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Boot: Priority for Bush's Next Term is 'Getting Iraq Right'

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Visiting Fellow
Interviewee: Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies
January 12, 2005


Max Boot, an expert on U.S. foreign and military policies, says the priority for the Bush administration’s second term is “getting Iraq right.” Boot says, “Unless we do, everything else will become meaningless. We have to stave off the possibility of defeat there, which would have catastrophic consequences not only for Iraq but for American standing in the whole Middle East.” There are two equally difficult alternatives, Boot says: doubling the size of American forces so they are large enough to crush the Iraqi insurgency, or cutting U.S. troop strength to some 20,000 trainers in the hope that such a drastic reduction would force the Iraqis to defeat the rebels on their own.

Boot counsels patience on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Before mounting any new initiatives, he says, the administration should first determine if the new Palestinian Authority leadership has taken the necessary steps to improve the atmosphere for talks. He rejects the recently floated suggestion that the president name a special U.S. envoy dedicated to mediating Middle East peace.

The author of “The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power,” Boot was interviewed on January 12, 2005, by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for

If President Bush called and said, “Please give me some ideas on what my foreign policy should be for the next four years,” what would you say?

I would start by saying that he could get much better advice from other people than he can from me. But, with the self-confidence of a Council fellow, I would say the following:

Looking back on your first term, your two big foreign policy successes were: first, Afghanistan, and second, the war on terrorism more broadly. Afghanistan looks much better now than anybody anticipated it would in October 2001 when Operation Enduring Freedom started, and the war on terrorism has worked out much better in the last three years than anybody anticipated on September 12, 2001. We have not had a terrorist attack on the United States, although that record of success is unlikely to continue. Nevertheless, I would tell the president he has been pretty successful.

But in terms of the rest of the foreign policy agenda, there are a number of failures and incompletes from the first term. The biggest incomplete, obviously, is Iraq, and the top priority for the second term, obviously, is getting Iraq right. Unless we do, everything else will become meaningless. We have to stave off the possibility of defeat there, which would have catastrophic consequences not only for Iraq but for American standing in the whole Middle East.

What do we have to do to ensure we do not lose Iraq?

The first and obvious thing is to have elections that produce a representative government that is able to stand up and defend itself against the insurgency. That is very easy to state and has been the goal of the United States government for at least a year and a half, but it has been very hard to implement. We will have to hope that the election on January 30 will work and will break the downward spiral we have been experiencing in the last six months to a year.

We have to continue our efforts to build up the Iraqi security forces, which is really difficult because of the campaign of terror and intimidation against them. That has to be the highest priority. I haven’t heard anyone suggest anything radically different from what we are doing now. But we just have to hope that we will have greater success. If we don’t, we have to start thinking of other options, which can basically be boiled down to two: substantially increase our force in Iraq or substantially decrease the size of the force. Those are the two kinds of Hail Mary throws that you can imagine happening if the election doesn’t shake the current dynamic.

If you decrease the force level substantially, aren’t you, in effect, announcing a withdrawal?

I don’t think we can announce a complete withdrawal. That would be suicidal. But I think you could make the argument that the current U.S. force in Iraq is too small to get the situation under control, but it is large enough to create a continuing flow of casualties and to trigger nationalist resentment of the United States.

So you could argue the need for either a much larger force, on the order of doubling it, if possible, to get the situation under control and beat the insurgency. Or, conversely, say that beating the insurgency is beyond the military willingness of the United States and that, therefore, we are going to transition away from U.S. forces conducting combat operations and [instead take on a] training and advisory role for the Iraqi troops, which suggests a force of less than 20,000, as opposed to the 150,000 we have today.

Which of those options do you prefer?

I don’t know. I am genuinely ambivalent. I am not sure which one offers the greater chance of success. They both have significant downsides and there are reasons why we are on the current path. It is the one of least resistance. Obviously, doubling the size of the force is probably a non-starter, because Bush has not increased the size of the military. Radically decreasing the size of the force has obvious risks, that it will encourage the insurgency to try to overrun the government and signal to [insurgents] we are giving up. There is also the upside, that it might encourage the Iraqis to take security matters into their own hands more than they have to date. They are both gambles.

Reducing the forces is similar to what President Richard Nixon did in Vietnam. After taking office in 1969, he started the withdrawal of U.S. forces well before there was a peace settlement.

You could argue that, in a way, it worked. By the time U.S. forces were out of South Vietnam by 1972, South Vietnam was self-sustaining and was able to defeat the North Vietnamese in the Easter offensive of 1973 with only the help of American air power, which of course we would offer to the Iraqis. The problem in Vietnam was that, after the signing of the Paris peace accords in 1973, Congress cut off all aid to the South and we had to pull all our forces out, and the use of air power in Vietnam was barred when the North Vietnamese invaded in 1975. You could argue for a Vietnamese model in Iraq: decrease the size of the U.S. forces, keep air power, keep a training contingent, keep the essence of support without having most of the fighting being done by U.S. forces. That is not a crazy option. But it is a gamble.

The president will meet European leaders in February. Do you recommend that mending fences with France and Germany be high on the agenda?

I think we should certainly try to mend fences but, to mix metaphors, fence- mending has to be a two-way street. I’m not sure to what extent France and Germany are willing to mend. You can’t generalize about the transatlantic relationship. On some levels, it is quite good. We are able to work out trade disputes, as you are now seeing in the negotiations over the Boeing-Airbus dispute. We are able to cooperate on terrorism. We are getting excellent cooperation from the French, among others, in terms of intelligence and law enforcement against terrorism. There are going to be basic disagreements, however, that didn’t originate in the Bush presidency and won’t disappear soon over a dinner table.

Bush has promised to push Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Progress would be welcomed both in Europe and the Middle East. How vigorously would you recommend he move on that subject?

I would recommend that he go cautiously. The president, on June 24, 2002, made a speech outlining a new policy toward the Arab-Israeli dispute, which was centered on the democratization of the Palestinian Authority [PA]. I think that is the right policy. I think it is starting to bear fruit with the election of Mahmoud Abbas as president [of the PA]. But the creation of an accountable and democratic PA is still in its very early stages. We should not exaggerate the significance of one election which Abbas won by 40 points and had no significant opposition. Abbas has to show progress on ending the incitement of violence against Israel, in cleaning up corruption within the PA, getting his security services under control, and moving against some of these terrorist groups which dominate the West Bank and Gaza. Those are really tall orders, and I am not at all sure that Abbas has either the willingness or the power to get results in those areas to warrant making a big hoopla about resuming the so-called peace process.

Should Bush appoint a high-ranking Middle East peace negotiator?

No. That is a mistake and a return to the failed policies of the 1990s when Dennis Ross [the Clinton administration’s Middle East negotiator] was working 24/7 to bring about a peace accord, and Bill Clinton made this his top priority. We know it turned to ashes. It didn’t work out.

It is just foolishness to think that an American mediator can suddenly solve all these intractable disputes which have been in existence for more than 50 years. They have to be solved by the Israelis and Palestinians. They are making progress. You see positive moves, like [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon’s willingness to pull out of Gaza, which did not come from American pressure or an American mediator. It comes from Israeli acknowledgment of demographic realities. You are seeing some positive moves in the Palestinian area. People are starting to realize that the strategy of terrorism is not working.

There is a long way to go before [Israelis and Palestinians] can reconcile on such fundamental issues as the Palestinian assertion of their right of return [to lands they fled in 1948]. Until they can work those out, you are not going to see a permanent peace accord, and I don’t think there is very much the United States can do through diplomatic pressure to bring those about quickly.

On two other issues, North Korea and Iran, what should be done?

They are two big incomplete projects. We basically did not have a policy on either one beyond calling them part of the “axis of evil,” which I applaud as truth in labeling, but I am not sure that the actual policies lived up to the lofty rhetoric. There was a basic dispute within the administration on how to approach these issues- whether to cut a deal with Iran and North Korea, along the lines of the North Korean Agreed Framework of 1994 which North Korea has already violated, whether to use military force, or to try for some kind of peaceful regime change.

All these options have big negatives, and there was basically a policy deadlock in the first term. Now they have to make some hard choices about whether they are going to accept the nuclearization of North Korea and Iran that is happening now, and they are not going to do much to stop it, or whether they are going to come up with policies to address this. These are two of the most intractable issues in the world and there is no easy or obvious answer.

Many experts suggest that the United States open up direct talks with both North Korea and Iran and not to waste time with the kind of multilateral talks that have occurred with Tehran and Pyongyang.

It is kind of amusing to hear that kind of criticism. Usually the Bush administration is criticized for being unilateral, and here they are being criticized for being multilateral. We have to be realistic about what talks are going to achieve. I am not sure that either multilateral or unilateral negotiations will talk either Pyongyang or Tehran out of their desire to have nuclear weapons.

To me, it is not a big difference one way or the other. I can see multilateral talks with North Korea, because you need China and South Korea involved. The hope is that, if North Korea does not make a deal, you could get pressure from them to stop [Pyongyang’s] nuclear development. I think you have to look at long-term regime-change options about how to bring pressure on these regimes. But at the same time, you cannot be sanguine about this happening quickly. And in the case of Iran, you have to look seriously at the possibility of military strikes on their nuclear facilities.

If you knew exactly where they were.

That’s the big problem. That’s something no outsider could evaluate: the quality of our intelligence and what kind of targeting information we have.

To me, the most fascinating aspect of America’s role in the world is the low standing of the United States. Every poll shows the United States having the lowest popularity in years. Should we care?

We should care, because it does have a strategic impact. You saw that in Spain. A close election went against us and Spain pulled troops out of Iraq. There is a limited amount we can do about it. I think the Bush administration- and the president in particular- needs better atmospherics and better diplomacy in the second term than he had in the first. He could learn something from Bill Clinton, who in terms of the substance of policy was not terribly impressive but was a great salesman and was very good at projecting a positive image abroad.

But at the same time, foreign policy and international relations are not like running for president of your student council in high school. It is not a popularity poll. We shouldn’t be obsessed with getting our positives up and our negatives down. We should do what we can to try to minimize some of that animus. Our top goal should not be making the United States loved. Our top goal should be achieving our foreign policy priorities. You can push for democracy in places like Iraq or Afghanistan or other places in the Middle East, even if the United States is not terribly loved. The goal should not be for everybody to say, “We love America.” The goal should be to have accountable governments that focus on their own problems. That should be the top priority.

Sometimes democratic governments will not agree with us, as Turkey and France did not on the invasion of Iraq. But neither one is sponsoring anti-American terrorism; they are not proliferating weapons of mass destruction. They are accountable democracies. That has to be the top goal of the administration, to spread democracy in some of these areas where dictatorship and extremism have been the order of the day.