James Mann Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Bush War Cabinet: Conversation with James Mann, Nitze School for Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, February 14, 2005 by Harry Kreisler

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The Vulcans

Let's talk about the current administration. Your book is called The Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet. So tell us, who are the Vulcans?

I guess I should explain the word first, because in the sense that I mean it, it has nothing to do with Star Trek.

That's very important at Berkeley.

When George W. Bush was first running for president in the late 1990s -- this is Bush, Jr. -- he had no experience in foreign policy. He was governor of Texas, he had made trips to Mexico and so on, but he didn't try to claim that he had a lot of foreign policy experience. book cover: artwork by Joseph CiardielloWhen people would criticize his lack of experience, his response was, "I have a really experienced group of advisors." In fact, he had surrounded himself with veterans of previous Republican administrations, most of them from his own father's administration. He assembled a team of foreign policy advisors who had worked in the Bush, Reagan, or even going back to the Ford-Nixon administrations. They would meet regularly, and they gave themselves the name "the Vulcans."

It's kind of an obscure name. Why Vulcans? Well, the main advisor, the person coordinating all this, although she was not the senior person by any means, was Condoleezza Rice. Rice had grown up in Birmingham, Alabama. Birmingham was a steel town, and overlooking the city is a huge statue of Vulcan, the Roman god of the forge. So for some reason, they just called themselves the Vulcans.

Well, who were they? In writing this book, I took this name "Vulcans" to apply not just to the few people who were in this meeting, but the whole class of people who were Republican foreign policy hands and had worked in several different administrations. The six that I profile in this book are Dick Cheney, the Vice President; Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense; Paul Wolfowitz, his Deputy; Colin Powell, who was Secretary of State in the first George W. Bush administration; his Deputy, Richard Armitage; and ... who have I left out?

Condi Rice.

And Condi Rice, yes.

So the first question that comes to mind is this: Is there a great discontinuity when this group comes to power? I get the sense in reading your book that there are a lot more continuities than we realize. Talk a little about that. The event on 9/11 brought into focus a whole new set of policies, but what you're suggesting as you trace the histories and the biographies of these people is they were engaged in earlier conflicts, took positions that come up to the present today and influenced the way they think today.

Right. I describe the interactions among these six over several different administrations. To understand this group of people, you need to look at the continuities that go all the way back to the 1970s, to the aftermath of the Vietnam War. I try to trace this through in the book. As America comes out of Vietnam, there are three different schools of thought of how the United States should respond.

The first would be centered on Democrats, liberal Democrats. It was the mainstream [view] in Congress in the 1970s that Vietnam has shown that there need to be new limits on American power. George McGovern said, "Come home, America." Mike Mansfield, the Senate Majority Leader, talked about bringing troops home from Germany. Other Democrats said, "Bring troops home from Korea." In fact, the committees we see today governing the intelligence agencies, the Senate and House Intelligence Committees, were set up by the Democrats in the seventies. "We need to impose limits on American power. America has been weakened by Vietnam."

The second school was the dominant one in the Republican party all through the 1970s, represented by Richard Nixon, who was president at the time of the Vietnam War, and Henry Kissinger, known particularly in academia, in places like this, as the "realist." Their response to Vietnam was, "We have to do what we can to prevent those liberals in Congress from bringing American troops home from overseas. We have to preserve America's overseas position." And the way to do that: "We need to work out an accommodation with the Soviet Union that will establish a process where the United States, within limits, can maintain its overseas presence." They're the architects of détente with the Soviet Union.

Those are the two dominant schools through the seventies -- the Democrats and the realists among the Republicans.

And then there's a third school, and this is the continuity with the present. In each of the two main parties you get a disaffected group of people whose response to Vietnam is, "No, what we really need to do is rebuild America's military power. We don't have to cut back. We shouldn't cut back." They are strongly opposed to détente with the Soviet Union. This group of people includes people in the Democratic party, like Henry Jackson and his assistant, Richard Perle, and a whole bunch of Republicans. At the end of the 1980s, Ronald Reagan ran for president and very skillfully brought the disaffected Democrats over to the Republican Party, creating a new majority.

This would be in the eighties?

This is in '81, and in the election before that. The people we have in this second Bush administration today, and the people I call the Vulcans, all came of age in this period, in the seventies and early eighties. They all ended up in the Republican party, and they're all reacting against either the congressional tide to pull back or to reach an accommodation with the Soviet Union. I trace through this history in the book, and I try to extract from it three or four common attitudes that the Vulcans have had over the years. One of them is an emphasis on the importance of military power. Military power is the main goal and main approach, main tactic. This isn't a matter of institution-building. Military power is preeminent.

So to clarify this more, this would be people who are not interested in the international World Court, not interested in the Kyoto Protocol. They want to rely on what America can do, especially with military power.

I would add that in their thinking, it doesn't work. They would say that the United Nations [and other] international institutions can't succeed in achieving America's goals.

There are several other common attitudes of the Vulcans. One is a real skepticism of accommodation with another country. No need for an accommodation, unless it clearly achieves America's goals. So they're opposed to détente, just as they're opposed to working out a United Nations solution, twenty or thirty years later, to dealing with Saddam Hussein. They tend to invoke America's ideals, to link ideals to military power. One of the main critiques in the seventies of Nixon's détente with the Soviet Union is it didn't reflect America's ideals.

The fourth issue, which is least of all recognized, [says,] apart from questions of how much military or economic power America should have or how it should use it, there is a factual question, an issue always out there of just how much power does the United States have at any given time? There's a famous book written in the 1980s, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, by Paul Kennedy, arguing that great powers can become overstretched, and then weaken and decline. This group of people tends to take a very expansive view of how much power the United States has, and that's been a consistent theme over the years.

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