Max Boot's Dangerous, Deluded Vision

A dangerous view of U.S. foreign policy history

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I refer readers to a column penned by Max Boot, fountainhead for American militarism and herald of threats largely imagined, which appeared last week in the Los Angeles Times. It is a fine specimen of alarmist cant, drawn from antique and erroneous reference points and resonant among those who conflate defense spending cuts with unilateral disarmament.

Boot, who has built a career shilling for American empire and the ruinous investment of human and capital resources needed to sustain it, warns us that a curtailing of U.S. commitments overseas--specifically when it comes to nation-building, or “stability operations,” in Pentagon parlance--will create failed states ripe for the taking by Bad Guys. Among other things, he associates America’s withdrawal from Southeast Asia in the early 1970s with the fall of the U.S.-backed regime in South Vietnam, the holocaust in Cambodia, the Iranian hostage crisis, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the evolution of al Qaeda.

Who would have thought that America’s withdrawal from the quagmire it created for itself in Vietnam would have precipitated such a nasty chain of events? Practically no one except Boot, whose understanding of the evidence he marshals on his own behalf must have been nurtured in the hot house that is the Council of Foreign Relations, where he is a senior fellow.

The scandal of America’s history in Vietnam was not its withdrawal but the fact that it assumed France’s corrupt colonial mission there in the first place.  It was George Kennan, the sage foreign policy expert, who rightly declared Vietnam was a geopolitical irrelevancy and correctly dismissed fears that a U.S. pullout would foster a series of Soviet proxy states throughout Southeast Asia--the “falling dominoes” theory that so closely echoes the canard Boot is pedaling today.

The genocide in Cambodia was triggered not by the removal of U.S. forces from Vietnam but by Richard Nixon’s decision to widen the war by bombing Viet Cong enclaves along Cambodia’s eastern frontier, which destabilized the neutralist government in Phnom Penh and paved the way for the murderous Khmer Rouge. The Iranian hostage crisis was the bill for Washington’s close ties with Iran’s venal and incompetent Shah; it was no more related to Vietnam than was Moscow’s decision to invade Afghanistan, which declassified Russian archives show was a reluctant effort to protect a client regime in Kabul from an Islamist insurgency, not unlike America’s objectives in Afghanistan today. [See photos of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.]

To suggest, as Boot does, that the rise of al Qaeda was a consequence of America’s climb-down from Southeast Asia and the decade of “isolationism” that followed is to ignore Osama bin Laden’s 1996 fatwa against the “aggression, iniquity and injustice imposed on [the Muslim world] by the Zionist-Crusader alliance,” a reference to America’s close relations with Israel as well as pliant but oppressive Arab dictators like Egypt’s recently ousted Hosni Mubarak. Nowhere in Bin Laden’s 11,600-word screed is Vietnam even mentioned.

Boot is correct that American isolationists in the 1930s impaired the nation’s preparedness in the run-up to World War II. But the 2010s are not the 1930s, and isolationism is not an option for any country participating in today’s highly integrated global economy. Moreover, to imply as he does that a country that spends more on national security than the rest of the world combined eschews the burden of nation-building at its peril is nonsense.

Boot bewails our estrangement with stability operations, which he says are a byproduct of the failed U.S. mission to stabilize Somalia in 1992. In fact, Americans’ low regard for nation-building dates back to the late 19th century, when Washington wasted whole decades and thousands of lives trying to rebuild the Philippines after its imperial thrust through Asia and Latin America. Ironically, Boot lists the Philippines, along with Iraq, Afghanistan, Chad, Colombia and Mexico, as a host of U.S. military operations arrayed against “gangsters, terrorists and other threats.” Such concentrated deployments, he argues, is “a good way to avoid a large-scale troop commitment” abroad. He concludes with a proposal for a new government agency--a “Department of Peace,” he calls it--dedicated exclusively to nation-building.

Given how three of the five countries Boots celebrates as models of stability operations have at one time or another endured massive occupations of U.S. troops, one could argue that nation building does as much to enable the use of armed force as it does to preempt it. Certainly it is intrinsic to the messianic seam in U.S. foreign policy, which is itself the fuel of empire. Boot’s Department of Peace is not as revolutionary as he seems to think. It would be, rather, only the latest such Orwellian conceit in our imperial project.

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