How Bush Rules
by David Gordon
by David Gordon
How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime. By Sidney Blumenthal. Princeton University Press, 2006. Xii + 420 pgs.
What I feared would be a weakness of How Bush Rules has turned out to be one of its strengths. Sidney Blumenthal has here collected a large number of his articles, written for the British Guardian and Salon magazine between 2003 and 2006, along with an Introduction and Epilogue, dealing with the Bush administration. Blumenthal is an outstanding political journalist, and an excellent writer as well; but he is also a convinced liberal Democrat and an admirer of President Clinton. I anticipated a problem: would his book turn out to be a partisan polemic, indicting George Bush for the dire fault of not being Bill Clinton?
I need not have feared. The book is a cogently argued analysis of Bush's radical and dangerous policies. And it is all the better because of the point of view from which the author writes. For those of us who favor a noninterventionist foreign policy, it is an easy task to criticize the Iraq war. Is it not obvious that the United States had no business invading a country that posed no immediate threat? Blumenthal's great merit is to show that one does not have to be a convinced noninterventionist to oppose Bush's foreign policy. Even the foreign policy professionals in charge under the elder Bush and Clinton, who by no means reject American hegemony, have recoiled in shock from the Iraq war.
As everyone but the Secretary of State knows, the Iraq war has turned out to be a disastrous failure. The downfall of Saddam Hussein has led, not to the democracy foretold by the neoconservatives, but to terror and chaos. Shiites and Sunnis are locked in combat: the minority Sunnis, who have always ruled, will not voluntarily cede power to their rivals: "Why should the Sunnis, after six hundred years of control, accede to the dominance of Shiites?" (p.216) The Shiites have long been allied with Iran, hardly an American ally. "Yet Bush has invested American blood and treasure in the proposition that a Shiite-dominated government, which now inevitably means an Iranian-influenced regime, can serve as a second master in the United States and present itself to the Sunnis as national saviors." (p.217)
Defenders of the president might reply in this way: the United States is, as the critics allege, faced with a bad situation. Had we known at the time of the American invasion what was in prospect, then of course we would not have invaded. But we did not know: critics are relying on the wisdom of hindsight. Further, at the time of the assault, Bush genuinely feared that Saddam Hussein had concealed weapons dangerous to the United States. This belief proved false, but was it not the president's duty to act on the information then available to him?
Blumenthal shows the utter falsity of these defenses. The foreign policy professionals in the State Department and the military experts were aghast at Bush's plans and warned that invasion would lead to a power vacuum. Bush ignored these forebodings of disaster: "Nor is there any evidence that he read the State Department's seventeen-volume report, The Future of Iraq, warning of nearly all the postwar pitfalls that the United States has encountered, which was shelved by the neocons in the Pentagon and Vice President Cheney's office. Nor was Bush aware of similar warnings urgently being sounded by the military's top strategic analysts. One monograph, Reconstructing Iraq, by the U.S. Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute, predicted in detail ‘possible severe security difficulties' and conflicts among Iraqis that U.S forces ‘can barely comprehend.'" (p.53)
As far as the "weapons of mass destruction" (WMD) are concerned, Bush and his cohorts were not the victims of bad intelligence. Quite the contrary, they sought to manufacture a case to justify to the public an invasion they had long intended. One instance of this policy of calculated deception especially concerns Blumenthal. An experienced diplomatic specialist on Africa, Joe Wilson, undertook a delicate mission for the government. He investigated a rumor that Saddam Hussein was attempting to purchase enriched yellowcake uranium in Niger. If the rumor proved true, Bush would have a vital part of what he wanted. Would we not then have clear evidence that Saddam was intent on the production of atomic weapons? What could be better news for those avid for war?
Unfortunately for those eager to make Iraq safe for democracy, Wilson reported that the rumor had no basis in fact. The administration responded in a strange way. In Bush's January 2003 State of the Union speech, Bush mentioned the rumor, despite Wilson's report, and the report of other government officals. Wilson, incensed by the deception, reported his findings in an article for the New York Times. The Bush forces responded with a campaign aimed at discrediting Wilson; and high officials leaked to the press that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, was a CIA agent. (Since the publication of Blumenthal's book, this tangled tale has become even more complicated. It transpires that the first person to leak this story was Richard Armitage, not a Bush stalwart but a close ally of Colin Powell.)
The Niger uranium affair was by no means the only example of the Bush's administration's mendacity. The Vice President cared nothing for truth. He bullied the intelligence agencies into providing the "facts" he wanted: "Cheney not only intervened personally in attempting to force CIA analysts to rubber stamp [Iraqi exile Ahmad] Chalabi's disinformation, but also directly interfered with CIA field operations." (p.329)
The disaster that Bush has created extends far beyond Iraq. He has created a worldwide system of prisons in which suspects can be dealt with as their captors deem fit. "Bush has created what is in effect a gulag. It stretches from prisons in Afghanistan to Iraq, from Guantánamo Bay to secret CIA prisons around the world. There are perhaps ten thousand people being held in Iraq, one thousand in Afghanistan, and almost seven hundred in Guantánamo Bay [as of May 2004] but no one knows the exact numbers. The law as it applies to them is whatever the executive deems necessary. There has been nothing like this since the fall of the Soviet Union." (p.61)
Like Andrei Vishinsky during the Stalinist purge trials of the 1930s, the legal apologists of the Bush regime do not scruple to justify outrageous abuse. John Yoo, a Berkeley law professor who while with the Justice Department wrote crucial memos on torture, claimed that anything short of the grossest physical abuse was legal. Laws against torture banned only measures that produced pain "equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death." (p.319, quoting a memo of August 1, 2000, written by Yoo) "Thou shalt not kill; but need'st not strive /Officiously to keep alive."
And do even these limits apply? According to Yoo and other legal panderers to power, the president possesses, as commander-in-chief, full authority to do whatever he wishes in war; laws enacted by Congress do not bind him. To think otherwise, it is alleged, violates the separation of powers enacted by the Constitution. In accord with this doctrine of dictatorship, Bush has, when signing laws, issued "signing statements" in which he declares his intention to ignore restrictions on his power. "In effect, Bush engages in presidential nullification of any law he sees fit. He then acts as if his gesture supersedes the actions of Congress." (p.326) Apparently, the inventor of this expansive use of signing statements was none other than the newly appointed Supreme Court Justice, Samuel Alito.
Blumenthal is a firm supporter of the New Deal and its successor programs, and readers of a libertarian bent will not find entirely congenial his comments on domestic policy. Yet even here he makes a most valuable point. Bush has proposed to "privatize" Social Security; but the transition costs for his program, which I venture to add is not genuine privatization at all, are enormous: Robert Rubin, a former secretary of the treasury, "calculates that the transition costs of Bush's plan for the first ten years will be at least $2 trillion, and $4.5 trillion for the second ten years." (p.133) What we have here is a massive increase in government spending, disguised as a move toward free enterprise.
In my customary nitpicking fashion, I noted a few mistakes. Those who accept Bush's false claims about Iraq are not examples of William James's "will to believe" (p.58). This phrase does not refer to cases where one believes something against the evidence. Rather, James had in mind a situation where, in the absence of evidence favoring one option over another, one is forced to choose. Bismarck's Kulturkampf was much more severe than a mere defensive response to aggressive papal claims. Priests who opposed the chancellor's measures were banished or imprisoned. (p.170) Blumenthal's amusing reference to a "mystical séance summoning shades of the Founding Fathers" (p.221), leaves one of its intended targets, Justice Scalia, untouched. Scalia rejects entirely reliance on the intent of those who enact a law. His version of originalism is concerned with public meaning.
Blumenthal's principal argument parallels, in a remarkable way, Mises's case against economic interventionism. Mises maintained that it was not necessary to challenge the goals of the interventionists. One can demonstrate that even from their own point of view, the measures that they support fail. In like fashion, Blumenthal shows that even if one accepts the dominant assumptions that guided American foreign and domestic policy during the Cold War, one has every reason to reject the dictatorial and futile policies of those now in power.
October 20, 2006
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