Last night’s pyrotechnic on-air debate between Tucker Carlson and Max Boot was a seminal moment. It joins Ron Paul’s clash with Rudy Giuliani during the 2008 presidential campaign as one of the few times the right’s internal foreign policy war has erupted in a popular forum. Boot’s segment on Tucker’s show was ostensibly about a tweet he sent on Tuesday hear-hearing another guest’s boring assertion that Carlson was analogous to Nazi apologist Charles Lindbergh, but it quickly turned into an exposé of Boot’s support for just about every American war over the past 15 years.
Here’s the video:
The most outstanding moment came when Carlson accused Boot of having been “consistently wrong in the most flagrant and flamboyant way,” pointing to his assurances that our military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya would make the Middle East safer. “Maybe you should choose another profession: selling insurance, house painting, something you’re good at.” Boot lamely replied that Tucker, too, had supported the Iraq war (Tucker noted he’d turned against it after visiting Iraq) and then tried to pivot back to Donald Trump and Russia.
Carlson later wondered who would fill the inevitable vacuum in Syria if we took Boot’s advice and destroyed the Assad regime. Boot didn’t answer, asked Carlson for his solution, and then accused the host of being a “cheerleader for allowing the Russians and the Iranians to do whatever they want in Russia and Syria.” Carlson’s argument that we ought to make common cause with Russia to fight Islamic terrorism yielded an accusation that he had a “lack of moral judgment.” A question about how many people in America had been killed by Iran since 9/11 led Boot to say Tucker was taking the “pro-Iranian line.”
Carlson at times was belittling and I disagree with his premise that Moscow can be a good-faith partner in combatting terrorism. But Tucker could have brought on any talking head who’s anti-Russia (which lately is almost all of them) to have that argument; Boot was notable because his record let that simple inquiry be posed: you were spectacularly wrong about the salutary effects of intervention in Iraq and Libya, so why should it be any different in Syria? And why should we risk getting buffaloed into a further war in Iran? Rather than address his own error-strewn history and its implications for the future, Boot offered a fallacy: because Tucker didn’t want to fight Iranians, he was pro-Iranian. This is too often how neoconservatives argue.
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None of this is abstract. Hundreds of thousands have died thanks to policies in the Middle East advocated by Boot. Iraq is still a lawless patchwork of militias with one of the most corrupt governments in the world, and the Islamic State has only just been fumigated from Mosul after three years of occupation. Iranian power has expanded into its westward neighbor thanks to the deposal of Saddam, as Carlson pointed out, and the furious Sunni backlash against it has helped submerge the region in sectarian conflict. Libya is now an epicenter of instability in North Africa, with weapons from the Gaddafi regime having fueled terrorism in Mali, Egypt, and beyond. The Manchester bomber trained in Libya, as have jihadists who killed Westerners in Tunisia. Afghanistan, meanwhile, is America’s longest war, yet the Taliban still controls or contests 40 percent of the country’s districts.
None of this has worked. Yet those of us who suggest we might now avoid the same mistakes in Syria and Iran are regularly denounced by super-hawks like Boot as pro-Putin, morally confused, blah blah blah. The lack of neocon interest in really digesting the Iraq and Libya wars, in studying sans blinders what went wrong during these seismic blunders, is glaring. Instead, cheap and manifestly incredible excuses are devised—Obama lost Syria by pulling out the troops, Libya is only a mess because we didn’t stick around afterwards—and then it’s onto the next conflict, burning with the same ideology, lessons unlearned.
Come to think of it, maybe Tucker wasn’t disdainful enough. This is why, while I oppose the president, I can never fully sign up for the #NeverTrump movement: because among its major figures are some of the most discredited people in contemporary American politics.