Das Boot: The Unsinkable Warmonger

Das Boot: The Unsinkable Warmonger

After the way they goaded us into an epic military disaster, why do media warmongers still have jobs?


The real mystery of our age is this: why do all the media warmongers still have jobs, after the way they goaded us into the epic disaster we’ve found ourselves in? Back in 2001, when a panicked America foolishly handed the steering wheel to pundits like Max Boot, America was at the height of its economic and geopolitical power. What happened next was a lot like that rent-a-car prank in the first Jackass film: decades of America’s accumulated wealth and geopolitical power trashed overnight in a reckless neocon joyride. The warmongers pulled out of the lot in a mint-condition, gas-guzzling boat, cheerfully assuring America that everything would turn out fine. Cut to the slapstick punch line: Boot pushing the remains of the totaled car back onto the lot. Only instead of apologizing like the Jackass pranksters, Boot cheerfully tells America, “You see, I told you it would turn out great! Now give me your next-best car; I’d like to take it out for a spin…”

That’s the most incredible thing: how warmongers like Boot are still gainfully employed, even as news media are shedding jobs and space. And he’s using his platforms to try to goad the new administration down the same catastrophic path as the previous one. The disastrous war in Afghanistan is what Obama has claimed as his showcase, and Boot is ready to provide the solution. Never mind that the current Afghanistan debacle was caused in no small part by the bizarre armchair-conquistador ideas that Boot and his comrades successfully advocated into policy during the first few years of the Bush administration. For Boot, the solution to all of America’s geopolitical problems is simple: behave like imperial Britain. He doesn’t mean that metaphorically, but literally, right down to the tropical colonial headgear, as you’ll see.

But first it’s important to recall his serious A-list establishment credentials: senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, columnist at the Los Angeles Times, contributing editor at Weekly Standard, regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, and former top adviser to John McCain’s campaign–a role that likely would have landed him a powerful position in a McCain-Palin cabinet. With the establishment’s blessing and encouragement, Boot’s ideas, no matter how insane, enter the mainstream debate, crowding out by the laws of scarcity other ideas and other thinkers who might actually help us and the world.

Ever since Bush came to power, Boot has been pimping his imperial Britain snake oil, a schtick he’s still working today. As we headed into the Christmas season, Boot was woofing in the Wall Street Journal about how America can solve two intractable problems–anarchic Somalia and nuclear Pakistan’s lawless border regions–with one magical solution:

The essential problem in both Somalia and Pakistan is a failure of governance. The question is: What if anything can outside powers do to bring the rule of law to these troubled lands? In the 19th century, the answer was simple: European imperialists would plant their flag and impose their laws at gunpoint. The territory that now comprises Pakistan was not entirely peaceful when it was under British rule. Nor was Somalia under Italian and British sovereignty. But they were considerably better off than they are today–not only from the standpoint of Western countries but also from the standpoint of their own citizens.

I find it amazing that Boot is allowed to print outrageous declarations like that in public and not be subjected to a public shaming campaign that forces him into early retirement from public service, Trent Lott-style. If Boot had written that blacks were “considerably better off under apartheid rule than they are today,” he’d be branded a racist and dropped from every newspaper in the country. And yet it’s OK to say the equivalent about subjects of the British Raj–and no one even blinks?

Let’s remind ourselves how great Boot’s fetishized British Raj was “from the standpoint of their own citizens”: their life expectancy fell 20 percent from 1872 to 1921, their incomes fell 50 percent in the last half of the nineteenth century and roughly 50 million natives died in famines overseen by the Raj’s imperial authority–famines that occurred at the same time the British were exporting grain from Raj fields and ports. The Brits allowed these Indo-Pakistani holocausts to go on under their administration on the popular theory that providing famine relief would create a bunch of welfare queens, as well as the popular belief that it was a good thing from nature’s standpoint to allow the “weak” to die off.

I have read and heard plenty of people who argued that blacks were better off under slavery or under apartheid, and they’re rightly labeled racists. So I would like to know why no one is holding Boot accountable for publishing the same argument about subjects of the British Raj, and why Boot’s editors at the Journal (or the LA Times or his peers at the Council on Foreign Relations) not only allow him to get away with this, but validate it by providing him establishment cover–is this what they mistake for “maverick” thinking?

Boot apparently isn’t interested in or bothered by the British Empire’s terrible legacy of genocide, famine or racism. In fact, he seems to relish the idea that twenty-first-century America is fighting wars today created by imperial Britain’s divide-and-rule strategy: “It is striking–and no coincidence–that America now faces the prospect of military action in many of the same lands where generations of British colonial soldiers went on campaigns,” he crowed in a 2001 Weekly Standard piece published in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

Boot approves of this because it means that America will have finally played imperial Britain. He even offers a list of some fine examples of imperial Britain’s triumphs, including the destruction of Egypt’s rebel forces in 1882, and the wholesale slaughter of the Sudanese rebels in the Battle of Omdurman in 1898. While Boot praises the results of these military campaigns–“Both Sudan and Egypt remained relatively quiet thereafter,” he writes–what he fails to mention is how they were kept “relatively quiet”: by brutality, famine and slaughter. An American journalist writing for the New York Herald in 1877 observed in Egypt that “The Englishman looks upon these people as his hewers of wood and drawers of water, whose duty is to work and to thank the Lord when they are not flogged.” And Omdurman was nothing more than a mass slaughter: the British, armed with new machine guns and artillery, killed some 12,000 Sudanese rebels armed with spears and flintlocks from a distance of a few kilometers away. As war analyst Gary Brecher recently observed, for the Brits, Omdurman was “a sort of geometry exercise, with Brit field officers mainly trying to arrange the Maxims’ fields of fire the way you’d set up sprinklers to get maximum coverage of a football field.”

Boot ignores these unpleasant details because he’s not trying to debate anyone; he’s just working this like a character actor: the armchair conquistador, the Max von Sydow of print pundits.

It’s a schtick whose silliness knows no bounds, as evidenced in his bizarre fetish for pith helmets.

Afghanistan and other troubled lands today cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets.

At least this explains why so many Brits have been getting shot and killed in Helmand province: if only they’d worn their pith helmets…

At every key moment in America’s disastrously run “global war on terror”, Boot shows up dressed up in his pith helmet and rhino-hide whip. In the summer of 2003, when the Iraq occupation started going bad, Boot one-upped himself in a Financial Times op-ed, “Washington Needs a Colonial Office”:

We need to create a colonial office–fast.

…[I]t should take its inspiration, if not its name, from the old British Colonial Office and India Office. Together, these two institutions ran large swaths of the world with a handful of bright, honest, industrious civil servants. They had an enormous impact, given the small numbers involved; there were seldom more than 1,000 members of the Indian civil service to administer hundreds of millions of Indians.

…America needs to create one of its own, before its hard-won military gains turn to dust.

Since his editors and peers on the Council on Foreign Relations might be too worried to tell Max Boot what’s wrong with his ideas, I’ll say it. Max, here’s why we won’t create a British Colonial Office: we’re not nineteenth-century Brits. We don’t look like them, live like them, and most important, we don’t think like them. For one thing, twenty-first-century Americans tend to be squeamish about genocide; Victorian Brits were not. That’s the real reason a few hundred English overlords were able to rule and exploit hundreds of millions of Indians: tens of millions of them died in the Raj, and huge numbers were brutalized and exploited to feed London’s coffers. The Brits were able to stomach this because back then, popular thinking justified this sort of imperial behavior embodied by imperial mavericks like Cecil Rhodes (“I prefer land to niggers”).

The history of imperial Britain’s domination is one of genocide and brutal subjugation, of holodomor after holodomor, all across the empire, all sanctioned by the fashionable Social Darwinism and racial superiority theories of the day.

Boot relies on the historical ignorance and macho gullibility of his American audience. He calculated correctly; his inane imperial fantasies went from pundit schtick to White House policy, as evidenced in that famous quote from a senior Bush aide who told Ron Suskind in 2004: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality–judiciously, as you will–we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out.”

I’ve been out of this country for much of the past fifteen years, most of that time working in Russia, where fascist pundits regularly spout this sort of garbage, a trend that grew much more popular after Putin took control of the TV airwaves. But I didn’t know that all this time, back in my home country, we were mirroring the same trend–quite literally, in the case of Max Boot. I didn’t know that you could publish this kind of gibberish in mainstream news outlets–I would have assumed that if you went around in public promoting a historical solution that was marked by genocide and racism, and then the establishment found out about it, that you’d be lucky to get a job at a White Castle.

Yet here we are, at the dawn of a supposedly new era, and Boot and his warmongering comrades are still in the center of establishment debate. With the war in Afghanistan getting worse by the week, having spread into Pakistan and beyond, Boot sees his chance to finally persuade America to put on a British pith helmet and start flogging the natives into submission. And with Obama’s team looking likely to feature some ardent liberal interventionist hawks like Hillary Clinton and Richard Holbrooke, Boot’s crowd is feeling very optimistic.

Which brings me back to my original point: if the neocons are so dead, why do Boot, Robert Kagan, William Kristol and all the others still have so many top media gigs, particularly as those spots are getting more and more scarce, and as the ax is falling on more and more journalists and columnists? Are the neocons’ ideas really so dead? It doesn’t look that way so far, not to me, and certainly not to Boot and his crowd.

In my next “Unreliable Sources” report, I’ll look at Boot’s warmongering elder, Robert Kagan.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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