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Forging their own vision of empire

The Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet, James Mann, Viking Press: 448 pp., $25.95

March 07, 2004|Jacob Heilbrunn | Jacob Heilbrunn is a Los Angeles Times editorial writer and author of an upcoming book on the history of neoconservatism.

When George W. Bush campaigned for the presidency against Al Gore, he couldn't name the president of Pakistan. But since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, no one has done more than Bush to create the most contentious U.S. foreign policy debate since the Vietnam War. Three camps have emerged.

The first is made up of traditional Republican realists such as former national security advisor Brent Scowcroft and Newsweek columnist Fareed Zakaria. It sees Bush as squandering U.S. power and needlessly antagonizing allies. The second camp goes further: Where financier George Soros, a Holocaust survivor, discerns a "supremacist ideology" redolent of the Nazi era, novelist Arundhati Roy warns that for the "first time in history, a single empire with an arsenal of weapons that could obliterate the world in an afternoon has complete, unipolar, economic and military hegemony."

The third camp of neoconservatives couldn't agree more -- and thinks it's a good thing. Only American hegemony, argue Weekly Standard editors William Kristol and Robert Kagan, can safeguard the world. It's America's duty to follow in the footsteps of the British empire to remake Afghanistan and the Middle East. In Bush they see a visionary, a leader on the order of Winston Churchill staring down the forces of totalitarianism and Democratic appeasers. "There is no middle way for Americans," announce David Frum and Richard Perle in their new neocon manifesto "An End to Evil." "It is victory or holocaust."

In his new book, "The Rise of the Vulcans," James Mann trains a practiced eye on these debates. ("Vulcans" is the term Bush advisors used to describe themselves during the 2000 campaign.) Mann, a former Los Angeles Times correspondent and a foreign affairs expert, has conducted numerous interviews with former and current administration officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney, and has delved into the archives. The result is the most detailed and comprehensive account of the Bush foreign policy team to date.

Mann seeks to show that a kind of shadow Republican foreign affairs cabinet has existed for decades and exerted a more profound influence on U.S. foreign policy than anyone has realized. He carefully traces the battle within the GOP between followers of Henry A. Kissinger's amoral realpolitik and Ronald Reagan's anticommunism. Bush plays only a bit part, while Cheney, Donald H. Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Paul D. Wolfowitz and others occupy center stage. Whether Mann succeeds in fully analyzing their performances is another question.

As Mann notes, Rumsfeld and Cheney first teamed up to oppose Secretary of State Kissinger's pursuit of detente with the Soviet Union in the 1970s. Rumsfeld, who was White House chief of staff for President Ford, and Cheney, who was his deputy, were infuriated by what they perceived as the U.S. truckling to a totalitarian power. In a July 8, 1975, memo to Rumsfeld, Cheney complained that Kissinger was preventing Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn from meeting Ford: The Soviets, Cheney wrote, "have been perfectly free to criticize us for our actions and policies ... to call us imperialists, war-mongers ... and I can't believe they don't understand why the President might want to see Solzhenitsyn." Kissinger, who believed that the United States was in decline and shouldn't upset the Kremlin, quashed Cheney's move. Ford refused to meet Solzhenitsyn.

At the same time, a new neoconservative faction, disgusted by both 1972 Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern's isolationist "Come Home America" campaign and Kissinger's unsavory machinations, was emerging within the Democratic Party. Fearful that the United States was falling behind the Soviet Union in the nuclear arms race and that U.S. resolve to back Israel was waning, neoconservatives such as Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz and academic Jeane Kirkpatrick initially tried to push the Democratic Party to oppose any American overtures to the Kremlin before decamping to the GOP in 1980.

Perhaps no one is more central to the neoconservative movement than erstwhile Democrat Wolfowitz, who long ago rejected the relativism and realpolitik of Kissinger. As a student at Cornell, Mann notes, Wolfowitz studied with political theorist Allan Bloom, author of the influential "The Closing of the American Mind." Bloom was a disciple of the political philosopher Leo Strauss, whose work influenced many neoconservatives, including a number now serving in the Bush administration.

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