Max Boot on US Missteps Around the World

Max Boot (far right) addressed LAWAC members at a Roundtable luncheon on February 9.

The US administration appears not to have learned the lessons of Vietnam in its current approach to North Korea, according to Max Boot, the newly-appointed national security columnist for the Washington Post. In 1965 President Johnson launched Operation Rolling Thunder, a strategic bombing campaign that targeted North Vietnamese logistical and military infrastructure with the goal of stopping North Vietnamese troops from infiltrating the south and ultimately forcing Hanoi to negotiate for peace. “The opposite happened – Operation Rolling Thunder backfired,” said Boot at a Roundtable lunch for LAWAC Board and International Circle members on Friday, February 9.

Boot, who is also the Jeanne Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said he is “similarly concerned about the ‘bloody nose strike’ idea against North Korea that is floating around the administration today.” The idea is that a limited US bombing attack on North Korea would bring Kim Jong Un to his senses and halt his nuclear program. Boot said this is based on the false assumption that the North Korean leader would not retaliate, and the costs would be extremely high. “We have never before fought a nuclear state, it is much better to use deterrence and constraint.” Boot voiced his concerns over the recent abrupt withdrawal by the administration of its designated ambassador for South Korea, Victor Cha, after he was critical of the “bloody nose strike” idea.

Boot, who calls himself a “contrarian conservative”, was equally critical of US policy in Afghanistan, where he says President Trump’s administration “is not playing for a win, even though they say they are. We are playing for a tie, having given up on the notion of defeating the Taliban because of their Pakistani support.” Boot says we are effectively ceding the countryside to the Taliban, and the best we can do with 15,000 troops in the country is prevent the fall of Kabul and Kandahar. “We need to focus more on the political side, not just on the military. We should do more to support President Ashraf Ghani.”

In Syria, Boot says there is no prospect of peace in the short term, because Assad is winning the war on the ground. “Assad has no incentive to talk peace in Geneva because they are on the offensive and they think they can take back the whole country.” He said that just as Iraq showed the tragic consequences of US intervention, Syria showed the consequences of US non-intervention. “We were paralyzed, and the Russians and the Iranians came in.” Now the US is forced to choose between its Kurdish allies on the ground and the Turks who oppose the Kurds. “The Turks, the Iranians, the Syrians and the Russians are all trying to get the US out of Syria.”

Boot says that Defense Sectary James Mattis thinks the era of great power competition is here again, and the Pentagon is now prioritizing the threats from China and Russia. However, says Boot, “there is zero evidence that Trump sees [Russia and China] as a threat. His State of the Union speech did not mention them. His threats are immigrants and terrorists.” Boot also said that the Russians have begun using hybrid warfare – “little green men” in Ukraine, hacking into our electoral system. “All of our defense capabilities are not able to counter Russian manipulation.” Boot said we should have a 9/11-type commission with a blue ribbon bipartisan panel to look at and fix our vulnerabilities in our electoral system. “We are now relying on self-policing by Facebook and that is a failing model.” He said like it or not, the internet needs more federal regulation.

As for China, Boot said our “ace card” is the fact that the Chinese have almost no allies: “Every country on its periphery is scared of it and looks to the US to protect them.” But he fears the US might be squandering that advantage because President Trump “has no idea of soft power.” Instead, he is pursuing his America-first policy which Boot said is encouraging others to similarly pursue their self-interests, alienating many of our allies.