Fearsome Office Warriors: Rumsfeld, Cheney, Rice and Co.

Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet , by James Mann. Viking, 426 pages, $25.95.

Kafka’s Amerika begins with the Statue of Liberty holding a giant sword instead of a light to the world. How fitting that James Mann’s profile of the Bush foreign-policy team begins with a nearly identical image. High on a hill outside Birmingham, a huge 56-foot statue of Vulcan (the Roman god of fire) glowers at Alabamans, reminding them of their metal-working heritage. Condoleezza Rice, a Birmingham girl, remembered the statue when the Bush foreign-policy team was casting about for a nickname during the 2000 campaign; they cheerfully adopted it as their mascot. It’s not clear whether they knew the other meaning of Vulcan-the humorless race that Mr. Spock sprang from on Star Trek.

Over the last few years, former L.A. Times correspondent James Mann has looked searchingly at the small group of friends who now dominate the U.S. national-security apparatus. His newsworthy book will cause a stir-already Maureen Dowd has gotten mileage out of the revelation that Dick Cheney’s Secret Service moniker in the 70′s was “Backseat.”

Rise of the Vulcans is not an unfamiliar type of book. David Donald has just written about Lincoln’s network of friends, and Louis Menand succeeded beyond expectation in making a cluster of 19th-century philologists come alive in The Metaphysical Club. But the book that Rise of the Vulcans most resembles is The Wise Men (1986), a gripping study by Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas of the generation that shaped the world after World War II. And yet, though the surface topography is the same, something feels very different about this story. It lacks a feature of American biography so ubiquitous that we barely notice it: the feeling that competent people are mastering adversity and leaving the world a better place. Rise of the Vulcans is The Wise Men in reverse. Mr. Mann’s protagonists-Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Richard Armitage, Ms. Rice and Paul Wolfowitz-are no less ambitious than their predecessors, but they’ve spent their time in power (and a long time it is) weakening the global institutions painstakingly created by Dean Acheson, George Marshall and others. If that passes for wisdom, they’ve got plenty.

Mr. Mann seems to be a centrist, and he writes well. Both facts should hook in readers outside the gray world of foreign-policy geekdom. It’s a remarkable story, really. He begins with Don Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, and helpfully reminds us just how old these two dinosaurs are. The book opens in 1971 (not only was Elvis alive, he was still skinny). At the time, Mr. Rumsfeld was worrying his supervisors in the Nixon White House with some disturbing peace-related activities. How illogical, as Mr. Spock would say. But it makes sense when you realize that Mr. Rumsfeld’s dovishness was a way to kneecap Henry Kissinger, a perennial rival. The peacenik tendencies vanished the moment Mr. Rumsfeld was appointed Secretary of Defense (the youngest ever). His disciple, Dick Cheney, emerged as Mr. Fix-It in the Ford administration-a quiet, competent administrator, exactly the person to talk to if one of White House toilets were leaky. Mr. Cheney’s job hasn’t changed much, if recent rumors speculating that his office compromised C.I.A. agent Valerie Plame are true. More than any other Vulcan, one can imagine Mr. Cheney enjoying a satisfying career in the Soviet Union, had the polarities been reversed.

Like the Rolling Stones, Messrs. Cheney and Rumsfeld achieve peak influence in the early to mid-70′s, then disappear for a while, but reappear in old age to take over the world. During their time in the wilderness, these two planets drew in the other Vulcans: Mr. Wolfowitz, an intense theorist who saw the coming importance of the Middle East; Mr. Powell, an ambitious soldier whose genius lay in explaining the military to civilians and vice versa; Mr. Armitage, a likable, unorthodox Vietnam veteran; and, last to join, Ms. Rice, an overachieving Soviet specialist who seems to have been sent over from central casting to offer the group exactly what it lacked.

Mr. Mann gives each Vulcan a personality, flavored by counterintuitive details that deepen the chiaroscuro (Mr. Rumsfeld driving a VW bug in the 60′s, for example). And there are provocative reminders that these are complicated human beings who have changed over time. Mr. Powell, for instance, the great moderate hope at the moment, was hawkish in the Reagan N.S.C., happily drinking the Kool-Aid on issues like Star Wars and the Nicaraguan contras. We all know about Dick Cheney and Halliburton, but who knew that for many years, Donald Rumsfeld was a shill for Metamusil, fighting constipation the same way he attacked Communism-with fiber?

Like all Washington stories, Rise of the Vulcans is at its core a story of bureaucracy-and these six are nothing if not fearsome office warriors. After one deft ploy, Mr. Rumsfeld earned the highest praise from Nixon (“he’s an operator”) and H.R. (Bob) Haldeman (“typical Rumsfeld, rather slimy maneuver”). There are revelations that have been hinted at previously, but which strike the reader with more force today, knowing everything we do about Iraq. In 1976, C.I.A. director George Bush appointed a special commission, Team B, including Mr. Wolfowitz, which dramatically overstated the Soviet threat. Twenty-two years later, the so-called Rumsfeld commission performed a similar office for Newt Gingrich, shrilly attacking the Clinton administration for doing too little to combat the perceived missile threat from North Korea (a threat the current administration has made significantly worse). A scary bit of news is that Messrs. Rumsfeld and Cheney were deeply active in “the National Program Office,” a secret Reagan administration program to study how the government would function if attacked. The answer is that Congress would dissolve and shadowy men would take over the decision-making. Needless to say, Oliver North was the action officer. Some passages of Rise of the Vulcans read frighteningly like Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here. It’s even scarier to think that Mr. Mann hasn’t gone into areas like the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans (a new office created, it would seem, to embroider intelligence about Iraq) or John Poindexter’s Total Information Awareness program. The pattern is simple: find a fear, exaggerate it and get it into the Beltway gossip mill, gaining more clout from the appearance of inside knowledge while ignoring the intelligence professionals and diplomats who know the real story. There’s a reason why they keep doing it: It works.

Mr. Mann argues persuasively that the Vulcans have been speaking the same language all along, from the Soviet Union to Grenada to Iran-contra to Panama: A terrible tyrant must be overthrown; the window for intervention is closing quickly; Congress isn’t up to the job; diplomacy is worthless, arms control bogus, and the American people are in danger if we don’t take pre-emptive action. Vulcans need their Klingons.

Strangely, this thinking didn’t apply to Iraq in the old days. In 1983, Mr. Rumsfeld was exultant after his summit with Saddam Hussein. It didn’t matter that Saddam was already developing “weapons of mass destruction”-the mindless phrase that makes chemical and biological weapons sound nuclear. What was important at the time was that Saddam hated Iran. Mr. Rumsfeld promised him we would not sell arms to his rival-a promise we broke as soon as it was convenient. One would think, given their alarmism, that the Vulcans would have been ready to pounce when Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990. In fact, they were caught flat-footed, just as they were unprepared at first for 9/11, having spent the first eight months of the Bush White House droning on about missile defense.

The 1991 Gulf War made the Vulcans, of course, and it’s for complicated reasons stemming from it that we are again in Iraq, 13 years later. Tragedy and farce, you know. What makes Mr. Mann’s story so interesting-and so sad-is that the Vulcans have been fighting the same war for 30 years, substituting terrorism for Communism, prattling about “democracy” while undermining it at home and abroad, attacking weapons that do not exist, ignoring ones that do, and alienating world opinion beyond the point where it can be easily repaired. How did Republicans ever get the reputation for foreign-policy expertise? Their “realism” is magic realism. A few hanging chads counted differently, and we’d be living in a very different world. But then James Mann wouldn’t have much of a book.

Rise of the Vulcans is not flawless. President Bush is oddly absent, as he apparently was from Paul O’Neill’s Oval Office briefings, and that’s a shame, because his foreign policy is their foreign policy. Some exploration of his worldview, including his curious unwillingness to travel as a young man, would help.

The book is also a bit tone deaf about Clinton foreign policy, which was far more than a quest to open markets, as Mr. Mann suggests. It wasn’t perfect, but it reflected a genuine desire to engage the world, to build peace where no one else could (the Middle East, the Balkans, Northern Ireland), and to generally convince the rest of humanity that Americans-unlike Vulcans-are earthlings. It’s important to get Mr. Clinton right, if only because so many of Mr. Bush’s actions have resulted from his knee-jerk impulse to reverse every action of his predecessor. Many experts now think that North Korea has eight new nuclear devices after the Bush team fumbled the ball handed to them in 2001. It’s a sad day when the South Korean government wants us to stay in Korea not because they like us, but because we’re less likely to bomb the peninsula if our troops are stationed there.

America will eventually recover from the Vulcans, but it will take a lot of hard work-a new generation of Achesons and Marshalls, and more fine books like this one-to bring their thoughts and deeds into broad daylight. Mr. Mann has pulled back the curtain to expose three decades of political hardball, played to advance theories of the world that are, at best, incorrect. Read it and weep.

Ted Widmer directs the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College. From 1997 to 2000, he was director of speech-writing at the National Security Council.