Max Boot wants us to know that he is a “neocon no more.” In a long essay for Foreign Affairs, ostensibly the nation’s premier international relations publication and the flagship journal of the Council on Foreign Relations, Boot rebrands himself after a quarter century of promoting chaos. Opposed to the “realpolitik approach of such Republicans as President Dwight Eisenhower, President Richard Nixon, and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger,” Boot writes that he was a supporter of a “conservatism” that privileged promoting democracy and human rights abroad at the forefront of an American foreign policy. “Having lived in a communist dictatorship, I supported the United States spreading freedom abroad. That, in turn, led me to become a strong supporter of military action in Afghanistan and Iraq.”
Boot is penitent. “Regime change obviously did not work out as intended. The occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq were, in fact, fiascos that exacted a high price in both blood and treasure, for both the United States and—even more, of course—the countries it invaded,” Boot writes with characteristic humility. The high price, in this case, is quite literally over $8 trillion and counting, thousands of American casualties and life changing injuries. The Middle Eastern death toll is considerably higher.
“As the saying goes, when the facts change, I change my mind,” Boot adds. “Although I remain a supporter of democracy and human rights, after seeing how democracy promotion has worked out in practice, I no longer believe it belongs at the center of U.S. foreign policy. In retrospect, I was wildly overoptimistic about the prospects of exporting democracy by force, underestimating both the difficulties and the costs of such a massive undertaking. I am a neocon no more, at least as that term has been understood since 9/11.”
Well, that’s nice to know.
On one hand the discomfort of his fellow neocons is a good thing to observe. I am a cynic, but in this case, let us consider that Boot’s change of heart is genuine and accept it in the spirit of human charity. But what about his theoretical framework? At the risk of crossing the brain trust of the CFR, I remain unconvinced that Boot has genuinely grasped the instincts that led to such catastrophic blunders.
Consider the three central assumptions in the article. He claims that he still supports promoting human rights, just not exporting them; he thinks that Ukraine is a frontier for democracy and Zelensky is the second coming of Churchill; and he thinks that democracy is being eroded at home in the U.S. You don’t need an IR theorist to see the problem in the logic.
For example, Boot writes that
there is a crucial difference—one I did not sufficiently appreciate in the past—between defending democracy and exporting democracy. The United States has a better track record of the former (think Western Europe during the Cold War) than the latter (think Afghanistan and Iraq) … . I didn’t expect much, by contrast, from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, a former television comedian. But he has turned out to be a Churchillian figure worthy of the United States’ unstinting support. In truth, even if Ukraine weren’t a liberal democracy, it would still make sense for Washington to back it in order to uphold the principle that international borders cannot be changed by force. (That was why Washington was right to defend Kuwait in the Gulf War and South Korea in the Korean War.) But that Ukraine is a liberal democracy makes it easier to rally to its side.
I don’t know if he is trolling or being obtuse. The claim that Ukraine—a country that forcibly eradicated a whole second language among a section of the population; where Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy are “decolonized” because they are Russian; where a paramilitary affiliated with the government wears a Schutzstaffel armband; where the government lies about a stray missile strike from its forces to a NATO country for over 48 hours, in order to drag NATO to a war with Russia; and where defectors and “traitors” are tied up to poles in ritualistic humiliation—is a “liberal democracy” will give a historian a serious bout of involuntary emesis. The idea that we fight to uphold the norms where the principles of non-violation of international borders are sacrosanct will be a dark joke to Libyans and Syrians. Boot still flies the Ukrainian flag, crucially, ahead of the American flag in his twitter bio. To claim that one should be committed to a normative cause, while flying a foreign flag ahead of one’s country’s flag in a twitter bio, can be a lot of things, but not a sign of sudden dawning of realism.
Crucially, the bigger flaw in his argument is theoretical. Samantha Power and Hillary Clinton also prefer "promoting" democracy to "exporting" it. It is pure sophistry and means nothing when it comes to actual policy. There is fundamentally no difference between a liberal internationalist and a neoconservative, as the latter is the muscular policy conclusion of the former theory.
So this rebranding fails. If you believe, as Boot does, that you are standing bold in support of a country on the other side of a war criminal committing genocide who belongs in the Hague, you are compelled to a maximalist approach which then often results in a neoconservative policy. The Nazis were not deterred by tweets and op-eds. They were broken by men storming a beach with bloodshot eyes, planning to plant a boot on their throat.
Boot tries to identify as a liberal realist instead of a liberal idealist. It doesn’t work. One either believes in a providentially progressive theory, where history is an arc, in which case anyone who opposes the said arc is an illiberal reactionary, or one believes that history is a cycle, where amoral expediency is preferable to values for a greater purpose of equilibrium and order. You cannot have your cake and eat it too. It is no wonder that he feels democracy is under threat at home. His progressive views are naturally clashing with the very reality where a significant number of people increasingly might not prefer them.
It is remarkable that someone can attempt a rebranding in Foreign Affairs about how his worldview cratered the relative power of the country he lives in, while those who were right on pretty much everything for over twenty-five years are still overlooked (when they are not being called fascists) as they argue against further escalation over an eastern European backwater. The only explanations: Either he understands the world around him has changed, and is cynically trying to put old wine in a new bottle and sell it; or, while he is genuine in his regret, he still misunderstands the fundamental crisis. For what it’s worth, Max Boot does not seem like a cynical person, given his inherent idealism, so his attempt to comprehend reality, while belated, unconvincing, and flawed, is at least somewhat welcome.