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Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow Max Boot bluntly assesses the Obama administration’s 1st year of foreign policy and national security

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

HH: But I continue in the conversation about the very unusual warning delivered by CIA head Leon Panetta today of an imminent attack in the United States in the next three to six months. What I was just talking about with Michael Isikoff, I now continue the conversation with Max Boot, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Max, are you surprised that we’ve gotten this kind of specificity from the Obama administration about an attack here?

MB: Well, there certainly have been warnings out there recently, including from the British, so clearly there is something going on in the intelligence front, and the community feels strongly enough to go public about it.

HH: In light of that, should we revoke the Miranda rights given to Abdulmutallab and remand him to Gitmo for interrogation as an enemy combatant?

MB: Absolutely. I think it’s a decision that’s overdue. I mean, I think the whole case is turning into a major embarrassment for the Obama administration, which is leading even its normal supporters to raise questions about its handling of terrorism and how serious it is in dealing with the threat. You know, after having the Denny Blair, the current director of national intelligence admit that the decision was made without any internal debate, having the decision now be criticized by Michael Hayden, the former director of the CIA, I mean, it’s really an embarrassment. And the administration spinning does not engender any confidence on this question.

HH: Now Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff was just on right before you, and he refused to countenance the idea that this has ever been done before, which is beside the point. It may not have been done before, because Padilla was interrogated before he was remanded to the criminal justice system, because the Bush administration didn’t make any mistake like this. But Max Boot, do you think anyone will make a serious argument that we ought not to do so because of law?

MB: Well, the law clearly gives the president the authority to treat a terrorist as an enemy combatant, not as a normal criminal suspect. You know, that law has been ratified by Congress, it’s been essentially upheld by the Supreme Court, there’s a procedure in place for holding enemy combatants for interrogating them, for trying them if necessary before military tribunals. So that’s the law, too. I don’t see why President Obama is not availing himself of that law in this particular case, which he is doing in other cases.

HH: Now what about the trial of KSM in the United States? Is this going to also be revoked an end up in a military tribunal in Gitmo, Max Boot, in your opinion?

MB: I don’t know. It’s certainly turning into another major embarrassment for the administration. I think they would lose a lot of face if they wound up sending him to Gitmo when they’ve promised to close it by this point, which they’re clearly not going to do. But then to backtrack so completely, I think, they would hesitate to do that. And instead, obviously, they are now looking for a venue where they can hold properly a civilian trial of KSM in a safe setting. But I don’t see a lot of people volunteering their community as the place where it’s going to happen.

HH: Max Boot, there’s been some conversation, I just had one with Michael Isikoff, about the staffing at the Department of Justice, and that it includes a lot of ideologues, including a lot of people who participated in the defense of Gitmo detainees when they were doing so pro bono outside. There’s no bar to them doing this. It’s just a question of whether or not the robust intellectual debate is underway inside the Department of Justice that ought to accompany these terror decisions. Do you think it is?

MB: I have no way of knowing. I mean, certainly there are a lot of holdover career Justice employees who are intimately involved in some of the war and terror decisions that were made in the Bush administration. I assume there’s still people who support some of those decisions. Clearly, that is not the view of Eric Holder and his senior deputies. But you know, I think the way Holder has handled this case and some other issues involving CIA interrogation, for example, has been a tremendous embarrassment, which is leading even moderate Democrats to distance themselves from him. So clearly, I don’t think he’s somebody whose decisions are held in much confidence in the country.

HH: Have you had a chance to read Marc Thiessen’s book yet, Courting Disaster, how the CIA kept America safe, and how Barack Obama’s inviting the next attack?

MB: I have not. I have a copy. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet.

HH: Okay, when you do, I’ll look forward to talking to you about it, because it’s got some amazing implications for the way we are not conducting interrogations right now. Let me switch over to Iran. Ahmadinejad made one of his crazy talk statements yesterday about on February 11th, the world will see that you can’t mess around with me, or something like that. What did you make of that?

MB: More bluster from Ahmadinejad. I mean clearly, he is a leader who is prone to extremist rhetoric, who is in the throes of this millenarian religious ideology, and who is hell bent on having Iran go nuclear, and ultimately wind up eradicating the state of Israel. I mean, that’s what we know about him, based on his public statements and his actions. The question is what are we going to do about it? And the Obama administration’s overtures to the Iranian leadership have been rudely rebuffed, and the Obama folks that promised that there would be “serious consequences” forthcoming, but I have yet to see any of those consequences. And part of that has to do with the fact that they thought that they could charm Russia and China into signing up for serious Iran sanctions at the U.N. Security Council. And again, that’s another foolish illusion they came into office with, which they have been rudely disabused of by the reality they have found in the past year.

HH: Now what about the idea that we are sending a lot of missile defense to the region? Does that indicate a level of fear about Iran’s willingness to initiate attacks that did not previously exist? Or is it a continuation of long standing deterrent policies?

MB: It may be an attempt to send a signal to Iran, but it’s not clear what that signal is, because it could be interpreted either as a warning that we will not tolerate Iran going nuclear, or conversely, it could be interpreted as preparations for dealing with a nuclear Iran, and trying to contain a nuclear Iran. It’s hard to know which it actually is. In either case, it’s hardly a substitute for the kind of tough sanctions that are necessary to really punish Iran for its nuclear weapons program, and also for, it’s not a substitute for really backing the Green movement, which is ultimately the best way to deal with the Iranian nuclear program, by trying to encourage and help the people of Iran to change their own regime.

HH: All right, last question takes us to China. There is a great deal of tension between the United States and China right now, some of it launched by the Google attempts, and the other one by the Taiwan weapons sale. What do you think is going on? How serious are these noises coming out of China about our debt?

MB: Well, I have to give the Obama administration some belated credit here, because you know, during their first year in office, they were really kowtowing to Beijing. And Obama’s trip to China in the fall was really a disgrace, because he refused to speak about human rights. He refused to address the Chinese people in an uncensored setting. And he really did everything he could to try to kowtow to the Chinese leadership, but he saw that was getting him nowhere. He was embarrassed by the Chinese leaders at the Copenhagen global warming summit, and now belatedly, the administration is starting to push back a little bit with the arms sales to Taiwan, the internet freedom doctrine enunciated by Hillary Clinton, and the meeting with the Dalai Lama the president is going to have. I think those are long overdue signs of backbone in this administration, and we need to see more of that in other parts of the world, including Iran.

HH: Max Boot from the Council of Foreign Relations, thank you, Max, always a pleasure talking to you.

End of interview.

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