Showdown at the Oval Office

In light of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, it’s difficult to imagine how any neo-conservative could possibly be dissatisfied with George Bush’s handling of foreign policy.  And yet, incredibly some on the far right believe that the President has somehow gone soft.  Flipping through Sunday’s New York Times magazine, I came across an article by Peter Baker entitled “His Final Days” about the waning Bush presidency.  On page seven of the piece I read an interesting tidbit about a June meeting at the Oval Office which quickly became confrontational. 


When Bush invited a group of conservative scholars and writers for an off-the-record, 90-minute talk at the end of June,” Baker writes, “he found himself under fire for supposedly abandoning principle in the pursuit of posterity.”


The fireworks really took off when Max Boot, an adviser to the McCain campaign, ripped Bush for not living up to the neo-conservative agenda. 


 A lot of people think you’ve changed from your first term to your second term,” Boot began, somewhat audaciously.


“That’s ridiculous,” Bush sputtered.


Undeterred, Boot proceeded to tick off a number of neo-conservative grievances.  The McCain adviser complained that the far right was dissatisfied with the President’s handling of Iran, North Korea, and Middle East democracy.  According to the Times article, Boot was unhappy because Bush “was not pushing as hard as he once did.”   Fundamentally, Boot was dissatisfied as Bush “was too willing to accept less than he once demanded.”


Max Boot and Me


As I explained in an earlier column written for Web site Counterpunch, “The Boot McCain Puts in His Mouth: McCain’s Adviser Max Boot” (August 1, 2008), Boot and I go back a ways.  Though we never knew each other personally, the McCain adviser and I were both colleagues at UC Berkeley in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  At the time, Boot was a columnist for the campus newspaper Daily Californian.  An incendiary right winger, Boot took some glee in attacking the left and being a kind of local gadfly. 


Like myself, Boot was a history major and at one point the two of us found ourselves in a seminar together.  As I wrote in my earlier column, “I didn’t speak to Boot over the course of the semester, though I do recall listening to him once as he read from a paper he had written.  As I recall, Boot’s essay concerned Otto von Bismarck and realpolitik in 19th century Prussia. Boot’s paper was well researched but uncritical towards Bismarck’s policies.  I couldn’t help thinking, listening to Boot from the other end of the seminar table, that somehow my classmate admired the Iron Chancellor.”


After graduating from UC Berkeley, Boot enjoyed a stint as a feature editor at the Wall Street Journal.  One of the most uncompromising figures on the neo-conservative scene, Boot justified the U.S. invasion of Iraq in a series of timely editorials for the New York Times.  Following the invasion, even after the majority of the U.S. public turned against the war, Boot defended U.S. foreign policy.  If only the U.S. would prosecute the counter-insurgency war more effectively, Boot declared on the pages of the New York Times, everything would turn out alright.  What was Boot’s solution to the U.S. quagmire?  Astonishingly, he recommended adopting widespread torture and assassination policies akin to the Phoenix program used during the Vietnam War. 


These days, Boot has been promoting his far right agenda as a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.  A frequent contributor to the Weekly Standard (a far right magazine founded by Bill Kristol, himself an informal adviser to the McCain campaign), Boot has strategically positioned himself to become an influential foreign policymaker in a Republican White House should the GOP win in November.


Debating Bolton at the White House


Never one to back down, Boot confronted Bush for not adhering to his “freedom agenda.”  According to the Times, Bush retorted sharply.


 “That’s not true,” the President exclaimed.  Leaning forward in his wingback chair, Bush glared straight at Boot.  “I’ve been fighting for this from Day 1,” the President said to Boot. “It’s part of everything I do.”


Boot however “remained unimpressed.”  The right wing columnist cited a Wall Street Journal column by former UN Ambassador John Bolton, lacerating the administration for betraying its own principles by lifting some sanctions on North Korea in exchange for an incomplete accounting of Pyongyang’s nuclear program. “Nothing can erase the ineffable sadness of an American presidency, like this one, in total intellectual collapse,” Bolton wrote.


Boot has been a longtime champion of John Bolton.  In a 2005 column for the Los Angeles Times, Boot wrote that Bolton was “an effective diplomat and bureaucratic operator.”  It’s difficult to imagine how anyone could stake out more far right positions than John Bolton (a man who once famously declared that if the United Nations lost ten floors “it wouldn’t make a bit of difference”). 


But Boot, a proud imperialist, wrote that Bolton “has never been known as a fan of nation-building or humanitarian interventions, which I believe are necessary in the post-9/11 world.”  Nevertheless, Boot conceded, Bolton seemed “like a good choice to help drain the U.N. cesspool of corrupt bureaucrats and self-serving tyrants, and nothing in his confirmation hearings has led me to think otherwise.”


The Most Neo-Con of the Neo-Cons


It’s not surprising that Boot would boldly seek to call Bush out on Bolton and the administration’s handling of North Korea.  As early as January 2003, prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Boot wrote in USA Today that “President Bush and his senior advisers have been resolute and forceful in their approach to Iraq but dithering when it comes to North Korea.  Faced with a Stalinist regime acquiring nuclear weapons, they have talked of ‘tailored containment’ and ‘bold dialogue.’” 


Disappointed that Bush was not intent on outright invasion, Boot declared, “The robust National Security Strategy released in September, which threatens pre-emptive action against rogue states, already seems forgotten. President Bush emphasized repeatedly on Monday that the United States has no intention of attacking North Korea.”  


Later in his column, Boot argued for increased Pentagon funding so as to be able to confront North Korea.  Incredibly, Boot remarked, “the Bush administration has proved stingy with the Pentagon. This year’s budget boosted defense spending by $34 billion, but most of that is earmarked for the war on terrorism and personnel costs; it won’t expand our capabilities much. Next year’s budget proposes only $14 billion more, a measly 4% increase. That’s simply not enough to fight the war on terrorism and deal with threats like Iraq and North Korea.  To make up for a decade of budgetary neglect, we will have to boost the Pentagon budget by at least $100 billion a year…Unfortunately, there’s little sign that Bush recognizes the imperative to spend more. Until he does, the United States will be wide open to blackmail — and worse — from North Korea and its ilk.”


Fast forward now five years: incensed that Young Turk Boot would challenge him on Bolton and North Korea, Bush became agitated at the mention of his own former senior diplomat.  During the June, 2008 Oval Office meeting, he told Boot bitterly “Let me just say from the outset that I don’t consider Bolton credible.”  


The President said that he had brought Bolton into the top ranks of his administration, fought for Senate confirmation and, when lawmakers balked, defied critics to give the hawkish aide a recess appointment. “I spent political capital for him,” Bush remarked, and look what he got in return.  The president went on to defend his North Korea policy which held out the most hope of getting rid of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons.


In the wake of the Iraq fiasco, many neo-conservatives have been discredited.  But in the event of a McCain victory, figures like Max Boot stand to step into the political vacuum left by Dick Cheney.  McCain’s own pick for Vice President, Sarah Palin, has no foreign policy credentials and as a result Boot will have the ear of his political benefactor.  It’s a role that Boot, who probably admires Bismarck, will no doubt assume with gusto.


Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008)

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