Friday, January 18, 2013

James Mann: Rise of the Vulcans

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In case you've forgotten, the George Bush (the second) era was pretty egregious. In "Rise of the Vulcans" James Mann gives us the men (and woman) behind the man and the decisions. Even Bush knew he wasn't the guy for foreign policy, so he carefully selected people who he could trust to carry out his ideals. Mann starts from the premise that while most histories divide the world into pre- and post- Cold War, it's more accurate to think of the Bush years as a continuum from the Nixon years when the majority of these powerful "Vulcans" got to know each other. The war cabineteers that we came to think of as Bushmen- Condoleeza Rice, Richard Armitage, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, and Colin Powell- who did things like wage unilateral wars and falsify evidence had been developing their foreign policy views for decades. Some of them (Armitage and Powell) actually fought in Vietnam, but all of them were directly influenced by that war. Powell, for example, developed what came to be known as the "Powell Doctrine:" American military power should be used only "sparingly and with caution." Powell argued that wars should have narrow goals, public support, and be waged with overwhelming force. Clearly this fell out of favor and the other Vulcans (named after a statue in Birmingham, Alabama) more hawk-ish views became more prevalent.

One of the things the Vulcans did early on was dispose of Henry Kissinger. Kissinger didn't think fondly of dividing the world into good and evil and the Vulcans, starting in the discussion over detente with the Soviet Union ensured that this, rather than balance of power, was at the center of discussions over US military strength. The unpopular Vietnam war and Kissinger's policies left open room for debate about where to go with US foreign policies: "American officials might have elected to strengthen the United Nations," Mann writes, "or to establish new multilateral organizations." The point is, they didn't. Instead, the Vulcans "went on to fashion a foreign policy that would maximize America's global strength. They were gradually trying to move toward a world in which the United States had no military rival."

In 1989, Bush the First sent troops into Panama "for the purpose of restoring democracy and overthrowing a leader whose behavior was abhorrent"- a clear precursor for the wars in Iraq. As Mann points out, the successful nature of the intervention showed the country that the US was strong, and the military had moved past Vietnam. When launching the Gulf War (the First), Bush could call on this strength to back his "new world order." This outlook on foreign policy meant that the US saw itself as "the world's preeminent leader," willing to go places that it had never gone before due to cold war concerns. The US would also work with allies "with force if necessary, to prevent aggression and to preserve the existing balance of power." This new world order lasted, but changed under Bush the Second: no longer were allies necessary. The balance of power stayed in American hands (balance is a relative term), and allies were an afterthought.

Mann's book is thorough, thought provoking, and enlightening. Bush didn't arise in a vacuum which is both scary and reassuring. It would be nice if he did- maybe then he could just disappear. On the other hand, he had a history, and he leaves one behind. Perhaps he was avoidable if we had paid closer attention. Strangely, as he was discussing Bush's ideological antitheseses, I found myself coming back to Paul Berman and his liberals with impulses to intervene in morally bankrupt regimes.  If the Vulcans were dedicated to getting and maintaining power for America and intervening where they felt was necessary to do so, this sometimes meant overthrowing regimes in the name of good/evil. Berman's subjects grappled with the question of good/evil as well: can you let people suffer out of respect for self-determination and hatred of imperialism? When is military force necessary? When is a regime evil? Is it possible that if Bush was honest or righteous about going into Iraq, that it would have been the right thing to do?