C&L Exclusive: A Tragic Legacy: The Influence Of Neocons On The Bush Presidency

The Washington Post's Peter Baker today depicts George Bush as a sad, besieged, isolated and detatched figure, who seeks the company of like-minded ex

The Washington Post's Peter Baker today depicts George Bush as a sad, besieged, isolated and detatched figure, who seeks the company of like-minded extremists to convince him that he will be vindicated by history.  The Post article describes at length a "luncheon" which Bush hosted earlier this year for Andrew Roberts, a neoconservative "historian" and, according to The New Republic, an all-out "imperialist" with shadowy, vaguely white supremacist views.

As WashingtonPost.com's Dan Froomkin notes today, the incidents conveyed by Bush in the Post article bolster the themes of my new book, A Tragic LegacySpecifically, that neocon luncheon which Bush hosted for Roberts is one of the most revealing of the Bush presidency, as it reveals both how George Bush thinks and how influential neoconservatives have been able to manipulate his support for their agenda.  Following is an excerpt -- exclusively for C&L -- from A Tragic Legacy, which discusses the Roberts luncheon:

On February 28, 2007, President Bush hosted what he called "a literary luncheon" to honor right-wing "historian" Andrew Roberts. Accounts of that luncheon -- which describe the "lessons" the guests taught the President (and they call them "lessons") -- provide an amazing glimpse into the Bush mindset and his relationship with neoconservatives.

The White House invited a tiny cast (total: 15 guests) of standard neoconservatives and other Bush followers to the luncheon, including Norman Podhoretz (father-in-law of White House convict Eliot Abrams), Gertrude Himmelfarb (wife of Irving Kristol and mother of Bill), Mona Charen and Kate O'Beirne of National Review, and Wall St. Journal Editorial Page Editor Paul Gigot. The Weekly Standard's Irwin Stelzer was also invited, and he thereafter wrote about the luncheon in the most glowing terms.

Stelzer's account provides truly illuminating insight into what neoconservatives have been filling the President's head with for years now, and demonstrates how they have managed to keep him firmly on board with their agenda. The most critical priority is to convince the President to continue to ignore the will of the American people and to maintain full-fledged loyalty to the neoconservative agenda, no matter how unpopular it becomes.


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To do this, they have convinced the President that he has tapped into a much higher authority than the American people -- namely, God-mandated, objective morality -- and as long as he adheres to that (which is achieved by continuing his militaristic policies in the Middle East, whereby he is fighting Evil and defending Good), God and history will vindicate him.  As Stelzer wrote:

On one subject the president needed no lessons from Roberts or anyone else in the room: how to handle pressure. "I just don't feel any," he says with the calm conviction of a man who believes the constituency to which he must ultimately answer is the Divine Presence (emphasis added). Don't misunderstand: God didn't tell him to put troops in harm's way in Iraq; belief in Him only goes so far as to inform the president that there is good and evil. It is then his job to figure out how to promote the former and destroy the latter. And he is confident that his policies are doing just that.

Another luncheon attendee Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute,  recalled (also in The Weekly Standard) the President saying: "I want to have my conscience clear with Him. Then it doesn't matter so much what others think." Novak also revealingly marveled that "The President was not at all intimidated by his fifteen or so guests" even though the guests included Podhoretz, Himmelfarb and "Irwin Stelzer himself" -- in Novak's world, one expects the President to be intimidated to be in the presence of such powerful neoconservative luminaries, not the other way around.

Stelzer recounts what he calls the multiple "lessons" they taught Bush at this luncheon. One of the key lessons is Roberts' view that the U.S. should be most concerned with its relationships with the other "English-speaking countries in the world," and not worry nearly as much about all those countries where they speak in foreign tongues ("Lesson Four: Cling to the alliance of the English-speaking peoples").

But that "lesson" led Bush to bewilderingly wonder why there was such rising anti-Americanism all over the world, even in English-speaking countries such as England ("'Is it due simply to my personality?' he wondered, half-seriously. 'Is it confined to intellectuals?' asked a guest"). Anti-Americanism, the neoconservatives instructed Bush, is something he should just ignore. As long as he continues to follow neoconservatism, that is all that matters:

The combined Roberts-Stelzer response: The causes of rampant anti-Americanism do indeed include dislike of Bush. But there are others: the war in Iraq; anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian sentiment, laced with some covert anti-Semitism; and resentment of American power. Roberts urged the president not to concern himself with these anti-American feelings, since in a unipolar world the lone superpower cannot be loved. His advice: "Get your policies right and history will prove a kind muse" (emphasis added).

Nothing matters -- not the disapproval of the American people of the President's actions nor rising anti-Americanism around the world. He should simply ignore all of that and continue to obey the mandates of neoconservatism because that is what is Good and his God will be pleased.

Other lessons that Bush was taught that day: "First: Do not set a deadline for withdrawal. That led to the slaughter of 700,000 to 1 million people in India, with the killing beginning one minute after the midnight deadline." They also told the President to ignore the fact that other powerful countries and even empires that tried to dominate the world have all collapsed. Those incidents are irrelevant and teach us nothing because -- unlike the Glorious Leader today -- those people simply lacked the Will to Power. Thus:

Second lesson: Will trumps wealth. The Romans, the tsars, and other rich world powers fell to poorer ones because they lacked the will to fight and survive. Whereas World War II was almost over before Americans saw the first picture of a dead soldier, today the steady drumbeat of media pessimism and television coverage are sapping the West's will.

They also instructed the President to continue his policies of indefinite imprisonment without charges: "Third lesson: Don't hesitate to intern our enemies for long, indefinite periods of time. That policy worked in Ireland and during World War II. Release should only follow victory." "Victory," of course is decades away – it is a Permanent War -- so the "lesson" they are teaching is to imprison people forever with no charges and not to worry about all those whiny complaints from the dreaded human rights complainers that doing so is un-American. American values are no competition for the imperatives of neoconservative glory.

The lessons continued. "Appeasement," of course, is the Ultimate Evil, the Great French Sin. Hence: "Fifth lesson: We are fighting an enemy that cannot be appeased; were that possible, the French would already have done it--a Roberts quip that elicited a loud chuckle from the president."

Finally, the neoconservatives left Bush with the overarching instruction -- namely, the only thing that he should concern himself with, the only thing that really matters, is Iran. Forget every other issue -- the welfare of the American people, every other region around the world -- except the one that matters most:

The closing note was a more serious one. Roberts said that history would judge the president on whether he had prevented the nuclearization of the Middle East. If Iran gets the bomb (emphasis added), Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other countries will follow. "That is why I am so pleased to be sitting here rather than in your chair, Mr. President." There was no response, other than a serious frown and a nod.

The President, concluded Stelzer with great satisfaction, "worries less about his 'legacy' than about his standing with the Almighty." And as a result of this luncheon, the President's standing with the Almightys in the neoconservative circle was as secure as ever.

The more unpopular the President becomes as a result, the more of a failure these policies are, the more strongly they tell him to ignore all of that, that none of it matters, that his God and history will conclude that he did The Right Thing, provided that he continues steadfastly to pursue their agenda. And the President believes that. The President's "lessons" in the moral righteousness of his actions, as preached by neoconservatives, continue, and he is as faithful an adherent to those beliefs as ever.  

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Reprinted with permission of Crown Publishing and Glenn Greenwald.  All rights reserved.  A Tragic Legacy can be ordered here or at local bookstores.

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