Bush and the Neocons | Book Review | Chicago Reader

Bush and the Neocons 

When you know the Truth, the facts don't seem so important.

THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF BUSH Craig Unger (Scribner)

Craig Unger, a contributing editor for Vanity Fair, garnered national attention with his previous book, House of Bush, House of Saud. Michael Moore cited it as a key source for Fahrenheit 9/11, and the film popularized the author's reports on Saudi investments in Bush family enterprises. In The Fall of the House of Bush: The Untold Story of How a Band of True Believers Seized the Executive Branch, Started the Iraq War, and Still Imperils America's Future, Unger turns his attention to neoconservative officials and theorists. At times he focuses so closely on neocon tactics that he misses other forces driving Bush-Cheney policies. Even so, the book offers a vivid account of the use of disinformation to promote extremism.

Unger traces the origins of Bush's foreign policy to the 1970s, when prominent bureaucrats and writers gathered around such converts to conservatism as Irving Kristol and Albert Wohlstetter. The neocons scored their first big success in 1976, when two of their allies in President Ford's administration, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, created a group outside the CIA to assess the Soviet threat. That panel, dubbed Team B, was staffed by neocon worthies and led by Richard Pipes of Harvard University. One of the group's advisers was a Wohlstetter protege named Paul Wolfowitz.

Team B concluded that the CIA had vastly underestimated Soviet power and that supporters of detente were merely assisting the Kremlin's drive for world domination. It was an imaginative assessment, given that the economy of the USSR was crippled and its military infrastructure was suffering—as CIA officers pointed out. Pipes's group held, for instance, that the USSR had probably deployed a top-secret antisubmarine system, even though U.S. intelligence had found no credible evidence of such a program. As Unger writes, "The absence of evidence, [Team B] reasoned, merely proved how secretive the Soviets were!" It was a bold preemptive attack on fact and logic.

Team B's creativity went unrewarded in the short term, as Jimmy Carter won the presidency that year. But Ronald Reagan would use the panel's report to justify his enormous military buildup (and consequent budget deficits) in the 1980s, and in the '90s Team B alumni and followers took aim at the Clinton administration's Middle East policy. In 1996 a group of neocons led by Richard Perle produced a policy statement, "A Clean Break," that prescribed military action to remove anti-Israeli governments like Saddam Hussein's in Iraq. When George W. Bush entered office, flanked by Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz, the report became a blueprint for war.

Unger is at his best in these early chapters, where he convincingly links neocon biases to the Republicans' most disastrous policies. He gleans a thicket of reports and think-tank papers to reveal that the Bush administration's claims about Iraqi weapons programs followed the same pattern as Team B's exaggeration of Soviet power in the 1970s. Likewise, many of the administration's rosy projections for post-Saddam Iraq originated with the authors of "A Clean Break." In 1999 one of them, David Wurmser, stated that Iraq's Shiite majority "can be expected to present a challenge to Iran's influence" instead of aligning with Iran. Wurmser offered no factual support for his claim, but wrote that his thinking had been "guided" by his ideological allies, such as Ahmed Chalabi. By that point, Unger writes, "the neocon echo chamber had begun to rely on itself to reinforce its own myths."

Four and a half years into the Iraq war, the price of upholding those myths is rising. The president and vice president appear smitten by the idea of air strikes against Iran. Unger cites Philip Giraldi, a former CIA specialist in counterterrorism, who argued that in the case of Iran, Bush officials were "using the same dance steps—demonize the bad guys, the pretext of diplomacy, keep out of negotiations, use proxies. It is Iraq redux."

Describing three decades of right-wing gambits, Unger paints a stunning portrait of arrogance and duplicity. The Fall of the House of Bush may well be the definitive group biography of the neocons. But the author makes a few missteps when the story moves beyond that group. For instance, he calls President Bush a "genuine born-again Christian," despite finding evidence that the president's professions of faith are as cynical as anything Team B ever presented. Bush maintains that Billy Graham converted him to evangelical Christianity in 1985, but Graham has disagreed with that account and so does Mickey Herskowitz, one of the ghostwriters of Bush's 1999 autobiography.

Herskowitz told Unger that Bush couldn't recall the details of his 1985 meeting with Graham and replied negatively when Herskowitz asked him whether Graham had said something like, "Have you gotten right with God?" (Unger writes that Herskowitz was "stunned" by the book's account of Bush's conversation with the minister.) "Witnessing" about your relationship with Christ is a key element of evangelicalism. Lying about your conversion experience for electoral gain is just about the last thing a sincere evangelical would do.

Unger also underplays the importance of oil-industry leaders, including his previous subjects, the Saudis. Journalist Greg Palast obtained a report by the Joint Task Force on Petroleum, cosponsored by the James A. Baker III Institute, named for and headed by the secretary of state under Bush's father. The panel, which included oil-company executives as well as foreign-policy specialists, convened in December 2000. Its report complained that Iraq was a "swing producer" of oil, with a propensity to "manipulate oil markets."

Saddam Hussein had a history of abruptly suspending and then restarting oil production. In fact, he interrupted petroleum exports for 12 days the month the task force began its work. His tactics undermined efforts by the oil companies and Saudi-dominated OPEC to control the price of crude. An earlier assessment by the Baker Institute put it this way: "In a market with so little cushion to cover unexpected events, oil prices become extremely sensitive to perceived supply risks. Such a market increases the potential leverage of an otherwise lesser producer such as Iraq." For its part, the Joint Task Force on Petroleum recommended "an immediate policy review toward Iraq," including military options. According to Palast, who tells the story in the book Armed Madhouse, Dick Cheney received the group's report early in 2001, and its economic considerations may have provided the strongest impetus for war.

Likewise, the Saudis have played a large role in developing Bush's aggressive approach toward Iran and its fellow Shiite Muslims throughout the Middle East. (Saudi rulers are members of the rival Sunni sect.) It's telling that Bush and his aides have chosen to blame Iran for the disaster in Iraq, even though it's the Sunnis, and not the pro-Iranian Shiites, who've inflicted the vast majority of casualties on U.S. troops. The New Yorker's Seymour Hersh has reported that the administration has joined the Saudis in providing clandestine support to Sunni extremists in Lebanon and Syria. The president hopes that these Sunni militias will attack Iran's allies and not America's, even though some of those receiving aid have ideological affinities with Al Qaeda. It is an astonishing policy, completely at odds with the lessons of 9/11 and battlefield realities in Iraq. That contradiction is the best indicator of the House of Saud's continuing grip on Bush-Cheney foreign policy. The administration's close ties with the Saudi royals demonstrate that there are limits to the influence of the neocons, many of whom advocate regime change in Saudi Arabia.

Bush and his aides cite Iran's nuclear capability as justification for air strikes. But Hersh has reported that American intelligence thinks Iran won't have the ability to produce a warhead until sometime between 2010 and 2015. And according to an intelligence estimate released December 3, the country shut down its nuclear weapons program in 2003. These assessments appear to have done little to deter the administration's drive toward confrontation. "Iran will be dangerous if they have the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon," said President Bush in response to the new intelligence estimate. "What's to say they couldn't start another covert nuclear weapons program?"v

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