Friday, 2 January 2009

“How Bush Rules”, by Sidney Blumenthal (Princeton University Press)


A collection of articles spanning three years of Bush’s time in office (2003-2006)

Sidney Blumenthal (former advisor to President Bill Clinton) tackles the various radical elements of Bush’s administration in this series of articles published in The Guardian and at

There is little doubt that Sidney Blumenthal falls on the more critical side of the debate over Bush’s presidency. No doubt he believes that history will not designate Bush a latter-day Truman. While some will be put off by the overwhelming negativity, there is still plenty of useful opinion and analysis in How Bush Rules.

The first chapter is basically a summary of everything that is to come, and it lays out succinctly and eloquently Blumenthal’s position and explains how the Bush administration’s first nine months were “a quick march to the right”, and how this has effected his administration since.

In these articles, Blumenthal argues that George W Bush is “the most willfully radical president in American history,” and that this is something nobody predicted. On foreign policy, Bush declared that he would be “humble”: “If we are an arrogant nation, they’ll view us that way, but if we’re a humble nation, they’ll respect us.” Considering this, it is amazing that he failed to heed his own warning, pursuing a largely unilateral and arrogant approach to foreign policy (though, regardless of what Bush critics say, this is not wholly unheard of in American foreign policy). Blumenthal discusses various topics, divided into three sections:

- Hubris: This section covers events from Bush’s declaration of “Mission Accomplished” aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln to the 2004 election and Bush’s victory over John Kerry (with plenty of discussion about the low tactics taken to besmirch Kerry’s Vietnam record). Blumenthal is perhaps a little too free with labeling everyone a “neocon” in this section (e.g. Cheney and Rumsfeld, who aren’t actually neocons). Blumenthal also writes in defense of Joseph Wilson, Richard Clarke and Paul O’Neill, Bush officials who failed to “stay on message” about Iraq and terrorism; and also discusses the humiliation of Colin Powell. He writes damningly of Condoleezza Rice’s tenure as National Security Adviser.

- Nemesis I: From the Terry Schiavo debacle to Cindy Sheehan’s anti-war vigil outside Bush’s Crawford ranch. Some good observations about the usurpation of government by what Blumenthal calls “a confederacy of shamans”, keen as always to conduct some form of “necrophiliac spiritualism” (this is in regards to the Schiavo case which, I think, could be argued as an exceptional case of political tone-deafness from the Christian Right). Blumenthal laments at how “For the first time public policy in the United States is being made on the basis of pitting invisible signs against science.” Bush’s second term attempted strategy of transferring the fear politics of his first term’s foreign policy onto his domestic agenda, only to find that it doesn’t work so well.

- Nemesis II: The disastrous, cold reaction to Hurricane Katrina to the Revolt of the Generals. Blumenthal also discusses the irony of Bob Woodward being caught up in the Valerie Plame case, where he allegedly withheld information about who leaked what, which he gathered from various interviews for his Bush At War series of books, and how he seems to give Bush and his cronies the benefit of the doubt, even having seen the worst of the executive branch, when he uncovered, along with Carl Bernstein, the Watergate scandal. Condoleezza Rice is spared nothing, as her intellectual dishonesty and blind loyalty to Bush makes her utter fallacies continuously, only for them to be either undermined by Rumsfeld or proven inaccurate by other investigations. The demise of Tom DeLay and Jack Abramoff. Karl Rove’s odd assertion that he’s modeled his political style off President William McKinley’s…

The nature of the book – a collection of articles that usually span no more than two or three pages – makes this a particularly quick read. However, this format does present a couple of drawbacks. The main problem is one of repetition: with many articles, Blumenthal provides background that has often been covered in previous articles. While this is understandable, I wonder why no effort was made to perhaps combine the articles into a single narrative/text? Also, due to the short-length of each article, there’s not always space for particularly deep analysis of Bush’s choices and policies.

Having said that, Blumenthal is a skilled writer, and his understanding government, politics and US history is on display throughout this collection. He also comes up with interesting perspectives or analogies to get his point across. (One particular example that stands out; his comparison between the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on Iraq and Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code.) To return to the problem of length, the timeliness of these articles adds extra insight into the impressions of the day, allowing us to see how Blumenthal and America’s understanding of each situation unfolded as more information came to light, or as events developed. Blumenthal’s treatment of Karl Rove, too, is especially well done – Rove is clearly portrayed as a shadowy presence, tugging on certain strings when he deems it politically advantageous. To get this impression across, rather than spelling it out, Rove crops up infrequently and almost inconsequentially, while his role is still very clear.

In all, while a good book, I did not find this as enjoyable or rewarding as Blumenthal’s The Clinton Wars (2004 – surprisingly difficult to get a hold of in the UK). But it was nonetheless an interesting and insightful read, and will prove useful for anyone who wants something they can pick up now and again, without having to worry about continuously having to flick back to find their place in the narrative.

A damning portrait of a president disengaged from the reality that he is, in fact president, and one who has delegated most of his responsibility to zealots, surrounding himself with an inner circle apparently appointed following the template of “enforcer”, “loyalist”, and/or “incompetent.”

Complimentary Reading: Ron Suskind’s The Price of Loyalty (2004), Robert Draper’s Dead Certain (2007), Jacob Weisberg’s The Bush Tragedy (2007), Barton Gellman’s Angler (2008), and Michael Kinsley’s Please Don’t Remain Calm (2008)

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