The New York Times April 5, 2003
How Books Have Shaped U.S. Policy By MICHIKO KAKUTANI
President Bush has never been known as a bookworm. An instinctive politician who goes with his gut, he has usually left the heavy reading in the family to his wife, Laura, a former librarian. He is “often uncurious and as a result ill informed,” his former speechwriter, David Frum, wrote in a memoir this year, adding that “conspicuous intelligence seemed actively unwelcome in the Bush White House.”
It is curious then that books by historians, philosophers and policy analysts have played a significant role in shaping and promulgating the administration’s thinking about foreign policy, America’s place in the world and the war against Iraq.
Michael Harrington’s book “The Other America” is widely credited with helping catalyze the Kennedy-Johnson war on poverty in the 1960’s and the creation of Great Society programs. George Gilder’s book “Wealth and Poverty” was publicly endorsed by President Ronald Reagan, who embraced its message of tax cuts. George H. W. Bush’s comparison of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait to Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland was informed by his reading of Martin Gilbert’s book “The Second World War.” And Robert D. Kaplan’s book “Balkan Ghosts,” which emphasized the ancient hatreds of the region, is said to have contributed to the initial reservations of President Bill Clinton about becoming more boldly involved there.
In this White House, no single book is pivotal, but an array of writings â€¹ many by neoconservative authors closely affiliated with administration officials or their intellectual mentors â€¹ have provided a fertile philosophical matrix for policy decisions as various as the doctrine of pre-emption and civilian oversight of military affairs.
Indeed Mr. Bush, whose father was accused of lacking the “vision thing,” presides over an administration that is driven in high degree by big and often abstract theories: theories that promote a “moral” (some might say moralistic) approach to foreign policy; an unembarrassed embrace of power; a detestation of relativistic thinking; and an often Manichaean view of the world that, like the president’s language, manages to be darkly Hobbesian and willfully optimistic at the same time.
It is less a matter of outside scholars and experts preaching to members of the administration than an incestuous world of policy making, policy analysis and historical commentary in which like-minded colleagues and friends trade ideas, egg one another on and sometimes provide spin on one another’s behalf. In the last few years a growing number of theorists have published books to promote their ideas. Most of them have a distinctively instructive or prescriptive tone: this is what is wrong (with America, with the military, with the world); this is what needs to be done to fix it.
Last summer President Bush â€¹ whose favorite book had been Marquis James’s 1929 biography of Sam Houston, who evolved from being the man the Cherokees called Big Drunk to the father of Texas â€¹ made it known that he was reading “Supreme Command” by Eliot A. Cohen, a member of the Defense Policy Board (along with its former chairman, Richard N. Perle) and a professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (where Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz was once dean). The book was widely circulated at the Defense and State Departments and came emblazoned with a blurb from the editor of The Weekly Standard, William Kristol, saying it was the single volume he most wished Mr. Bush to read.
On March 21, as the war was beginning, Mr. Kristol said at the American Enterprise Institute that Mr. Bush “seems to understand, better than many presidents, I would say, the lesson of our friend Eliot Cohen’s book of about a year ago, `Supreme Command,’ that political strategy should drive military strategy.” The ubiquitous Mr. Kristol is also the author, along with Lawrence F. Kaplan, of a new book called “The War Over Iraq: Saddam’s Tyranny and America’s Mission,” which applauds the administration’s determination to “liberate” Iraq and tries to place the president’s “robust approach to the international scene” in the tradition of Ronald Reagan and Harry S. Truman.
As for the Cohen book, its central thesis, in Clemenceau’s famous words, is that “war is too important to be left to the generals.” It exhorts civilian leaders to query, prod and give orders to their subordinates â€¹ an interesting thesis given the allegations in the military that Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld ignored the advice of senior officers and initially committed insufficient troops to Iraq.
“Supreme Command” charges that the president’s father abdicated responsibility in favor of the military in the first Persian Gulf war, ending it too early and allowing Saddam Hussein to stay in power. In interviews Mr. Cohen has chided the American military, saying he is wary when it naÃ¯vely dabbles in geopolitics. One example he has cited concerns the military’s worry that the Arab street might erupt in protest if the United States ousted President Hussein. And he has praised Mr. Rumsfeld for exercising the sort of civilian control over the Pentagon that he admires.
“The point is that Rumsfeld is really â€¹ is on top,” Mr. Cohen told Brit Hume of Fox News last year. “He’s asking the tough, probing questions. Churchill once said, it’s always right to probe, and I think that’s the right motto for a civilian leader.” Two of Mr. Rumsfeld’s favorite books are reportedly William Manchester’s biography of Winston Churchill, “The Last Lion,” and Roberta Wohlstetter’s study of intelligence failure, “Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision.”
Several books and thinkers also appear to have helped form the thinking of Vice President Dick Cheney, whose position on Iraq became increasingly akin to that of neoconservatives like Mr. Kristol in the year after 9/11. Last fall he read “An Autumn of War” by Victor Davis Hanson, a classicist, military historian and National Review contributor, whom he later invited to dinner. In that volume Mr. Hanson wrote approvingly of the ancient Greek view of war as “terrible but innate to civilization â€¹ and not always unjust or amoral if it is waged for good causes to destroy evil and save the innocent.”
He asserted that we were in an “outright bloody war against tyranny, intolerance and theocracy,” and he called for going to war “hard, long, without guilt, apology or respite until our enemies are no more.”
Newsweek said that “Cheney told his aides that Hanson’s book reflected his philosophy.”
Newsweek also reported that after 9/11 Mr. Cheney spent much of his time in an undisclosed location reading books about weapons of mass destruction and consulting with scholars about the Middle East. Among them was Bernard Lewis, the Princeton historian who wrote the best-selling “What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response” and was a participant in a pre-Sept. 11 study of ancient empires, sponsored by Mr. Rumsfeld’s office, to understand how they maintained their dominance.
Mr. Lewis reportedly told Mr. Cheney that the Arab world looked down on weakness and respected the exercise of force. After talks with him and other Middle East experts like the Johns Hopkins scholar Fouad Ajami, Time reported, Mr. Cheney “gradually abandoned his former skepticism about the potential for democracy in the Middle East,” a development that became a tipping point in the tilt toward war.
Early this year Mr. Lewis wrote an article for Newsweek International in which he made a case for American intervention in Iraq and argued that “worries about Iraqi civilians â€¹ fighting in the streets, popular resistance” were overblown. Now Mr. Lewis has written an article for The Wall Street Journal Europe in which he argues that Iraqis may be reluctant to welcome American soldiers because antiwar protests reinforce their worry that “the United States may flinch from finishing the job.”
Mr. Hanson also predicted a quick war, three to four weeks, he told The Los Angeles Times, while Mr. Cohen told the House Armed Services Committee last October that establishing a moderate regime in Baghdad “would have beneficial consequences well beyond Iraq, including in our war against Islamic extremism.”
Many of the thinkers in the continuing dialogue among administration officials and the neoconservatives urging them toward war wear several hats. For instance, Robert Kagan is best known as the author of the hot new policy book “Of Paradise and Power,” in which he writes that on “major strategic and international questions today, Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus.”
Although the book has been hailed for its incisive and in some ways prescient analysis of trans-Atlantic differences, it can also be read as a defense of America’s aggressive unilateralism. Mr. Kagan has played a prominent role, along with Mr. Kristol, at the Project for the New American Century, a group that calls for the United States to adopt a muscular military posture and “challenge regimes hostile to our interests and values.”
Among the people who signed the project’s 1997 statement of principles were Mr. Cheney, Mr. Rumsfeld, Mr. Wolfowitz, I. Lewis Libby (Mr. Cheney’s chief of staff) and Mr. Cohen. Also signing were Mr. Kagan’s father, the Yale classics professor Donald Kagan (who provided an enthusiastic blurb for Mr. Hanson’s book), and the theorist Francis Fukuyama, whose 1992 book, “The End of History and the Last Man,” famously (and to some, absurdly) trumpeted the triumph of the West and the exhaustion of alternatives to liberal democracy.
Supporters of the Project group like Mr. Fukuyama, Mr. Wolfowitz and William J. Bennett (former secretary of education) â€¹ along with other neocons like Justice Clarence Thomas and Alan Keyes (the conservative presidential candidate) â€¹ are followers of the late Leo Strauss, who was a political philosopher at the University of Chicago and a godfather of sorts to the neocon movement. “Straussians,” the conservative author Dinesh D’Souza has written, like to use the philosophy of “natural right” â€¹ which for the ancients was a basis for differentiating between right and wrong â€¹ “to defend liberal democracy and moral values against their adversaries both foreign and indigenous.” Many of Strauss’s ideas were popularized by Allan Bloom, who was the author of the best seller “The Closing of the American Mind” and a mentor to both Mr. Fukuyama and Mr. Wolfowitz (who became the inspiration for a minor character in “Ravelstein,” Saul Bellow’s 2000 roman Ã clef about Bloom).
Both Strauss and Bloom reviled moral relativism, invoked the teaching of the classics and took an elitist view of education. As teachers in the Socratic tradition, they also ardently believed in mentors, a role that Mr. Kristol, an avowed Straussian, filled so energetically as Vice President Dan Quayle’s chief of staff that he became known as “Dan Quayle’s brain.”
In “Ravelstein,” Mr. Bellow, described the Wolfowitz and Bloom characters talking about Desert Storm. “And it was essential to fit up-to-the-minute decisions in the gulf war â€¹ made by obviously limited pols like Bush and Baker,” he wrote, “into a true-as-possible picture of the forces at work â€¹ into the political history of this civilization.” In 1992 Mr. D’Souza put it this way: “Straussians have an intellectual rigor that is very attractive. They have extolled the idea of the statesman and the notion of advising the great, the prince, like Machiavelli or Aristotle. This is necessary because the prince is not always the smartest guy in the world.”