Olga Bonfiglio
Although most Americans regard Sept. 11, 2001, as a day that changed the world, the investigative reporter Craig Unger would argue that the presidential election in 2000 served as a point of convergence for certain groups of people who helped create what he calls “the greatest foreign policy disaster in American history—one that could result in the end of American global supremacy.”

In The Fall of the House of Bush, an eloquent and fascinating study of neoconservatives and Christian fundamentalists and their presidential candidate, George W. Bush, Unger traces their influential role in the administration’s policymaking in the Middle East.

Many of today’s neoconservatives were originally New Left intellectuals who came out of the antiwar movement and 1960s counterculture as angry individuals who either felt rebuffed socially or professionally and/or were attracted to the hawkish anti-Communist dogma of Democratic Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson.

In order to start something new, they imitated the influential left-wing Brookings Institution by organizing think tanks and lobbying groups, developing a fundraising apparatus and recruiting “scholars” and “experts” for the purpose of “overturn[ing] the present power structure of the country,” as Paul Weyrich, founder of the neoconservative Heritage Foundation, asserted.

Meanwhile, both Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld racked up White House experience beginning with the Nixon administration, where they learned how to navigate government bureaucracy and position themselves for leadership.

In the early 1990s, at the conclusion of the cold war, the United States found itself the only remaining superpower. The neocons formulated a vision of a new American empire that would assert U.S. domination in the Middle East in order to control energy resources (like oil and gas), open up corporate-friendly markets, set up strategic military bases and protect Israel. They achieved a platform for their views by writing op-ed pieces and serving as spokespersons for opposing viewpoints in media interviews in the “liberal press” (i.e., network news, The New York Times and The Washington Post).

However, the neocons could not find a president who would adopt their platform. George H. W. Bush, a political realist, aimed to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through diplomacy, and Clinton did the same. It wasn’t until the 2000 election that they found a candidate who might be more in tune with their agenda.

The 1960s also deeply affected the fundamentalist Christians, who saw modern humanist culture as a scourge on the nation. The public perceived them, however, as clueless rubes and fools. Only half of them even bothered to vote. The Supreme Court’s ruling on school prayer and desegregation especially provoked them; but it was the legalization of abortion in 1973 that finally galvanized them to action.

Led by the evangelists Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, they sought political influence and found some support with Ronald Reagan. It was not until George W. Bush became president in 2000, however, that they gained a foothold not only in government policymaking and political appointments but in the Oval Office itself, according to Unger.

One of their particular issues of concern was Israel. At the bottom of this tinderbox were the 4,000-year-old biblical accounts of Abraham and his claim on the land of Israel. Also at issue were such topics as human existence, salvation and redemption, the End of Days and Armageddon. As a result, fundamentalist Christians had come to support the right-wing Israelis, because they believed that the Zionists’ re-establishment of Israel signaled the Last Days.

By the 2000 election, especially after the scandals of the Clinton administration, the fundamentalists were anxious to find a candidate of sound moral character who would promote their issues and concerns. George W. Bush, who was himself a born-again Christian, looked like a good prospect.

The neoconservatives recognized that the fundamentalist Christians could be used to support their own aims in the Middle East, so—Unger notes—they struck an alliance with them on their presidential candidate.

Before George W. Bush entered the national stage, he gave up drinking, found the Lord and became more serious about politics. He greatly helped his father’s presidential campaigns by appealing to the same fundamentalist Christians who would later help him in his own presidential campaign. First, however, he had to prove that he deserved to be the favored son. He did that in 1994 by winning the governorship of Texas by a wide margin while his brother, Jeb, won the Florida governorship by a slim margin.

According to Unger, the tense father-son relationship stemmed from George W.’s inability to live up to the reputation and accomplishments of his father, as illustrated in the book’s first chapter, “Oedipus Tex.” Such family dramas are common. This one would be played out on the world stage.

Bush deliberately did the opposite of what his political realist father would do, says Unger, and he rejected most of his father’s advisers. He did, however, accept Colin Powell as secretary of state, but only to trot out his good name for the 2000 and 2004 elections. Bush rarely consulted Powell. And he had him dumped in 2005, even after Powell’s February 2003 United Nations speech helped sell the war against Iraq.

On Sept. 11, 2001, the stars seemed to align themselves in an extraordinary way. Bush got his wish to be the commander-in-chief he had envisioned the president to be; the neoconservatives found the cataclysmic event that could kick off their quest to remake the Middle East; and fundamentalist Christians could get on with realizing their apocalyptic visions of Armageddon and the Second Coming of Christ.

Not everything, however, was exactly copacetic.

Bush’s competence as a leader was questionable, especially in foreign affairs. As vice president, the ever-able Dick Cheney took charge of operations; he not only advised Bush but directed the president in foreign policy outright.

Cheney served as the “sole framer of key issues for Bush,” notes Unger. He likewise ignored all interagency systems and functions and stuck to the neoconservatives’ playbook for empire-building. As a result, Cheney got Bush to commit this country to two wars in the Middle East while he threatens a third with Iran.

The Fall of the House of Bush reads like a Shakespearean tragedy. Readers know what is going to happen next. What Unger does, however, is reveal how things happened. The cast of characters is large—and seen on TV nearly every day as Bush administration representatives. Extremely well written, Unger’s book is an intriguing eye-opener to how the shadow government of Vice President Cheney and the neocons operates, what motivates it and how our democracy is threatened as a result.

Olga Bonfiglio is a professor at Kalamazoo College and the author of Heroes of a Different Stripe: How One Town Responded to the War in Iraq

Comments

Gina Prine | 2/27/2008 - 8:50am
The reviewer of this book assumes that everything in the book is true. I am sure a lot of the information and involvement of the political players are accurate. However, this review reads as if everything that has happened on the US political and foreign policy stages has been a vast, orchestrated conspiracy. Only God can achieve that much. I have been following US politics since my first family experience with the 1976 election. Moreover, I am a lifelong student and fan of history. I trust the reviewer is competent and intelligent. Therefore, the author is at fault for either over-simplifying the issues in the book, misunderstanding the same, or writing from a hyper-partisan perspective.