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The Rise of the Vulcans
The six that changed the world
By Steven Martinovich
It has become accepted wisdom that September 11, 2001 changed American foreign policy. During the early days of the Bush administration it was thought that he would follow the example of his father and seek multilateral solutions to world problems. The terrorist attacks disabused everyone of that notion as Bush made it clear to the world community that he wouldn't allow it a vote on how America responded to what it considered threats.
James Mann's marvelous The Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet makes clear, however, the roots of Bush's foreign policy stretches back more than three decades. Rather than being an ad hoc creation in response to the terrorist attacks, the view that American military power could be a force for change has existed in one form or another since the Nixon administration. September 11, 2001 finally gave it a chance to come into its own.
As Mann relates, no one was quite sure what to expect from Bush before the terrorist attacks when it came to foreign policy. The president had only traveled to Europe once in his life and he didn't seem to give foreign policy much thought during his presidential campaign. He was fortunate, however, to have a remarkable collection of foreign policy experts in the cabinet, some with experience dating back to the early 1970s. Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Colin Powell, Richard Armitage, and Condoleezza Rice formed a group known as the Vulcans -- named after the Roman god of fire, the forge and metal work.
Throughout the 1970s the realpolitik school of foreign policy was ascendant. The Soviet Union was a permanent fixture and it was necessary, the thinking went, for the United States to accommodate foreign powers. A wing of the Republican and Democratic Parties, however, believed in a more aggressive approach. It was predicated on the belief that the United States become unchallengeable militarily and that it shouldn't rely on relationships with foreign governments to advance American interests. Although Ronald Reagan adopted this new approach to a degree -- most notably his confrontational stance towards the Soviet Union -- it wasn't until the second Bush administration that it gained the upper hand in the intellectual war of ideas.
Along with exploring how the Bush doctrine -- which essentially rests on three pillars: American power, pre-emptive action and the promotion of American ideals -- developed, Mann charts the paths that the Vulcans' careers followed. Although they came from different backgrounds, political beliefs and generations, they all shared the same fundamental belief that American power could be used to reshape the world. After the debacle in Vietnam, the Vulcans were unified in their belief that the United States should never allow itself to be perceived as weak again.
This shared belief doesn't mean that the Vulcans are of a single mind. Although they believe in the same basic principles, they don't always reach the same conclusions. Powell and Armitage, for example, as Vietnam veterans are far more reticent to support military intervention the other Vulcans. Differences in experience, politics and generation sometimes combine to lead the individual members in slightly different directions. Mann fleshes out each of them, painting compelling portraits that go a long way in explaining how and why they came to challenge and then change the very nature of American foreign policy in such a revolutionary manner.
The chief strength of The Rise of the Vulcans -- besides his superb work in documenting their history and beliefs -- is Mann's commendable efforts to be as even-handed as possible. He has crafted a history and analysis that is neither hagiographic nor a hatchet job -- the shortcomings of both the Vulcans and their ideological opponents are discussed in a reasoned and fair manner. The Rise of the Vulcans may not be the last book written on Bush's war cabinet but it is likely to be the most definitive.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.
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