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Neocon Calls Bush's Policy Toward North Korea 'Confused'

Interviewee: Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies
November 27, 2003

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The Daily Yomiuri: How would you define neoconservativism?

Boot: I’d have to put it in the context of the three main schools of American foreign policy. One is the realpolitik school, which holds that we should defend our national security interests narrowly defined as vital security and economic interests. It’s a school of thought associated with Presidents Richard Nixon and (George) Bush the elder.

An opposite school, which I’d call liberal internationalism, believes that instead of merely defending our interests we should also promote our ideals. The way to do it for the liberal international school is through international laws and institutions like the United Nations.

Neoconservatives, belonging to the third school, try to draw from the best of both worlds. They agree with the liberal internationalists that we should promote our ideals as well as protect our interests. But they don’t feel that international law or international organizations are sufficient to do that. And so they agree with the realists that you need to use power and force if necessary to defend American interests in a dangerous world.

The neocons are trying to fuse power and principles. It’s a hard-headed version of Wilsonianism. (Former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson was well known for promoting democracy, international law and the League of Nations, the precursor to the United Nations.)

How would you defend neoconservative thinking against charges that it’s turning the United States into a unilateralist monster destroying international institutions and long-standing alliances?

Those accusations are vastly exaggerated. In fact, neocons aren’t unilateralists per se. Neocons, like most foreign policy thinkers, prefer working with allies and sharing the load as much as possible. But they realize you’re not always going to get international institutions in particular to go along with you. And sometimes you have to take hard actions with the coalition of the willing.

But that’s different from saying they prefer unilateral action, which isn’t the case at all. Neocons have been big boosters of NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and expanding NATO. They like the idea of working with American allies. They’re not very enthusiastic about the idea of turning over veto power on American action to France, Russia or other powers through the venue of the U.N. Security Council.

Where does Japan fall in your strategic map?

Japan is a prime example of neoconservative principles applied because one view of neoconservativism is that the internal dynamics of a regime matter a great deal. Realpolitikers are happy to deal with just about any type of regime as long as their willing to do business.

The neocon view is that how a regime treats its own people matters because if it treats its own people badly, it might not treat its neighbors or the United States well.

Neocons put emphasis on fostering liberal democratic development, and Japan is a sterling example of how successful that policy has been in some places.

In the first half of the 20th century, Japan was a constant threat to regional security because it had a militaristic government. Since 1945, Japan has been a paragon of peace and stability because it has a liberal democratic government, in fact, a liberal democratic party. It’s one of the best examples of all time of successful regime transformation which has been pushed by the United States.

How about the regime transformation in Iraq? How would you respond to thinkers like Zbignew Brzezinski, who say the United States should return to a foreign policy that emphasizes traditional alliances?

With regard to Iraq, I’d say it’s going better than the news media portrays but not as well as I’d like. There’s been a lot of progress made in Iraq, and about 80 percent of the country is relatively stable and peaceful. The Shiite south central region and the Kurdish north are progressing very rapidly. But we’re having a lot of problems in the Sunni triangle.

Unfortunately we’re suffering a number of casualties there. But that’s inevitable in a war. If you recognize we’re in the midst of a war, you’ll realize we will suffer casualties, and the number we’ve suffered haven’t been bad compared to other wars, although even one person killed is too many.

We have to soldier on. It would be disastrous if we were to pull out of Iraq. The victory to terrorism would be a huge blow to the United States.

There’s no way the guerrillas can defeat us militarily. The only way they can really win is to break our will to fight for a democratic Iraq. There’s a chance they may do that. There has been some wavering of opinion, especially among the U.S. Democratic candidates. But if we can hang tough, we can prevail.

How would you assess U.S. policy towards North Korea?

U.S. policy toward North Korea is confused at the moment. A little over a year ago, President Bush was talking about the axis of evil. But now when pressed, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage says regime change in North Korea is not our goal. So clearly we’ve either had a change of policy or we have different policies going on at the same time. I’m not sure which it is.

There are certainly factions competing in the administration. If regime change isn’t our policy, then we are making a big mistake. If we think (North Korean leader) Kim Jong Il is going to strike an accord with us to give up his nuclear program and keep it any more than he kept it in the 1994 Agreed Framework, then somebody has been smoking something illicit.

The only way we’re going to have any security with North Korea is by toppling his regime, which is one of the worst human rights violators on the planet. Liberating the people of North Korea has to be our goal. It’s not going to be easy. Entering into an agreement that props up that murderous dwarf in Pyongyang is not the way to go.


Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a leading U.S.-based think tank, has no problem being called a neoconservative, the same term used to describe to an influential group of people in the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush that includes Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, the chief proponent of the Iraq war. Boot and other “neocon” writers like William Kristol and Robert Kagan have helped promote a view that says the United States must advance its principles with force if necessary. Having gained currency since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, neocon thinking formed the intellectual justification for the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. While he recently visited Tokyo, The Daily Yomiuri spoke to Boot about the neocons and how they would assess Bush’s handling of Iraq and North Korea.

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