Max Boot is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a perch from which the neoconservative writer promotes U.S. military interventions and expounds on the purported need for massive U.S. defense budgets. A longtime hawk, Boot has described neoconservatives—and himself—as people who "believe in using American might to promote American ideals abroad." (He distanced himself from early neocons, however, by noting that he's "never been a Trotskyite, a Maoist or even a Democrat, adding that "There's no 'neo' in my conservatism.")
An adviser to the Republican presidential campaigns of John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012, Boot describes himself as "one of America's leading military historians and foreign-policy analysts" and maintains that he has "advised military commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan."
One of the military leaders Boot claims to have advised is General David Petraeus, the former CENTCOM commander who resigned his post as CIA director in late 2012 after a high-profile sex scandal that raised concerns about the possible release of classified information. In an op-ed for the northern New Jersey Record, Boot lamented Petraeus' fall as "tragic" and a "loss for our government," and seemed to imply that President Obama was at fault for appointing him to the CIA instead of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "Perhaps Petraeus could have remade the military," Boot wrote, "if he had been appointed chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—a post he had earned—but President Obama preferred to shunt him off to the CIA where he would play a less public role. Now he is gone from the CIA, too, and it is doubtful that the military will see his like for a long time to come."
As a surrogate for the Romney/Paul Ryan campaign, Boot proved a reliable defender of the former Massachusetts governor as well as critic of the Obama administration. After Romney's much criticized comments during his campaign fundraising trip to Israel in June 2012 implying that Palestinian underdevelopment was due to "culture and a few other things," Boot defended the former governor by arguing that his comments were correct, thus ignoring—like Romney himself—the devastating impact of the Israeli occupation. He wrote: "Palestinian development has been hijacked by corrupt opportunists (like those who dominate the Palestinian Authority) and fanatical extremists (like those who run Hamas). Gov. Romney was guilty of no gaffe. He was just telling it like it is: If Palestinians are to prosper, their culture—characterized all too often by anti-Semitism and blame-mongering—needs to change."
Boot has also suggested that Israeli public opinion jeopardizes the state's security, though only because he sees limited support for an Israeli reoccupation of Gaza. After Israel's November 2012 war with Hamas, Boot—who supported Israel's 2005 disengagement from the Gaza Strip—wrote that Israel's long-term security could require stationing IDF troops inside the enclave. Should Israel "reoccupy Gaza?" he wrote. "Yes–if it wants to end the Hamas rocket threat for good. But I very much doubt Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will do so because such a move would not be supported by most Israelis. … Harsh as it may sound, the situation in Gaza likely will have to get worse than it is today for any Israeli political leader to order security forces back for more than a temporary incursion."
Boot has often criticized the Obama administration's handling of foreign affairs, implying that it has not done enough to bolster "liberal" forces in regions impacted by the "Arab Spring." After the September 2012 attacks on U.S. embassies spurred by the anti-Islam film Innocence of Muslims, Boot wrote that the "attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Cairo … make clear that the provision of further IMF loans and loan forgiveness by the U.S. must be made conditional on Mohamed Morsi's government doing more to control Islamist militants. In the longer term, such attacks show the need for the U.S. to do more to aid secular liberal groups in their struggle for power so that the Muslim Brotherhood does not develop a hammerhold on Egypt's government, which it can then use to whip up hysteria over alleged wrongs done to Islam. Beyond that, the U.S. government must do everything possible–including the unleashing if necessary of Special Operations Forces and covert CIA operatives–to hunt down the perpetrators of the Libyan attack."
Along with like-minded writers like Charles Krauthammer, Boot holds privileged perches in the U.S. news media and foreign policy communities. He is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times and his writings often appear in other major U.S. media outlets. Boot also writes frequently for William Kristol's Weekly Standard and has participated in neoconservative advocacy initiatives like the Project for the New American Century.
Boot has been a leading agitator for a U.S. attack on Iran, writing op-eds and appearing in public forums to argue that "the only credible option for significantly delaying the Iranian nuclear program would be a bombing campaign," as he put in a 2011 opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times. In a January 2012 blog post for the neoconservative Commentary magazine, Boot cited a heavily criticized Foreign Affairs article by Matthew Kroenig championing a bombing campaign against Iran, to argue: "If the U.S. is truly determined to prevent [a nuclear Iran]—and if we're not, we should be—the most effective option is to use force. Obviously, air strikes carry risks of their own, but those risks have to be measured against the risk of letting Iran go nuclear."
Political developments in Iran have failed to change Boot's mind. In late 2013, for example, even as Western governments were reaching an interim accord with the relatively moderate Iranian government of President Hassan Rouhani concerning the country's nuclear enrichment program, Boot complained that Rouhani was "no Gorbachev" and warned that the Iranians would never "end their cold war against the West."
Critics of Boot's position point out that he and most other bombing advocates admit that such a campaign would do little more than delay the Iranian nuclearization effort, assuming such an effort exists at all. So why advocate for a policy doomed to fail? Wrote Steven Walt in response to the Kroenig piece championed by Boot: "As Kroenig acknowledges … even a completely successful war would not end Iran's capability to build nuclear weapons once and for all. We would merely have bought ourselves a few years, because the Iranians—who would probably be mad as hornets—would surely set out to build nuclear weapons in a secure location to deter the United States from attacking their homeland again. All of this is to say that we cannot prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons if it wants them badly enough, and attacking them in the immediate future is likely to make them want those weapons even more. … It appears that [Kroenig] remains untroubled by the fact that many innocent people will die and many more will be wounded if the United States follows his advice to launch a major bombing campaign against Iran. He seems equally at ease with the idea that the United States would be launching an unprovoked war of aggression, which would be in clear violation of international law."
In a July 2010, Boot penned an op-ed for the Washington Post in which he decried the effort by some Democrats and the Barack Obama administration officials to reduce the U.S. military budget. Pointing to historical cases like the period following the American Revolution and the reductions to the size of the army after World War I, Boot argued that every time the United States has reduced its military expenditures, "enemies" have taken advantage of the purported U.S. weakness.
Also among his "cases" was the post-Vietnam War U.S. military. He wrote: "After the Vietnam War, our armed forces shrank from 3.5 million personnel in 1969 to 2 million in 1979. This was the era of the 'hollow army,' notorious for its inadequate equipment, discipline, training and morale. Our enemies were emboldened to aggression, ranging from the anti-American revolutions in Nicaragua and Iran to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. We are still paying a heavy price for the Iranian Revolution, with Iran on the verge of going nuclear."
Commenting on the article, Jim Lobe of the Inter Press Service wrote: "The implication of the second and third sentences … is that, if the armed forces hadn't shrunk, they could somehow have deterred, or, if necessary, actually intervened in Nicaragua and Iran to thwart 'anti-American revolutions' that presumably would never have taken place were it not for our enemies' 'aggression.' The notion that these revolutions, as in Vietnam, might have had homegrown roots doesn't seem to have occurred to Boot for whom the whole post-World War II era of decolonization was presumably a Communist conspiracy masterminded in Moscow and/or Beijing. (And if the Shah had remained in power, it would have been inconceivable to Boot that Iran might try to acquire nuclear weapons!)"
Lobe argued that Boot's rhetoric was reminiscent of Sen. Daniel Moynihan's reasons for distancing himself from the neocons in the 1970s, charging that his erstwhile comrades "wished for a military posture approaching mobilization; they would create or invent whatever crises were required to bring this about." Lobe quipped that Boot's "op-ed in the Washington Post … makes clear that he thinks permanent mobilization is a very good thing."
Another illustrative example of Boot's inflammatory writing style was his review of the "Goldstone Report," a UN investigation of the 2008-2009 Israeli invasion of Gaza led by the South African jurist Richard Goldstone. The UN report concluded that both Israel and Hamas were guilty of war crimes. Lauded by advocacy groups like Human Rights Watch, the report recommended that if both the Israeli government and Hamas authorities fail to conduct credible investigations into alleged abuses, the matter should be referred to the International Criminal Court.
In his review of the report, which spurred one commentator to call Boot an "apologist for war crimes," Boot wrote: "It's a good thing that the United Nations wasn't around during World War II. I can just imagine its producing a supposedly evenhanded report that condemned the Nazis for 'grave' abuses such as incinerating Jews, while also condemning the Allies for their equally 'grave' abuses such as fire-bombing German and Japanese cities. The recommendation, no doubt, would have been that both sides be tried for war crimes, with Adolf Hitler in the dock alongside Franklin Roosevelt. Actually, that may be giving the UN more credit than it deserves. To judge by the evidence before us, the likelihood is that the UN in those days would have devoted far more space to Allied 'abuses' than to those of the Axis and would have recommended that FDR stand alone before the world court."
Employing somewhat less inflammatory—though nonetheless disproportionate—rhetoric, Boot lambasted President Barack Obama's handling of the Afghanistan conflict in a November 2009 op-ed. Arguing that Obama is "stumbling" as a "wartime president," Boot suggested that he should ask George W. Bush for advice, claiming that Bush "matured" as a wartime leader and demonstrated "steeliness" in the face of the enemy. Wrote Boot: "Early on, [Bush] was a hands-off leader, delegating the management of the [Iraq] war to military and civilian subordinates who failed him and the country. Bush finally matured as a leader and earned a shot at redemption in 2006, when he approved the 'surge' despite Washington's conventional wisdom to the contrary. The kind of steeliness he showed in the face of adversity may even help to rescue his historical reputation from the damage done by Abu Ghraib and Hurricane Katrina. … Maybe it's time for Obama to summon his predecessor … and ask him to undertake a special mission: Give Karzai some pointers on how to be a leader in wartime."
Boot has numerous connections to the neoconservative community and is described by the New York Times—where his writing has also appeared—as "an influential neoconservative author and policy expert as well as a military historian." He has served as an editor for the Wall Street Journal editorial page, a bastion of neoconservative opinion, and contributes to two neoconservative flagship outlets, the Commentary magazine blog and the William Kristol-edited Weekly Standard. Other contributing editors at the Standard have included Krauthammer, David Frum, Reuel Marc Gerecht, Frederick and Robert Kagan, P.J. O'Rourke, John Podhoretz, and Irwin Stelzer.
Like Boot, many of these figures supported the advocacy campaigns of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), a letterhead group closely connected to the American Enterprise Institute founded in the late 1990s to promote a "Reaganite policy of military strength and moral clarity." After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, PNAC vociferously promoted an expansive "war on terror," claiming in a now-notorious sign-on letter shortly after the attacks that "even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the attack, any strategy aiming at the eradication of terrorism and its sponsors must include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power."
Boot signed several post-9/11 PNAC letters, including its March 19, 2003, "Statement on Post-War Iraq." Published the day before the United States launched its invasion, the letter made plain that PNAC and its supporters viewed Iraq as the first step in a larger reshaping of the region's political landscape, arguing that the invasion and rebuilding of Iraq could "contribute decisively to the democratization of the wider Middle East."
Boot's positions are sometimes hardline even by neoconservative standards. For example, in contrast to neocon trailblazer Irving Kristol—who later in life expressed caution about the United States becoming the "world's sheriff"—Boot has unflinchingly argued that the United States should "unambiguously ... embrace its imperial role." He eagerly promotes broad U.S. military intervention in the Middle East and criticizes diplomatic efforts in the region. In Iran, for instance, Boot claims the United States would be fully justified in taking military action, writing, "Faced with such a flagrant casus belli [as Iranian support of insurgents in Iraq], not to mention President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's blood-curdling threats against our ally, Israel, the United States would be perfectly justified in hitting Iran now, before it acquires nuclear weapons."
Similarly, in a 2003 interview for the Washington Monthly, Boot favored targeting Saudi Arabia. He said, "We need to be more assertive and stop letting all these two-bit dictators and rogue regimes push us around and stop being a patsy for our so-called allies, especially in Saudi Arabia." In a worst-case scenario, he said, the United States may end up "occupying the Saudis' oil fields and administering them as a trust for the people of the region."
Speaking as a surrogate for Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) at a September 2008 retreat hosted by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Boot argued that it would be a mistake to push Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, adding that he opposed U.S. engagement with Syria because it might jeopardize efforts to bolster democracy in Lebanon. "John McCain is not going to betray the lawfully elected government of Lebanon," Boot told the Jewish news service JTA during the retreat.
In a January 2005 Los Angeles Times article titled "Necessary Roughness," Boot lambasted outfits like Human Rights Watch for criticizing U.S. interrogation techniques at places like Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison. He minimized the allegations of torture by arguing that such incidents were limited to a few "sickos," and defended techniques like "waterboarding," a simulated drowning technique previously employed by U.S. interrogators. "'Waterboarding' may well meet the United Nations' definition of torture: the infliction of 'severe pain and suffering, mental or physical.' Should this be permitted? I'm not sure. It's hard to know exactly where to draw the line. But I am sure that I reject the absolutist grandstanding of so many of the president's critics, who would turn international law into a suicide pact," Boot wrote. "That such views are now espoused even by some supporters of the war on terrorism is a sign of how complacent we have become. I hope it doesn't take another 9/11 to alert us to the mortal danger we still face."
Boot is the author of several books, some of which have received both accolades and severe criticism. Boot's 2007 book, War Made New: War, Technology, and the Course of History: 1500 to Today, is a case in point. Although it received praise from the likes of McCain and acclaimed historian Paul Kennedy, veteran war reporter Martin Sieff, writing in American Conservative, called the book a "remarkably superficial" historical survey of "war and the way technological developments change the way it is fought."
According to Sieff, War Made New is "filled with the most extraordinary lacunae. It ignores—by accident or design—the most important developments in modern military technology." Seif calls the chapter on Iraq, for example, "inept, misleading, and downright wrong." He added: "The chapter's climax is May 1, 2003, the day President [George W.] Bush declared 'Mission Accomplished' aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln—which is like ending an account of World War II with the Nazis' conquest of France or cutting off 'Hamlet' in the first act and claiming that the play had a happy ending. Since that day, of course, the unending violence in Iraq has confounded the [Donald] Rumsfeld-neocon contention that super-advanced technology has indeed made war new, as Boot claims in his book. Boot does add a half-hearted and vague discussion of some of the disastrous developments in Iraq since 2003. This is especially notable for its obfuscations clearly designed to get Rumsfeld, [Paul] Wolfowitz, and Boot's other neocon friends off the hook for failing to anticipate or prevent any of the developments he mentions."
This effort to rewrite history to salvage the dented reputations of those who orchestrated and promoted the Iraq War is perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the book, Sieff concludes; as far as the book's contribution to military history, War Made New is "simply farcical."
Boot's other books include The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power (2002) and Out of Order Arrogance, Corruption, and Incompetence on the Bench (1998). His most recent book is Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present (2013).