Oedipus Bush

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Thought Ronald Reagan was dead and buried? You ain't seen nothing yet.

Ronald Reagan was notoriously shrewd at diverting public opinion whenever his administration was imperilled. A famous example was his invasion of the tiny island of Grenada just 48 hours after a truck bomb destroyed the US Marine barracks at Beirut airport in 1983. An unprecedented defeat for US intervention in the Middle East was cunningly transmogrified into a cheap victory for counter-revolution in the western hemisphere.

Reagan's masterstroke, however, was to synchronise his own death with the Bush administration's hour of greatest need. The timing was impeccable. At the very moment when the jaws of the Abu Ghraib atrocity seemed to be closing around the White House, the last light punctually went out in the former president's already dim brain. Voilà - the US media abandoned coverage of torture and murder in Iraq in order to broadcast interminable footage of the mournful suburban crowds (minus blacks and trade unionists) at Reagan's send-off, with a teary-eyed George W Bush reading a soliloquy from a teleprompter. The White House flooded the universe with the conjoined images of Reagan and Bush. The New York Times complained that 'it was difficult to tell where the 40th president ended and the 43rd began'.

But few (apart from the Reagan family, who reportedly loathe the Bushes) will contest George W's right of inheritance. As Kenneth Duberstein, Ronnie's former chief of staff, told the press, 'Bush's name may be Bush, but his heart belongs to Reagan.' The current regime has long conceived itself as Reagan III not Bush II. It is Reagan's photograph, not dad's, that hangs above George W's desk.

More substantively, none of the elder Bush's foreign policy inner circle - including the once mighty James Baker, Lawrence Eagleburger and Brent Scowcroft - now possess a pot to pee in since Junior came to power on the wings of a stolen election. This, of course, raises some intriguing, even alarming, oedipal questions about presidential fathers and sons. Is Junior really the love child of Reagan and Laura Bush? (Poor ole 41st, meanwhile, had to jump out of an aeroplane over Normandy to remind the world that he's still around.)

Veteran White House reporter James Mann is no psychoanalyst, but he provides fascinating historical background to Bush versus Bush in his new book The Rise of the Vulcans (Penguin, 2004). ('Vulcans' was the nickname adopted by Bush's neoconservative foreign policy advisers during the 2000 campaign.) Mann traces the schism in Republican ranks back to the immediate post-Watergate days when Cheney and Rumsfeld battled against an attempted coup d'état by Henry Kissinger.

Kissinger - who initially was both secretary of state and national security adviser - attempted to grasp all the levers of foreign policy from weak president Gerry Ford. Rumsfeld (chief of staff, then secretary of defence) and Cheney (Rumsfeld's protegé), however, were fanatically opposed to Kissinger's grand strategy of détente with the faltering USSR.

From this early stalemated Republican civil war to the breathtaking hubris of their own current shadow presidencies, Rumsfeld and Cheney, according to Mann, have demonstrated remarkable fidelity to the ideal of a world unilaterally ordered by US military omnipotence. For 30 years they have been the unrelenting opponents of so called foreign policy 'realists', whether neo-Kissingerians (with their belief in the ju-jitsu of balances of power) or Democratic neoliberals (with their emphasis on economic globalisation via the IMF and World Bank). In addition, Rumsfeld's frustrated presidential ambitions repeatedly conflicted with those of Bush Senior (a classical 'realist').

So did the extremist fantasies of hardcore 'neoconservatives' like Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle and William Kristol, who found the first Bush administration lacking in the crusading zeal of Reagan's support for counter-revolution in Central America. They were particularly vexed by the elder Bush's refusal to turn the defeat of Saddam into a fully-fledged Judaeo-Christian jihad.

In recounting the events from 9/11 to the attack on Iraq, Mann is particularly illuminating about the roles of Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell. Rice, although a protegé of Scowcroft (and thus indirectly of Kissinger), has repeatedly rallied to Rumsfeld-Cheney-Wolfowitz, while Secretary of State Powell (whom Mann shows to be far more reactionary than his usual avuncular image) has been forced to become more of a 'realist' than he originally wished.

Mann, in short, is a skilful archaeologist of the internal evolution of an imperial policy that has culminated in massive aggression against the Muslim world. Yet the greatest merit of Mann's book is undoubtedly his insistence that the real divide between neoconservatives and 'realists', however rancorous, is extremely narrow. The realists differ from the fundamentalists principally in tactical nuance and rhetorical emphasis.

The proof of this, of course, is the current hawkish platform of the Kerry campaign, which promises not to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan, but to drastically enlarge homeland security and double the army special forces. The ultimate irony is that while George Junior has jettisoned his dad for Reagan redux, the Democratic contender has been encouraging speculation that his foreign policy would be a return to the Camelot days of George Senior.

In the latest Atlantic Monthly, Joshua Marshall recounts recent discussions with Kerry's foreign policy team. They outline a Kerry strategy that rejects 'soft multilateralism and fealty to the United Nations' in favour of 'skilled diplomatic management and a willingness to use force abroad. A marriage of power and values.' When Marshall suggests that 'what you're describing to me sounds a lot like what I'd expect from Brent Scowcroft [Bush Senior's national security adviser]', they readily agreed. Kerry, now disdaining Dean voters, is pitching his campaign to disgruntled generals, national security apparatchiks, and the heirs of Henry Kissinger.

Is there a better reason to vote for Ralph Nader?