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.
The Administration’s leading hawks, as Mann shows, have long been devoted to America’s military predominance. “The defeat in Vietnam,” he says, led them “to a preoccupation with first regaining and then maintaining American military power.” They are also well-known for their scorn of arms control and impatience with what they considered to be Henry Kissinger’s coddling of left-wing tyrants. Whatever the threat, they consistently preferred, and still do, confrontation to engagement. Speaking of Rumsfeld’s tour of duty in the Ford Administration, Mann remarks: “As secretary of defence he did more than anyone else to block détente and to stiffen American policy toward the Soviet Union.” Stiff-arming opponents has consistently defined their shared approach.
The principal architects of the current calamity, in Mann’s account, are Cheney and Rumsfeld, with Wolfowitz playing a strong supporting role. Having treated Powell as arm candy during the 2000 campaign, dangling him before the public to reassure moderate voters, they quickly sidelined him once Bush took office. They have a reputation as radicals, ready to shake things up, with no reverence for the status quo. But the reality is not so straightforward. For they are also prisoners of the past, hostages to outdated preoccupations and to habits formed decades earlier, when they first wielded power. Mann calls them “backward-leaning.” What he means is that these old men cannot stop fighting the cold war. Their struggle with the Soviets, moreover, led them to imitate the enemy to some extent, making them shockingly at ease with lying publicly for a higher cause, eternally ready “to galvanize the nation into rapid action before it was too late.”
A few days after 9/11, Wolfowitz declared defiantly that “dictators underestimate America’s strength” (my emphasis). This phrase bespeaks a dismaying numbness to lived experience. Mann refers to Wolfowitz as “the leading conservative foreign policy thinker of his generation.” But with the country reeling, his immediate reflex was to strike a Churchillian pose, revealing his psychological, or perhaps ideological, fixations. As Richard Clarke reveals in his scathing memoir, Against All Enemies, Wolfowitz showed himself wholly unable to bring the new threat into focus. Faced with terrorists, he could see only “dictators.” And this is but a minor example of a more general degradation of public discourse. The Administration’s corruption of thought and language appears not only in its deliberate blurring of Al Qaeda and Iraq but also in its often-repeated claim that we are now engaged in “a conflict between terrorism and democracy.” This is a highly confusing manner of speaking, because Al Qaeda terrorists have attacked not only the United States but also, for example, Saudi Arabia. Since Saudi Arabia is not a democratic country, it is impossible to make sense of the current worldwide struggle by depicting it as a war between terrorism and democracy. Those who describe it this way confound not only the public but also themselves.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, the principal concern of Cheney and Wolfowitz, this time with the full support of Powell and Armitage, was to avoid a serious cutback in military spending. (According to Mann, Powell signed off on the disastrous Somalia mission, from which he subsequently tried to distance himself, because he did not want to give the newly elected Democratic President and Congress an excuse for cutting the military budget after the end of the cold war.) This rallying around the military budget could be explained by the biographies of all four men, who spent important stretches of their public lives at the Pentagon. But their support for military spending has roots deeper than agency loyalty. It is the fruit of a mindset and a worldview. By background and training, these security hawks could see only certain kinds of threats, namely threats that could be countered effectively only by military force. They could see rogue states in bright colors, but nonstate conspirators remained shadowy and beneath their radar. There is no other way to explain their inattention to terrorism in general and to Osama bin Laden in particular, not only before but even after 9/11.
How much relative weight should we assign to each of the various motivations behind the decision to invade Iraq: the desire to display America’s intimidating military power by crushing a weak enemy; the desire to destroy a threat to Israel; the desire to prevent Saudi oil from falling into the hands of radical jihadists in the event of a coup against the royal family; the desire to prevent Saddam from reinitiating his suspended weapons programs once the sanctions regime unraveled; the desire to complete the unfinished business of the Gulf War; and so forth?
Mann does not answer this question. But he does help us explore an important aspect of the same puzzle, namely: Did the desire to democratize Iraq have any influence at all on the decision to go to war? There are many reasons for doubting it, above all the fact that Bush spokespersons began to highlight the benefit to Iraqis of Saddam’s removal from power only after their original justifications for the war, stressing benefits to Americans, collapsed under scrutiny. It is also noteworthy that Bush campaigned in 2000 against the very idea of humanitarian intervention, associating the toppling of odious dictators with the arrogant and futile desire to impose the American system of government on faraway peoples, who are perhaps unprepared for democracy but whom, in any case, we understand only poorly. During his debates with Gore, Bush stated, apparently without coaching: “I just don’t think it’s the role of the United States to walk into a country [and] say, ‘We do it this way; so should you.'” That 9/11, which so obviously awoke Bush’s longing to strike back in anger, also converted Bush to a Mother Teresa foreign policy is hard to believe. The self-styled Warrior President cannot possibly subscribe to the Clintonian idea that foreigners will love us if we are nice to them, even though that seems to be the only way to make sense of his Administration’s claim that Arabs in particular will come to admire America (and accept Israel) if only we lend them a hand as they make themselves demo-cratic and prosperous.
Can the democratization of the Middle East possibly have been among the decisive reasons for launching the Iraq war? Or should we simply view talk of building democracy in Iraq as agitprop concocted to stave off criticism of a ruinous policy? We should approach this topic methodically, if only because the pretense is being desperately maintained. Much of the public and the press has yet to abandon the thought or hope that, while filling the improvised cemeteries of Falluja and Kufa with Iraqis, US forces are nevertheless helping to create a friendly democracy in Iraq.
No one imagines that Rumsfeld or Cheney loses any sleep over the misery of ordinary people in distant countries. That neither had any trouble doing business with cruel tyrants is also well-known. The principal cheerleader for democracy promotion in the Middle East has been Wolfowitz, a man whom Mann calls “the most influential underling in Washington.” His influence is presumably augmented by the coincidence that both Cheney’s deputy, “Scooter” Libby, and Rice’s deputy, Stephen Hadley, are Wolfowitz protégés.
What Mann shows, however, is that Wolfowitz himself was obsessed with Gulf oil and WMDs in the Middle East long before he revealed any humanitarian concern for the victims of tyranny in the region, much less any ambitions to implant American-style democracy in Mesopotamia. His dissertation, completed in 1970 at the University of Chicago under the supervision of Albert Wohlstetter, argued that the Israelis should not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons because, if they did so, their Arab neighbors would be compelled to pursue WMDs for themselves. Commenting on the flagrant paradox here, Mann delivers a syntactically convoluted but politically pungent aside: “In public, at least, Wolfowitz in later years rarely, if ever, acknowledged his opposition to the Israeli nuclear program or the role that it had played in spurring on other countries in the Middle East to match it.”
Working in the Pentagon under Jimmy Carter as a holdover from the Nixon/Ford Administration, Wolfowitz soon turned his attention to the danger of the Soviet Union’s moving militarily to block US access to Persian Gulf oil. If the Soviets successfully did so, he and others argued, they could destroy America’s alliances with Japan and Europe, both utterly dependent on imported energy. His interest in the gulf, at this point, was exclusively geopolitical and not at all humanitarian. When the USSR began to buckle and eventually collapsed, it is true, Wolfowitz gave increasing attention to the hostile dictatorship in Iraq. But here again, what alarmed him was less Saddam’s tyranny over Iraqis than his hostility to the United States and Israel.
Why Wolfowitz today has become such an ardent advocate of democratizing a country very likely to have an anti-Zionist majority therefore remains something of a mystery. The mystery is deepened if we reexamine, as Mann invites us to do, one of the founding documents of neoconservatism, namely Jeane Kirkpatrick’s 1979 Commentary essay “Dictatorships and Double Standards.” (After reading this article, Reagan began wooing Kirkpatrick and thereby started the migration of neoconservatives from Democratic to Republican ranks.) Kirkpatrick chastised President Carter for his shortsighted criticism of the Shah of Iran for human rights abuses. All Carter managed to do, she argued, was to help replace a friendly dictator with a hostile one. She attributed this self-defeating policy to a naïve strand in American culture: “No idea holds greater sway in the mind of educated Americans than the belief that it is possible to democratize government, anytime, anywhere, under any circumstances.” This is an outlandish belief, she continued, because “decades, if not centuries, are normally required for people to acquire the necessary discipline and habits [of democracy].”
Mann draws attention to these passages for a purpose. He is urging us to look deeper into the Administration’s current rationale for occupying Iraq. Kirkpatrick composed her essay in the spirit of Edmund Burke and other paleoconservatives, who rid-iculed the faith of French revolutionaries that they could impose their progressive ideas on other peoples by force of arms. We can overhear the same doubts about social engineering and the same decent respect for the cake of custom in Brent Scowcroft’s recent remark, also cited by Mann: “I’m a skeptic about the ability to transform Iraq into a democracy in any realistic period of time.”
So what happened to such sober considerations? Have they been wholly rinsed from the neoconservative worldview? Institutions can be imported perhaps; but they cannot be exported. At least that is what many conservative-minded thinkers believe. So how could Wolfowitz, given his long association with right-wing ideologues, have imagined that the United States could unilaterally change Iraqi political culture by a six-week military campaign? How could a conservative of any stripe have lapsed into such facile optimism?
One common answer is that he is not really a conservative but rather a revolutionary. This pleasantry is seemingly confirmed by the fact that other bearers of the neoconservative label, such as Irving Kristol, were Trotskyists in their youth and, it is argued, are simply continuing their aim of exporting revolution under a new flag. But can we really believe that Wolfowitz, whom Mann also calls “the least daring member of the neoconservative movement,” is a revolutionary utopian, unwilling to accept the imperfections of human life and expecting to solve the world’s problems once and for all by democratizing the Middle East?
Mann provides an important clue for resolving this mystery: Wolfowitz has never renounced Kirkpatrick’s argument. On the contrary, he has gone out of his way to reaffirm it. The inconsistency here is only apparent, in truth, since it has long been a maxim among hard-liners to support friendly dictators and oppose unfriendly ones. Carter’s mistake, from this perspective, was to oppose a friendly dictator, the Shah of Iran. If he had opposed an unfriendly dictator, such as Saddam, he would not have been chastised, but praised.
This point deserves elaboration. Skeptics about détente learned from the Helsinki process how effectively the United States could weaken the international stature of its principal military rival by invoking human rights. The political utility of demonstrative morality was not lost on the bellicose. Already in 1975, as Mann reminds us, Cheney fought unsuccessfully, against Kissinger, to have Solzhenitsyn invited to the White House. This instrumentalization of human rights is perfectly compatible with Kirkpatrick’s attack on Carter. For hard-liners, human rights serve as a stick with which to beat and weaken America’s enemies. But the weapon should be sheathed when it comes to America’s friends. Human rights are a formidable tool in America’s propaganda arsenal; but they are not a blueprint for creating new regimes.
There is at least some evidence that this is the way the Bush Administration treats human rights and democracy in the Middle East today–less as guidelines for nation-building than as moral rebukes meant to humiliate and weaken our enemies. This instrumental approach to human rights and democratic ideals is perfectly compatible with a continued acceptance of the Kirkpatrick doctrine. That the Administration continues to accept it is demonstrated by its forgiving attitude toward Pervez Musharraf, a friendly dictator whom they are reluctant to criticize in the name of liberal ideals.
Such selective invoking of humanitarian ideals, however cynical, is not necessarily incoherent. But it leaves current policy unexplained. What are we doing in Iraq, a year after Saddam’s fall, if we are not trying to transform the country into a model democracy that could serve as an inspiration for the entire Middle East? This is the way Ambassador Paul Bremer, echoing Wolfowitz, still talks. So why should we not believe them? After all, America’s past indifference to the political oppression of ordinary Arabs has probably done more to stimulate anti-American rage in the region than US support for Israel. So is it not time for a radical change of approach? And is not Iraq the best place to display our newly benign intentions?
This line of argument is morally inspiring, in a way. Unfortunately, it shipwrecks on a minor detail. No one in the US government has any idea how to create democracy in Iraq. Moreover, our behavior strongly suggests that the real decision-makers, namely Cheney and Rumsfeld, were never fully committed to this farfetched undertaking. Strong evidence that the architects of the Iraq war were nonchalant about the goal of postwar democratization is provided by the paucity of troops they arranged to have in Baghdad after victory. There were very few soldiers, and none trained as a constabulary force, and as a result postwar looting and worse could not be brought under control. The predictable consequence of such a power vacuum was the rise of private militias, based on clan, ethnicity and sect, engaged in predatory behavior and offering protection services in the absence of an effective controlling authority. Rumsfeld famously commented on this explosion of physical insecurity, from which the occupation has still not recovered, by quipping cavalierly that “stuff happens.”
This tasteless jest may signal that the civilian leadership in the Pentagon entertained no more interest in the fate of Iraq after Saddam’s fall than in the fate of Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban. Or it may reveal that specialists in military affairs do not know the first thing about democracy, its preconditions, its history or its inherent fragilities and disorders. Perhaps ignorance and bad theory explain how otherwise benevolent men could have confused the toppling of a dictator with the establishment of democracy, as if replacing Saddam with Chalabi was going to be as easy as replacing Clinton with Bush. Or then again, Cheney and Rumsfeld may simply have thought that the Iraqi democracy fantasized by Wolfowitz would be fine, in principle, but that a failed state in Iraq, if it came to that, would present no serious security threat to the United States or its main regional ally. So the political costs of unsuccessful democratization would be relatively low, while the propaganda benefits of flying the democratic flag might be substantial. All told, that may be the most plausible reconstruction of their prewar view.
A final observation completes the case against those who continue to assure us that the United States invaded Iraq with democratization seriously in mind. As mentioned, the White House’s zealous devotion to secrecy reveals its weak grasp of the danger that false certainty poses to intelligent decision-making and the timely readjustment of political initiatives gone awry. This misapprehension, combined with a coarse identification of the national interest with a highly partisan agenda, bespeaks a profoundly antidemocratic turn of mind. While in Congress in 1988, as Mann tells us, Cheney helped defeat a law to notify Congress forty-eight hours after the beginning of any covert operation. The same Iran/contra-style impatience with Congressional and judicial and public oversight pervades the executive branch today.
But how can an Administration that expects blind trust at home be serious about creating democracy abroad? Indeed, the most glaring evidence of the Administration’s nondemocratic instincts is the dependence of its foreign policy on high-tech weaponry and a volunteer army. Vietnam taught hawks of Rumsfeld and Cheney’s generation that the US government cannot sustain a bloody confrontation with an “evil” enemy in the teeth of public opposition. But they also realized how to blunt public hostility to unexplained military adventures. This would be possible if precision weaponry could reduce casualties substantially and if the soldiers who were eventually killed or wounded were “volunteers” unable to find equivalent economic opportunities in the civilian economy and who were drawn disproportionately from minority groups with little political clout. To avoid the burden of explaining its irrationally targeted bellicosity, in other words, the Administration must assiduously avoid a draft, which could cause white middle-class America to start asking embarrassing questions. Its firm opposition to reinstating conscription, in other words, is rooted in a Vietnam-era aversion to democratic accountability. That men hostile to public oversight in their own country would go to war on the remote chance of bringing democratic accountability to Iraq defies belief. The only reasonable conclusion is that they continue to talk this talk because they can conjure up no better public justification for their irresponsible gamble, and they still hope to prevent a deniable fiasco from turning into an undeniable fiasco.
Mann seems to think that Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz have introduced “broad, enduring changes in the underlying principles guiding American foreign policy.” But the bulk of his book makes the opposite point, namely, that this Administration has managed foreign affairs so ineptly because it has been reflexively implementing out-of-date formulas in a changed security environment. During the cold war even the most extreme hawks were chastened in their aggressive impulses by fear of escalation into a full-blown conflict with the USSR. Once the Soviet Union collapsed, the fear and inhibitions mostly disappeared, but the psychological need to confront “evil” states remained. In the areas of the world today where the possibility of deadly escalation cannot be excluded, such as North Korea and the Taiwan Strait, the Administration still treads fairly cautiously. But in Iraq, alas, the lack of a major military rival excited some aging hard-liners into toppling a regime that they have no clue how to replace. They did so even though the invasion and occupation were bound to have exorbitant costs, diverting the country’s scarce national security resources away from newer and graver threats. Unfortunately for us, we have only begun to witness the consequences of this ghastly misuse of unaccountable power.