The Untold Story of How a Band of True Believers Seized the Executive Branch, Started the Iraq War, and Still Imperils America’s Future
The story of how the Bush administration took the United States to war in Iraq is such a complicated tale with so many plots and subplots, so much misinformation and spin, so many missteps and outrageous misjudgments that reporters in countless newspaper and magazine articles, television documentaries and dozens of books have struggled to piece together the narrative. It is a continuing process, as more and more information comes to light and needs to be sifted and weighed and connected.
While Bob Woodward gave us, in a series of three books, a broad account of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, week by week, month by month (based largely on the testimony of administration insiders and other firsthand sources), investigative reporters like Seymour M. Hersh, Jane Mayer, Dana Priest, James Risen and Eric Lichtblau have shed a fierce light on hidden aspects of the administration’s war on terror, including its misuse of intelligence, its embrace of aggressive interrogation methods and its covert surveillance programs at home. Legal experts like Charlie Savage, Frederick A. O. Schwarz Jr. and Aziz Z. Huq have explicated the Bush White House’s efforts to expand the power of the executive branch, while military reporters like Thomas E. Ricks have chronicled the administration’s disastrous mismanagement of the war in Iraq.
In his new book, “The Fall of the House of Bush,” the reporter Craig Unger (the author of the 2004 book “House of Bush, House of Saud”) attempts to turn an all-encompassing, wide-angle lens on the Bush presidency, looking at the rise of George W. Bush and his support from the religious right; his relationship with his father, George H. W. Bush, and its impact on foreign policy; the alliance between Israeli hard-liners and Christian Zionists, and the neoconservatives’ push for the war against Iraq; the administration’s use of flawed intelligence before the invasion; and Vice President Dick Cheney’s efforts to expand executive power. The resulting book is a sprawling hodgepodge of the persuasive and the speculative, the well researched and the hastily assembled, the original and the highly derivative.
Among the assertions that Mr. Unger makes in this book are that Mr. Cheney initially wanted Paul D. Wolfowitz (who as deputy defense secretary became one of the chief architects of the war against Iraq) to be made head of the C.I.A., a plan that was supposedly derailed because of Mr. Wolfowitz’s marital indiscretions, which would later play a role in his downfall at the World Bank. Mr. Unger also suggests that Mr. Bush did not become a born-again Christian after talking with the Rev. Billy Graham at the Bush compound in the summer of 1985, as the president recounted in his autobiography, but that he’d already been born again, more than a year earlier in Texas, thanks to an evangelical preacher named Arthur Blessit. Mr. Blessit, says Mr. Unger, once ran a “Jesus coffeehouse” on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood, where he preached to “bikers, druggies, hippies, and two Mafia hit men.”
When Mr. Unger sticks to the facts (often facts initially unearthed by other reporters) and focuses less on the personal lives of his subjects and more on policy making in the Bush administration, his narrative skills enable him to do a fluent job of putting the available jigsaw puzzle pieces together. He gives readers a powerful account of the long-standing campaign by neoconservatives (which long predated the terrorist attacks of 9/11) to topple Saddam Hussein, the ideological roots of the administration’s ideas about pre-emption and unilateral action, and the efforts of hawks in the Pentagon and the vice president’s office to bypass regular policymaking channels and use cherry-picked intelligence to push for war. This part of Mr. Unger’s narrative remains heavily indebted to ground-breaking books like Mr. Hersh’s “Chain of Command” (2004), James Bamford’s “Pretext for War” (2004) and George Packer’s “Assassins’ Gate” (2005), just as those portions of Mr. Unger’s book related to the administration’s selling of the war owe a heavy debt to Frank Rich’s “Greatest Story Ever Sold” (2006).
One of the things that’s new in this volume is the level of detail that Mr. Unger brings to his account of how Colin L. Powell was maneuvered into making the administration’s case for war with his February 2003 speech at the United Nations, an account that clearly leans heavily on the author’s interviews with Lawrence Wilkerson, Mr. Powell’s former chief of staff, who has become an increasingly outspoken critic of the Bush administration.
Mr. Unger quotes Mr. Wilkerson saying that in trying to vet material for the United Nations speech, Mr. Powell kept having to throw out discredited allegations (made by the vice president’s office) that the 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta had met with an Iraqi intelligence agent.
“They were just relentless,” Mr. Wilkerson says of the vice president’s staff. “You would take it out and they would stick it back in. That was their favorite bureaucratic technique — ruthless relentlessness.” According to Mr. Wilkerson, Mr. Cheney’s office continued the night before and the morning of the speech to insist that Mr. Powell tie Saddam Hussein to 9/11.
Other assertions made in this book are more poorly sourced. For instance Mr. Unger not only writes that at least nine intelligence officials believe that forged documents, which described efforts by Iraq to buy uranium ore from Niger for a nuclear weapons program, were “part of a covert operation to deliberately mislead the American public and start a war with Iraq,” but he also goes on to insinuate — without any sort of smoking gun — that Michael Ledeen, a neoconservative analyst with ties to both Italian intelligence and high-ranking Bush administration officials, might have played a key role in that operation.
In his eagerness to connect all the dots, Mr. Unger resorts at times to innuendo and speculation and hyperbolic language. For example he draws heavily upon the reporting from Peter and Rochelle Schweizer’s 2004 book “The Bushes: Portrait of a Dynasty” to underscore the Oedipal tensions between the current President Bush and his father. But while he nimbly explicates the differences in their approach to foreign policy — the senior Bush and his national security adviser Brent Scowcroft belong firmly to the realist school, while the younger Mr. Bush chose a decidedly more messianic approach — he takes the fact that the current president has allied himself with some figures (like former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld) who were rivals of his father to come to the melodramatic conclusion that Mr. Bush the younger “with the help of so many of his father’s nemeses” had “destroyed his father’s legacy” piece by piece.
Mr. Unger titles one of the chapters in this book “Ripe for the Plucking,” suggesting that the ambitious but inexperienced George W. Bush was “precisely the right kind of cipher to embrace a vision of American exceptionalism shared by both the evangelicals and the neocons,” and that in making an alliance with these groups, he “put together a team that was his father’s worst nightmare, a team whose utopian dreams challenged the very policies at the heart of his father’s legacy.” He also asserts that neoconservatives like Mr. Wolfowitz and Richard Perle began tutoring Mr. Bush in foreign policy, semisecretly, in late 1998 and early 1999, laying the philosophical groundwork for the Iraq war before the 2000 presidential campaign was well under way.
It’s unfortunate that Mr. Unger occasionally hypes his material and extrapolates from the documented facts in this book, as these tactics distract attention from — sometimes even undermine — his more carefully researched findings. And in the case of the Bush administration and its determination to go to war in Iraq the plain, unadorned facts are startling — and disturbing — enough.