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Fall of the House of Bush: Six Questions for Craig Unger


Vanity Fair contributing editor Craig Unger has just published a new book entitled 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 (Scribner; $27.00). In some respects the work continues Unger’s keen focus on the Bush clan’s ties and dealings with the Middle East found in his prior book House of Bush, House of Saud, but The Fall introduces some fascinating new research on the role that Neoconservatives played in Bush 43’s rise and his presidency, the role of the Christian Right and the curious dealings between Neocons and Religious Right figures. But the core of the book is an intimate account of the struggle that the key foreign policy advisors of Bush 41 waged to set his son’s administration back on a more “realist” course, and how Dick Cheney and his core group of Neocon advisors effectively thwarted this at every turn. The book tells the story of an Administration in the grips of a disastrous series of foreign policy mistakes, battling all efforts to set things straight. I put six questions to Craig Unger about his new book.


1. Craig, your new book does a fascinating job of linking the rise of George W. Bush to a number of movements traveling beneath the surface, especially the Neoconservatives and the Christian Right. It seems especially strong in its treatment of the Neocons and documenting the influence of some key thinkers who helped inspire the Neocon movement, even if they stood a bit outside of it—such as University of Chicago professor Albert Wohlstetter, the man often cited as the basis for Dr. Strangelove in Stanley Kubrick’s film of that name. As you note, one thing for which Wohlstetter was famous is the “iron law of zero margin of error,” namely the idea that in a post-nuclear environment even a small possibility of vulnerability or a potential future vulnerability could be viewed as an emergency situation. This sounds remarkably like the “one per cent doctrine” that Ron Suskind ascribes to Vice President Cheney. Do you see the influence of Wohlstetter’s approach in the Bush Administration’s haste to reach to extreme measures even where the risk prognosis is slight? Is it right to call this a core Neoconservative tenet?

Absolutely. As my book explains, in 1976 some of Wohlstetter’s disciples, including Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, who later became key architects of the Iraq War, participated in an “alternative intelligence assessment” known as “Team B,” in which they obtained permission of then-CIA director George H.W. Bush to challenge CIA intelligence which had predicted fairly rosy scenarios for US-Soviet relations. Even though detente was now underway, Team B leader Richard Pipes told me that the Soviets were irrational madmen who would “resort immediately to nuclear weapons.” As Team B saw it, the Soviet threat was so great, there was nothing wrong with wildly distorting intelligence. Factual discrepancies were irrelevant. Even though it knew the Soviet Union was in severe decline, Team B concluded that the Soviet threat would continue growing because the USSR was such a wealthy country and had “a large and expanding Gross National Product.” Likewise, it asserted that the Soviet Backfire bomber was a huge threat to America even though it didn’t have the range for a roundtrip to the US. It found that the absence of evidence of a new supersecret Soviet submarine system only proved how secretive the Soviets were. “All of it was fantasy, ” concluded Anne Cahn, who worked on the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. “If you go through most of Team B’s specific allegations about weapons systems,… they were all wrong.” And it also foreshadowed the neocons’ manipulation of intelligence in the Iraq war by 25 years.

Wohlstetter wasn’t the only philosophical force shaping the neocons in this regard. Many neoconservatives grew up in the shadow of Hitler and Stalin and saw virtually all political struggles as Manichaean conflicts in which one should use force first and diplomacy last. They believed in resisting appeasement at all costs. Wherever there was a neocon, one source told me, you would hear a reference to the tap, tap, tap of Neville Chamberlain’s umbrella at Munich. In the Sixties, when Cornell University negotiated with black students who were pressuring it to start a black studies program, Cornell professor Donald Kagan, the father of the Weekly Standard’s Robert Kagan, wrote, “Watching administrators demonstrate all the courage of Neville Chamberlain had a great impact on me and I became much more conservative.” Apparently, it didn’t occur to Kagan that starting a black studies program was somewhat different than the Holocaust.

2. You move in successive chapters from the Neocons to the Religious Right and you highlight a number of bridges linking them. You also point to the irony of a group of formerly Trotskyite, mostly secular Jews, turning to a camp which seems at first blush reflexively hostile to them on every front. Of course, this alliance proved remarkably effective. The Religious Right became staunch supporters of Neocon Middle East policy and became the base of a transformed Republican Party in which Neocons took key policy posts. Leo Strauss argued in a series of writings around the time of his emigration from Germany that the fundamental error of the American Founding Fathers was their rejection of the idea of a state religion—he relied on Roman thinkers in particular for the idea that a strong state required a formal foundation in religion. How do you assess the Neocon-Religious Right alliance—does it have legs? Does it prove that Strauss’s critique of American secularism is right?

The alliance between the Neocons and the Religious Right will continue to have real power, but it is full of contradictions that have already begun to surface. Most importantly, in institutional terms, this alliance has effectively taken over the Republican Party. In fact, today, it is the Republican Party to the extent that moderate Republicans of yore–Brent Scowcroft, James Baker and Bush 41, the likes of former Tennessee Senator Howard Baker–have no place in the Republican Party today. Someone like Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel would have been a serious presidential candidate in years past but today he has been marginalized within the party because he is neither an evangelical nor a neocon. One of the great surprises in researching the book was coming across one high-level source after another in the military and intelligence world, many of them lifelong Republicans, who felt that he had been betrayed and abandoned by his party. (All of this is particularly striking, by the way, in terms of the father-son relationship between Bush 41 and Bush 43. My first chapter is called Oedipus Tex because it is clear that Bush 43 has put together an administration consisting largely of his father’s worse enemies–the neocons, the Christian Right and rivals like Donald Rumsfeld.)

For all its power, this alliance is now encountering significant problems both among its rank and file and within the party leadership. A new strain of environmentalism among evangelicals (Richard Cizik, “Creation care”) is dividing the evangelical movement. Liberal evangelicals such as Jim Wallis and the Sojourner group have become more visible. A recent Pew poll shows that Bush has lost considerable support among the white evangelicals who constitute his base. In addition, none of the four leading presidential candidates–Giuliani, Romney, Thompson, and McCain– have a strong base in the religious right. As a result, we are already starting to see some bizarre, startling and almost comical alliances–e.g., Giuliani, the thrice-married 9/11 candidate who briefly lived with a gay couple, has won support from Pat Robertson, who joined Jerry Falwell in blaming 9/11 on gays. This alliance also puts Robertson, who has put forth elaborate anti-semitic theories about Jewish bankers and the Freemasons, in the same camp with neocon godfather Norman Podhoretz, who is now Giuliani’s senior foreign policy adviser.

I can’t help but think this alliance is vulnerable because it seems so brazenly expedient–i.e., as Giuliani’s peccadilloes are revealed to the nation at large (and I suspect they will as the primaries approach), the Christian Right will move away from him. What will happen when Robertson and his followers are confronted with Bernie Kerik’s lovenest and Judith Regan’s revelations? In addition, the antipathy to Bush’s Middle East policies–policies embraced by all four leading Republican contenders, policies backed by the neocon-religious right alliance–may drive the Republicans down to defeat in ’08.

At the same time, the necons’ institutional power in the media and in Washington think tanks is enormous. So is the electoral clout wielded by the Religious Right (80 million evangelicals, more than 200,000 pastors). My nightmare scenario has it that another terrorist attack on American soil and/or an American attack on Iran would reignite the post 9/11 patriotic fervor that led up to the war in Iraq. Scott, I know that you have written about the Dolchstosslegende, the myth of the stab-in-the-back. I think new military conflicts, whether on American soil or in Iran, are likely to make that notion a powerful political weapon that the Republicans would use against the Democrats, arguing that they are weak on national security, are abandoning Israel to Iran, and are stabbing our soldiers in the back. Ultimately, I abhor the Straussian notion that America should have a state religion. But, as the war in Iraq and Bush’s reelection demonstrate, I recognize that the mythic ideals of religion can mix with the neocon ideals of patriotism and romantic nationalism to make for a potent stew.

3. Your book has a strong focus on national security focus and the relationship between Bush 41’s “old guard” advisors and the Cheney-Rumsfeld camp in the administration of Bush 43. One of the more fascinating nuggets is your account of how Condi Rice’s chief advisor, Philip Zelikow, “testmarketed” elements of a Scowcroft inspired new Middle East policy. Cheney, you note, stepped in to shoot this down aggressively, and in short order Zelikow resigned his post at State. Is it your sense that Condi Rice has regularly folded when she is opposed by Cheney?

This war between Bush 41’s realists and Cheney and the neocons began far earlier than most people realize, and throughout the entire battle Condi Rice caved in again and again whenever she ran up against Cheney and/or the neocons. It started in late 1998 when Bush 41 had Rice put together seminars in Austin, Texas to educate then-Governor George W. Bush in foreign policy. Initially, Bush 41 felt that his realist allies–Scowcroft, James Baker, Colin Powell, Rice, Zelikow, etc.–were a powerful team who would help Bush 43 replicate his father’s policies. But George W. hated James Baker and shut him out immediately. Colin Powell didn’t attend the seminars regularly. Scowcroft ceased to be invited. As for Cheney, initially, the realists didn’t see him as a threat. Back in 1992, as Bush 41’s Secretary of Defense, Cheney had parrotted the realist party line about not wanting to go into Baghdad. But quietly, he had nurtured a group of neocons in the Pentagon–Wolfowitz, Feith, Khalilzad, etc.

Finally, there was Condi Rice, a protégée of Brent Scowcroft and, presumably, a staunch realist–or so Scowcroft thought. By late 1998, Wolfowitz, Richard Perle and Elliott Abrams began going down to Austin. During these early seminars, Wolfowitz taught Bush that he had to abandon the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and focus on overthrowing Saddam instead. The road to Jerusalem went through Baghdad–that was the slogan. As the battle lines were drawn, Scowcroft repeatedly went to Rice for help in trying to outflank the neocons. But, to his dismay, Rice never really stood up for her former mentor and quickly became an ennabler for neocons. Effectively shut out of the foreign policy process, Scowcroft began to see the Iraq War coming and spoke out against it publicly as early as October 2001. He went back to Condi Rice repeatedly, knowing that she still had the president’s ear, and was going back to her as recently as the summer of 2007 when I was still reporting for my book. But she never delivered. Most significantly, in late 2006, after Scowcroft had been working behind the scenes with James Baker on the Iraq Study Group report, he asked her to intercede in bringing an end to the war. But once again, Condoleezza Rice failed to step up to the plate. If there is a hero in my book, a failed hero, it is Scowcroft. As a close friend of Bush 41, he was in a very delicate position, yet at least he had the intellectual courage to speak out early, clearly, and often. As for Rice, Donald Trump had it right–Condi Rice can’t deliver a deal.

4. Many observers, such as James Moore, have cast Karl Rove’s role in the Bush presidency as essential. He has even been referred to as Bush’s “co-president.” Although Rove pops up with frequency in your book, you don’t really seem to accord him an essential role in policy formation. Am I right in reading the book that way?

Rove played a vital role in the administration and I didn’t particularly mean to diminish it. But when it came to the Middle East, I saw him as playing a much bigger role in politics than in policy formulation (although, as John Diulio, a former White House domestic policy adviser, famously noted, there was often no separation between policy and politics in the Bush White House.) By that I meant that Rove knew how to exploit the war when it came to staging the “Mission Accomplished” spectacle and the ’04 election, and he felt it was essential for Bush to be seen as a commander in chief if he were to have a successful presidency. But Rove was not one of the key figures in formulating Middle East policy. Likewise, when it came to intelligence, Cheney played a far bigger role in creating what was essentially an alternative national security apparatus to come up with the intelligence that was necessary to build support for the war. Rove, on the other hand, along with Cheney’s team, played a role in outing Valerie Plame Wilson after Joe Wilson discredited the Niger story. He helped create the narrative that Bush was strong on national security.

5. You detail some of the dynamics of the Rumsfeld-Cheney relationship during the Ford Administration, and particularly their fondness for outmaneuvering internal rivals, such as figures close to Vice President Nelson Rockefeller. The Rumsfeld-Cheney relationship seems to have emerged as the security policy core of the Bush Administration, at least through Rumsfeld’s departure—which we now know occurred over Cheney’s opposition. Do you think their relationship from the days of the Ford Administration foreshadowed the era of pre-emptive, no-holds-barred war of the Bush 43 presidency?

One of the biggest surprises I had in researching the book was seeing how much the events leading up to the Iraq War were foreshadowed by the Gerald Ford Administration. For one thing, the Halloween Massacre of 1975 shows Rumsfeld and Cheney as young men executing a dazzling bureaucratic tour de force–winning out over Vice-President Nelson Rockefeller, CIA Director William Colby, Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, all of whom were giants on the world stage. Twenty-five years later, of course, their relationship had changed somewhat. Rumsfeld had been the mentor the first time around and this time Cheney held more power. But the two men knew the executive bureaucracy inside and out and they were working for a president who was a relative innocent in terms of the ways of Washington. Rumsfeld and Cheney knew how to grease the wheels of the bureaucracy, and how to bring them to a halt. They knew how to plant someone like John Bolton in the State Department to keep an eye on Colin Powell. (Bolton, for example, forbade Greg Thielmann, chief of the State Department’s Intelligence and Research division, from attending meetings because he dared question the credibility of the Niger documents.) Where Al Gore had had four or five people on his staff as advisers on national security when he was vice-president, Cheney had at least fourteen on his staff alone and scores of loyalists planted in key positions throughout the executive bureaucracy–the State Department, the Pentagon, the National Security Council, the CIA.

Cheney was spectacularly effective in increasing the power of the executive branch. The National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) had heretofore been considered the gold standard of the $40 billion a year intelligence community. This was the document on which the President and Congress relied when it came to making vital decisions–such as going to war. During the run up to the Iraq War, however, the neocons had managed to plant dubious intelligence inside the NIE–i.e., the books were cooked. Likewise, when it came to investigating the intelligence wars, Cheney had loyalists in Congress such as Kansas Senator Pat Roberts, who ran the Senate Intelligence Committee and were thereby able to turn congressional oversight into a rubber stamp. And when it came to dealing with the thorny legal issues involving how to treat captured fighters, Cheney was able to get key policy papers instituting military commissions signed by the president by adroitingly guiding the papers to the Oval Office without having oversight from Congress, the Justice Department or even the appropriate White House lawyer. He was truly a bureaucratic genius.

A number of people who knew Cheney back in the Ford administration or even the adminstration of Bush 41 felt that he had changed enormously after 9/11. I disagree. Cheney certainly held his cards close to his vest, but if you look carefully at those early years you can see seeds of his authoritarian, nationalist views. He had long believed in an extraordinarily powerful executive branch. During Watergate, he told a friend that he saw the scandal as an assault by the liberals on the powers of the executive. In 1992, he quietly encouraged Khalilzad and other neocons to write their radical policy papers. Ultimately, Cheney was the person most responsible for shepherding the neocons into the administration–Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, Richard Perle, David Wurmser, John Hannah, Scooter Libby, David Addington, John Yoo, and many more.

6. You end with a blistering assessment of Bush’s performance on the foreign policy stage. “Driven by delusional idealism and religious zeal, Bush, after all, had already made one catastrophic blunder, the true historic dimensions of which have yet to emerge. To fully appreciate its consequences, one cannot overlook the fact that the Iraq War took place in the twilight of the hydrocarbon era, during China’s extraordinary ascendancy. Far from safeguarding America as promised, the Iraq War jeopardized the country’s security and with it, potentially, America’s vital access to Middle East oil…” Do you believe that Bush’s legacy will be assessed on the basis of the Iraq War, standing alone?

Isn’t that enough? Already, the Iraq War has cost nearly 4,000 American lives, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, hundreds of billions, perhaps trillions of dollars, and unleashed forces that are still unraveling. Who knows, for example, what will happen with the Kurds and Turkey? Will the Sunni-Shi’ite conflict spread throughout the region? The only thing Bush can do to change that legacy is to bomb Iran, and I think the consequences of such an attack will be even more horrific. If that takes place, Iran will likely blockade the Persian Gulf, blocking off 40 percent of the world’s oil supplies, sending the price of oil to about $200 a barrel. Iran’s Cruise missiles have the range to hit Saudi oil facilities. Convoys supplying American troops in Iraq could easily be cut off, leaving 160,000 Americans troops highly vulnerable. Many more people were killed in Vietnam than have been in Iraq, of course, but I believe the geostrategic consequences of Bush’s policies will leave an even more devastating and enduring legacy.


Ultimately, however, I see Bush’s foreign policy as very much of a piece with his other policies–the unitary executive, his war on science, the politicization of the judiciary, torture, Guantanamo etc.–all of which constitute a brutal assault on America as a constitutional democracy. My central thesis is that the neocons and the religious right constitute an American fundamentalism that is at war with the post-Enlightenment, rational America most of us thought we grew up in. My hope is that a little over a year from now a new administration can start repairing the damage.

For information about The Fall of the House of Bush and to buy the book, go to: www.craigunger.com

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