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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When I read the books and several of your recent articles, two words come up often enough for me to make note of them. They are the words, "irony" and "fortuna." I don't know if you used the word "fortuna," but in this portrait that you've been painting over the years of foreign policy and diplomacy, you've encountered a lot of irony and the working of fortune. On fortune, I'm thinking of the fluke that led to Rumsfeld at the last minute becoming Secretary of Defense because of a reaction to a press conference that had been given when Colin Powell was appointed Secretary of State. We don't need to go into the particulars. I'm more interested in having you comment on the irony and fortuna, as a man who comes from all of this and didn't go to medical school, but decided to become a writer ...

That's right.

... because it seems to me that great writers are always where they land with those two big picture items.

Irony is very important to me. From my own experience, I think you can't go through life without a sense of irony, without running into it. In covering day-to-day events or writing books, if you step back from any particular moment, you often find reason to laugh at the turnabouts that all sides make.

Let me give you an example. When the current Bush administration put together and put down -- this was led by Condoleezza Rice -- its national security strategy in 2002, this was an effort to put down the underlying principles that were guiding its policy. At one point in trying to explain how dangerous al Qaeda was (and really, it was something that needed no explanation), for some reason they wrote in contrast to the Soviet Union, "the Soviet Union was a stable status-quo power." I looked at that and I couldn't help but laugh because many of the people, the Republican office-holders, people like Dick Cheney, the neoconservatives, before '91 or '89 had certainly not conceded that the Soviet Union was a "stable status-quo power." Quite the reverse!

Now, I have to say on the other side, I don't know how many times I've heard a nice, good-thinking, straightforward Democrats ... all through the nineties, one of the lines I heard was, "We're adrift in our foreign policy now. At least during the Cold War, we all had a unity of purpose." I used to chuckle at that one because I'd think, "Wait a minute, there were tremendous arguments. There was no unity of purpose during the Cold War." There was tremendous disagreement about how the United States should respond to the Soviet Union. So that sense of irony, I think as a writer, you need to preserve.

One final question: What would you advise students who want to get into reporting and [especially] reporting on diplomatic and international affairs? Any advice for them on how they should plan their future?

On diplomatic affairs, the more both American foreign policy but especially history you can read, the better. The myth in the press corps is that you don't need to know a lot of history or that it doesn't help. In fact, it does all the time. Whether it's Russian or Chinese history or history of the Middle East, people who understand the history understand current events.

The second, how to get into reporting -- it's painful for me to watch -- the number of available jobs at least with regular newspapers and TV outlets is fewer and fewer than it used to be. All I can say is try and find that starting job and keep going. That's nice advice, but it's hard to do.

James, on that note, thank you very much for coming to Berkeley and sharing your thoughts on The Rise of the Vulcans.

Thank you, Harry.

And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

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