Keen to control the flow of information, the Bush political machine has labored day and night to obstruct public oversight of US foreign policy. But the basic reality cannot be hidden. A tiny group of individuals, with eccentric ideas and reflexes, has recklessly compounded the country’s security nightmare, launching a costly and destabilizing military adventure on publicly unexamined assumptions. To pierce their veil of secrecy, James Mann has adopted a simple methodology in his new book, Rise of the Vulcans. He has pored over the past words and deeds of Bush’s foreign policy team. By interrogating the public record for clues about Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and Richard Armitage, he has cast fresh light on the origins of the debacle unfolding before our eyes.
We knew it already, of course, but it is nevertheless unnerving to read that fateful decisions, perhaps affecting the course of world history, are profoundly influenced by palace intrigue and deadline-driven haste in selecting party loyalists to occupy public offices. If conservative Congressmen had not blocked Tom Ridge’s nomination as Defense Secretary, for the ludicrously immaterial reason that he was wobbly on abortion, then the Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz-Feith team would have been in no position to hijack the country’s reaction to 9/11. By sheer chance, Rice and Powell, while no doubt orderly managers, have pedestrian minds and perhaps deferential personalities. Neither provides a gripping and persuasive vision of the US role in the world that might have counteracted the megalomania of the neoconservatives. And neither is capable of outfoxing the hard-liners in an interagency power struggle. By sheer luck of the draw, therefore, and also because Rumsfeld’s former assistant, Cheney, sits in the White House and commands his own foreign policy staff, civilian leaders at the Pentagon have managed to amass unprecedented influence over foreign policy, unbalanced by those in the State Department and elsewhere in the federal government who still believe that diplomacy is indispensable, even for a military superpower.
It is only a slight exaggeration to say that the fate of the country and the world depends on the eccentricities of a few political operatives who, by shrewd maneuvering, have prevailed in a bureaucratic power grab. These excessively self-assured individuals sat out the Clinton years, often affiliated with dogmatically partisan think tanks where researchers are paid to assemble evidence and arguments for preconceived policies. “Data mining” is not the Vice President’s personal idiosyncrasy, in other words, but business as usual for the American Enterprise Institute and the other simplification factories from which Bush recruited many high-level appointees. This is where Administration officials acquired their habit of politicizing intelligence, that is, trawling for evidence that substantiates what they want to believe. After 9/11, their bunker mentality–their doctrinaire exclusion of dissonant viewpoints and unwelcome information–became so extreme that well-connected moderate Republicans such as Brent Scowcroft and James Baker were reduced to communicating with the White House through op-eds.
Allowing a clique of like-minded individuals to run foreign policy behind closed doors risks autism and loss of contact with reality. Right-wing ideologues who identify with the Administration fret incessantly about “moral relativism.” But they pay little attention to the opposite and more treacherous failing: false certainty. The obstinate refusal of Administration officials to confess their mistakes, that is, their implicit claim to infallibility, has by now become a national embarrassment. It is also a slap at the Constitution, which established various mechanisms of self-correction (such as judicial and legislative oversight of executive action) on the premise that even the wisest men are sometimes wrong and need, precisely when they find it discomfiting, the benefit of an adversarial process.