Max Boot on the surge, and trying to keep the home front from destroying the gains the military is making by withdrawing too early.
HH: I’m joined now by Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council On Foreign Relations. He is the author of War Made New: Weapons, Warriors and the Making of the Modern World. It’s out in hardback, and you can get it from Amazon. It’ll be out in paperback soon. Max Boot, welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show.
MB: Thanks for having me back.
HH: Excellent piece in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times, Iraq Isn’t Vietnam, Henry, responding to Henry Kissinger’s call for grand diplomacy. Could you lay out for the audience why this isn’t a situation like Vietnam, Henry Kissinger claims can be solved by diplomacy?
MB: Well, in the first place, Vietnam wasn’t really solved by diplomacy, as you know. It was really solved by the fact that the North Vietnamese invaded and conquered and occupied the South, and all of Henry Kissinger’s diplomacy in the early 1970’s did absolutely nothing to prevent the worst case scenario from coming true. And unfortunately, I think that’s the case again in Iraq, where even if you have the world’s most brilliant diplomat, if we could get Henry Kissinger back on the beat, or some successor to Henry Kissinger, I don’t think there’s very much they could do to deal with this very dire situation that we face in Iraq, where our enemies are capitalizing on some of the mistakes we made, and are trying to win a battlefield victory. There’s no way to salvage a political victory out of a battlefield defeat. You just have to try to persevere and win on the battlefield, and I think we have to overcome this illusion that somehow, no matter what our troops are doing in Iraq, that we can somehow pull them out, and some kind of brilliant diplomacy will save the day. It just isn’t so. It wasn’t so in the 70’s, and it won’t be so today.
HH: Lots of different people are calling for a “negotiated solution,” or a “political settlement.” They all have different motives. Kissinger, you seem to argue, is looking to burnish his own historical reputation by putting these things out there.
MB: Well, I don’t know what his motive is, and I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he wants to do what’s best. But you know, I was motivated to write this article by this op-ed that he had in the Washington Post a couple of weeks ago, which laid out this incredibly complicated scenario for how you could solve the Iraq mess diplomatically by working with various factions in Iraq, by working with outside parties, having contact groups, the UN, this, that and the other, ultimately culminating in some incredibly complex settlement that would be enforced by troops from Indonesia, India and other countries coming to Iraq, which to me, is just wildly unrealistic. But unfortunately, a lot of people in Washington want to believe this. They want to think that there is this kind of magical diplomatic solution so we don’t have to keep fighting, so in other words, we can remove our troops, end this terrible war, and somehow through brilliant diplomacy, we can make everything okay. And it just isn’t so.
HH: Max Boot, the penultimate paragraph of your Sunday piece in the L.A. Times reads, “If any previous model of peacemaking applies to Iraq, and that’s a big if, the one we should look at is Korea. President Eisenhower concluded a lasting armistice in ’53 because he made clear that U.S. troops would stay in South Korea until kingdom come, and even threatened to escalate the conflict with atomic weapons, if necessary.” I think he said as surely as night follows day, North Korea’ll be destroyed if escalation occurred. And he also said, you know, he went to Korea not to surrender, Max Boot, but to send a message. Isn’t that what’s happening today in Iraq?
MB: Well, that is what’s happening today, and I think we are making gains on the ground with the surge of troops, this surge of operations which General Petraeus is directing. But as you know, there are a lot of people back home who want to bring those troops home, and they think that we can bring those troops home while still negotiating some kind of acceptable diplomatic or political settlement. And it just isn’t so, and I think we have a chance to negotiate some kind of decent settlement down the road if we stay with the surge, and if the troops in Iraq are able to improve the security situation on the ground. If that happens, then yes, we might be able to pull an acceptable outcome out of the war. But if we suddenly start bringing our troops home, everything’s going to go to hell in a hand basket, and no amount of brilliant diplomacy is going to be able to rescue it.
HH: I interviewed General Petraeus on this program last week, Max Boot, and then Lt. General North was interviewed by National Review on Friday. Both of them were optimistic. General North just flat-out said the surge is working. And you write in your column, “but Petraeus is being undermined by incessant withdrawal demands from home, which are convincing our enemies that they can wait us out.” I think that’s the most important line you wrote. How strongly do you feel that these demands that we leave are encouraging the enemy to stay in the field?
MB: There’s no way to quantify it, but there’s no question that it gives a boost to what they’re doing. I mean, I talked to one of General Petraeus’ advisers recently who said to me hey, look at these benchmarks from Congress, 18 benchmarks we have to meet in order to be considered a success. What we’re basically doing is we’re telling the insurgents the benchmarks they have to meet in order to defeat us. We’re giving them a road plan for defeating us. And I think it is the case that we are making progress on the ground. You’re seeing reductions in violence in key areas around Baghdad, and Baghdad itself, but I think we would be seeing even more if the message coming from home weren’t undermining what our troops are doing in Iraq, because our troops are trying to send a message of resolve, they’re trying to say we will be here for as long as it takes, we will bring peace, we will not allow these extremists, either Shiite or Sunni, to take over. But you know, the message coming from home is we want to pull the troops out tomorrow, and what that’s basically saying to both the Shiite and the Sunni extremists is don’t worry about it, go to ground, the Americans will be gone, and soon, we’ll be slitting throats again. So those are very mixed messages, and I think our troops are able to make progress in spite of that, but I think they would be making a heck of a lot more progress if they weren’t getting these negative signals from the home front.
HH: Max Boot, the last time I talked to you, you’d just come back from a tour of a variety of the provinces in Iraq. And since then, I’m sure you’re continuing to be in touch with people there and here. What are you hearing, obviously, we go the Petraeus interview and other things, but what are you hearing from your sources and your friends who are still in Iraq about general conditions there, not just the surge, but political conditions there?
MB: I think political conditions are still tough, at least if you’re defining that at the national level. I think what you’re seeing is a lot of progress at the grass roots, at the provincial level, where you’re seeing tribes flipping over from al Qaeda to supporting the coalition, to working with the government of Iraq. You’re seeing a lot of bottom up political progress. You’re not seeing very much at the top level. But I don’t think anybody who knew what was going on in Iraq really anticipated seeing much national level progress right now, because the whole theory of the surge is, you’ve got to improve security conditions on the ground before you can create a climate of confidence in which national level leaders can make compromises. And we’ve only just started to improve the security conditions, so it’s unrealistic to expect that you’ll have these major political compromises at the national level happening right now. That’s going to be a lagging indicator. But what I’m mainly hearing from the folks who are in country right now is that there are huge signs of security progress, which was what the surge was designed to achieve in the first place. You are seeing, especially in places like Anbar, just miraculous reductions in violence, and lesser, but still significant reductions in violence in places like Baghdad and Baquba and elsewhere. I think the surge is working, but the big question is are the troops going to have time to carry out this strategy? Or will the plug be pulled prematurely from home?
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HH: Max, at the Council On Foreign Relations, you run into a lot of people who are opposed to the war. I know you talk to people left, right and center in Washington, D.C., and the nation’s military. Is the message that the surge is working getting through to any of those people? Are they open to changing their minds on whether or not we ought to stay the course here?
MB: I think that there are some people who are open-minded. But to answer your first question, no, I don’t think that the message that the surge is working is getting through. I mean, in fact, I’ve talked to some of my friends who have been surprised when I’ve shared e-mails with them from officers I know in Iraq who are providing objective indicators of how the surge is making a positive difference. That message is not getting out through the media. Now I think it is possible that if the surge continues to work, and if the success accelerates, and that’s a big if, but if it does, I think some of that will break through, and the lag in perceptions will catch up with the reality. But right now, there’s no question that the mainstream media viewpoint is the surge has failed. And that’s, I think, the viewpoint of most people who follow what’s going on only very casually.
HH: How do you recommend…obviously, we’ve got General Petraeus talking to me, you’ve got National Review talking to General North, how do you recommend the military push this message out through non-traditional forms?
MB: Well, I think they’re starting to do a better job of it by working with bloggers, by working with YouTube, and doing some of these other things to get the message out. But there’s only so much that the military can do, because you know, their number one priority is to win the fight in Iraq. There’s only so much they can do win the fight back home. And I think that has to be the top priority for the White House and the Department of Defense. And I think in both cases, they could do a much, much better job. I think President Bush has been an effective communicator, but his credibility has obviously been reduced by some of the setbacks that he suffered, and unfortunately, there aren’t too many people in the administration who are picking up his slack, and who are serving as effective spokespeople for our strategy in Iraq. I mean, the indications I get are, for example, that Secretary Gates doesn’t necessarily believe in the surge strategy, and so therefore, he’s not a very effective spokesman for it.
HH: We’ve got a September 15th, or thereabouts report coming from General Petraeus. How would you recommend that report be given? If he goes to the Senate or the House and gives it in committee style, it won’t get through unmediated. It will be transformed. Would you advise him to give it through a speech? Would you advise him to talk in an interview? How would you advise that that report be delivered?
MB: Well, it’s an interesting question. I haven’t really thought about it. I mean, it has to be, to some extent, delivered to Congress, because there are a bunch of benchmarks that he has to address. But in terms of how he presents his findings, I think there is something to be said for giving it in a speech, or in an address that would be carried on television, in which he would have a chance, at least, to speak over the heads of the politicians and the news media, and talk directly to the American people. I think there’s something to be said for that.
HH: Do you think there’s interest in what he has to say?
MB: Tremendous interest. I think in fact, a huge amount of interest in what he has to say, but I think people are placing too much stock in what his report is going to be, because I don’t think he’s going to reach any definitive conclusions as quickly as mid-September.
HH: Max Boot, thanks for joining us.
End of interview.