Vanity Fair contributing editor Craig Unger on the Bush family feud, neoconservatives and the Christian right
Monday, November 12, 2007
In a recent interview with the Dalai Lama’s Representative to the Americas, Tashi Wangdi, David Shankbone remarked to him that Americans have trouble relating to centuries-long conflicts that exist between peoples around the world, including those in Asia. Many Asian countries dislike each other tremendously, and the conflict over Tibet is just one enduring multi-national battle.
According to Vanity Fair contributing editor Craig Unger, it is not that Americans do not have these deep-seeded conflicts; it is that they do not remember them and thus have no context in which to see them as they resurface in our political culture.
On the same day he spoke to the Dalai Lama’s representative, Shankbone sat down with Unger, author of The New York Times best-seller House of Bush, House of Saud. In his new book, The Fall of the House of Bush, Unger attempts to fill in some of the blanks of an epochal narrative in American politics. Using a mix of painstaking research, interviews with cultural and political leaders and delving into previously classified records to come up with some overview of how America has arrived at this particular political moment.
To make sense of such complicated history, Unger draws upon three themes: He illustrates the conflict within the modern Republican Party via the oedipal conflict between George W. Bush and his father, George H.W. Bush. Things are not well within the House of Bush. Bush Jr. has not only shut out his father and his allies from his administration—something Bob Woodward discovered in his interviews with the President—but he also appointed many of his father’s bitterest enemies to key cabinet positions.
Unger’s second theme draws upon this Bush family feud: many of Bush Sr.’s foes happen to be leaders of the neoconservative movement, who had been working against the President’s father since the 1970’s. Back then the neoconservatives did not have a base of political support within the Republican Party, which brings Unger to his third theme: the marriage between the neoconservatives and the Christian right to create a formidable ideological block.
Unger is a Fellow at the Center for Law and Security at NYU’s School of Law. In addition to his work at Vanity Fair, he is a former editor-in-chief of Boston Magazine, and former Deputy Editor of the New York Observer. A journalist of the old school who believes in verifying his sources’ veracity, Unger illuminates the Republican Party’s ideological struggle between the old and the new and traces its history for those who do know it.
Unger disputes the recent assertion by The New York Times that these forces are dead; they are thriving. Below is David Shankbone’s interview with Craig Unger about his book, The Fall of the House of Bush.
On the likelihood of an attack on Iran before the 2008 election
David Shankbone: Tim Wirth sent David Mixner this article by Jim Holt in the London Review of Books, and Mixner sent me a link to it. It posits that the Bush administration has all along planned on having a permanent military presence in Iraq. Have you seen it?
- Craig Unger: I skimmed this and I know the thirty trillion dollar figure. What is astonishing about the neocons if you read them, is how little they mention oil. You can characterize their plans as strategic dominance in the Middle East for the United States and oil is obviously a part of that. I don’t know if Holt means it ironically or intentionally, but I think it is oversimplifying to say, “Oh, it’s exactly as they intended.” Although there are people like Michael Ledeen who say “Let’s turn it into a steaming cauldron”—those are his words.
- I would never say things went exactly as planned. If you go back to the work of David Wurmser, for example, they really believed that a Shia like Chalabi would take over Iraq and be pro-west and recognize Israel. They talk about the Hashemite among the Shia in Iraq rising up and they hoped they would overthrow the mullahs in Iran. Obviously, that hasn’t happened.
DS: You’ve written that Iran is definitely on the agenda for a military strike by the Americans.
- CU: Oh, absolutely. It’s possible it will occur under Bush, but if not and a Republican wins they will do it. The neocons are in Giuliani’s camp, such as Norman Podhoretz and Daniel Pipes.
DS: If the neconservatives succeed, two years into the future where will we be?
- CU: The biggest single question is Iran. If we bomb Iran, they will immediately block the Persian Gulf. The Strait of Hormuz is only about thirty miles wide and forty percent of the world’s oil goes through there. Cruise missiles can easily hit Saudi oil facilities. Oil will shoot to $200, maybe $300 a barrel. At the pump it’s hard to calculate, but that would mean at $6 a gallon. We currently have minesweepers in the Gulf, which suggests we are right there for that possibility. That’s one of the scary things. But it unleashes uncontrollable forces. If you have the Saudis attacked by Iran you have the Sunni-Shia conflict erupting throughout the entire region. There’s an inverse correlation between the price of the dollar and oil, so as oil goes up, the dollar goes down. The dollar is already weak and would plummet accordingly, which would start a global recession. There would be a global oil war during a period where we may be approaching peak oil—I know that concept is controversial—but its also at a time when China’s energy needs are going through the roof; their imports are going up as much as forty percent a year. Their energy consumption is going through the roof, and the same with India. We used to be the lone huge consumer and it didn’t bother anyone, but now there are real rivals out there. And in geostrategic terms, we are getting in a weaker and weaker position. If you look at the costs of the Iraq War, 4,000 Americans dead, hundreds of thousand of Iraq dead, four million refugees, hundreds of billions of dollars spent; but in geostrategic terms we are weaker off, Israel is much weaker, and the only beneficiary has been Iran, whose GDP has gone through the roof because of the price of oil has gone from $22 to $98.
DS: Are there any Republican front-runners that would not undertake an assault on Iran?
- CU: The only one is not a front-runner: Ron Paul. I don’t think there is a single Republican who has tried to discredit Bush’s policies. One of my concerns addressed in this book is I don’t want people to think, “Oh, the Bushs are gone, it’s all over.” No, no, no. We’re going to be paying for this for decades. The Christian right and the neocons: that is the Republican Party today. It transcends Bush. Bush became the vehicle through whom they carried out their policies.
DS: So it could have been anybody but they ingratiated themselves with Bush?
- CU: He was an ideal vehicle. Partly he has a name that was identified with the old Republican establishment—
DS: And he wasn’t particularly well-informed, giving them an “in” to educate him?
- CU: That’s for sure. A lot of voters thought they were getting his father. Wall Street Republicans thought of him as a moderate. He used terms like “ Compassionate Conservative” that were perceived as moderate. I have a chapter called “Dog Whistle Politics” where he’s speaking one language to the general public, and another to his base. So compassionate conservatism is precisely that. It really was a program for taking away the social safety net and giving it to right-wing churches. It was a movement that was about anything but a liberal safety net.
DS: Within the United States, what are the neoconservatives and Christian right concerned will happen that could scuttle their agenda?
- CU: The Democrats winning, obviously, which is one reason they might bomb Iran before the election. That would change the dynamic of the entire election. I think there are two possibilities: are they going to do it before the next election? I don’t have the answer and I can’t predict it, but it would be a disaster. It would change the dynamics of the election that they are soft on terrorism, they want to throw Israel to Iran—
DS: Would that still work after all this time?
- CU: The Zogby Poll just showed 52% of Americans think we should bomb Iran. The media has not improved at all since the Iraq War, and 90% of Americans were behind that. Part of the problem is that this jingoist stuff you might expect from Fox News, but when The New York Times becomes a mouthpiece for Dick Cheney, you then form a consensus in the national conversation and anyone critical is marginalized.
This history behind the Bush family feud
DS: Is there a movement within the Republican Party that is working against the fundamentalism in the party?
- CU: I frame it in an almost oedipal way—the first chapter is called “Oedipus Tex”—and they have lost. It was Bush Sr. and his best friend Scowcroft against Bush Jr. On the surface there were no words between them; they would play horseshoes and talk nice about their houses and Midland.
DS: Bob Woodward was astonished when Bush Jr. told him he had not spoken to Bush Sr. about the Iraq War at all. Do you come across what is behind that?
- CU: First, George W. Bush was not the favorite son by a long-shot. Jeb was, and even Neil was ahead of them. But in 1994 you had George W. and Jeb running for governor of Texas and Florida, respectively, and exactly the reverse happened of what people expected: that George would lose and Jeb would win. The opposite happened. In 1998, George wins reelection and suddenly he’s a two-term governor of a very visible state who has positioned himself for the Presidency. He knows nothing about foreign policy. He had only left the country one time, which was to visit his daughter in Italy. He had no curiosity about the world. Bush Sr. decides they have to educate him about it, so they bring in Prince Bandar and Condi Rice and begin a series of seminars. They are thinking the old guard—by that I mean Brent Scowcroft, Condi Rice, James Baker,Colin Powell—will take charge; that is not what happens at all. In late 1998 the neocons quickly move in, and you have Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and Elliott Abrams making semi-secret trips down to Texas.
DS: That was to educate Bush? The Daily Show did this piece where they did a debate splicing Texas Governor Bush’s views of what he said when he was governor versus what he has said as President, and they are polar opposites. When he was governor he was saying we can’t go out nation-building.
- CU: Right. If you carefully, carefully examine what is happening, Richard Perle comes back from one of those trips and tells a breakfast meeting in 1999 that Bush is going to carry out their plan to overturn Saddam. Bush himself says it in the fall of 1999 and says, “I’m going to take him out.” Afterwards people call him on it and ask, “You’re going to take out Saddam?” and he gets criticized for it mercilessly. He backs down and says, ‘No, no, I mean take out the weapons of mass destruction.” He backs off and attacks Gore as you say, and says we are not going to do nation-building instead. But he’s had these private conversations; Stephen Hadley tells these private fundraisers that Bush’s first priority is going to be to overthrow Saddam. This is in early 2000. I paid a lot of attention to the period just after the election was settled. Some fascinating things happen—I wrote about this as a Salon expert; it’s a Wolfowitz story—the neocons realize if they want to carry out the Iraq War, they need to control the intelligence apparatus. The perfect way to do this is to make Paul Wolfowitz the head of the CIA.
DS: What was the problem with the intelligence apparatus at that time that the neocons needed to take control of it?
- CU: If you go back all the way to the mid-1970s, the neocons were distorting intelligence even back then. They had an operation known as Team B. From there I start tracing five neocons who are on the staff of Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson. He was a muscular Democrat. He was strong on labor, but a hard-line Cold Warrior who wanted to roll back the Soviet Union. The neocons grew out of that. His hero is Albert Wohlstetter, who was one of the models for Dr. Strangelove. 1976 is the era of détente, and the neocons hate this; they fear losing their favorite enemy, the Soviet Union. They are saying the CIA is coming up with much too rosy of predictions and they don’t believe the intelligence. Who takes over the CIA at this point? George H.W. Bush. They decide they have to go to battle against him and they form what is known as Team B, which starts an “alternative intelligence assessment.” It effectively says the CIA is all wrong and that we have to redo their intelligence. But Team B’s estimates were completely inaccurate. I go into considerable detail of how they vastly, vastly overestimated the power of the Soviet Union.
DS: How did they bring Team B into the present?
- CU: What you see back then are events that prefigure the Iraq War to an enormous extent. The key operatives in the White House then are the youngest Chief of Staff in the history of the United States, Dick Cheney; and the youngest Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. They are siding with Team B. Here you have thirty years ago the beginning of this alliance between Rumsfeld, Cheney, Wolfowitz and Richard Perle.
Bush appoints his father's enemies to his Cabinet
DS: So Rumsfeld and Cheney are not seen as old Bush Sr. people.
- CU: Rumsfeld is probably the bitterest, bitterest enemy of George H.W. Bush ever.
DS: Weren’t they considered part of the realpolitik school?
- CU: Cheney was, but not Rumsfeld. And Cheney was Rumsfeld’s protégé.
DS: What effect did it have on Bush Sr. that some of his bitterest foes were assuming positions in his son’s administration?
- CU: He is famously nonresponsive on this, but James Baker spoke out. What you see going on in December 2000 is that Bush Jr.’s team had decided on Indiana Senator Dan Coats for Secretary of Defense.
DS: I remember that mentioned.
- CU: It was because he was against gays in the military. What better qualification could one possibly have, right? They first appoint Colin Powell as Secretary of State, and he has a press conference with Bush in which Powell is so dazzling that Cheney freaks out and says, “My God, Dan Coats will never be able to stand up to him!” They need somebody more powerful. They call in Donald Rumsfeld and James Baker warns Bush, “You know what this guy did to your father.” Rumsfeld had sabotaged Bush Sr. again and again and again. Bush had been considered a likely choice for Vice President under Gerald Ford instead of Nelson Rockefeller, and Rumsfeld kept him off the ticket.
DS: Why was there a dispute between Rumsfeld and Bush Sr.?
- CU: It was ambition. Rumsfeld had Presidential ambitions himself.
Paul Wolfowitz and the Office of Special Plans
DS: Coming back to current times, what continues to transpire in the formation of Bush Jr.’s 2000 cabinet?
- CU: They want to appoint Wolfowitz head of the CIA. Well, there’s a problem: he is dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and he is allegedly caught having an affair with a female staff member. He’s also allegedly having another extramarital relationship with another woman who had become more famous, Shaha Ali Riza.
DS: I believe Riza was called Wolfowitz’s “neoconcubine” by his critics.
- CU: Yes. To him, that relationship was the romantic embodiment of the neocon venture: he’s a secular Jew; she’s a secular Muslim. He parades her on his arm at all the neocon events that season. There’s one person who doesn’t like this situation: Clare Wolfowitz, his wife of thirty years and mother of his three children. She’s not happy.
DS: What does Mrs. Wolfowitz do about his extramarital affairs?
- CU: She’s writes a letter to George W. Bush saying, ‘You can’t possibly make my husband head of the CIA because he’s a security risk,’—she has not commented on this, by the way—that ‘he’s a security risk not just because he has undisclosed relationships, but because one of them is with a foreign national, Shaha Ali Riza.’ This alleged letter I’m told was intercepted by Scooter Libby, who is Wolfowitz’s protégé at Yale and is to become Chief of Staff to Dick Cheney. They are now very wary of putting Wolfowitz up for Congressional hearings; this could be a mess! Instead, they call in Donald Rumsfeld and they see that if they are going to handle intelligence they are going to do it through the Defense Department. This is where the Office of Special Plans gets created.
DS: So they decide to redo the entire intelligence apparatus for Wolfowitz?
- CU: This is an alternative national security apparatus. We spend $40 billion a year on intelligence and a great power has to have accurate intelligence. So they put up disinformation pipelines to have the intelligence they want to back up their policies.
DS: What was the CIA’s reaction to this?
- CU: They awaken to it bit by bit by bit. The people in the CIA who were aware of it became incredibly angry and there were battles and some people who have spoken out about it are former CIA officials and defense intelligence people. Patrick Lang, Ray McGovern, Melvin Goodman, Philip Giraldi, and so on. I ended up with around ten people like that on the record. The Defense Department was going ballistic. Rumsfeld and Cheney, in a stroke of bureaucratic brilliance, devise this way to hijack for the executive branch the whole national security apparatus. They now can stop the bureaucracy when they want to, grease the wheels when they want to; for example, they put in Josh Bolton as under Secretary of State, who acts as a spy watching Colin Powell.
DS: Was Powell aware of this?
- CU: Yes, and he didn’t act. He could easily have fired Bolton. He failed to act.
- CU: He has to answer for that and in the end it was moral cowardice or weakness. The State Department has its own intelligence apparatus, the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, and they were finding fault again and again with the intelligence that was coming out of the new Pentagon unit. INR wanted to discredit Curveball, for instance; they wanted to discredit the aluminum tubes and the Niger documents. So Bolton and his people forbade INR director Greg Thielmann from attending various key meetings. Now you would think Powell would have stood up for his own intelligence unit, but he did not. When it came to the week before the United Nations meeting in which he made his speech, Colin Powell could have had his people there. He did call them to go over the material somewhat, but they were not present to argue out these points of conflict, and as a result, Cheney’s information got in. When they were preparing for the UN meeting, all the intelligence data came from Cheney’s office and not from the CIA.
What the neoconservatives want
DS: What is the end goal with all of these machinations?
- CU: You can see it in the neocon foreign policy papers that they have been writing as early as 1992. The first one was a Defense Department policy guidance paper. Cheney was Defense Secretary and he had under him Wolfowitz, Khalizad and Feith, key neocons who helped formulate this policy, which was considered so radical that Bush Sr. rejected it out of hand. Then you see duplicity on Cheney’s part: publicly he sides with Bush Sr. and Scowcroft , who were very very deliberate. One of the most important foreign policy decisions they made was to not topple Saddam. They had a REAL coalition—unlike the one we have today—of thirty-four countries, eight of which were Arab who supported us throwing Saddam out of Kuwait. They decided, and it was very deliberate, that if they went after Saddam and continued on to Baghdad they would ruin their coalition, alienate their Arab partners, and be mired in a quagmire forever.
DS: Saddam was so unpopular in the region; how did they foresee they would ruin the coalition if they rid Iraq of a very brutal dictator?
- CU: American troops occupying an Arab country is a real, real problem, especially in view of Israel. Notice they kept Israel out of it; they were not part of that coalition. They handled it with certain dexterity and were much tougher on Israel, who was unhappy to some extent. This is where you see enormous bifurcation. Out of this comes the effort to sabotage the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The term “a clean break” comes out of a very important neocon policy paper called “A Clean Break from the Land for Peace Process.” It means they are throwing that out, which is very interesting because that was official American policy, it was the Oslo policy, and it was even Israeli policy at that point.
DS: It still is.
- CU: Theoretically, but they have sabotaged it so badly. Netanyahu did not make good on a lot of the promises…
DS: Arafat didn’t—
- CU: Arafat backed out.
DS: So what is the end goal?
- CU: It’s a strategic vision of the Middle East.
DS: To control it?
- CU: Yes, and they saw Iraq becoming at worst something like Jordan, which is a Hashemite Kingdom that is pro-west and reasonably nice to Israel. We’d have military bases there and we’d have oil deals. Iraq would be a beachhead from which we could go on to Iran. And Iran is a great prize. In 1996 Netanyahu comes to Washington, he’s presented with the Clean Break policy by Richard Perle, and a couple of days later he makes an address before a joint session of Congress and borrows from A Clean Break, but he adds a new country and says ‘the most important country in the region is Iran.’
DS: Was that a surprise?
- CU: What’s interesting is that you start to hear the terms “Democracy in the Middle East” and “Democratization” and what you realize is that it’s not about democratization at all, it’s about strategic dominance of the region, and that’s what their policy has been about.
The Christian right and the neoconservatives
DS: In your book you talk about a confluence of social forces. You have the Christian right and you have the neoconservatives, who came together to assist each other in their agendas.
- CU: Absolutely. This goes way, way back.
DS: To the 1970s?
- CU: Certainly to the 1970’s. The Christian right is part of the DNA of America. I go back to English Puritanism, and you see John Winthrop in the 1630’s saying, “We are starting a shining city on a hill.” Shining city on a hill means we’re the New Jerusalem, we’re the new Zion. America is the Promised Land. What we do is ordained by God. This is Christian Zionism. It is a phrase that has never appeared in the New York Times, but it is an incredibly powerful force that is operative today. It has been picked up by the Christian right and unites them with Israel. It brings together the Christian right, the neocons and the Israeli right: Likud and Benyamin Netanyahu.
- You see it come alive in the seventies. Prime Minister Menachem Begin, the first non-Labor Prime Minister in Israel, called Jerry Falwell realizing that America is only 2.5% Jewish and they need a broader base. About 30% of America is evangelical. If you read the Bible, the Abrahamic covenant in Genesis where God says to , “ I give to you this land between the Euphrates and the Nile.” If you believe in biblical inerrancy, as evangelicals do, then you have to believe, “I shall bless those who bless thee; I shall curse those who curse thee.” That’s in Genesis, and I talked to Falwell and a lot of evangelicals. I traveled undercover with Tim LeHay.
DS: Did they openly talk to you about these things?
- CU: Yes, this alliance is not a secret. What I do in the book is reframe the entire paradigm. Everyone talks about “Islam vs. The West” and I say that no, it’s fundamentalism—and by that I mean Christian and Jewish fundamentalism, not just Islamic—against the modern, post-Enlightenment world, and it happens that our government is on the wrong side. We are carrying out a fundamentalist foreign policy.
DS: How did the neoconservatives and Christian right come together?
- CU: They play very different roles. The neocons are an ideological vanguard and the Christian right is a mass electoral base. You have a couple hundred thousand pastors who can bring them together. The role is the way the unions used to be for the Democratic Party, for example. You had Netanyahu calling Jerry Falwell, which I told you about. You also have people like Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein who formed the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. He has worked with a lot of the evangelicals. It has been fostered by the Israeli right and the neocons. I asked Michael Ledeen why he was on the 700 Club and he said, “It’s just we like to promote our views.” People like Gary Bauer have participated in a lot of these policy discussions. You have people like Tom DeLay proclaiming himself as a Christian Zionist openly, or Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma. They would say it’s not a political issue whether Israel should have this land, that it’s a biblical certainty. This has to happen.
DS: It would seemingly take a lot of collusion between them. How does it work?
- CU: The Christian right are not policy-makers in general, though there is a Council for National Policy. Falwell told me it’s an umbrella group overseeing all these evangelical groups. It has four or five hundred members and I list some. They are the big honchos of the Christian right, and within that is a smaller group called The Arlington Group, which has about fifty people. They were in regular contact with Karl Rove on a regular basis.
DS: Bush is convinced this is all God’s will?
- CU: I go back to the Puritans for a reason because we are the new Zion and what we do is God’s will. I have a very interesting quote by Rabbi Daniel Lapin, an Orthodox rabbi who met with Bush. He says that Bush believes God has a mission for America and, “In that belief he is no different from the Founders who actually saw themselves replaying the Israelites crossing the Red Sea…” When he speaks of the “Founders” he is not talking of Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine; he is talking about Cotton Mather and John Winthrop. When you got to Liberty University you see the halls have portraits of the great Puritans as precursors of the evangelicals. Yes, I believe that Bush thinks what he has done has been ordained by God. He’s smart enough not to talk about it in those terms.
Orthodox Jews and Fundamentalist Christians
DS: You have a chapter about the assassination of Yitzak Rabin; how did that advance the neoconservative agenda?
- CU: It’s one of the least understood events in contemporary history and it is really important in terms of our policy today. Yes, it was done by this one right-wing Israeli, but it was ordained by Orthodox rabbis because Rabin was backing the land-for-peace process. It’s parallel to the Sadat assassination by Islamic fundamentalists. Rabin was breaking Halakhic law by supporting land for peace because it is divinely-ordained land.
DS: Are the Israeli orthodox Jews in touch with the Christian right in the United States?
- CU: Completely. And the neocons are a secular version of that, and you see it start coming together, and Netanyahu becomes one of the great backers of an alliance with the Christian right. Michael Ledeen is going on Pat Roberton’s 700 Club shows. You start to have this weaving together.
DS: What does the Christian right have to gain from this?
- CU: It’s theological.
DS: The End of Days?
- CU: Yes, Christ will not return until that land is given back to the Jews. I try to draw this in the book. People try to talk about the Culture Wars, Red State/Blue State. But no, it’s much deeper than that. It goes back to the founding of America and the Puritans, really. I thought I grew up in a country that put a man on the moon, unraveled the human genome, that discovered DNA and invented the iPod, but no. No western country believes so strongly in Creationism and that the world was born 6,000 years ago; that evolution is wrong. This war is deep and profound and what’s happened now is the government is run by people who believe in dictating our policies based upon the Bible.
DS: This is so much material to be covered in just one book.
- CU: Yes, because you can see it in the judiciary. So many students come from Pat Robertson’s law school—
DS: They have a model of the Supreme Court for arguing these fights.
- CU: Right. So many of the people in the White House come from Patrick Henry College. It used to be you went to the Ivy League. Now they have people who are homeschooled by evangelicals because they didn’t want them to be poisoned by the secular public school system.
DS: Our society has always been complicated, but there are so many layers to this complex onion of a social movement that it must have been a challenge to articulate it in your book. We hold a lot of myths about our history.
- CU: This book goes from biblical times to English Puritanism to espionage and intelligence battles at Langley to the Likudniks in Israel to the assassination of Rabin to the Deep South and the Bible Belt today. You do see the same themes again and again. I tried to do a narrative with three narrative lines: The rise of the neocons in the 1970’s; the rise of the Christian right, which goes back to Biblical times through English Puritanism and the founding of America to becoming a powerful force in American politics and taking over the government because they have a leader who is now President of the United States. It’s important to understand that the Christian right thinks of Bush as a leader, or they have. Although he certainly has lost credibility, the Christian right is not dead at all. I would take issue with The New York Times in their cover story a week or so ago where they proclaim the death of the Christian right, which they do that same story time and again.
DS: Exactly, they recycle the same thematic stories over and over and that one has been written before.
- CU: Right. I also try to weave it through the father-son battle. Although I have written critically of Bush Sr. in the past, he certainly is within the framework of the post-Enlightenment reason and reality-based world. There is this quiet sub-rosa battle in which he uses intermediaries in the book like Scowcroft. If there’s a tragic hero in the book, it’s Scowcroft, who is in a very delicate position because he doesn’t want to jeopardize his close friendship with Bush Sr.
DS: But Scowcroft is loathed by George W.’s administration for coming out against his foreign policy.
- CU: Right, and now Scowcroft speaks out early and often. He’ll see what’s happening and does what he can, but ultimately he fails.
DS: What does Bush Sr. think or say about Scowcroft’s public statements?
- CU: They are still friends. He rarely comments on them, and he doesn’t like to be called out about it. There have been a couple of incidents that I open the book with, statements by Bush Jr. that have been perceived as digs at his father, such as saying “We don’t want to cut and run again.”
DS: Why would Bush Sr. not feel he has a moral obligation to the nation to make his feelings known to his son instead of keeping quiet and not speaking up?
- CU: I’m wary of psychoanalyzing him, but I believe they don’t discuss it. He’s come forth several times and said, “Look, why don’t you talk to Scowcroft or James Baker” and he kind of leaves it at that. The Iraq Study Group report did have some earmarks of anger venting . Scowcroft actually goes to Egypt and Saudi Arabia to get their support of the Iraq Study Group plan. He also goes to Condi Rice, who is the last person from that world who seems to have real access to Bush, and talks to her about it. She seems to sign on and at one point she says something like, “Well, when do you think we should do this?” and Scowcroft says, “Not we, you.” She never really does anything; she never stands up. She has become an enabler for the neocons such as Wolfowitz, who have convinced Bush to believe that we have to democratize the entire Middle East, topple Saddam, and only then can we deal with the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Of course, that’s absolutely disastrous.
DS: The neoconservative’s policies are so high-risk and there are so many things that could make it go even more wrong. Grover Norquist came out and said that nothing the supporters of the war said would happen with Iraq has happened, and that everything the critics said would happen has happened. If Mubarak suddenly dies in Egypt and that country erupts into a civil war, which is a scenario that is often discussed as likely, that would implode the region even further. How do they account for all these risks they are laying in the lap of the United States?
- CU: I’m not sure I have a good answer for that, but I can say they are REAL ideologues. It’s worth going back to their history and a lot of this stuff is toxic, third-rail stuff. David Brooks attacked me as a conspiracy nut. The point isn’t that the neocons had this weird Communist conspiracy or anything like that, but that they were trained ideologues and trained in ideological battles and sectarian disputes. They purge people who disagree with them and work in an echo-chamber environment where they don’t admit any facts that contradict their preconceived ideas. You see them operate as this ideological cadre. They purged people in the State Department who were part of the Realist crowd, and I go into that. They’ve had the same ideas for thirty years.
On the press
DS: What sort of reaction do you get to your work?
- CU: That’s a good question. The reaction to my previous book was actually terrific, but it’s interesting the patterns. In Europe—England, Spain, The Netherlands—it was terrific and I am thought of as a reasoned Centrist. I am not thought of as particularly left-wing in any way.
DS: You painstakingly researched this—
- CU: I have over 2,000 footnotes there. So in Spain my publisher, Planeta, is considered a center-right company and they made me the big book of their season. In Europe I am considered a straight-ahead reporter. In the United States I tend to be shunned by the mainstream media, almost completely, especially by the White House press corp.
DS: Who have lost almost all credibility with the public...
- CU: But they are still there.
DS: We’re stuck with them.
- CU: Right, but they haven’t changed, so I will get almost nothing from them. This includes the supposedly liberal New York Times. I deal with the press to a fair extent in the book; not as much as I would like because that’s a whole interview in itself.
DS: I interviewed Gay Talese, who had nothing but contempt for the Washington press corps. He feels they should be broken up and dispersed around the country to report on the federal government. Report on Washington from Denver, from Austin...national reporting from the states.
- CU: It’s shocking the difference between the British and the Americans. The huge part of it is the addiction to access. It’s opportunism—
DS: You get to go to a party; you get to ride in Air Force One—
- CU: Right! “I want that interview with Donald Rumsfeld so I’m not going to do anything to alienate him by writing a story that is critical of him.” And when you get that story you end up writing exactly what he tells you and it ain’t the truth.
DS: Just to be able to say, “I interviewed Donald Rumsfeld.”
- CU: Right, you get front page and it helps you within your newspaper. You’re considered a star at whatever publication there is. That’s how the phony stories of WMDs got in The New York Times and other publications. More than ideology, it was opportunism, careerism on the part of the reporters.
DS: Talese also said that the press is as much responsible for getting us into this war as are the people running it.
- CU: Part of what I did with this book is I am explicitly critical of the American press corp., which has done a dreadful job of covering these issues. That in and of itself means they are less likely to cover you. If you look at the national conversation it has a narrative. The only place you can go to find an alternative narrative is Jon Stewart or Colbert or Keith Olberman. But there’s almost nothing in the tradition of the old Walter Cronkite reporting. It barely exists. The other alternative voices are the international press, and the blogs.
- Craig Unger's website
- Battle of the Bushes, Salon.com reprint of the opening of Unger's new book, The Fall of the House of Bush.