October 13, 2018
THERE IS AN unforgettable passage in Graham Greene’s classic “The Quiet American” in which the title character, a CIA agent named Alden Pyle, admits that Vietnam is much more complicated than he’d imagined. “I had not realized how tribal politics was and how divorced it could be from principles or conviction,” Pyle says. Surveying the wreckage of the American war effort, he adds, “Looking back with greater introspection and humility after the passage of more than fifteen years, I can finally acknowledge the obvious: it was all a big mistake.”
Greene’s admirers will recognize that these lines do not actually come from his 1955 novel. They are from Max Boot’s new book, “The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right.” Boot, a leading intellectual in the conservative movement for the past two decades, is now apologizing for nearly everything he has done and abided. He is denouncing not just Donald Trump, but the Republican Party as a whole. “Upon closer examination,” he writes in his 260-page atonement, “it’s obvious that the whole history of modern conservatism is permeated with racism, extremism, conspiracy-mongering, ignorance, isolationism, and know-nothingism.”
The temptation is to say, Bravo, here at last is a Republican willing to admit the emperor has no clothes. That’s the reaction of lots of journalists and pundits who have flipped through Boot’s book. Jacob Heilbrunn wrote in the Washington Monthly that Boot’s “readiness to reexamine his old convictions is admirable.” Adam Serwer, writer at The Atlantic, tweeted, “You don’t want to punish people for getting the right answer.” Boot is no longer a Republican (he quit the party after Trump’s election) but he is hardly an outcast in the political world — he is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and a CNN analyst. Such is the sweet life of a born-again intellectual.
It’s easy to understand why a penitent like Boot appeals to liberals and other members of the Trump resistance. He ratifies their sense of having been correct from the start, and his confession is enunciated in perfect sound bites, with just the right dose of abasement. Boot is an irresistible spectacle — the sinner with tears running down his cheeks dropping to his knees at the altar of all that is good, proclaiming that he has seen the light and wants to join the army of righteousness. But here’s the thing: Boot is only half-apologizing. And because he’s been wrong so many times and with so many ill consequences, he should be provided with nothing more than a polite handshake as he’s led out of the sanctuary of politics, forever.
WHEN I SAY wrong, I mean Guinness World Records wrong. In his first book, “Out of Order,” Boot argued that the Supreme Court erred when it ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that school segregation violated the Constitution (“I am not proud of ‘Out of Order,’” he now says); he was a key proponent of the invasion of Iraq (“Once we have deposed Saddam, we can impose an American-led, international regency in Baghdad, to go along with the one in Kabul,” he proclaimed in 2001); he thought John Bolton was treated unfairly when Democrats opposed his 2005 nomination for ambassador to the United Nations (“He seems like a good choice to help drain the U.N. cesspool of corrupt bureaucrats and self-serving tyrants”); he thought Ahmed Chalabi was “the most unfairly maligned man on the planet” long after the Iraqi exile’s dissembling was apparent to everyone except the staff of Commentary magazine; and as Boot notes in his mea culpa, he totally failed to notice the dark side of the GOP. “It’s amazing how little you can see when your eyes are closed,” he squeaks.
That’s a lot of wrong. It’s so much wrong that I can’t imagine how or why anyone could look at Boot and think, “Ah, here’s a man we should listen to.” I can pre-empt Boot’s response to this — in his book, he complains that “doctrinaire leftists” will be satisfied with nothing less than his “ritual suicide” for the war crimes he’s committed. I’ve exchanged a few cordial emails with Boot (we both graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, a few years apart, and worked at its student newspaper, the Daily Californian), and I can honestly say he seems a nice and bright enough fellow to whom I wish no physical harm. But like Alden Pyle, he has helped create so much havoc, he has been wrong so completely, that it would be the definition of insanity to treat his ideas as fodder for anything other than a shredder. Here’s a real line from “The Quiet American,” spoken about Pyle by the novel’s weary narrator, that suits Boot perfectly: “I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.” Pyle’s innocence, the book explains, “is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.”
The problem here isn’t really Boot. It’s the eternal forgiveness that journalists and intellectuals bestow upon colleagues who should be cast out for errors of immense and tragic consequence. Boot is a perfect example, because he has been wrong so many times in such major ways and is actually willing to admit it. But there are vast numbers of pundits, masters of spin, and alleged intellectuals who have been wrong enough on enough big things (not just war, but climate change and more) to merit laughter rather than praise. Yet there they are, stroking their chins on our finest op-ed pages and cable news channels. Mutual forgiveness is a necessity among pundits who are stuffed with nonsense much of the time; without mercy on demand, they might all be out of jobs. It’s no surprise that Boot’s book arrives with admiring blurbs from D.C. heavyweights James Fallows, Jon Meacham, and David Corn, among others.
IT’S TIME TO return to the thing that everyone congratulates Boot for doing — apologizing for his mistakes. There’s a problem here. His apologies are not honest.
Iraq is a good place to start. He apologizes for being wrong about invading the country but denies playing a role of any import. For instance, he innocently proclaims that his pro-war views did not “set me apart from most Americans in 2003. The war had the support of 72 percent of the public initially, and it was authorized by both houses of Congress.” This is disingenuous, because it was a handful of conservative intellectuals like Boot who for years (starting well before 9/11) made the argument for invading Iraq. They were not alone, but they were key. Boot is pulling a Pied Piper trick — seducing everyone with a terrible idea and then saying, when it all goes haywire, “Gee whiz, you guys were just as wrong as me!”
His apology is for errors in judgement, not their consequences. “I regret advocating the invasion and feel guilty about all the lives lost,” he writes. “It was a chastening lesson in the limits of American power.” He doesn’t dwell on the lives lost, so let’s do that for him. More than 500,000 Iraqis have died as a result of the war that Boot advocated. Many hundreds of thousands were maimed. Millions were driven from their homes. The country has been brutalized and traumatized. ISIS grew out of the chaos. And more than 4,500 Americans were killed, too. The guilt that Max Boot feels — he dwells on it for less than a sentence in the entire book — does not appear to be difficult to bear. Either he doesn’t feel all that guilty for what happened, or he doesn’t realize what happened. Whichever it is, it doesn’t reflect terribly well on him.
Boot’s book bears an eerie resemblance to the memoir of Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, who commanded U.S. forces in Iraq from 2003 to 2004. Sanchez looked back on the disaster and took only a modest amount of blame. He faulted both President George W. Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for making terrible decisions that undermined the occupation effort — a correct argument that Boot also makes in his book. When the Washington Post published a review of Sanchez’s memoir, “Wiser in Battle: A Soldier’s Story,” it pointed out, however, that Sanchez was ducking responsibility for a disaster in which he was an important actor, too. “The general’s denunciations of others would be more convincing if he were prepared to admit the painful truth about himself,” stated the review, which was written by Max Boot.
Frightfully, Boot is hardly done with giving us terrible advice. Look at what his book says about the way forward. The GOP, Boot says, needs to be punished: “I am now convinced that the Republican Party must suffer repeated and devastating defeats … only if the GOP as currently constituted is burned to the ground will there be any chance to build a reasonable center-right political party.” That’s reasonable. So what does he propose as future scenarios? His epilogue glows about President Dwight D. Eisenhower, which is a prelude to this: “We don’t necessarily need a president to be a retired general officer, although there are potential candidates such as former Admirals William McRaven and James Stavridis and former Generals Stanley McChrystal and Jim Mattis.” I understand the Eisenhower nostalgia, but to propose, after Gens. Michael Flynn and John Kelly, that America needs a general to lead us out of our mess — well, as the kids say, what could possibly go wrong?
Boot also expresses the hope that a centrist figure like France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, might emerge and appeal to what he describes as “the forgotten middle.” He offers, as a possibility, Sen. Jeff Flake, who just distinguished himself in the battle over the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh by rising in meek protest for about 15 seconds before going along with the rest of the savage GOP (except for Sen. Lisa Murkowski), voting onto the nation’s highest court a man who has been credibly accused of attempted rape and sexual assault. Boot also writes approvingly of Sen. Lindsey Graham for occasionally standing up to Trump. Yet Graham, as we know, was Trump’s blunt spear on the Senate Judiciary Committee, ramming through the Kavanaugh nomination. Before it even hit the stores, “The Corrosion of Conservatism” was proven wrong about the men who Boot thinks might save us.
WHAT’S MOST REMARKABLE is that Boot is being praised for showing courage to call out the conservative movement — but his callout, if that’s what it is, lacks actual people. On a few occasions, Boot tosses out the names of well-known villains of the horror show that has been the American conservative movement in the last few decades — a reference to Lee Atwater here, Rush Limbaugh there — but that’s pretty much it. There was racism and sexism in the GOP but apparently there were no racists or sexists, in Boot’s telling. It’s the immaculate conception of evil in the Republican Party.
Boot belonged to a subset of the right — the neoconservatives who gravitated around Commentary and the Weekly Standard (Boot wrote for both publications, as well as the Wall Street Journal). You might think Boot would have a critical word or two about his higher-level neocon comrades, such as William Kristol, the founder of the Weekly Standard and a constant presence on cable news shows. While less rabid than other right-wingers on social issues, Kristol gladly went along with their project and spared little energy when it came to engaging in the lower recesses of, for instance, baiting Bill and Hillary Clinton. Yet Boot does not criticize him. It’s the opposite. He refers to Kristol as “a mentor and good friend, whose genial, wisecracking company I regularly sought out,” and thanks him for reading an early version of his manuscript and improving it. Kristol blurbed the book, too.
All of this raises the question of whether Boot is really making the clean break with the GOP that liberals are giving him so much credit for making. When Nikki Haley announced earlier this week that she was leaving her post as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Boot was quick to describe her departure as a “sad moment” and urged her to make a run against Trump in 2020. “Sad to see @nikkihaley, one of the administration grown ups, leaving,” he tweeted. “Would be great if this is a prelude to a primary challenge! We definitely need a mainstream conservative to challenge Trump and she is eminently qualified.” He pledges in the last line of his book that, “I will fight for my principles wherever they may lead me” — and it seems this could be back to the GOP before the softcover edition is published.
What should be done with Max Boot and his kind? I can think of one example of a correct exit for men with irredeemable records of his sort. Paul Bremer was the civilian overseer of the American occupation of Iraq in 2003 and 2004, during which he made a number of monumental mistakes. He went on to write a self-exculpatory memoir in 2006, “My Year in Iraq,” and it received the tepid reviews it deserved. Bremer didn’t try to stay in the spotlight after that. He turned to painting and became a ski instructor in Vermont. The world would probably be a better and safer place if Boot’s liberal fans counseled him to follow Bremer’s tracks. The timing is right. Winter is coming.