This is the best news since Bill Clinton got caught with his pants down: writing in the New York Times last month, the polymath Michiko Kakutani informs us that President Bush has never been known as a bookworm. (A little learning is a very dangerous thing.) According to Kakutani, he is a gut politician—the best kind, as far as I’m concerned—a person who usually leaves the heavy reading to his wife Laura, a former librarian. Kakutani quotes the calumnious David Frum saying, “Conspicuous intelligence seemed actively unwelcome in the Bush White House.” (Iago would say that, especially after he was fired.)
Never mind. As long as someone, anyone, reads, George W. Bush will be fine. The trouble, of course, is what his advisors are reading. Kakutani tells us that in this White House the array of writings are mostly written by neoconservative authors, which sounds a bit like a man trying to keep off the bottle who reads non-stop Henry Miller and F. Scott Fitzgerald. “The administration is driven in high degree by big and often abstract theories that promote a moral approach to foreign policy; an unembarrassed embrace of power,” Kakutani writes.
This helps me at last to understand what the war in Iraq was all about. It was not about a serious military power threatening the United States, nor was it about Scuds, drones of death, dirty nukes, or chemical and biological weapons. Nor was it about Osama bin Laden. For all the death and destruction the war inflicted on Iraqis—the freedom of the people coming almost as an afterthought to Pentagon planners—it was about an abstract theory that promoted a moral approach to an unembarrassed embrace of power. (Get it? Got it! Good!) Back to books.
According to the Times article, President Bush’s favorite opus had been Marquis James’s 1929 biography of Sam Houston, the father of Texas, which is understandable. But last summer he declared that he was studying Supreme Command, by Eliot Cohen, a fellow member with our old buddy Richard Perle of the Defense Policy Board. Cohen is a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, where Wolfowitz of Arabia was once dean. So far so bad, and it gets worse. The Cohen book was widely pushed and blurbed by yet another fearless sofa samurai, the man whose face on Fox television has launched a thousand clicks, William Kristol. Cohen’s central thesis is based on Clemenceau’s epigram that “war is too important to be left to the generals.” It is a sound thesis, especially after our experience in Vietnam, where smart alecks like Robert MacNamara and McGeorge Bundy chose to ignore the military and led us to a famous victory.
If I may be so bold, I’d suggest these keyboard commandos take a glimpse at David Halberstam’s Best and the Brightest before launching any more armies against our enemies. Kristol is a fan of Prof. Victor Davis Hanson’s Autumn of War, which speaks approvingly of the ancient Greeks waging war for good causes. (Sorry, Prof, but was Sparta’s war against Athens a war against “tyranny, intolerance and theocracy” or was it because Sparta, being a military society, had to engage in non-stop fighting? I’m afraid it was the latter, but then I’m no professor of anything, except how to have a good time.) Hanson, incidentally, is also the Veep’s favorite author, which indicates Haliburton will soon be rebuilding Syria, Iran, Algeria, and Libya. Heaven help us.
Robert Kagan’s Of Paradise and Power tells us that Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus. I have not read the book; otherwise I might sue the author. Mars was the God of war, and we Greeks called him Ares. (Mars is the Roman name.) Venus was the Greek Aphrodite, goddess of beauty, love, and reproduction. Mars was in love with Venus but had trouble with her, just as America has problems with Europe. What Kagan means is that Americans are fighters, and Europeans are a bunch of sissies. Perhaps, but I do have to remind Kagan that the French alone had double the soldiers killed in just four weeks of fighting in May 1940 than the Americans lost in Vietnam in the whole ten years (120,000 vs. 57,000). No, what I humbly suggest to Kagan is to write another book, this one saying that neocons are from Venus—without the beauty, love and reproductive ability, just feminine traits—while we true conservatives, being from Mars, are ready to fight when our freedoms are challenged and against anyone, including a Soviet Union armed with 10,000 nuclear warheads. It might even play in Peoria, although in D.C. it would.
So what books should our president be reading? I’d start with The Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler, a book that was prophetic in identifying imperialism with cultural decadence and barbarism. The Origins of the Second World War, by A.J.P. Taylor, the Oxford don, is a brilliant debunking of all the absurd myths about Munich and appeasement that have animated the neoconservatives for years. Appeasement in Munich was the equivalent of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. Also Churchill: The End of Glory, the political biography by John Charmley that debunked the Churchill myth. Going to war with Hitler’s Germany in 1939 and thereby giving Stalin a blank check made absolutely no sense. He should have let Hitler fight Stalin to the death and then stepped in. But he could not have gained the supreme post if he had.
The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order by Samuel Huntington is a nice antidote to all the absurd euphoria about the inevitable triumph of liberal democracy. Most people in the world are not impressed with liberal democracy; they need food and shelter instead, and I can’t say I blame them. Next, A Republic, Not an Empire, by my colleague Pat Buchanan is a masterful dissection of U.S. foreign policy from the Founding Fathers to … horror of horrors, Bill Kristol. Also on the reading list, Imperialism, by the one and only J.A. Hobson. He showed a long time ago that imperialism always ends badly, and we don’t even make a buck out of it. Sure, the fat cats at Bechtel and Haliburton will, but where does that leave the average Joe whose sons and daughters went off to fight and die in Iraq? For whose interest? For whose glory?
The Golden Age, by Gore Vidal, is a wonderfully nostalgic look at pre-1941 America. Alas, I was too young, but I can sure taste the sweetness of the period. Also on my list, The Sword and the Prophet, a politically incorrect guide to Islam by Serge Trifkovic. Unlike the Kagans, Cohens, Kristols, and Kaplans of this world, Dr. Trifkovic understands Islam, knows we were knocking on the wrong door in Baghdad, and is devastating on the absence of historical memory. The problem of historical ignorance in today’s English-speaking world, where claims about far-away lands and cultures are made on the basis of domestic multiculturalist assumptions, are hit right on the head by the author. Another must-read: March of Folly by Barbara Tuchman. The title says it all.
I have not read George Kennan, but his Reflections, 1982-1995, I am told, shakes conventional wisdom. This should be read because of his dismissal of the immigration myth, something that does not please the effete neocon crowd who believe the more the merrier. Mass immigration is not a problem with careerist neocons, and why should it be? They are well insulated around the capital.
Although I do not expect President Bush suddenly to turn to the books I recommend, I’m hoping against hope the gentle Mrs. Bush might. Librarians can speed-read. So go for it, Laura, you just might save this country of ours from an Attila the Hen like William Kristol.