The biggest question raised by Fred Barnes’s Rebel-in-Chief is whether the author’s embarrassment is a closely held secret among family and close friends or more widely admitted. Embarrassment there must be, for Barnes is a capable writer, even a good one. To those who read him in The New Republic or saw him on “The McLaughlin Group” in the 1980s and 1990s, he was a refreshing type in a throwback sort of way: a not terribly ideological, intellectually unpretentious conservative, Republican in his instincts; a suburban Virginia family man; a reporter with good sources and a crisp, fact-filled prose style. Perfect for the slot of token Republican at The New Republic in its 1980s heyday.
But for readers who might wonder what it is like to be North Korean and required to read formulaic biographies of great helmsman Kim Il Sung and his son, an afternoon spent with Rebel-in-Chief should provide a proximate answer.
In Barnes’s defense, the book is a representative product of a large neo-Republican publishing industry that has sprung up in the past five years to tap the market for conservative books aimed just below the middle of the brow—gifts to give the friend or parent who is an avid Hannity and O’Reilly watcher, to be thumbed through perhaps more than read. This is a large market, previously underserved.
In his acknowledgments, Barnes tells of writing an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal on George W. Bush as an “insurgent” president. Many would find this an unlikely designation for a man who was essentially anointed as heir apparent by Republican elites, a very fortunate son who floated from business partnerships where he did no real work into the Texas governor’s mansion, a man who unlike anyone else you’ve ever known suffered no adverse professional consequences for being an alcoholic with no real accomplishments at age 40. But for Barnes, this experience was the perfect training for the president “as rebel,” enabling him to disregard conventional Beltway knowledge, the tiresome stuff of diplomats, science advisors, and other “experts.”
It is as if the Bush presidency were the Chinese Cultural Revolution (Better Red Than Expert!) reformulated GOP-style, a place where experience and specialized knowledge are always the subject of suspicion. (Why was it not surprising when news leaked out that a 24-year-old campaign worker without a college degree, promoted to a NASA press aide position by the Bush administration, tried to block the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies from speaking to the public about global warming?) Bush of course doesn’t send the pointy heads to re-education camps, but, as Barnes reports cheerfully, he ignores them.
Barnes’s Journal piece led inevitably to a book contract with, one imagines, a wink and a nod that the book wouldn’t actually require, as a real book would, concentrated work that would distract Barnes from his day job at The Weekly Standard or TV show “The Beltway Boys” —neither negligible in their demands of time and energy. If the advance is good enough, why not take the bait?
The core of Rebel-in-Chief is that George W. Bush, by virtue of his rebellion against conventional liberal/centrist Beltway counsel and the prudent, cautious conservative establishment wisdom, has been an astonishingly successful president, well-deserving of Natan Sharansky’s flattery—“Mr. President, I see you are a dissident. Dissidents believe in an idea. They suffer a lot. But history proves them right.” The main evidence for this success has been Iraq and the war on terror, so naturally Barnes attests that the Bush foreign policy is working out swimmingly. For example:
- During the Iraq War and its aftermath, non-Bush Washington hollered repeatedly for an announced exit strategy. Bush demurred, arguing that a declared plan for getting out could only prolong a conflict and encourage the enemy to hang tight. With the success of the Iraqi election, Bush was vindicated.
- For Bush, the tight partnership [with Tony Blair] is an essential ingredient of his new foreign policy in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It is a world-changing policy crafted mostly by Bush himself, not his advisers. And it is a policy that has significantly strengthened America’s strategic position in the world.
- The 9/11 assault by al Qaeda terrorists changed Bush’s approach to foreign policy in important ways. Within hours of the attacks, Bush was already fashioning a new policy. It was a Bush policy, not the work of his advisers. He was no longer the attentive student. Now he was the policy maker. And the president was soon finding new allies and shedding old ones. National Security Adviser Rice, Vice President Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell—they followed their leader.
There are dozens of paragraphs like this, emphasizing Bush’s “bold vision” vindicated by “dazzling” democratic elections, portraying Bush “taking charge” and “deftly” moving Israelis and Palestinians closer to peace “than at any time in decades” and thereby turning the whole volatile Middle East into “Bush Country.” Iraq, Barnes tells us again and again and yet again, is now, thanks to George W. Bush, a “pro-American democracy” because Bush, “adamant about democracy,” with his “hands on style,” has never been afraid to override the crabbed views of experts. And, lest we forget, it is Bush alone who has done this, not his advisors. The cynical might suspect that this last is a form of neoconservative special pleading, designed to spirit the War Party intellectuals away from the scene when the Bush policy goes down in flames. It might even be charitable to Barnes to think so, for the alternative is to believe that the courtier style that saturates Rebel-in-Chief is without guise.
As I write, the American ambassador to Baghdad, a veteran neoconservative hardly given to public pessimism, is warning reporters that Iraq remains on the brink of a civil war, requiring an overstretched U.S. Army to remain there at full strength for several more years. “Right now there’s a vacuum of authority, and a lot of distrust,” says Zalmay Khalilzad, though the poor country has gone through not just one but three of Barnes’s “dazzling” elections. The risk if American troops don’t remain is a regional conflict that would be a more encompassing version of the Iran-Iraq War. Religious extremists could take over sections of Iraq and expand outward, making, in Khalilzad’s words, “Afghanistan look like child’s play.”
The audience for books like Rebel-in-Chief doesn’t hear such news as Zalmay Khalilzad is commenting on. It blocks it out, as it would news emanating from some foreign and ignoble land. That may not matter much—not every citizen needs to be well-informed about everything. But Fred Barnes, despite his protestations, is himself a member of the Beltway elite, a top editor at a leading conservative magazine, a veteran TV performer, from a distance at least a likeable and sane individual. What does it say about contemporary American politics if he believes basically in the bulk of what he has written here? What does it say if he doesn’t believe it? Neither alternative is especially reassuring.