Global Policy Forum

Q&A: Neocon Power Examined

Christian Science Monitor
October 4, 2007

The Monitor asked award-winning author, US military historian, and self-described neocon Max Boot to discuss the extent of neocon power.

How much power do neoconservatives have within the Bush administration? Within Washington?
The power of neocons is much exaggerated - unfortunately. On the question of Iraq their views generally won the day. Not because they were all-powerful but simply because 9/11 brought various doubters including Bush and Cheney around to the neocon point of view. But on many other issues the administration policy remains unsettled and neocons are by no means in the drivers seat. One example: Iran. The neocon position is to push for regime change by encouraging Iranian democrats. Is this the administration position? Hard to say; some elements in the administration clearly favor this view - the Defense Department for one - while others, like the State Department, favor a more status quo policy. The president hasn't made a clear policy decision. The reason why neocons are said to have so much influence is that their ideas are clearly and forcefully articulated - and they were proven right about so many things - such as the need to remain engaged in the world in the 1990s. I do think they have a lot of influence on the foreign policy debate but that doesn't mean that even in this administration they're going to win every argument over policy.

How does the push to implement a neoconservative vision affect the war on terrorism? Would a neoconservative America breed more terrorist attacks, as some critics fear?
A neocon approach to terrorism would address the "root causes" more, that being the lack of liberal democracy in the Muslim world and the surfeit of hate-spewing regimes. Encouraging democracy in Iran and other places would a centerpiece of this strategy. This would be combined with military attacks on obvious terrorist outposts like the Taliban in Afghanistan. Over time this dual-prong approach is more likely to deliver "victory" in the "war on terrorism" than any other strategy I'm familiar with. I don't see any evidence that it will breed more terrorists; on the contrary, it should reduce their number.

What type of foreign policy/security strategy would an Al Gore administration have set after Sept. 11? How different would it have been from the one that emerged from the Bush White House?
I think it's likely that the Gore administration would have invaded Afghanistan after 9/11. I think it's unlikely they would have invaded Iraq. That's the big difference. The Gore administration probably would have deferred to the doubts of various European countries, the UN, etc. - everyone who was opposed to intervening in Iraq. In the short term, this might have been a smart strategy politically, in that the consequences of leaving Saddam Hussein in power would not immediately be obvious (it would take him years to acquire nuclear weapons) while the costs of intervening (such as the continued guerrilla attacks on US soldiers) are immediately apparent. But long term, I think the Gore approach would have been a continuation of the Clinton approach of letting dangers fester, and that this would have been an irresponsible policy from the longterm security needs of the United States. Of course there would be many similarities between the Gore and Bush foreign policies. Both would try to promote democracy, free markets, etc. Both would be willing to undertake humanitarian interventions in places like Liberia, both would try to get along with China and Russia, both would clash with some European nations over issues like Kyoto, etc.

How significant is the emergence of neoconservative thought within the broader history of American foreign policy? What kind of shift are we witnessing? Which American president best embodied neoconservative beliefs?
I think the emergence of neocon thinking is very significant. In essence, I think neocons combine the best of the two dominant strains of US foreign policy thinking: Wilsonian idealism and Kissingerian realpolitik. They have Wilson's devotion to promoting democracy while at the same time recognizing " as Wilson did not - that this often requires force and that the US cannot rely on international treaties alone. Many presidents have embodied this thinking: both Roosevelts, Truman, Reagan, George W Bush.

What's next for the 'axis of evil'? How do neocon strategists intend to confront N. Korea and Iran? What about China?
I think North Korea and Iran are the two biggest threats to the United States at the moment because of their nuclear weapons programs and tyrannical governments. Our policy in both cases should be preemption -: not necessarily military preemption, which is a last resort, but rather seeking to democratize those countries so that they no longer seek to threaten their neighbors or the US. In the case of Iran, we need to do more to back the democracy demonstrators who want to overthrow the mullahs. In the case of North Korea we need to more to bring pressure on the government to cause its collapse. Among the steps we should take: apply more pressure to South Korea and China to cut off all subsidies and fuel shipments to the North and also undertake selective intercepts of North Korean ships carrying illicit weapons and drugs, a main revenue source for the regime. Only if democracy eventually prevails in Pyongyang and Tehran can the West breathe easy. China is a much more cautious state and not an immediate threat. Here, too, we should encourage the forces of democracy. Recent developments in Hong Kong are very positive. Eventually China may become a serious competitor to the US militarily but this won't happen for decades. We don't need to worry about China nearly as much as we worry about N. Korea or Iran.

Will neoconservative policies endure after Bush is out of office?
Yes. In the case of Iraq, regime change is something that both Democrats and Republicans are committed to. More broadly, I think there is a wide consensus in US politics in favor of what are essentially neocon policies of promoting US ideals while keeping America strong. Is America comfortable taking on the role of empire? It's hard to speak for all Americans. Some are, some aren't. I would say most are comfortable with the role but not the actual title "empire." America has been an empire of liberty - Jefferson's phrase - since at least the Louisiana Purchase. Now we are acting like a liberal empire by getting involved in the internal workings of Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, and other countries. I think most Americans realize this is vital to our national security broadly interpreted - that if we don't address sources of terrorism, ethnic cleansing, instability, nuclear proliferation, etc., we will suffer a heavy price, as we already did on 9/11.

Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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