American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune, and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush
by Kevin Phillips
Viking, 397 pp., $25.95
The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O’Neill
by Ron Suskind
Simon and Schuster, 348 pp., $26.00
Here’s a true story that came too late to make it into Kevin Phillips’s American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune, and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush, but it fits perfectly with its thesis. As all the world knows, Halliburton, the company that made Dick Cheney rich, has been given multibillion-dollar contracts, without competitive bidding, in occupied Iraq. Suspicions of profiteering are widespread; critics think they have found a smoking gun in the case of gasoline imports. For Halliburton has been charging the US authorities in Iraq remarkably high prices for fuel—far above local spot prices.
The company denies wrongdoing, saying that its prices in Baghdad reflect the prices it has to pay its Kuwaiti supplier. That’s not quite true; Halliburton’s reported expenses for transporting gasoline are, for some reason, much higher than anyone else’s. But the real question is why Halliburton chose that particular supplier—a company with little experience in the oil business, mysteriously selected as the sole source of gasoline after what appears to have been a highly improper bidding procedure. Why did it get the job? We don’t know. But it’s interesting to note that the company appears to be closely connected with the al-Sabahs, Kuwait’s royal family. And the al-Sabahs, in turn, have in the past had close business ties with the Bush family, in particular the President’s brother Marvin.
In any previous administration—at least any administration of the past seventy years—this sort of incestuous relationship among foreign governments, private businesses, and the personal fortunes of people in or close to the US government would have been considered unusual and prima facie scandalous. What we learn from Kevin Phillips’s new book, however, is that this kind of intertwining of public policy and personal self-interest has been standard operating procedure not just for George W. Bush, but for his entire family.
American Dynasty and Ron Suskind’s new book, The Price of Loyalty, can be seen as a second wave of Bush critiques. The first wave, exemplified by Molly Ivins’s Bushwhacked, Joe Conason’s Big Lies, and David Corn’s The Lies of George W. Bush, described what Bush has been doing these past three years. But they offered only scant explanations of how and why the Bush administration does what it does. (I made a brief stab at an explanation in the introduction to my own The Great Unraveling, but it was no more than a sketch.)
The new books go deeper into the agonizing question of what is happening to our country. Ron Suskind—an investigative reporter with a knack for getting insiders to tell what they know—offers a detailed, deeply disturbing look at how the Bush administration makes policy. Kevin Phillips—a former Republican strategist who feels that his party has betrayed the principles he supported—investigates the history of the Bush clan, and argues that this family history provides the key to understanding George W.’s motives and even his technique of governing.
Phillips is well aware that some will dismiss his work as “conspiracy theory.” But as he says, such taunts shouldn’t prevent us from looking at the family history of the people who now rule us:
Worries about conspiracy thinking should not inhibit inquiries in a way that blocks sober examination, which often more properly identifies some kind of elite behavior familiar to sociologists and political scientists alike.
To that end, Phillips offers
an unusual and unflattering portrait of a great family (great in power, not morality) that has built a base over the course of the twentieth century in the back corridors of the new military-industrial complex and in close association with the growing intelligence and national security establishments.
And George W. Bush, as the scion of this dynasty, is the first president to, in effect, inherit the office. For four generations the Bush family has thrived by exploiting its political connections, especially in the secret world of intelligence, to get ahead in business, as well as exploiting its business connections, especially in finance and oil, to get ahead in politics. And whatever the public and the pundits may have thought about the 2000 election, for the Bushes it was a royal restoration.
The family history of the Bushes helps us to understand one of the great tragedies of American political history. After the disputed election of 2000, the nation badly needed a president who would seek reconciliation. Instead it got a deeply divisive leader, who made a mockery of his campaign promise to be a “uniter, not a divider.” It’s all in the family, Phillips tells us:
When Bush took office in 2001, a parallel to Stuart and Bourbon arrogance quickly emerged in the new regime’s insistence on ideological conservatism despite the lack of any such national mandate. Restoration drinks from its own special psychological well.
So what kind of family has, in its own eyes, regained its rightful inheritance? It’s a family that has become accustomed to privilege:
By the mid-twentieth century, connections and crony capitalism had become the family economic staple, with emphasis on the rewards of finance, and instinctive policymaking fealty to the investment business. The Bushes have produced no college presidents or stonemasons, no scientists or plumbing contractors—generally speaking, their progeny have become almost exclusively financial entrepreneurs.
As this quote suggests, the Bush dynasty differs from other American families that have mixed wealth with political prominence. While the Kennedys and the Rockefellers may have a sense of entitlement, they also display a sense of noblesse oblige—what one might call an urge to repay, with charitable contributions and public service, their good fortune. The Bushes don’t have that problem; there are no philanthropists or reformers in the clan. They seek public office but, if anything, they seem to feel that the public is there to serve them.
Let’s put W. to one side for a moment, and look at how his brothers used their political connections to enrich themselves. Here are a few highlights:
å? Before he was elected governor of Florida, Jeb Bush, in partnership with a Cuban refugee whom Phillips suggests had CIA connections, bought an office building with $4.6 million borrowed from a savings and loan. When the S&L went bankrupt, the loan was taken over by the federal Resolution Trust Corporation, which for some reason allowed the partners to settle their debt for only $500,000. In another deal, Jeb was paid handsomely by a company selling pumps to Nigeria that somehow received large-scale financing from the US Export-Import Bank.
å? Neil Bush sat on the board of another S&L, Silverado, which made $200 million in loans—subsequently defaulted—to an oil company that in turn gave Neil large loans with no obligation to repay. In recent divorce proceedings it has emerged that a firm backed by Chinese businessmen, including the son of former Chinese president Jiang Zemin, paid Neil large sums in return for vaguely defined services.
å? After the first Gulf War Marvin Bush, who went to Kuwait seeking business in 1993, served on the boards of several companies controlled by the Kuwait-American Company. A member of Kuwait’s royal family is one of Kuwait-American’s major shareholders, and it seems reasonable to say that in effect Marvin works for the al-Sabahs.
And then there’s the story of how George W. himself became rich. Many people now know the tale—the failed companies that somehow got bought out at premium prices, the insider stock sale that somehow was never properly investigated, the government generosity that made the Texas Rangers such a good deal for the businessmen who picked W. to be their public face. Several of these deals, like those of brother Marvin, had Middle East connections. Bush’s first venture, Arbusto, may have involved bin Laden family money. The story of George W.’s stake in Harken Energy—which he sold two months before it announced large losses—involved a puzzling surprise deal with the government of Bahrain.
Here’s how Phillips summarizes the picture:
All in all, if presidential family connections were theme parks, Bush World would be a sight to behold. Mideast banks tied to the CIA would crowd alongside Florida S&Ls that once laundered money for the Nicaraguan contras. Dozens of oil wells would run eternally without finding oil, thanks to periodic cash deposits by old men wearing Reagan-Bush buttons and smoking twenty-dollar cigars. Visitors to “Prescott Bush’s Tokyo” could try to make an investment deal without falling into the clutches of the yakuza….
But aside from casting some light on the President’s character, why does this shady family history matter? Phillips makes a convincing case that Bush family crony capitalism is closely intertwined with Bush administration policy.
In part, it’s a matter of values, W.’s “instinctive policy fealty” to the activities that made his family rich. Although he ran in 2000 as a moderate, his policies, from the tax cuts to the scrapping of the Kyoto Protocol, have been relentlessly in favor of both the rich and the energy industry. And according to Suskind’s The Price of Loyalty, W. appears to have a visceral dislike for corporate reform.
More ominous, perhaps, is Phillips’s contention that family history has shaped Bush foreign policy. It’s a great irony that George W. Bush, beloved by red-blooded, red-state Americans for his down-home manner, comes from a family with deep political and business connections to the Middle East. As someone once pointed out, it’s a lot easier to document links between the bin Laden family and the Bushes than it is to document links between the bin Ladens and Saddam Hussein.
I’ve already mentioned some of the business links. There are others, like George H.W. Bush’s post-presidential employment by the Carlyle Group, the private global investment firm whose Saudi investors included members of the bin Laden family.
But perhaps more important is the policy connection. One way to look at the younger Bush’s confrontational policies in Iraq is that they are a rejection of a traditional US strategy of making alliances of convenience with some of the area’s regimes. And who was responsible for that earlier strategy? Few were more involved than George H.W. Bush, as CIA director, vice-president, and finally—until Saddam overstepped the line—as president. Phillips puckishly describes the two Gulf Wars as “the wars of the Texas succession.”
Along the way, Phillips reminds us of a series of actual or potential scandals surrounding US Middle Eastern policy, all of which involved the Bush family in some way. Phillips suggests that there may be some substance to old rumors that Republican operatives with CIA connections negotiated with Iran’s mullahs to delay the release of the hostages in 1980—dooming Jimmy Carter’s reelection chances. He also places the elder George Bush squarely at the center of the Iran–contra affair, citing the 1992 indictment of then Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger, which claimed that Bush participated in the arms-for-hostages swap.
For me, however, the most striking story was his recounting of “Iraqgate.” In this largely buried scandal, officials of the Reagan administration and the first Bush administration not only supplied Saddam Hussein with arms and turned a blind eye to his use of chemical weapons, but later signaled fairly clearly that it would be okay with them if he occupied part of Kuwait—a signal that Saddam apparently misunderstood as a license to swallow the whole thing. This history sheds an ironic light on the efforts of some of those same officials, notably Donald Rumsfeld, to retroactively justify last year’s invasion of Iraq by a concern for human rights and democracy.