One thing that every late-stage ruling class has in common is a high tolerance for mediocrity. Standards decline, the edges fray, but nobody in charge seems to notice. They’re happy in their sinecures and getting richer. In a culture like this, there’s no penalty for being wrong. The talentless prosper, rising inexorably toward positions of greater power, and breaking things along the way. It happened to the Ottomans. Max Boot is living proof that it’s happening in America.
Boot is a professional foreign policy expert, a job category that doesn’t exist outside of a select number of cities. Boot has degrees from Berkeley and Yale, and is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He has written a number of books and countless newspaper columns on foreign affairs and military history. The International Institute for Strategic Studies, an influential British think tank, describes Boot as one of the “world’s leading authorities on armed conflict.”
None of this, it turns out, means anything. The professional requirements for being one of the world’s Leading Authorities on Armed Conflict do not include relevant experience with armed conflict. Leading authorities on the subject don’t need a track record of wise assessments or accurate predictions. All that’s required are the circular recommendations of fellow credential holders. If other Leading Authorities on Armed Conflict induct you into their ranks, you’re in. That’s good news for Max Boot.
Boot first became famous in the weeks after 9/11 for outlining a response that the Bush administration seemed to read like a script, virtually word for word. While others were debating whether Kandahar or Kabul ought to get the first round of American bombs, Boot was thinking big. In October 2001, he published a piece in The Weekly Standard titled “The Case for American Empire.”
“The September 11 attack was a result of insufficient American involvement and ambition,” Boot wrote. “The solution is to be more expansive in our goals and more assertive in their implementation.” In order to prevent more terror attacks in American cities, Boot called for a series of U.S.-led revolutions around the world, beginning in Afghanistan and moving swiftly to Iraq.
“Once we have deposed Saddam, we can impose an American-led, international regency in Baghdad, to go along with the one in Kabul,” Boot wrote. “To turn Iraq into a beacon of hope for the oppressed peoples of the Middle East: Now that would be a historic war aim. Is this an ambitious agenda? Without a doubt. Does America have the resources to carry it out? Also without a doubt.”
In retrospect, Boot’s words are painful to read, like love letters from a marriage that ended in divorce. Iraq remains a smoldering mess. The Afghan war is still in progress close to 20 years in. For perspective, Napoleon Bonaparte seized control of France, crowned himself emperor, defeated four European coalitions against him, invaded Russia, lost, was defeated and exiled, returned, and was defeated and exiled a second time, all in less time than the United States has spent trying to turn Afghanistan into a stable country.
Things haven’t gone as planned. What’s remarkable is that despite all the failure and waste and deflated expectations, defeats that have stirred self-doubt in the heartiest of men, Boot has remained utterly convinced of the virtue of his original predictions. Certainty is a prerequisite for Leading Authorities on Armed Conflict.
In the spring of 2003, with the war in Iraq under way, Boot began to consider new countries to invade. He quickly identified Syria and Iran as plausible targets, the latter because it was “less than two years” from building a nuclear bomb. North Korea made Boot’s list as well. Then Boot became more ambitious. Saudi Arabia could use a democracy, he decided.
“If the U.S. armed forces made such short work of a hardened goon like Saddam Hussein, imagine what they could do to the soft and sybaritic Saudi royal family,” Boot wrote.
Five years later, in a piece for The Wall Street Journal, Boot advocated for the military occupation of Pakistan and Somalia. The only potential problem, he predicted, was unreasonable public opposition to new wars.
“Ragtag guerrillas have proven dismayingly successful in driving out or neutering international peacekeeping forces,” he wrote. “Think of American and French troops blown up in Beirut in 1983, or the ‘Black Hawk Down’ incident in Somalia in 1993. Too often, when outside states do agree to send troops, they are so fearful of casualties that they impose rules of engagement that preclude meaningful action.”
In other words, the tragedy of foreign wars isn’t that Americans die, but that too few Americans are willing to die. To solve this problem, Boot recommended recruiting foreign mercenaries. “The military would do well today to open its ranks not only to legal immigrants but also to illegal ones,” he wrote in the Los Angeles Times. When foreigners get killed fighting for America, he noted, there’s less political backlash at home.
American forces, documented or not, never occupied Pakistan, but by 2011 Boot had another war in mind. “Qaddafi Must Go,” Boot declared in The Weekly Standard. In Boot’s telling, the Libyan dictator had become a threat to the American homeland. “The only way this crisis will end—the only way we and our allies can achieve our objectives in Libya—is to remove Qaddafi from power. Containment won’t suffice.”
In the end, Gaddafi was removed from power, with ugly and long-lasting consequences. Boot was on to the next invasion. By late 2012, he was once again promoting attacks on Syria and Iran, as he had nine years before. In a piece for The New York Times, Boot laid out “Five Reasons to Intervene in Syria Now.”
Overthrowing the Assad regime, Boot predicted, would “diminish Iran’s influence” in the region, influence that had grown dramatically since the Bush administration took Boot’s advice and overthrew Saddam Hussein, Iran’s most powerful counterbalance. To doubters concerned about a complex new war, Boot promised the Syria intervention could be conducted “with little risk.”
Days later, Boot wrote a separate piece for Commentary magazine calling for American bombing of Iran. It was a busy week, even by the standards of a Leading Authority on Armed Conflict. Boot conceded that “it remains a matter of speculation what Iran would do in the wake of such strikes.” He didn’t seem worried.
Listed in one place, Boot’s many calls for U.S.-led war around the world come off as a parody of mindless warlike noises, something you might write if you got mad at a country while drunk. (“I’ll invade you!!!”) Republicans in Washington didn’t find any of it amusing. They were impressed. Boot became a top foreign policy adviser to John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2008, to Mitt Romney in 2012, and to Marco Rubio in 2016.
Everything changed when Trump won the Republican nomination. Trump had never heard of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. He had no idea Max Boot was a Leading Authority on Armed Conflict. Trump was running against more armed conflicts. He had no interest in invading Pakistan. Boot hated him.
As Trump found himself accused of improper ties to Vladimir Putin, Boot agitated for more aggressive confrontation with Russia. Boot demanded larger weapons shipments to Ukraine. He called for effectively expelling Russia from the global financial system, a move that might be construed as an act of war against a nuclear-armed power. The stakes were high, but with signature aplomb Boot assured readers it was “hard to imagine” the Russian government would react badly to the provocation. Those who disagreed Boot dismissed as “cheerleaders” for Putin and the mullahs in Iran.
Boot’s stock in the Washington foreign policy establishment rose. In 2018, he was hired by The Washington Post as a columnist. The paper’s announcement cited Boot’s “expertise on armed conflict.”
It is possible to isolate the precise moment that Trump permanently alienated the Republican establishment in Washington: February 13, 2016. There was a GOP primary debate that night in Greenville, South Carolina, so every Republican in Washington was watching. Seemingly out of nowhere, Trump articulated something that no party leader had ever said out loud. “We should never have been in Iraq,” Trump announced, his voice rising. “We have destabilized the Middle East.”
Many in the crowd booed, but Trump kept going: “They lied. They said there were weapons of mass destruction. There were none. And they knew there were none.”
Pandemonium seemed to erupt in the hall, and on television. Shocked political analysts declared that the Trump presidential effort had just euthanized itself. Republican voters, they said with certainty, would never accept attacks on policies their party had espoused and carried out.
Republican voters had a different reaction. They understood that adults sometimes change their minds based on evidence. They themselves had come to understand that the Iraq war was a mistake. They appreciated hearing something verboten but true.
Rival Republicans denounced Trump as an apostate. Voters considered him brave.
Trump won the South Carolina primary, and shortly after that, the Republican nomination.
Republicans in Washington never recovered. When Trump attacked the Iraq War and questioned the integrity of the people who planned and promoted it, he was attacking them. They hated him for that.
Some of them became so angry, it distorted their judgment and character.
Bill Kristol is probably the most influential Republican strategist of the post-Reagan era. Born in 1954, Kristol was the second child of the writer Irving Kristol, one of the founders of neoconservatism.
The neoconservatism of Irving Kristol and his friends was jarring to the ossified liberal establishment of the time, but in retrospect it was basically a centrist philosophy: pragmatic, tolerant of a limited welfare state, not rigidly ideological. By the time Bill Kristol got done with it 40 years later, neoconservatism was something else entirely.
Almost from the moment Operation Desert Storm concluded in 1991, Kristol began pushing for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. In 1997, The Weekly Standard ran a cover story titled “Saddam Must Go.” If the United States didn’t launch a ground invasion of Iraq, the lead editorial warned, the world should “get ready for the day when Saddam has biological and chemical weapons at the tips of missiles aimed at Israel and at American forces in the Gulf.”
After the September 11 attacks, Kristol found a new opening to start a war with Iraq. In November 2001, he and Robert Kagan wrote a piece in The Weekly Standard alleging that Saddam Hussein hosted a training camp for Al Qaeda fighters where terrorists had trained to hijack planes. They suggested that Mohammad Atta, mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, was actively collaborating with Saddam’s intelligence services. On the basis of no evidence, they accused Iraq of fomenting the anthrax attacks on American politicians and news outlets.
Under ordinary circumstances, Bill Kristol would be famous for being wrong. Kristol still goes on television regularly, but it’s not to apologize for the many demonstrably untrue things he’s said about the Middle East, or even to talk about foreign policy. Instead, Kristol goes on TV to attack Donald Trump.
Trump’s election seemed to undo Bill Kristol entirely. He lost his job at The Weekly Standard after more than 20 years, forced out by owners who were panicked about declining readership. He seemed to spend most of his time on Twitter ranting about Trump.
Before long he was ranting about the people who elected Trump. At an American Enterprise Institute panel event in February 2017, Kristol made the case for why immigrants are more impressive than native-born Americans. “Basically if you are in free society, a capitalist society, after two, three, four generations of hard work, everyone becomes kind of decadent, lazy, spoiled, whatever.” Most Americans, Kristol said, “grew up as spoiled kids and so forth.”
In February 2018, Kristol tweeted that he would “take in a heartbeat a group of newly naturalized American citizens over the spoiled native-born know-nothings” who supported Trump.
By the spring of 2018, Kristol was considering a run for president himself. He was still making the case for the invasion of Iraq, as well as pushing for a new war, this time in Syria, and maybe in Lebanon and Iran, too. Like most people in Washington, he’d learned nothing at all.
Tucker Carlson is the host of Fox News’s Tucker Carlson Tonight and author of Ship of Fools: How A Selfish Ruling Class Is Bringing America to the Brink of Revolution (Simon & Schuster). This excerpt is taken from that book.