The Making of a Mess

Who got us into this mess anyway—our headlong plunge into preventive war against Iraq? The formal, and facile, answer is George W. Bush. But our president campaigned four years ago on a promise of humility in foreign policy and a rejection of nation-building as social work. Who persuaded him to change his mind?

Democracy in time will demand accountability, though that demand has been muted thus far, and history must one day face the task of explanation. Historians of the Iraq War will have plenty to work with. Unlike the Vietnam War, which crept up on us and was slow in producing a literature, the Iraq War was well trumpeted in advance and has been the subject of volumes of instant history, covering many aspects of the swift victory and the bloody aftermath.

James Mann is the author of two books about Sino-American relations. James Bamford is the author of two books about the National Security Agency. Their ably written new books, Rise of the Vulcans and A Pretext for War, return varying answers to the origins of the theory on which President Bush based the Iraq War—the theory that Iraq presented such an urgent and imminent danger to the United States as to justify preventive war.

The two books nicely complement each other. Mann’s focus is on the State and Defense Departments; Bamford’s is on the intelligence agencies. Vulcans covers rather familiar ground but is better organized, more readable, and more measured in tone. Pretext is awkwardly organized, but it deals with less familiar material and its tone is more outraged.

Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and metalworking, was the sobriquet adopted by George W. Bush’s foreign policy advisers in the 2000 campaign. Mann follows the careers of a gallery of officials whom he calls with justice Bush’s war cabinet: Colin Powell, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Paul Wolfowitz, and Richard Armitage. Bamford begins with a meticulous reenactment of September 11, then discusses the terrorist war against the West in the 1990s. The final and most interesting section of his book portrays the use and abuse of intelligence by the Bush administration.

Mann and Bamford agree in their skepticism about the neocon fantasy that the establishment of democracy in Iraq will have a domino effect and democratize the whole Islamic world. Mann attributes the visionary delusions of the neocons to the influence of Leo Strauss (1899–1973), the German refugee philosopher who finally found a home in the University of Chicago. Strauss taught his disciples a belief in absolutes, contempt for relativism, and joy in abstract propositions. He approved of Plato’s “noble lies,” disliked much of modern life, and believed that a Straussian elite in government would in time overcome feelings of persecution. Strauss’s teachings can be found in vulgarized form in Allan Bloom’s 1987 best seller, The Closing of the American Mind, a book notable for the total exclusion of the two finest American minds, Emerson and …

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