The evolution of America's preemptive-strike policy

Bush's war cabinet has been training for 30 years

As Lewis "Scooter" Libby watched his boss, Vice President Dick Cheney, in the chaotic hours following the 9/11 attacks, he recalled Winston Churchill's description of becoming prime minister: "I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial."

According to James Mann, author of "Rise of the Vulcans," that sense of preparation is shared by all members of Bush's war cabinet, the subject of this new book. Mann meticulously pores through the past three decades to show how the education, experiences, careers, and interactions of this elite group led them to overhaul America's national security strategy to one advocating sole, preemptive action based on America's superpower status.

The members of this group are Cheney; Colin Powell, secretary of State; Donald Rumsfeld, secretary of Defense; Condoleezza Rice, national security adviser, Paul Wolfowitz, assistant secretary of Defense; and Richard Armitage, assistant secretary of State.

They began calling themselves the Vulcans - after the Roman god of fire and metal works - as they consulted during the Bush presidential campaign in 2000. It "captured perfectly the image the Bush foreign policy team sought to convey, a sense of power, toughness, resilience, and durability," Mann writes.

Reading through the book is a bit like watching these men - and a single woman - play baseball for Little League, then college and minor league teams, and finally end up in spring training for the majors. But it's also much more: It's a 30-year history of America's behavior with the rest of the world, an account of the way this country's foreign policy has evolved.

The Vulcans have been inextricably linked with each other and various Republican presidential administrations since Richard Nixon was in office. Their paths frequently crossed and intertwined. Their vast experiences, especially those dealing with the cold war, the Vietnam War, Iran-contra, and the first Gulf War, largely informed the positions they took after 9/11.

Mann - a former Los Angeles Times reporter - takes a journalistic, dispassionate approach to this work. It's a must-read for those wanting to understand America's role in the world.

Mann shows how the current administration arrived at its unilateralist approach, but he also points out that the policy didn't begin with President Bush.

The Clinton administration, although more globally minded in pressing for open markets and democracy, was unilateralist, too, Mann argues. It refused to sign the international treaty banning land mines. It would not join the International Criminal Court. It did not submit the Kyoto treaty on the environment to Congress for ratification. Moreover, President Clinton launched a major military intervention in Kosovo without UN approval.

"When Democrats held the White House, they turned up the economic treble," Mann writes. "When the Republicans took over, they turned up the military bass."

But Mann shows how, in the tradition of Churchill, the members of this administration were prepared for their current jobs. He describes how Cheney and Mr. Rumsfeld mysteriously disappeared at least once a year during the 1980s. Cheney was a US congressman at the time, and Rumsfeld had temporarily left public service for private business in Chicago. The two, along with 40 to 60 other federal officials, and one member of President Ronald Reagan's Cabinet, silently slipped out of Washington in the middle of the night as part of one of the most highly classified missions during the Reagan administration.

At their top-secret destinations - usually a remote military installation - they practiced setting up a separate US government in case the US and Soviet Union engaged in a nuclear war. The rules they devised for replacing missing office-holders differ substantially from those outlined in the Constitution.

"This clandestine program of the 1980s served as the hidden backdrop to the operations of the second Bush administration in the hours, days, and months after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon," Mann writes.

"The Rise of the Vulcans" also addresses the rumored disagreements between the two highest officials at the State Department - Colin Powell and Richard Armitage - and the two highest officials at the Department of Defense - Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz. Mann chronicles those, but also shows how these players believe in one central issue: the power and use of the US military.

"There is no doubt that the attacks of September 11 had a profound impact on the Vulcans, as they did on the rest of the nation," Mann writes.

"What shaped the Vulcans' distinctive response to that trauma? Not all foreign policy teams would have carried out a war on terrorism that led, with ever-greater determination, to the invasion of Iraq.... The answers to such questions could be found in the careers and ideas of the Vulcans over the previous 30 years."

Mann does a very credible job of showing us exactly how that preparation took place.

Faye Bowers is a reporter in the Monitor's Washington bureau.

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