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Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Rise of the Vulcans and Plan of Attack

I've now finished reading James Mann's excellent chronicle of the back history of the Bush war cabinet, Rise of the Vulcans (Martin Sieff's linked 2004 Salon review is worth a read) and Bob Woodward's account of the lead up to the war, Plan of Attack...(the Guardian review I link to features the British cover, worth a peek.)

Both these books, in blog terms, are in the "old news" heap...ready for remainder. If you want the hot scoop, firedoglake and the huffington post will have more to offer...and more about the, ahem, trials and tribulations of Bob Woodward, than a couple of books that you can easily check out of the library in well-thumbed copies. That being said, I learned some valuable things from both books:

1. Scooter Libby was omnipresent

I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby pops up everywhere in the story of the Bush Administration and the war. His omnipresence, of course, stems from the centrality of his boss, the Vice President, but it's even deeper than that. Libby really was everywhere..."the ever-present other guy in the room." It's funny how many of the photos included in both books have Libby in one corner or another. (Of course Libby's presence is not totally coincidental...Libby was very obviously a source for both Woodward and Mann.)

Libby was a former student and protege of Paul Wolfowitz. When Wolfowitz served as head of the State Department's policy planning staff under Reagan he replaced virtually every staffer, and Libby was one of the new hires that formed, according to Mann, "the heart of a new neoconservative network within the foreign policy bureaucracy." It was working under Wolfowitz and Libby that Zalmay Khalilzad authored the 1992 Defense Planning Guidance (must read link) that served, later, in the Bush / Cheney administration, as a strategic blueprint for American military dominance and use of force.

By the time we get to the presidency of George W. Bush and the run up to war in Iraq, Libby literally is everywhere. Which is fitting, since, he held three jobs, including, unknown to many, a position that was directly responsible to George W. Bush, "Special Assistant to the President." From Woodward, we learn that Libby provided the very flawed and poorly-sourced intelligence dossier that Colin Powell used to prep for his speech before the U.N. We also find this passage, about a summary of intelligence Libby had made to key political strategists just one week before Powell's speech:

On Saturday, January 25, Libby gave a lengthy presentation in the Situation Room to Rice, Hadley, Armitage, Wolfowitz, Dan Bartlett and Michael Gerson. Though she had formally left the White House staff, Karen Hughes was there. Karl Rove was in and out of the meeting.

Holding a thick sheaf of paper, Libby outlined the latest version of the case against Saddam. [snip]...He began each section with blunt conclusions--Saddam has chemical and biological weapons, was producing and concealing them; his ties to bin Laden's al Qaeda network were numerous and strong. (Woodward, 289)

Given what has transpired since, it's hard not to think we'll be hearing more about that meeting, and Woodward's account of it in the weeks to come. It's in recounting moments like this that makes Woodward's book worthwhile. The fact that Libby was deeply involved with the "selling" of the war coupled with his indictment and resignation, percolating on the back burner for now, cannot be anything but hugely significant to the legal and political fate of this administration. Given those indictments, Libby's name now leaps off the page.

2. Bush decision making and cabinet rifts

Analysis of the rifts within the Bush Administration is in some ways the premise of both books. The importance of advisers to this president's decision-making makes who those advisers are and their internal disagreements highly significant. The split everyone talks about is between Powell / Armitage and Cheney / Rumsfeld. Clearly, Cheney and Rumsfeld "won," though you could say the outcome was predetermined. Both books show ample evidence why. (Powell chief of staff Lawrence Wilkerson's recent public avowals complete the tale.)

There's another potential split that's less obvious, and it gives real insight into Bush's decision-making process. Here's my surmise from reading the two books. For Bush' s first term we can draw up a chart which has these two groups:

  • On foreign policy: (Cheney / Bush + Rice flowed to DOD / SOS / Libby and Hadley)
  • On political strategy: (Rove / Bush + Hughes flowed to Card / Cheney / Bartlett)

  • The premise of this split is this: George Bush tended to put his decision making "under" the advice of a close advisor (Cheney or Rove) and then "checked it" with another close advisor (Rice or Hughes) before passing it on to the rest of the administration and their underlings. We read evidence of exactly this in a passage of Woodward's book following the moment where Bush reveals that he did not ask Powell's or Rumsfeld's advice on the decision to go to war, while admitting he did confer with Rice:
    One person not around was Karen Hughes, one of his top advisers and longtime communications director. Hughes, who had resigned the previous summer to return to Texas, probably knew how Bush thought and talked as much as anyone. "I asked Karen," the president recalled, "She said if you go to war, exhaust all opportunities to achieve [regime change] peacefully. And she was right. She actually captured my own sentiments."(Woodward, 252)

    I think Woodward is revealing something essential about standard operating procedure for this president. Bush hides how dependent his decision making process is on the input of close advisers, and, even given that fact, how that process itself is deeply flawed and unconventional. With Bush, there are no general policy discussions where advice is sought and offered. The fact that advisers like Cheney, Rove, Rice and Hughes speak to the president largely in private must create deep instability among his cabinet. Those four advisers had more input into Bush's ultimate decision to take the nation to war than did the Secretary of Defense and Secretary of State. That is something to consider.

    Incidentally, given the Fitzgerald investigation, it seems to me the natural split between political strategy and foreign policy, exemplified in how Bush used Rove and Cheney, might transform itself into the fault lines of a second "split" inside the administration. Regardless, hidden in the subtext of both books...books which are, after all, about the players that make up "team Bush," and not the president himself...is this core question: what are the consequences of an essentially passive president?

    3. Meet the New Boss

    Reading Mann's book makes it clear, the war in Iraq is the product of a team of Bush players who knew exactly what they were getting into. While Woodward's book serves to offer a fig leaf of deniability to Colin Powell; that fig leaf means nothing when one considers the long history these players have with one another and the mindset they come out of. The war in Iraq is a part of a deep continuity in U.S. foreign policy.

    Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Dick Armitage, Paul Wolfowitz and Condoleeza Rice were the foreign policy establishment. They executed plans and thinking whose framework had been the norm for decades. In fact, their conception of the use of U.S. military power is directly related to their service under presidents Nixon, Reagan and Bush 41. Far from being a "new departure" for the "neocons", the war in Iraq was simply business as usual to the core players in Team Bush. That is the only way to understand this war.

    For all the talk of "freedom," "democracy" and the "war on terror" and "neocon thinking"...Bush foreign policy has always been about the central continuity in U.S. foreign policy: maintaining U.S. military and economic power. This passage about Condoleeza Rice's entrance into that establishment says it all:

    Rice in 1991 returned to the Stanford University faculty. She made clear, however, that she was not returning to the routine academic life of an ordinary faculty member. She quickly befriended George Shultz, the former secretary of state, who was at Stanford's Hoover Institution. "I'd like to get more acquainted with American business and how it operates," Rice told Shutz. As Rice probably realized, the former secretary of state was serving on the board of Chevron at the time. "How would you feel about a big bad oil company?" Shultz asked Rice. Within months Rice was named to the Chevron board. (Mann, 225)

    Thinking about how that quote become available to Mann makes for an interesting reflection on its source. Incidentally, George Shultz is mentioned twenty-two separate times in Mann's book. This behind-the-scenes power broker was very much a key player in shaping "the Rise of the Vulcans." George Shultz, of course, exemplifies business as usual of a previous generation of leaders. Painting those connections, and fleshing out that backstory is one of Mann's strengths.

    4. Donald Rumsfeld did his job.

    This is a simple point that echoes what I've written before. You read it in Mann's book, you can read it in Woodward's in great detail. The reason Donald Rumsfeld hasn't been fired is because he did his job. He did it willingly. He did it with gusto. But Rumsfeld did what we has told to do, and what everyone involved knew he was going to do. There is nothing in Iraq that he didn't okay and plan.

    Bush doesn't fire people who get results.

    5. the Weekly Standard

    Time and again articles in the Weekly Standard pushed the Bush Administration further than they might have gone. If anything represents the real core of "neo-con" power it would be this: all through Rise of the Vulcans there are moments like this one:

    When Bush authorized the letter of regret over the spy plane, some of the neoconservatives were outraged. Writing in the Weekly Standard, Robert Kagan and Willian Kristol said Bush ahd brought a "profound national humiliation" upon the United States; they branded the Bush policy one of appeasement and called for the revocation of China's trade benefits. For a time relations between the neoconservatives and the Bush White House were strained. (Mann, 284)

    Word to bloggers everywhere...things that are said in public DO have an effect, no matter the disavowals. In the case of the Weekly Standard, it's quite clear that with Bushco, what the Weekly Standard wanted, the Weekly Standard mostly got. This is an incidental detail, but it in light of the Miers nomination, it's important to note. Mann's book makes a particular point of noticing how Bush's policy, especially the war in Iraq, was directly influenced by the posturing of this hotbed of "neocon" thinking. It's a point worth thinking about and expanding on.

    Those are the five things I take from Mann's and Woodward's books. Rise of the Vulcans is an essential read for understanding the lay of the land inside the Bush Administration. I recommend giving it a read if you're so inclined. Bob Woodward's Plan of Attack, of course, is still in the news. You can read about Bob Woodward and his book in the newspapers....on a daily basis.

    Little did Woodward know that he was writing that kind of history. Access journalism indeed.



    • i'm astounded with how well you keep all the players and dynamics clear in your mind, kid. when this is all said and done, it will be fascinating to see how close we were to understanding how this all fits together. one small thing i caught was the fact that this cast of characters were major players in ford's as well as nixon and bush 1's administrations.

      keep it coming. we've all been turned into amateur real-time historians, it seems.

      By Anonymous wu ming, at 5:48 PM  

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