Battered and Bruised America Looks Beyond the Bush Warriors
Part 3: It Wasn't Just the President Alone
There were the negotiations with North Korea, together with the Chinese, Russians, South Koreans and Japanese, which led to the extremely wobbly Pyongyang promise to halt its nuclear weapons program; the cautious agreement with European negotiating partners on the question of the Iranian nuclear program, and even the first direct diplomatic contacts with adversaries in Tehran; the late -- far too late -- diplomatic initiative to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the abandonment, albeit only verbally so far, of a hard-line position on climate protection -- aren't all of these things signs that George W. has become more refined, at least a little?
America's allies, to be sure, no longer had to read the papers to learn about the president's decisions during Bush's second term. It is also true that, now that the financial crisis is turning into an economic crisis, Washington may even be more willing to engage in real international cooperation than Berlin. But it is also true that one man -- the president himself -- disavows these changes. The New York Times Magazine recently reported on a conversation between the military historian Max Boot and the president, in which Boot asked Bush about changes in White House policies during his second term. But Bush, clearly irritated, replied: "That's ridiculous. That's not true. I've been fighting for this (freedom agenda) from Day One. It's part of everything I do."
And it wasn't just the president alone. His entire team felt bound by this agenda and bears its fair share of the responsibility for the crumbling of America's unique position of power. It is the team that formed in his initial years as president: Richard Cheney, the vice-president; Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense for many years; Condoleezza Rice, the former national security advisor and current secretary of state; and Colin Powell, Rice's predecessor at the State Department.
Religious Convictions and Messianic Eagerness
Cheney, 67, has something in common with Bush. He too had problems with alcohol as a young man and, like his later boss George W., was arrested for drunk driving and lost his driver's license. But Cheney, who comes from a middle-class, white-collar family, did not have a prominent über-father. He fought against his weaknesses with an iron will. He was interested in big business and politics, and in combining them in ways that were as lucrative and career-promoting as possible. He was always a man of few scruples. He met Rumsfeld, who was of similar makeup, in the 1960s. It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship.
After holding a series of high-level positions, first in Washington and later in the oil industry, Cheney joined George W. Bush's campaign team in 2000 to head his vice-presidential search committee. He cleverly played off all the potential candidates against one another and neglected to mention his serious heart condition, so that, in Bush's eyes, there was only one possibly candidate left for the job of vice-president: Cheney himself. Vastly superior to the president intellectually and always ready to outwit cabinet members, "Dick" became the most powerful vice-president in US history -- and, with his talent for currying favor and his calculating assertiveness in the White House, probably the most powerful man in the United States.
If religious convictions and a messianic eagerness to export democracy played a role in Bush's decisions -- political scientists call it "well-meaning imperialism" -- Cheney was a supreme expert in power politics. Pipelines, oil reserves and military bases were his maxims, and expanding American power at all costs his ambition. He lost all restraint after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. "We also have to work, though, sort of the dark side, if you will," he told Tim Russert on NBC's "Meet the Press," five days after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. "We've got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world...and use any means at our disposal." This meant, as it turned out, the torture and the kidnapping of suspects, among other things. Cheney consistently treated the US Constitution as a document to be interpreted broadly. His nickname is Darth Vader, the character representing the Prince of Darkness in the "Star Wars" films.
Cheney's friend Rumsfeld, 76, a former navy pilot, a hawk and a proponent of preventive war, was considered a star in Bush's cabinet for some time. He was quick-witted, funny and cynical. But then the mismanagement of the Iraq war came crashing down over his head, and he was also held politically responsible for the human rights violations at Abu Ghraib prison, even though he never actually admitted to that responsibility. By November 2006, Rumsfeld had become too much of a liability to be kept on as defense secretary. At Rumsfeld's farewell ceremony, Bush praised the outgoing defense secretary as a "superb leader during a time of change," and as a man who made the "world a safer place."
Since then, internal memos have been dug up in which Rumsfeld dictates his instructions to his staff. "Keep elevating the threat," he wrote, as the Washington Post reported a year ago. "Make the American people realize they are surrounded in the world by violent extremists." He showed his contempt for Muslims by noting that they avoided "physical labor." His creed was: "People are looking for leadership. Sacrifice = Victory."
But there is little in the way of personal sacrifice in the life of "Rummy." Since being forced to step down, he is often flown in a private Learjet to his 50 acre ranch in New Mexico, where he likes to hunt coyotes and cut down trees with a chainsaw. Otherwise, the former Pentagon chief lives in Maryland, just around the corner from Cheney's estate. Cheney is the only former colleague Rumsfeld still sees today.
Two Puppet Masters
Rumsfeld, busy writing his memoirs, has no regrets or trouble sleeping. He ignores the protestors who refer to him as a "war criminal" and demand to see him tried before the United Nations War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, even when they demonstrate near his ranch. "It's a free country," he says. "People can say whatever they want."
Cheney and Rumsfeld never completely trusted Condoleezza Rice. She was simply not invited to some meetings, and Rumsfeld was often absent at meetings she asked him to attend. On one occasion, Rice was so upset that she burst into tears according to a new Cheney biography by Barton Gellman called "Angler." She was kept in the dark about an intelligence unit at the Pentagon that, circumventing the CIA, was to provide the hardliners with reasons to justify going to war with Iraq. Cheney and Rumsfeld refused to treat Rice as their equal, despite the fact that she had Bush's ear and was just as adept on matters of intelligence as the two puppet masters were.
Rice, 53, brilliant, goal-oriented and as well-versed on nuclear issues as she is in classic diplomacy, is nevertheless -- or perhaps precisely because of her qualifications -- one of the biggest disappointments of the Bush years. She looked up to the president without voicing her criticism, instead of waking him up from his dangerous dreams. She fed Bush talking points instead of correcting him.
The United States could not wait to be attacked by its enemies, she said. Referring to the risk of Iraq obtaining a nuclear weapon, she said: "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud," and she characterized the invasion of Iraq as "anticipatory self-defense." She exculpated the United States, the world's number one polluter, by called the Kyoto climate protocol "dead on arrival." She spent time with her boss at family events on his ranch, went fishing with him and helped him complete crossword puzzles, and even sang hymns with him on board Air Force One. But when push came to shove, she said nothing and nodded. She proved ultimately incapable of standing up to the president. Only in the last few months, when it was already too late, did she gain some stature in the Middle East with her sharp criticism of Israel's settlement policy, which is in violation of international law.