How Bush's Vulcans arrived at their mind meld

Journalists, Democrats and other malcontents have spilled much ink writing about the rise of the so-called neoconservatives. But James Mann’s concise and well-researched history of how two soldiers, two intellectuals and two bureaucrats rose to power and used that power to wage war in Iraq is the new gold standard of political reporting.

In The Rise of the Vulcans, Mann, a well-respected Los Angeles Times reporter, documents how Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Condoleezza Rice, Richard Armitage and Colin Powell — known as the “Vulcans” — climbed into the highest positions in government.

Much of the book is dedicated to debunking the conventional wisdom about each of the players that has resulted from the bitter debates within the Bush administration over whether and how to invade Iraq. For example, Mann writes about Rumsfeld’s role as the Nixon administration’s peacenik and Powell’s hawkishness in the Reagan and first Bush administrations.

This book is less about why President Bush decided to invade Iraq and more about how the Vulcans’ lives, academic training and previous experiences in government inform their worldviews.

Indeed, some of the minibiographies would make fantastic magazine pieces alone: Rumsfeld’s relationship with President Nixon, his boss in his first job in the executive branch after leaving Congress; Cheney’s penchant for fixing toilets in Gerald Ford’s White House and his penchant for secrecy even as a congressman; Powell’s key role in the invasion of Panama; Armitage’s heroics at the end of the Vietnam War; Wolfowitz’s intellectual journey from mathematician to political theorist; and Rice’s journey from Birmingham to Stanford to Washington.

As interesting as that is, Mann’s examination of the relationship between the Bush White House and Congress should alarm lawmakers, especially Democrats. It says as much about why the president now finds himself in political hot water as it does about his style of leadership.

Mann forcefully argues that Congress has isolated itself from the major foreign-policy debates since Sept. 11, 2001, by giving up its authority to examine presidential decisions. That point has been made before, but Mann brings Congress’s acquiescence to light in a way that nobody else has.

He does not explain why Congress fell off the charts or why Democrats were AWOL in the run-up to the war, except by writing that they were politically afraid to challenge Bush in 2002.

But I think Democrats really did not have a policy alternative. Going to war is a sexy and tough policy; a stronger, beefed-up version of containment is neither sexy nor tough.

It should be disturbing to Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill just how much the Bush administration disdains Congress. Before the first Persian Gulf War, some aides, such as Cheney, argued that the president did not need Congress’s permission to wage war.

Little has changed.

In 2002, White House aides tried making a similar argument. Despite Congress’s decision to vote, the White House all but succeeded because the debate was so dreadful.

The debate in the House is memorable only because ex-Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) cried and Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.), a lawyer in the Army Reserve, asked for a leave of absence so that he could be called up to active duty (he returned to Congress just as quickly as he left).

The Vulcans made good use of their time while out of power in the 1990s by making common cause with — or, in crass terms, using — congressional Republicans to achieve policy goals.

They helped Rep. Chris Cox (R-Calif.) investigate the sales of U.S. technology to the Chinese military. Rumsfeld led a commission on missile defense. And Richard Perle, an original neocon and former Reagan aide, co-wrote the “Clean Break” paper, which encouraged former Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to disregard the Oslo Accords.

The debate to go to war may have been bitter and fraught with personal vendettas, but at least Republicans studied, debated and decided. The war in Iraq appears to have been a preventive war rather than a pre-emptive war. Even so, the Vulcans took the job seriously and thought hard about how to achieve national security goals.

Finally, Mann keeps the anonymous sourcing to a minimum; there’s little of the typical score-settling found in many books featuring Washington insiders.

Mann keeps his own viewpoints out of the story. But if one is going to write a historical treatise on the intellectual and practical applications of the Vulcans’ policy decisions, one might as well judge them. Historians — even journalists writing history — have liberty to judge and should judge.

After all, it’s worth exploring why the Vulcans’ assumptions about Iraq were not born out. Why couldn’t they find evidence that links Iraq to al Qaeda? Why didn’t the Iraqis greet American troops with milk and honey and flowers? Does the road to a democratic Middle East really run through Baghdad?

For all of the Vulcans’ government experience, education and bravado, not much has gone their way in Iraq. What David Halberstam said of Robert McNamara and his colleagues in The Best and the Brightest is true of the Vulcans, too: “They were brilliant and they were fools.”

Book reviewed:

The Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet
By James Mann
448 pages; $25.95
Viking Press, 2004