Bill Steigerwald Bill Steigerwald, 11/25/2005 [Archive]

Max Boot On the right track in Iraq

Max Boot: Stay the course in Iraq

Interview by Bill Steigerwald

Besides having one of the great names in opinion journalism, L.A. Times weekly columnist Max Boot has become a respected commentator on foreign affairs. A former Wall Street Journal editorial page editor and a contributing editor to the neoconservative Weekly Standard, Boot makes his daily bread working as a Senior Fellow for National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. I talked to him Nov. 23 by phone from his home near New York City.

Q: Is Jack Murtha's call for a quick withdrawal from Iraq the start of a serious national debate over what we should be doing differently in Iraq, or just a lot of media-driven wind?

A: Well, whether it's media-driven hot air or not, it's clearly a debate. It's interesting to see that even people who are considered even more liberal in the Democratic Party are not following his lead, including Hillary Clinton, who rejected his pullout, and others who have been critical of the war, who realize that as bad as things may be now, they could get a whole lot worse if U.S. troops were to pull out prematurely. I don't think Jack Murtha is going to galvanize a stampede, but clearly there's a lot of unease. You see it in the Senate and White House as well. There's clearly an impetus to draw down, which I think could be very dangerous.

Q: Is there anything specific the Bush administration should be doing now that it is not doing?

A: We stumbled around quite a bit in the first couple years of the war, but I think we are now basically on the right track. We're putting the emphasis on training and equipping Iraqi security forces and the presence of American advisers and support personnel in those units is very, very important.I think that's the right strategy. Having elections and having democratically elected Iraqi leaders in charge is very important. We're on the right track and all it's going to do is take time and take patience.

Q: We all know about the impatience of the American public and the media.

A: You're right that the American people are impatient. They certainly are not going to tolerate 150,000 troops there for 10 years if we are going to continue losing one or two soldiers a day. We have to be realistic and realize that the insurgents are not going to be defeated any time soon. But we also have to hope that the bulk of the fighting will be taken over by the Iraqis. I think we're making steady progress toward that goal. We shouldn't sabotage it by withdrawing prematurely or expect that we can withdraw all of our troops. I think the best-case scenario is that we could within a few years get down to no more than 40,000 or 50,000 troops, about a third of the level we have now.

Q: You've been writing about France and the Muslim populations there and elsewhere in Europe. What do you think the main cause of the Muslim unrest in France? Is it economic, cultural, political, class?

A: It's some of all of the above. France really has turned a blind eye to the problems it has with its own underclass, which is defined not only by ethnicity or lack of income but also by religion. Many of these alienated young people in places like France who have no jobs, no opportunity, who don't feel that they can make it in mainstream society, are attracted by the siren song of Islamic extremism, which I think is a very dangerous predicament for Europe will continue to be a huge problem for the Continent.

Q: Does the fault lie with the paternalistic, socialistic, sclerotic governments of Europe or with the immigrants themselves?

A: Some of both, but I mainly think it's the problem with the sclerotic ruling class of Europe and their welfare states and the combination of the welfare state, which destroys economic opportunity, creates this culture of dependency and at the same time they just have no culture of integrating outsiders. They don't have this 'Melting Pot' ideal as we do in the United States. They still tend to think a true Frenchman has to be somebody who traces back their ancestry to the days of Charlemagne, so it's very hard for them to integrate North Africa Arab outsiders.

Q: How do you define your politics?

A: I guess I would call myself a conservative.

Q: A Wall Street Journal conservative? A Weekly Standard conservative? A National Review conservative?

A: I don't think anybody really cares what my politics are on domestic policy, because that's not something where I have any expertise or really write about. But in terms of foreign policy, I would call myself a conservative internationalist in the school of Teddy Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan, who believes that America has to play a leading role in the world.

Q: What separates you from your fellows -- do you have any radical or iconoclastic beliefs?

A: I'm a little bit more upfront about America's world role than some others. I'm not afraid to say that we ought to be the world's policeman and that we are in fact in many ways the inheritors of the British imperial tradition, which was in many ways a positive one in terms of keeping order around the world, keeping the sea lanes open, keeping commerce going, stopping outrages, preserving order and stability in unstable parts of the world. Certainly there's not a mass movement in favor of American imperialism. But whether you call it an empire or not, I think that's the reality for the American role in the world today and that's what we have to deal with.

Q: What are the costs of that unspoken imperialism -- and are they worth it?

A: Well, you're seeing the costs today in Iraq, clearly, and in Afghanistan. You're certainly seeing the continual flow of casualties. If you judge it solely by that, then you would have to question whether it's worth it. Not only in the casualties, but also just in the sheer monetary costs, because we spending hundreds of billions of dollars in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

I would argue that in fact it is worth it, because we have to think about what the alternative is to what we are doing today.The alternative is 9/11 or something a thousand times worse than 9/11, or 9/11 with weapons of mass destruction. Because if we don't nip these kinds of radical Islamic movements in the bud, that will come back to haunt us.

Q: People like the Cato Institute say we are way, way, way over-extended and over-active around the world and that we should basically practice -- what do they call it? -- 'strategic defense'?

A: Well, that's basically the isolationist perspective, which, thankfully, is a minority view within the conservative movement of the Republican Party. I think it's a very dangerous policy to undertake.... The notion that we can just shut our eyes to it and ignore what's going on in the world and hope that we don't get hit or just rely on homeland defense, is crazy. We're in this huge open society. We can never defend every single vulnerability that we have. That's just not going to happen. We're going to have to fight the bad guys overseas before they wind up coming here.

Bill Steigerwald is a columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. E-mail Bill at © Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, All Rights Reserved.

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