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Max Boot updates on the surge success

Monday, August 6, 2007

HH: Pleased to welcome back now Max Boot. He is a senior fellow at the Council On Foreign Relations, author most recently of War Made New: Technology, Warfare and the Course of History, about to come out in paperback, by the way. He also blogs at Contentions, the blog of Commentary Magazine. Max Boot, welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show.

MB: Thanks for having me back.

HH: Max, your colleague over at Contentions, your new colleague, Pete Wehner wrote today that the O’Hanlon and Pollack op-ed in the New York Times of last week was “climate changing.” You’ve also posted on that. Is that an accurate characterization?

MB: It certainly is for the time being. I think it’s had a tremendous impact, really, as much as any op-ed that I can remember in history. It really has exploded like a bombshell in the Washington debate, and has put opponents of the war on the defensive. But of course, we have to be realistic and understand here that like any potent weapon, this one is not going to win the war all by itself, and it has a limited half-life. And ultimately, events are going to move on. And if events keep moving in a positive direction in Iraq, I think it will reinforce the sense of the Pollack-O’Hanlon op-ed that things are improving and that this war is in fact winnable. But of course, if we suffer more setbacks, if there are a lot more suicide bombings, if there are a lot more deaths, then the impact of the op-ed will dissipate. So I think we really have to wait and see whether it does mark an inflection point or not. I think it’s too early to say, although it’s certainly a positive development.

HH: Max Boot, among others, John Burns of the New York Times has remarked that a Tet-like offensive by al Qaeda and other elements of the insurgency is to be expected coming up. Is America ready for that? Would it have the same effect that January, ’68 had on the Vietnam war, if in fact, in the march up to the September report by General Petraeus, we see a huge countersurge by the enemy?

MB: That’s a very good question, and I think it’s very hard to anticipate what the response would be. I think a lot of it really depends on the specifics, and how things play out. I mean, obviously, if you have squads of insurgents roaming around the Green Zone, comparable to the VietCong invading the U.S. Embassy compound in 1968 in Saigon, that would be a catastrophic public relations hit. So naturally, you anticipate that that’s exactly what the insurgents want to do. But on the other hand, you know, our soldiers know that as well, and are going to be well-prepared for it. So it’s hard to know how things will play out, but there is no question that because Congress has laid out these 18 benchmarks that we have to meet, that basically creates a roadmap for the insurgents, telling them what they have to do in order to prevent us from meeting those benchmarks, and therefore to prevent us from appearing successful by the criteria set down by Congress.

HH: Max Boot, before O’Hanlon and Pollack came back, and before Bill Kristol’s just come back from Iraq, you and Fred Kagan had been over there. And some on the left are arguing that the Americans and the Coalition forces are setting you folks up, that they’re controlling what you see, and you’re seeing a Potemkin surge. Your response to that?

MB: That’s a silly criticism from people who by and large have never been to Iraq at all. In fact, you know, I suspect that all the other folks went there under pretty much the same conditions I did, which is that I really had free rein to see what I wanted to see, and to spend as much time as I wanted with the troops in the field, and I went out, I did not spend my time in the Green Zone. I went out into the field, spent time with the troops’ operations first hand, and got what I thought were very frank, no BS assessments that mix the good with the bad. So this notion that somehow the U.S. military can camouflage the reality of what’s happening on the ground from somebody who spends a fair amount of time there, and especially people like Mike O’Hanlon or Ken Pollack or others who have a background in military affairs and know what to look for, I think that’s just silly.

HH: I’ve also read quite a lot of criticism of General Petraeus because, among other things, he’s given me an interview, and other people who want to talk to him, whether it’s BBC or anyone else. He’ll talk to almost anyone who’s got a responsible approach to the interview. Do you trust General Petraeus to be completely objective and candid with the American people in September?

MB: Absolutely. He is certainly one of the most honorable and trustworthy people that I know, and if you, I know you’ve had him on the show, and you paid careful attention to what he says, and you can attest to the fact that he is not hyping what he is doing in Iraq.

HH: That’s correct.

MB: He is not spinning grandiose fantasies about all of a sudden, you know, Iraq is the safest place on Earth, or any kind of ridiculous rhetoric. He’s not even succumbing to the kind of rhetoric that Vice President Cheney and President Bush have used in the past about victory’s around the corner, these are just a few dead-enders, none of that kind of stuff. He is giving a very frank and realistic assessment of what’s going on, mixing the progress, the military progress, with some of the political setbacks that we’ve still encountered. And I think he will continue to do that, because he is well aware that without his credibility, he has nothing, and that he has got to level with the American people, and he can’t indulge in rhetoric that is at odds with the facts.

HH: At his point, Max Boot, how long should Americans be preparing to see a significant troop commitment in Iraq, if we want that country to be stable?

MB: It depends on what you mean by significant. I think if we want a positive outcome in Iraq, I think we certainly have to have a fair number of troops there for probably a decade to come, just as we’ve had troops in Bosnia for a decade now since the 1995 intervention. Now what is significant and what is an adequate number of troops? That’s very hard to say, and it really depends on what the conditions are. Right now, I would feel very uneasy if we had less than 160,000 troops, and in fact, I wish we had even more, but I think the number that we have now is the bare minimum for making progress. But if in fact we do continue making progress as we are now, a year or two from now, we might be able to responsibly go down to a lower figure, let’s say 100,000, 80,000, 120,000, you know, it’s very hard to say in advance. We could certainly go down to a responsible lower figure, and expect that the Iraqi Security Forces would be able to keep up, pick up the slack. But if we, if our goal is to simply remove all U.S. troops as soon as possible, let’s say by April of 2008, that’s a guarantee of defeat. There’s no way we can prevail under those circumstances. So I think we have to be grown up about this and realize there is no easy short-term exit, but that if we continue plugging along, as we’ve been doing, we can continue to make progress, we can gradually reduce our troop numbers, reduce our casualties, and have the Iraqis take up more of the load.

HH: I’d like to play an exchange for you from yesterday’s debate among the GOP contenders with particular attention to George Stephanopoulos’ rebuke to Giuliani. Here’s cut number three:

GS: Is there any difference between you and Senator McCain on this issue? Or would you also continue to support the surge?

RG: I just noticed the question before Senator McCain said something. In four Democratic debates, not a single Democratic candidate said the word Islamic terrorism. Now that is taking political correctness to extremes. It really is. (applause) So the reality is…the reality is that you do not achieve peace through weakness and appeasement. Weakness and appeasement should not be a policy of the American government. We should seek a victory in Iraq, and in Baghdad, and we should define the victory. And I thought the piece by O’Hanlon and Pollack last week in the New York Times, which I have to frankly tell you when I read it in the morning, I read it twice, and I checked, the New York Times, but it was the New York Times (laughter), it was, and it said we just might win in Iraq. Now why we would want to retreat in the face of at lease some empirical evidence that General Petraeus is having success…

GS: But that’s military progress, no political progress. You’d continue to support the surge…

HH: Stop right there. Now we’ve only got 30 seconds to the break, Max Boot, I hope you can stay over, but is George Stephanopoulos right to say no political progress?

MB: I don’t think that’s quite right, because in fact, there has been a lot of local political progress at the grass roots level with tribes in Anbar and Diyala, and other provinces turning against the insurgency. It is true that we haven’t seen high level progress at the national level with the passage of all these laws by the Iraqi parliament. But there has been some other very welcome political progress, and the hope is that gradually, we can translate military progress into larger scale political progress. That’s at least the plan.

– – – – –

HH: Max Boot, I had the privilege last week of spending some time in the Oval Office with the President. I can’t quote him, it’s off the record, but it’s fair to say he’s quite confident about the American military’s capabilities. This contrasts with some critics who say if we leave 160,000 troops in Iraq through April of next year, we’ll break the American military. Who’s right here?

MB: I think that on current plans, there’s no reason why we couldn’t leave 160,000 troops through next April. I mean, the difficulty comes after next April, maintaining 160,000 troops past April is going to be a very, very tough act to pull off, and would involve putting some major mobilizations of the National Guard and Reserve. That would be politically tricky. But with the current projected length of tours going up to 15 months, the plans are in place to keep the surge force going through April. And of course, this is asking a tremendous sacrifice of our troops. It is a very tough thing to be in Iraq for 15 months, especially when many of them have not had that much time at home in between tours. But nevertheless, despite the hardships that they experience, what I’ve found, and what I think most people find who go out into the field is that morale is pretty high. There’s still a desire to get the job done, and you know, a lot of the anti-war folks talk about let’s help the troops by bringing them home. But that’s not what the troops are asking for. They’re not asking to be brought home. And in fact, I think it would be devastating to troop morale if they were all to be brought home now, essentially in defeat. This would be asking the American military to accept our worst defeat since Vietnam, and possibly the most serious military defeat in our history. That’s not what the men and women in uniform signed up for, and that’s not what they want. And I think the long term consequences for our armed forces would be terrible if those were the conditions under which we left Iraq.

HH: Now Max Boot, I’ve been engrossed this past weekend, and almost finished a new book by Timothy Weiner called Legacy of Ashes.

MB: Right, right.

HH: It’s a history of the CIA. Have your read this yet?

MB: I just finished it as well, yeah.

HH: Well, I found it just riveting, but it also left me with a very sinking feeling. Have we, has our intelligence community made the same mistakes that the intelligence community did in the 60’s and 70’s about the North Vietnamese and the VietCong? Do we know the enemy in this instance?

MB: I don’t think we have a very good read on the enemy, although I think we’re developing a better read. I mean, some of the best intelligence we get in Iraq does not come from our spies, does not come from the CIA or NSA. It comes from troops in the field, and they get good intelligence when they spend more time out in neighborhoods, living alongside Iraqis. The Iraqis start to trust them, they offer them tips, and that allows our troops to be much more effective. That’s the kind of effective intelligence that we generate in Iraq. If we’re depending on the CIA or NSA or anybody else to tell us what’s going on, it’s going to be hopeless, because what that book pretty clearly demonstrates is that the CIA has never, in its long history of more than fifty years, had any real luck in penetrating enemy organizations. And in many ways, the challenge in Iraq is more difficult than it was when we were dealing with North Korea or the Soviet Union, or other countries which were at least unitary entities. But in the case of Iraq, what you’re facing are multiple enemies, and it’s very hard to get a grip on who they are, where they’re coming from, and what their goals are. And their mindset is also very different from ours, much more so than the Soviet mindset different from ours. The mindset of these jihadist terrorists is almost completely incomprehensible to a modern Western rational mind.

HH: One of the other lessons I took away from that, both in the Sukarno account and of course the Kennedy backed removal of Diem, though not intending to have him murdered the way he was, and then the meddling in the Vietnamese government, is that you meddle with these government at your peril once their in place. Did you take that away, that this is really a leave Maliki alone kind of lesson from history until he has a chance to win or lose?

MB: That’s certainly the lesson I draw, because there’s a lot of impatience in Washington with Maliki, but there was a lot of impatience with all of his predecessors as well. And in a lot of ways, we only have ourselves to blame here, because we wrote a constitution for Iraq that doesn’t give much power to the prime minister. The whole point was to avoid having another strong man. Well, we’ve avoided a strong man, and at the cost having a very weak leader. And now, of course, we’re complaining about that weak leader. And just as we were complaining before about Jafri, and before that Allawi, and now we’re complaining about Maliki, and it’s really, I think, sort of infantile thinking to say that oh, let’s get rid of this guy and there’ll be somebody better coming along. I think the reality is we have to deal with the situation as it is, and not expect that another change of leadership will somehow improve matters. That would just be repeating the mistake that we made with Diem, which was really one of the catastrophic mistakes that we made during the course of the Vietnam war.

HH: 30 seconds left, your opinion of Legacy of Ashes?

MB: I think it’s a good book, it’s got…certainly written by a liberal journalist who’s bias sometimes shows through, but I think overall, it’s very well reported, the history is excellent, and it really is a devastating indictment of the CIA, not just in the last few years, but going all the way back to its origins, that we’ve had one hair-brained operation after another, and have never had much luck in penetrating America’s enemies. It really is an argument for fairly radical reform of the intelligence community, although we have to figure out what that is, and how to actually improve things, and not make them even worse.

HH: I agree 100%. Max Boot, always a pleasure, thank you. We’ll post the transcript of this interview online later tonight.

End of interview.

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