Vice President Dick Cheney; Secretary of State Colin Powell; National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice; Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld; Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. What kind of people are they, these viceroys of American foreign policy who serve at the behest of the Emperor George III, second ruler of the Bush Dynasty? James Mann tries to answer that question in his ambitious new book “Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet.” Yet for all its obvious high-minded seriousness — indeed, largely because of it — this is a frustrating though valuable read.
At its best, Mann’s book is essential reading for background on the Bush team, how they came together, how they think and what they think — when they think at all. Mann, now senior writer-in-residence at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, built an enviable and deserved reputation as one of the most respected, thorough and reliable reporters in Washington, especially on East Asian affairs, during his years with the Los Angeles Times, and this book reflects these virtues. It is solidly researched and highly readable; it is also filled with important and valuable judgments.
It is important to note, as Mann does, that Bush’s “Vulcans,” named after the Roman god of heavy industry and weapons of war, are all still Cold Warriors in the recesses of their souls. The bulk of Mann’s book deliberately does not deal with the changed world of 9/11 and what resulted from it. Some 80 percent of his text is devoted to the rise and shaping of his protagonists in the 35 years that preceded recent dire events.
Mann is duly respectful of his subjects. But like Bob Woodward in “Bush at War,” his low-key style may obscure to the casual reader crucial points and devastating trends that he documents. For all their long résumés in appointed positions, none of his subjects, to use Sam Rayburn’s famous phrase about President Johnson’s Vietnam hawks, could ever win a contested election for dogcatcher.
Cheney and Rumsfeld, Mann notes, both hoped to run for president — the first in the ’80s and the second in the ’90s — but for all the “wealth of experience in Washington” that both could boast, at least on their résumés, “they did not attract the money, the name recognition or the core base of supporters that provide the ingredients of success in presidential politics.” Both men had successfully run for election and reelection to Congress, but in safe seats that for conservative Republicans required as much charisma and electoral skill as winning election as a Communist Party candidate in Leonid Brezhnev’s Soviet Union.
There is of course a cleavage in the inner circle of these Vulcans. It is the dividing line between traditional cautious internationalism as advocated by Powell and his deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage, and the sweeping, triumphal, Tom Clancyesque fantasies of power advocated — and, under Bush II, practiced — by the rest of the group. That cleavage follows another defining fault line. Powell and Armitage, so often decried contemptuously as wimps by the armchair warriors of the neocon Op-Ed columns, are brave men who served in combat in Vietnam. None of the rest ever saw action. Rumsfeld was a Navy pilot in the ’50s, but never had to experience the dangers and messiness of war. Mann notes the contrast in defining life and experience between Armitage and Wolfowitz. “Wolfowitz’s training ground,” he writes, “was in the world of academia, while Armitage’s was in the mud of Vietnam.”
It is also revealing about the truly archaic and romanticized worldview of the hawks among this “Superior Six” that they have an obsessive reverence for Winston Churchill to the point of childishness. “In times of adversity many of the Vulcans instinctively sought inspiration from Winston Churchill,” Mann writes. He further rightly points out the irony that “among the Vulcans” Churchill’s contemporaneous war leader, America’s own President Franklin D. Roosevelt, “did not enjoy the same iconic status.”
Indeed, Mann documents how Churchill’s words and example evoke the same infantile worship and slavish identification as sightings of Elvis among the True Believers. Right after the al-Qaida terrorists flew their planes into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, Mann relates, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Cheney’s fawning neocon chief of staff, applied to his boss Churchill’s famous lines on assuming the premiership of Britain in 1940: “I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.”
However, it is unfortunately all too typical of this book that far from questioning the maturity, or even sanity of such flights of fancy, Mann takes them at face value. “The underlying meaning made sense,” he solemnly writes.
If a ghostly, ironic presence hovers over every page of “Rise of the Vulcans,” it is the memory of “The Best and the Brightest,” David Halberstam’s famous skewering of a former foreign policy establishment — that of the administrations of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson who gave us Vietnam. For what Mann has produced is a “Best and the Brightest”-lite; a description of a foreign policy elite even more pleased with itself and the narcissistic reflection of its own imagined brilliance than the tragic team led by Robert McNamara and McGeorge Bundy. Yet this “Best and Brightest II,” unlike Halberstam’s exercise in focused, controlled fury and disdain, is written without anger and irony. Mann takes his subjects at their own face value and estimation.
Where Halberstam focused on the fierce internal debates and rivalries between his subjects, Mann plays them down, going out of his way to present Powell as a hawk not so different from Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz. Mann acknowledges “the many bitter disputes between the Pentagon and the State Department.” But one does not get a sense from this book of the sheer ferocity with which Powell and Armitage were repeatedly attacked, undercut and humiliated during the Bush II administration or the degree to which their colleagues in government coordinated so closely with their media allies outside it to ridicule and disparage those who tried to stand up to them.
But Mann has been doubly fortunate in the timing of publication. His volume was still fresh in the bookstores when Richard A. Clarke, the president’s former counterterrorism chief, made his explosive allegations two weeks ago before the 9/11 commission, ultimately forcing Bush’s national security advisor Condoleezza Rice to testify under oath before the commission. This serendipitous timing could only boost the book’s sales.
Mann was even more fortunate that the book was already out when Clarke electrified the nation with his charges of the administration’s gross complacency and incompetence about the al-Qaida terrorist threat in the eight months before the terrible attacks of 9/11. Otherwise, he would have had to add at least a chapter, if not heavily revise the entire book. As it is, Mann’s book is suddenly heavily dated, even while still fresh on the newsstands. Clarke, for example, does not rate a single mention in the index.
The book’s biggest failing is in its reverential treatment of Paul Wolfowitz. Mann documents his calling for the toppling of Saddam Hussein as early as 1993 in a National Review article, and notes that his “greatest passion” was always devoted to Iraq. Yet it is remarkable that in such a generally exhaustive and excellently researched work, Mann does not devote any space to Wolfowitz’s deservedly notorious 1992 memorandum while undersecretary of defense for policy to the first President Bush, arguing that maintaining the territorial integrity of Lithuania should be a priority foreign policy goal for the United States of such importance that it should be worth waging a full scale conventional war with Russia to maintain it. So enthusiastically did Wolfowitz warm to this theme in the memo, which was subsequently leaked to the New York Times and the Washington Post, that he even enumerated in some detail the military forces which would be needed to wage it: the number of fighter squadrons, aircraft carrier battle groups operating in the Baltic Sea, and NATO combat divisions.
Wolfowitz has since tried to dismiss the memorandum as a contingency study of the kind any responsible military planners would make. But it deserves closer examination. Proposals that Wolfowitz penned at the same time about U.S. global dominance and the need to take out Saddam have since been translated into reckless reality. One should not rule out his capability to make other mad dreams real as well, regardless of the cost that others will have to pay in blood for them.
Wolfowitz on Iraq as described by Mann is Wolfowitz as he wishes to be seen — and perhaps even sees himself. Here is a dignified, cautious, responsible intellectual heavyweight, a moderate centrist who comes late in the day and reluctantly, but only after soberly weighing all things in the balance, to the profound conclusion that Iraq must be conquered for the Good of the Republic and to end its very real threat of weapons of mass destruction. It has about as much connection to reality as describing Saddam Hussein as a social democrat.
There is no hint here of the Wolfowitz of reality as documented already two years ago by Bob Woodward in “Bush at War,” the Wolfowitz who within 48 hours of 9/11, while the hellish flames were still burning at ground zero and the death clouds had not yet dissipated over Manhattan, was already urging the president to focus on invading Iraq rather than hunting down al-Qaida for no better reason than it would be easier to do. There is no hint in Mann of the relentless disparaging of U.S. intelligence, the State Department, and the CIA, and even those honorable analysts within the Pentagon power structure who dared to defy the determination of the deputy defense secretary and his cohorts that responsibility for the atrocity be hung on Iraq even when there was never a scintilla of serious evidence to support it.
Nor does Mann document the embarrassing fact that this supposedly wise and dignified figure and those he convinced were wildly, irresponsibly, ludicrously, incompetent and catastrophically wrong in every intelligence estimate they made on Iraq — even though two of the Vulcans, Powell and Armitage, had authorized before the war a massive 17-volume State Department assessment titled “The Future of Iraq” that proved right in every major particular, but which was contemptuously ignored then and thereafter by the Pentagon hawks and White House. Hundreds of Americans have already paid with their lives for that combination of arrogance and incompetence, and the death toll is growing and even metastasizing.
Mann is not unique in falling for Wolfowitz’s well-documented soft-spoken charm, when he wants to use it. Wolfowitz’s playing of experienced and influential senior journalists in Washington and New York, and his success in getting them to take him at his own highly inflated estimation, is the most successful and striking since the heyday of Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger or James A. Baker. But Kissinger, like his contemporary and rival Zbigniew Brzezinski (President Carter’s national security advisor), was an intellectual figure of genuine and great distinction before he ever appeared in Washington, while Baker was an immensely experienced and genuinely cautious and responsible power-player in positions of authority in the White House and as secretary of the treasury before he became secretary of state. Wolfowitz, in striking contrast to the seductive persona depicted by supposedly skeptical journalists, had a well-documented track record of being a reckless gambler and plunger, who spoke and argued in the most sweeping and dangerous terms. The New York Times’ Bill Keller noted, in his generally very sympathetic and largely uncritical study of Wolfowitz in the Sept. 22, 2002, Sunday New York Times Magazine, that the deputy defense secretary was convinced from the word “go” that Iraq was involved with the 9/11 attacks, and that Wolfowitz “wrote a sympathetic blurb” for Laurie Mylroie’s book blaming the World Trade Center attack in 1993 on Iraq and connecting the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing with Iraq — all wild allegations without evidence.
Wolfowitz’s success in blinding even serious and experienced reporters provides an example of the lifelong distrust my old friend the late I.F. Stone expressed for “access journalism” — the top Washington journalistic goal of gaining sympathetic access to one’s highest-level sources that so often results in unwittingly becoming their amplifiers or puppets.
Wolfowitz’s friend and benefactor, national security advisor Rice, has been another beneficiary of this familiar relationship. Like Wolfowitz, her academic track record in books and serious research is actually negligible. Like Wolfowitz, she is rather an experienced courtier skilled in the ways of deference and flattery to those in power and who share similar moralistic and simplistic views of the world. Like him, she knows how to work the media and appear dignified and “thoughtful” in public — as long as she is not pressed with hostile questioning too hard. And, as Mann documents very clearly, she like he was shaped by late Cold War certainties, and brought those views unmodified by experience or changing circumstance to a completely different era that both could speak glibly about but that neither began to understand. 9/11, as Mann vividly shows, came as a bolt from the blue to both of them and their friends.
Mann, therefore, for all his solid and very valuable reporting, has written an incomplete book — and the problem is not what he put in but what he left out. Ahmed Chalabi, the corrupt Iraqi National Congress leader who led the Vulcan hawks by the nose and is now their chosen candidate to run Iraq with an iron hand, bamboozled them with one wildly inaccurate and irresponsible claim about Iraq after another, yet he rates only a single mention in the index; and Clarke, as noted above, none at all.
Mann also sincerely but incorrectly greatly underestimates the vast influence Richard Perle has wielded in the policymaking circles of the Bush administration. But Perle is only described as a former official and one of the outside-the-government leaders in the argument to prosecute the war in Iraq. There is no sense reading Mann of the hothouse environment of the neoconservative movement, or the disciplined and extraordinarily coordinated way in which they place their Op-Ed pieces, give the appropriate leaks and quotes to compliant and eager journalists who would swallow them whole, mutually boost the myths of each other’s brilliance, and disparage their political and intellectual opponents with a sustained level of invective unseen in American public discourse since the worst of the Joe McCarthy red-baiting years. Yet anyone who has opened a newspaper or read a neoconservative magazine at least once since 9/11 knows this to be a truism.
Mann spoke to his subjects too much. He took them too much at their own estimation. Discussing those responsible for the great security failure of 9/11, he displays no anger and apportions no blame. Faced with the reality of an unnecessary war in Iraq entered into on the grounds of intelligence that was distorted, hyped and false — and known to be so at the time, as far more solid, cautious and sober assessments that were widely available at the time warned — Mann is quiet.
Whatever caveats one may have with some of Mann’s interpretations, of the abundant and valuable material he has assembled, his final conclusion appears irrefutable. “There was no question,” he writes, “that the Vulcans’ venture into Iraq grew out of their previous thirty five years of thinking about America’s role in the world … It was the story of the pursuit of unrivaled American power.”
But there is a bit more to it than that. Under a weak, insecure and inexperienced president, Bush’s hawks finally got the chance to put their sweeping and simplistic theories into practice. They were taken totally by surprise by 9/11 and then used it as the pretext to implement their long cherished enterprise of conquering Iraq. Beyond that, they had thought through and anticipated nothing. And what are the results? Just click on the evening news tonight to see the scenes in Iraq right now. The consequences of these Vulcans’ certainties are coming home in body bags from halfway round the world, day by day. And they will continue to do so.