Why No One Should Ever Listen to Max Boot

Max Boot, one of the most bloodthirsty American analysts and commentators, has apparently woken up long after most Americans with half his education, about the limits of American power and the disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Thankfully for us, he has penned his reawakening in the pages of Foreign Affairs, that astute bulwark of the establishment, a journal of which I am, in fact, a subscriber.

For 20 years, Boot has been calling for regime change, democracy building abroad, and even leaving American troops in dangerous brushfire to “polic[e] the frontiers of the Pax Americana.” Now, he says he’s changed.

Changing one’s views in politics is hardly a cause for dismissal. People do get “older and wiser.” People do have enough sense—despite spitting and fuming on TV as Boot often does—to recognize when the hammer isn’t working anymore. We often congratulate those who change, but when someone who was so wrong, for so long, changes so as to remain a relevant fixture, the change comes off as hollow and self-motivated. Not to mention describing his eureka moment of change also coming with deliberate lies and misrepresentations.

Make no mistake, Boot has risen through the of the Council of Foreign Relations despite being wrong, wrong, wrong. The man who was wrong for 20 years now sits as the chair of one of its most prestigious positions—the Jeanne Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow in National Security Studies. Apparently, the only thing one needs to do to earn such a promotion is call for perpetual war, ensure thousands of American and NATO soldiers die, and watch the countries you enthusiastically targeted be ruined for generations.

Boot’s essay explaining his transformation, and desire to retire the term “neocon,” comes with a lot of deliberate misrepresentations on his own part. He is right that neoconservatism became a pejorative term (“neocon”) in the aftermath of 9/11 when old school conservatives, the paleoconservatives especially, used the term to exclusively mean the adventurist and muscular foreign policy of nation-building long advocated by Boot. Warmonger, another epithet appropriately used to describe Boot and his ilk, like Bill Kristol, equally suffices. But Boot’s attempt to claim that he has returned to the older strain of realist neoconservatism is misleading too.

True, the foreign policy of the first-generation neoconservatives like Jeanne Kirkpatrick and Irving Kristol and the writers at The Public Interest wasn’t the starry-eyed, blood drenched, mouth-foaming, debt-inducing, nation-building ideology of those intellectuals, advisors, and writers who blundered into Baghdad, Benghazi, and beyond. But the neoconservatism described by Boot is only a small selective presentation of what neoconservatism was actually about. It was more than level-headed rationalism or a skepticism toward big government social engineering and a cautioning against idealistic overreach.

Neoconservatism, as Irving Kristol also wrote and explained, was about an acceptance of free-market capitalism (“two cheers for capitalism,” but not three), the recognition that moral reform and religious revival was necessary for a strong, free, and prosperous society, and, lo and behold, nationalism, “The three pillars of modern conservatism are religion, nationalism, and economic growth.”

The elder Kristol also aligned Christianity and (Orthodox) Judaism against the materialist and secular ideologies of socialism and communism—the fight against the totalitarianisms of the twentieth century demanded a religious anchor, a transcendental horizon against the materialist bloodlust that believed in earthly utopia no matter how many bodies piled up in pursuit of the new Tower of Babel:

“We in our secular, rationalist world are utterly unprepared for such existential-spiritual spasms. For one thing, we do not study the history of religion in any serious way, even for explanations of religious phenomena. Instead, we look for sociological explanations, or economic explanations, or even political explanations, and we do so precisely because we find it almost impossible to posit spiritual appetites and spiritual passions as independent, primary forces in human history.”

This respect for, even promotion of, religion as a bulwark against totalitarian lust, earthly ambition, and the necessary center for any free and prosperous society—something shared by the early modern political theorists as well as the American Founding Fathers despite some of their own heterodox theological views—is often, and deliberately, forgotten or left out of any discussion of neoconservatism.

The original neoconservatives, then, were truly new conservatives; they were secular liberals who realized the truths of religion, economic entrepreneurship, and patriotism in the fight against communist totalitarianism. It really was Max Boot and the “neocons” who abandoned the neoconservative persuasion beginning with the War on Terror and reverted to liberal imperialism, universalism, and hope for materialist utopia under the name democracy and human rights instead of socialism.

In quoting Kristol and Daniel Bell, Boot tries to pass off first generation neoconservatism as nothing more than ‘what men would choose if they saw clearly, thought rationally, acted disinterestedly and benevolently.’” Does what Irving Kristol actually described as neoconservatism sound anything like Boot’s empty description of it? Boot insists, 20 years after abysmal failures, that he has come back to this original persuasion of realism. Not really. He’s still far away from it.

Not only has Max Boot been wrong on all the major foreign policy issues since the end of the Cold War, he is also wrong in presenting what the older, indeed, venerable, tradition of neoconservatism was about. Boot is an atheist; he despises religion (just like most contemporary “neocons” who have fallen very far from the tree), and has called for an openly and unapologetically atheistic president. Too bad Irving Kristol isn’t alive to rebuke him. A man who has been wrong for so long and a man who lies about his rediscovery of genuine neoconservatism is a man no one should listen to ever again.

Paul Krause is the editor of VoegelinView. He is the author of Finding Arcadia: Wisdom, Truth, and Love in the ClassicsThe Odyssey of Love: A Christian Guide to the Great BooksThe Politics of Plato, and contributed to The College Lecture Today and Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters.

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