Bush & Co hurt democracy and efforts to check terrorism by opening the White House to special interests, especially Saudis, Alex Danchev discovers.
Sooner or later, there will be a George W. Bush Presidential Library.
Nowadays every president of the US has a library. Usually to be found in his home town - making them the most eccentrically sited repositories in the Western world - these institutions are more than libraries. The presidential library is also a memorial, a shrine, a pantheon; both a place of study and a place of worship. It dignifies and glorifies. It elevates and perpetuates. It historicises. To have a library is to be a part of history. The library is the capstone of the life. As soon as it opens its doors, the laptop life-writers clamour to be let in. The presidential library is the locus of the presidential biography, the documentary heartbeat of the subject, the portal to posterity.
But the path to posterity does not always run smooth. Richard Nixon had a little local difficulty with his [expletive deleted] papers, Ronald Reagan with the location of the building, but no president in living memory faces such a torrent of ridicule over the basic concept as Bush. The very idea seems far-fetched, so incongruous is the conjunction of "Bush" and "library". Not long ago, it was reported that his own collection had been damaged by fire. The president was said to be distraught. Both books were ruined. One of them he had not finished colouring in.
Such is Bush, the infantile figure of fun. The stock image is interestingly regressive: the chimp-like cartoon character, the child-like psychological profile - early to bed and early to rise; says his prayers morning and night; expects others to do the same; short attention span (apparently hereditary); craves frequent diversions; over-fond of fawning dogs (English springer spaniels, a metonym for the special relationship?); addicted to television and TV dinners; sports-mad; grizzles when tired; restricted range of facial expression, setting in a smirk; limited vocabulary; outgoing disposition, but tetchy; down-home, with a streak of petulance ("I didn't need his permission", of Colin Powell and the decision to go to war in Iraq); reliant, perhaps over-reliant, on parental guidance, compensating, perhaps over-compensating, with smug self-assertion. ("I'm the commander, see, I don't need to explain - I do not need to explain why I say things. That's the interesting thing about being the president.") The image was perfectly captured, as if on Candid Camera , on the morning of "9/11". The hapless president is visiting a school. Cruelly exposed at the front of the class, he struggles to absorb the first intimations of a terrorist attack, whispered in his ear by his chief of staff. He looks exactly as Steve Bell's simian cartoon character makes him look. He obeys the instruction of his press secretary, off-camera, who holds up a writing pad at the back of the room - "Don't Say Anything Yet". After a lengthy pause, he starts to read a story with the children. They all read aloud The Pet Goat . "A girl got a pet goat," they chant, "but the goat did some things that made the girl's dad mad." Remarkably, this goes on for nearly ten minutes. (It is reprised in Michael Moore's new film, Fahrenheit 9/11 , with a stopwatch in the corner of the screen to make the point.) Finally, the president is ushered out. We cannot help but wonder how long he would have stayed, left to his own devices. What was he waiting for? A prompt from his smarts, his vaunted powers of intuition? Further instructions from his handlers? Guidance from the hydra-headed father figures in his inner circle? Word from his personal saviour?
All of the above are plausible explanations, as Kevin Phillips and Craig Unger make distressingly clear. American Dynasty and House of Bush, House of Saud are complementary reports on the darker side of doltishness - cautions, in fact, against that very assumption. These are books by professional reporters. They have a dogged, down-these-mean-streets, "Deep Throat" feel to them. They are out to nail the scions of executive privilege: All the President's Men and Boys . They are well-sourced - in so far as it is possible to source up-to-the-minute investigations of wheeler-dealers, "access capitalism" and crony diplomacy - in the hyper-real ways of investigative journalism, complete with passenger manifests, telephone logs, medical records and weather reports. They are at once grounded and wired. They are masters of the worldwide web, purveying to the reader choice items from it, www.awolbush.com for example. Unlike academics, they make it their business to know people who know people - people who will talk (off the record). "According to a source close to the Saudi government, the royal family viewed investing in the Carlyle Group as a way to show their deep gratitude to President Bush for defending the Saudis in the Gulf War. 'George Bush [ père ] or James Baker would meet with all the big guys in the royal family,'
the source says. 'Indirectly, the message was, "I'd appreciate it if you put some money in the Carlyle Group."' From the Saudi point of view, the source adds, 'there is nothing wrong with this. You are basically marketing the relationship you have developed.'" Marketing the relationship turns out to be a good summary of what the Bush family is all about.
Phillips and Unger share the same preoccupations (made even more explicit in the subtitle of the US edition of American Dynasty - Aristocracy, Fortune, and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush ). From similar standpoints they reach similar conclusions. Both bear down heavily and effectively on Bush's "Manichaean certitudes of Good and Evil" and his well-advertised links with the Christian right, and with his Father - the higher Father, that is. Probed by Bob Woodward about consultations with his biological father, who had after all been through some of this before, Bush prevaricates. At last he gets impatient and comes out with the revealing and rather chilling remark that has been so widely quoted: "You know, he is the wrong father to appeal to in terms of strength. There is a higher father that I appeal to."
These considerations are necessarily brief. There is more work to be done on the unabashed evangelism of the Bush administration, the inscription of those beliefs in policy - half-baked as it is - and the inherent contradictions of faith-based full-spectrum dominance. "I knew that my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol," the Deputy Under-Secretary of Defence for Intelligence tells an evangelical gathering. "We shall knock on the gates of heaven with American skulls" runs a slogan on the wall of Abu Ghraib prison. Faith abuses faith.
Skull and Bones crack skull and bones.
For all their similarities, the temperature of the two books is markedly different. American Dynasty is a choleric work, hot with indignation; House of Bush, House of Saud is cool, calm and collected. Phillips is angry - furious would not be too strong a word - at the way in which a dynasty has purloined a party (the Grand Old Party), turned the presidency into a monopoly and then had the effrontery to lead a great nation to perdition.
For a meritocratic Republican such as Phillips, the Bush dynasty is an excrescence: a bunch of morally bankrupt bloated plutocrats, with nothing more pressing in view than the shameless pursuit of their own self-interest. It is always the same with bloated plutocrats, perhaps, but all that indignation fuels a rollicking good read, almost to the end, when exhaustion supervenes. As the sound and fury dies away, however, there is something wanting. American Dynasty is deeply felt, but the dynastic thesis is over-strained, and the prosecutorial prose too indisciplined, too perfervid, finally, to carry conviction.
Unger's caution lends weight to his deeply disturbing account. (All the more disturbing for the fact that his book has no British publisher, reportedly because even the giants believe they cannot afford the risk of "libel tourism" by wealthy foreigners.) He, too, anchors his main argument in egregious self-interest, expressed in the gainful interpenetration of the House of Bush and the House of Saud, politically and financially. "The House of Bush" is defined here as Bush the younger; Bush the elder; their consigliere James A. Baker III (something of a dynasty himself); their front man and factotum, Dick Cheney, oil-rich and rabid; and their major institutions, the aforementioned Carlyle Group, the Halliburton Corporation, and, lo and behold, the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in College Station, Texas. House of Saud investment in House of Bush is conservatively estimated at $1.476 billion (£800 million).
More specifically: in the Carlyle Group, $80 million; in Halliburton, $180 million; and in the George Bush Presidential Library - British university fundraisers read and weep - a $1 million charitable donation from Prince Bandar, long-serving Saudi ambassador in Washington, who was allegedly apprised of the date of the Iraq War before the US Secretary of State (or the British Prime Minister).
Illicit foreknowledge is a recurring theme. Unger tells the sinister tale of the alleged links between Abu Zubaydah, the al-Qaeda chief of operations captured by the Americans in Pakistan in March 2002, and the Saudi Prince Ahmed, a glamorous nephew of King Fahd, together with two other intermediaries from the House of Saud. According to Zubaydah (so people who know say), the Saudis had made a deal with al-Qaeda several years earlier such that they would aid the Taleban as long as al-Qaeda kept terrorism out of Saudi Arabia. So compromised and compromising was this relationship, moreover, that Osama bin Laden made sure to let Ahmed and his confederates know in advance that an attack on US soil was scheduled for September 11, 2001. In short, well-placed Saudi representatives had foreknowledge of 9/11, but not exactly what or where. To thicken the plot, Ahmed was one of a number of Saudis spirited out of the US in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, at a time when all other flights were grounded, as part of an evacuation plan approved by the White House (a story pieced together, very convincingly, by Unger).
The coda is lethal. In July 2002, the 43-year-old Prince Ahmed died in his sleep after a heart attack. The next day, one of his confederates was killed in a single-car crash on his way to the funeral. A week later, the body of the other was found in the desert. Apparently he had died of thirst.
Not all of House of Bush, House of Saud is quite so Riddle of the Sands .
Unger's conclusion is simply stated: "Never before has an American president been so closely tied to a foreign power that harbours and supports our country's mortal enemies." Along the way, he succeeds in pinning down several points of capital importance. In terms of geopolitics, perhaps the most compelling is the long-term significance of the guerrilla war waged by the Mujahidin against the Soviet invaders of Afghanistan. For almost ten years (1979-89), the Mujahidin were funded by the US and the Saudis - it was in a sense an operation run jointly by the two houses. They were led by another scion of privilege, the stripling bin Laden.
Ultimately, they were successful. The Soviet Army was expelled. The Soviet Union was humbled. "Thanks to the US," Unger writes, "Osama bin Laden had learned an important lesson: Mujahidin warriors fighting for Islam could bring a superpower to its knees."
In terms of domestic politics, the record leaves no room for doubt. If cornered, the Bush dynasty drops the guileless pose and turns nasty: very nasty. In the presidential election of 2000, Bush's nomination as the candidate of the Republican Party was not a foregone conclusion. The insurgent John McCain won the opening primary in New Hampshire by 19 per cent. McCain was an authentic war hero and an ex-prisoner of war; he made a crusade of speaking his mind; he was by no stretch of the imagination a liberal. The next major primary was in South Carolina. Campaigners for Bush swung into action. "He blitzed the state with brutal attack ads on television, on radio, in print, and by telephone." Thousands of voters received phone calls asserting that McCain's wife had links with the Mob, that McCain had illegitimate children, that he had a "black" child, that there had been an abortion in his family. A group of Bush supporters called "Republicans for Clean Air" spent $2.5 million on commercials attacking McCain and distorting his record on the environment. More commercials went out saying that he opposed breast cancer research, even though his sister was fighting the disease at the time. These tactics produced the desired effect. They will surely be in evidence again before the year is out. The target is already in plain sight. John Kerry, it is whispered, speaks French.
Chalmers Johnson speaks like Cicero. Of The Sorrows of Empire there is little to be said. It is a solemn warning against hubris, at once indictment and lament. It is devastating and demands urgently to be read.
"As militarism, the arrogance of power, and the euphemisms required to justify imperialism inevitably conflict with America's democratic structure of government and distort its culture and basic values, I fear that we will lose our country. If I overstate the threat, I am sure to be forgiven because future generations will be so glad I was wrong." The threat is by no means overstated, and the echo is unmistakable. "I would rather be wrong, by God, with Plato," said Cicero, "than be correct with those men."
Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, Keele University.
American Dynasty: How the Bush Clan Became the World's Most Powerful and Dangerous Family
Author - Kevin Phillips
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Pages - 397
Price - £18.99
ISBN - 0 7139 9746 X