved in the past, as it has been, it will become indisputable in the future. The people of the United States cannot escape world responsibility. Although we live in a period so tumultuous that little can be predicted, we may be quite sure that this process will be intensified with every forward step the United States make in wealth and in power. Not only are the responsibilities of this great Republic growing, but the world over which they range is itself contracting in relation to our powers of locomotion at a positively alarming rate.

HH: “At a positively alarming rate,” Max Boot, the long arm reaches out remorselessly. Is that what we’re looking at again?

MB: I think it is, and I commend you, Hugh, for finding that great clip of Winston Churchill, who is right as usual. And the basic point is isolationism is not an option for the United States. It was not an option in the 1940s. It’s certainly not an option today when we’ve suffered a far worse attack just a decade ago on American soil than we ever suffered during World War II. We can’t afford to look away. We have to, we can’t afford to throw off the mantle of global leadership that we donned during the course of World War II. But unfortunately, if we don’t respond in a significant way to Assad’s use of chemical weapons, that’s exactly what we would be doing. We would be saying that America is retreating from global leadership, and in fact, there will be no global leader. There will be a vacuum, which will be filled by the likes of Iran and North Korea, Russia and al Qaeda. I don’t think that’s what we want. I don’t think that’s a responsible course for the future of America, but that’s in fact what would follow, or what would be seen to follow from a rejection of any action in Syria.

HH: Now Churchill was speaking many years into a war that took ten years to gather up, and under the leadership, or lack of leadership of Stanley Baldwin, who ended up being far worse than it would have been had we intervened. Michael Moynihan is arguing that the Syrian conflict is very similar to the Spanish Civil War. Now you actually wrote the book, Invisible Armies: An Epic History Of Guerilla Warfare From Ancient Times To The Present, your new book, and it’s so on point to the messiness of Syria, but, and also to the hardest question that I get from listeners and objectors, which is there are no good guys, nothing good can come from aiding any faction. How do you respond to that based on your epic knowledge of the epic history of guerilla warfare?

MB: Well, to some extent, that’s kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy, because the less that we do to help the more moderate factions in the Free Syrian Army, the more power that jihadists accrue on one side, and Assad and his Hezbollah and Iran-backed forces on the other. And the extremists come to the fore, because we’ve done so little over the course of the last two years, far less than we should have done, to aid the more moderate factions of the rebel forces, who I think are still a significant and probably majority part of the rebel alliance. The extremists are on the ascent, but you know, if we never do anything to aid the more moderate factions, that’s a guarantee that the extremists of one side or another will prevail. If we do aid the moderates, that’s not a guarantee that they will win, but at least it will increase the odds. It will do something. Otherwise, we’re just standing back watching more than 100,000 people die, and more people die at the rate of 5,000 a month while the other countries in the region are increasingly affected by this turmoil, and as Assad uses ever more deadly weapons, which sends a message of encouragement to other rogue regimes around the world. I mean, that’s not a tenable or responsible path.

HH: You know, Max Boot, I think the President ought to be citing Invisible Armies in his speech on Tuesday night, because there had been many three and four and five-way conflicts in which we have successfully intervened in the past. It’s not impossible. It’s hard, but it’s not impossible.

MB: Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. I mean, sort of the way that General Petraeus said when we went into Iraq in 2007, it’s hard, but hard is not impossible, it is doable. And it’s not going to require American ground troops as it did in Iraq. It just requires some determination to use American air power and to use the CIA and some Special Operators to try to train up and arm up, and enable the capabilities of the more moderate rebel factions, and let’s see what happens. But otherwise, the winner is going to be either al Qaeda or Iran, and neither scenario is one that we can live with.

HH: Max Boot, Jeane Kirkpatrick fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, thank you. The book is Invisible Armies, and you ought to be following what Max writes also over at www.commentarymagazine.com. I would have John Podhoretz on today but for the fact it’s the high holy days. Thank you, Max.

End of interview.

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