How the Neocon-Christian Right Alliance Brought Down the House of Bush
Craig Unger shares the untold story of how a band of true believers seized the executive branch, started the Iraq war, and still imperils America’s future.
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to investigative journalist Craig Unger in Washington, D.C., here with Democracy Now! He is author of the new book The Fall of the House of Bush: The Untold Story of How a Band of True Believers Seized the Executive Branch, Started the Iraq War, and Still Imperils America's Future. The book examines how neoconservatives secretly forged an alliance with the Christian Right during the Bush presidency and helped make the case for war in Iraq. Craig Unger is the contributing editor at Vanity Fair, also author of the book House of Bush, House of Saud.
Craig, welcome to Democracy Now!
CRAIG UNGER: Thanks for having me, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: Why don't you start off by laying out the thesis of this book.
CRAIG UNGER: Well, I think when most people look at the Middle East conflict today, they frame it in terms of Islam versus the West. I want to try looking at a new paradigm, and that is, I want to examine fundamentalisms, and by that I mean not just Islamic fundamentalism, but Christian and Jewish fundamentalism, as well. And I really throw in neoconservatism as sort of a secular form of fundamentalism, which are in conflict with a modern post-Enlightenment world. And I think that’s a larger conflict that has gotten us into trouble today in the Middle East.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about President Bush, President George W. Bush's relationship with George H.W. Bush, a central theme that runs through The Fall of the House of Bush.
CRAIG UNGER: Right. Well, you may have seen there have been a raft of stories recently that they have a very congenial relationship. Last summer, the New York Times had them playing horseshoes out in Kennebunkport, Maine. And on the surface, I think that’s the case. I interviewed Bob Strauss, for example, who had been chairman of the National Democratic Party. He was a friend of Bush Sr.’s and had been ambassador to Moscow when the elder George Bush was president. And he said that when he had dinner with the two men, they would just be gossiping, talking about, “Oh, how’s Susie doing in Midland, Texas?” and so on.
But under the surface, I think there’s a real very deep conflict that has affected millions of lives, cost hundreds of billions of dollars, and they represent almost polar opposite points of view. I call the first chapter in my book “Oedipus Tex.” And if you look at the current Bush administration, you realize he has put together an administration consisting of some of his father's worst enemies. For example, his father was a very congenial man, had very few bitter enemies, but one of them was certainly Donald Rumsfeld. In addition, his father had very little -- was not terribly fond of the Christian Right, and at one point he called them the “extra chromosome crowd,” a remark for which he had to apologize.
And finally, his father had been doing battle with the neoconservatives as early as 1976. If you go back to that period, Bush Sr. was then head of the CIA, and you see the young neocons then had put together what was known as Team B, and they began to challenge the CIA’s intelligence on the Cold War. This was the era of detente. They were saying the CIA was a bunch of liberals who were being soft on the Soviet Union. And they tried to come up -- they began to politicize intelligence and distort it and come up with a much tougher line. And in there I think you see a lot of the foreshadowing of the events we're going through today.
AMY GOODMAN: As we talk about how President Bush and Vice President Cheney made the case for war in Iraq, I want to turn to comments made by Dick Cheney in September of 1992. At the time, he was President George H.W. Bush's Secretary of Defense. During an address at the Economic Club of Detroit, Cheney was asked why the United States didn’t bury Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War. This is how he responded close to fifteen years ago.
DICK CHENEY: At the end of the war in the Gulf, when we made the decision to stop, we did so because we had achieved our military objectives -- that is, when we decided to halt military operations. Those objectives were twofold: to liberate Kuwait and, secondly, to strip Saddam Hussein of his offensive military capability, of his capacity to threaten his neighbors. And we had done that.
There is no doubt in my mind, but what we could have gone on to Baghdad and taken Baghdad, occupied the whole country. We had the 101st Airborne up on the Euphrates River Valley about halfway between Kuwait and Baghdad. And I don’t think, from a military perspective, that it would have been an impossible task. Clearly, it wouldn’t, given the forces that we had there.
But we made a very conscious decision not to proceed for several reasons, in part because as soon as you go to Baghdad to get Saddam Hussein, you have to recognize that you’re undertaking a fairly complex operation. It’s not the kind of situation where we could have pulled up in front of the presidential palace in Baghdad and said, “Come on, Saddam. You’re going to the slammer.” We would have had to run him to ground. A lot of places he could have gone to hide out or to resist. It would have required extensive military forces to achieve that.
But let's assume for the moment that we would have been able to do it, we got Saddam now and maybe we put him down there in Miami with Noriega. Then the question comes, putting a government in place of the one you’ve just gotten rid of. You can’t just sort of turn around and away; you’ve now accepted the responsibility for what happens in Iraq. What kind of government do you want us to create in place of the old Saddam Hussein government? You want a Sunni government or a Shia government, or maybe it ought to be a Kurdish government, or maybe one based on the Baath Party, or maybe some combination of all of those.
How long is that government likely to survive without US military forces there to keep it propped up? If you get into the business of committing US forces on the ground in Iraq to occupy the place, my guess is I’d probably still have people there today, instead of having been able to bring them home.
We would have been in a situation, once we went into Baghdad, where we would have engaged in the kind of street-by-street, house-to-house fighting in an urban setting that would have been dramatically different from what we were able to do in the Gulf, in Kuwait in the desert, where our precision-guided munitions and our long-range artillery and tanks were so devastating against those Iraqi forces. You would have been fighting in a built-up urban area, large civilian population, and much heavier prospects for casualties.
You would have found, as well, I think, probably the disintegration of the Arab coalition that signed on to support us in our efforts to eject the Iraqis from Kuwait, but never signed on for the proposition that the United States would become some kind of quasi-permanent occupier of a major Middle Eastern nation.
And the final point, with respect to casualties, everybody, of course, was tremendously impressed with the fact that we were able to prevail at such a low cost, given the predictions with respect to casualties in major modern warfare. But for the 146 Americans who were killed in action and for their families, it was not a cheap or a low-cost conflict. The bottom-line question for me was: How many additional American lives is Saddam Hussein worth? The answer: Not very damn many. I think the President got it right both times, both when he decided to use military force to defeat Saddam Hussein’s aggression, but also when he made what I think was a very wise decision to stop military operations when we did.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Dick Cheney, speaking in September of 1992 at the Economic Club of Detroit. Our guest is investigative journalist Craig Unger. Pretty astounding, Craig.
CRAIG UNGER: It’s an extraordinary tape. And Cheney made statements like that again and again between ’92 and 1994. And he really forecasted all the problems we’re encountering today. It’s a shame he didn’t look at them again. But, if anything, to me, it shows his duplicity.
At about the same time -- remember, he was Secretary of Defense back then, and under him he had some of the key neoconservatives who became architects of the Iraq war today. He had Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, Zalmay Khalilzad. And about the same time, they had just written what was known as the Defense Policy Guidance paper, sometimes known as the Wolfowitz Doctrine. And this was a paper that became -- that outlined our current strategy. It was a radical new vision for overhauling the Middle East. You see the seeds of the Iraq war in it.
When it was leaked to the New York Times, it was -- it caused a great outrage. And then-President Bush, the elder President Bush, rejected it out of hand. He thought it was far too radical and rightwing. But Cheney secretly liked it a lot, and he told Khalilzad, for example, “You’ve come across a new rationale for American security.” This was a vision to create American dominance throughout the new century, as just after the end of the Cold War.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about Bob Strauss, his position and his observations about the two, knowing them very well, George Sr. and Jr. -- well, not exactly “Jr.” since he doesn’t have the “H,” but forty-three and forty-one, as you put it.
CRAIG UNGER: Right. Well, he said one thing that was -- he had only a few comments, but they were both very acute. One is, he said Bush Sr. doesn’t know how to strut; George W., Jr., doesn’t know how not to strut. I also asked him if there was one word that described the current president, and he said he was “incurious.” He was just too incurious to be president. And so you see this battle, the conflict between two George Bushes, evolve over a series of years.
George W. Bush was not the favorite son in the family. His older brother, Jeb Bush, really was. And in 1994, the two men were running for governor of Florida and Texas, respectively. And Jeb was favored to win; George W. was favored to lose in Texas. In fact, exactly the opposite happened. And at that point, George W. Bush became the leading sort of -- began to win the Oedipal sweepstakes in the family, and he became frontrunner to become a presidential candidate.
AMY GOODMAN: George W. Bush’s comments about “cut and run,” a direct cut at his father?
CRAIG UNGER: I think it was. And what you see then -- this was during the buildup to the Iraq war -- he said he was reflecting back to 1991, when his father was president during the first Gulf War and had been criticized by the neocons. Now, the normal etiquette between former and sitting presidents is they don’t criticize each other, and here he had made a public comment that seemed to be a slap at his father.
I interviewed people who had been talking to the elder President Bush at that time, and Bush said, “You know what? I’m going to have Brent Scowcroft talk to him.” And what you see in my book is Brent Scowcroft as an intermediary between the two generations, between the two George Bushes.
If there’s a hero in the book, it is Scowcroft. He’s in a very delicate position. He’s a very close friend of the elder President Bush. He has a condo in Kennebunkport, Maine, for example. And he wants to sustain that friendship. So when he talks out publicly, he is talking with the assent of the elder President Bush. And as early as October of 1991, you see him begin -- he sees it coming. He sees the neoconservatives taking over, and he starts to speak out. And you see him writing in the Wall Street Journal and other places, in the Washington Post and so on, saying that we should not go on and attack Iraq.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to talk about one of the main stories in your book, and that is this point you made at the top of the show, that it wasn’t a failure of intelligence, the Iraq war; in fact, it was the success. Talk about it.
CRAIG UNGER: Right, well, a lot -- I think everyone knows about the Valerie Plame Wilson affair and Joe Wilson. What people -- and it’s sometimes referred to as Nigergate. People sometimes forget the source was what is known as the Niger documents. Now, these were documents that grew out of a robbery that took place in the Niger embassy over the last weekend in the year of 2000 and January 1, 2001.
Now, remember, the timing is very important. George W. Bush has not taken office yet, but the neocons know they have a friend in the office -- coming into the White House. So they have had this strategy in development for many years, going back to as early as 1992, you see it begin to take shape. Now, finally, they have an opportunity to begin to try to implement it. And as early as 1998, they had begun going down to Austin. You see Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Elliott Abrams going down to Austin, where George W. Bush is governor.
Bush Sr. has been trying to educate his son, in terms of foreign policy. He thinks the old-line realists will prevail. By that, I mean Colin Powell, Brent Scowcroft and, one had thought, Condoleezza Rice, James Baker, for example. But, in fact, a radical group of neocons have been going down there, and they’ve sort of been indoctrinating George W. Bush. The first review of my book, Radar magazine calls it “the greatest brainwashing since the Manchurian Candidate.”
So when the Niger embassy break-in takes place, it’s in the Niger embassy in Rome. I actually went there for Vanity Fair. It’s a terribly unprepossessing building. If the Watergate burglary is sometimes described as a third-rate burglary, well, this is a fourth-rate one, and almost nothing of value is taken, just a few documents and some stationary. But these documents were used as the basis for forgeries of documents that said that Saddam Hussein was going to buy 500 tons of yellow cake uranium from the Republic of Niger. It’s a very poor African company -- country. Its only real export is uranium.
These documents then became circulated, though there are many, many, many unanswered questions about them. Everyone agrees on one thing, and that is that they were forgeries. They were phony. And I discovered, as I began to trace them, I discovered that they had been discredited on at least fourteen separate occasions by various government agencies, by the CIA, by the intelligence arm of the State Department, and so forth. Yet they still manage to be inserted in President Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address, and therefore in that speech they became a causis belli, a cause for war.
AMY GOODMAN: And the role of Dick Cheney in the manufacture -- well, you call it a PSYOPS operation, psychological operations?
CRAIG UNGER: Right. Well, in terms of the Niger documents, I’m not sure I do have a direct link with Dick Cheney, but what you see, you see Stephen Hadley says that he forgot that they had been discredited. Now, it’s hard to believe, if you think about vetting a presidential address, not just a presidential address, but a State of the Union address, one that is calling for war, that this is -- you know, it sort of defies imagination that the government can forget this on fourteen different occasions.
But with regard to Cheney, you see him playing a remarkable role overall in putting together a team of neocons and assembling extraordinary amounts of executive power. What we really see going on here is the putting together of sort of an alternative national security apparatus. We have a $40 billion intelligence apparatus, when you put together the CIA and the various intelligence units in the State Department and the Pentagon and so on. What Cheney was was a brilliant master of the bureaucracy. You can trace him and Rumsfeld back to the Gerald Ford administration. There, they executed a brilliant bureaucratic coup that seemed to oust Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, head of the CIA William Colby, Defense Secretary James Schlesinger. And so, they had a real mastery of the bureaucracy. They knew how to bring the bureaucracy to a halt, how to grease the wheels when necessary. They were able to put in people like John Bolton in the State Department to keep an eye on Colin Powell.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Craig Unger. His book is just out this week; it’s called The Fall of the House of Bush. You write about the significance of Pat Robertson, especially significant now with his endorsement of Rudolph Giuliani, and you go through his history, back to -- well, talk about Pat Robertson's father.
CRAIG UNGER: Well, he was a United States senator himself, and he comes from a very well-off family. Pat Robertson had put together quite a fortune in broadcasting. And yet, he’s really an unusual character, I mean, in the sense that he was one of the first leaders of the Christian Right who had enormous political clout. At the same time, I think he’s a little too extreme to have won public office. He speaks in tongues. It’s hard to imagine practices like that going on in the Oval Office.
Yet, in the Iowa primary of 1988, you see a great turning point, where Vice President Bush is then running for office. He’s the sitting vice president for an extremely popular president, Ronald Reagan. And he seems to be a strong favorite to win the next presidency. But in the Iowa primary, he comes in third behind Pat Robertson. And that’s the headline that you see the power of the Christian Right there, and he realizes he has to turn to his son, George W. Bush, to help bring the Christian Right into his campaign.
AMY GOODMAN: And Robertson was very careful there. He had a very deliberate strategy, kept reporters out of his meetings, his rallies, wanting to stay under the media radar screen so that the underestimates of his popularity would lead to big headlines when he actually organized to the point where he had such a high standing in the poll.
CRAIG UNGER: Absolutely. This is the birth of what’s sometimes called “dog-whistle politics.” And you see the Christian Right is broadcasting one message to their base, and the general electorate doesn’t seem to get it. George Bush and Karl Rove became masters of this in their campaign. And, for example, you would see George W. Bush campaigning with Roger Staubach. To the general public, that meant he was campaigning with a Super Bowl football star, but to the Christian Right, that meant he was campaigning with one of the faithful, that he was one of them.
AMY GOODMAN: One of the points you make is the people who are under attack in this current administration -- George H.W. Bush, Brent Scowcroft, Colin Powell -- they all have these military records, and the people who attack them -- Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Scooter Libby, Khalilzad -- did not fight.
CRAIG UNGER: Right. Those are the so-called “chicken hawks.” And, you know, it’s interesting, when you go around the country talking about this stuff, how rightwing talk show hosts will sometimes say this is a leftwing book. But in truth, the hero is Brent Scowcroft, who is an extremely moderate Republican who speaks out again and again, even though he’s in a very delicate position because of his friendship with Bush Sr. And most of my sources are really Republicans. There are a lot -- at one point, I have nine military and intelligence officials speaking out. They’re lifelong members of the military. Most of them are lifelong Republicans, as well.
And they have seen their party seized. Today, the Republican Party is basically a function of the Christian Right or the neoconservatives. In another world, someone like Chuck Hagel would be a serious candidate in the Republican Party. Today, a moderate like Hagel is marginalized within the party. And I think you'll see in the next election, whoever is the Republican candidate is almost certain to be committed to the current policies of George W. Bush.
AMY GOODMAN: You talk, Craig Unger, about American evangelism in this book. You talk about George Bush’s religion. And you talk about Tim LeHay, as well as the new right’s multibillion-dollar effort bankrolled by billionaire philanthropists to completely reframe the national debate. Talk about -- begin with George W. Bush and his religion and his story of his conversion with Billy Graham, which he says isn’t true.
CRAIG UNGER: Right. Well, the widespread story -- and he wrote about it, or at least it was ghostwritten, in his campaign autobiography for 2000, A Charge to Keep -- it’s a story George Bush has told again and again, that in 1985 Billy Graham was in Kennebunkport, Maine with him and his parents, and the two men went for a long walk, and it was at that moment that he began to accept Christ.
Well, Billy Graham himself says he has absolutely no memory of it. But more than that, I talked to Mickey Herskowitz, who’s a Houston sportswriter and a close friend of Bush Sr., and he was hired to ghostwrite that campaign autobiography, A Charge to Keep. And as he was ghostwriting it, during that process, he had about twenty sit-down interviews with George W. Bush in Austin, and he very specifically asked Bush what conversation took place with Billy Graham. At the time, Bush had absolutely no memory of the conversation himself. So Herskowitz sort of prodded him, and he said, “Well, would he have said something like, ‘Are you right with Jesus?’” And Bush said, “No, he wouldn’t have said that.” Well, at a certain point, Herskowitz gave the tapes to Karen Hughes, who was Bush’s communications director, and in the course of finishing the book, Herskowitz's words were put in Billy Graham's mouth.
Now, I later went back, and I found a guy named Arthur Blessitt. And it turns out that even earlier, it was Blessitt who really converted Bush to Jesus. In 1984, he had made a trip to Midland, Texas and then met at a Holiday Inn. There were three people present at the meeting: Bush, a member of his Bible studies group named Jim Sale -- I talked to Jim Sale -- and Arthur Blessitt himself, who I also interviewed.
And Blessitt is most famous for carrying a twelve-foot cross of Jesus around the world. He’s been to more than 300 countries, walked 30,000 miles. And he had a Jesus Coffee House in Los Angeles, where he was most famous for what was called the toilet baptism. His congregation consisted mostly of Hell’s Angels people, bikers and so forth, and they would dump their drugs in the toilet, flush it down the toilet and embrace Jesus.
AMY GOODMAN: And that’s who you say influenced George W. Bush, converted him?
CRAIG UNGER: Right. He actually seems like a very nice man. He’s not quite as distinguished a figure as Billy Graham, however, and I think it plays better politically. But, you know, in addition, this -- I think the secular world has basically misunderstood the Christian Right and doesn’t quite understand the depth of this as a movement.
And I traveled undercover with Tim LeHay, who is the prophet of the "Left Behind" series. His books have sold an astonishing 63 million copies. I traveled with him to the battlefield of Armageddon, where they believe the final conflict would take place. And I also did research, and I began to trace it back to its roots, the roots of the Christian Right. And we often talk about the battle of the blue states or the red states or the cultural wars in America. I think it’s actually a much more profound division of faith versus science.
AMY GOODMAN: Craig Unger, with the story, this undercover tour you took, walking where Jesus walked, with LeHay, and the scene that you describe touring the ancient fortress city of Megiddo?
CRAIG UNGER: Yes. Megiddo is -- from Megiddo, we get the term Armageddon, where the final conflict will take place. “Har” means “hill” in Hebrew, and “Har Megiddo” is how we get the word “Armageddon.” And in the Book of Revelations, this is where the final conflict will take place.
And I was walking up the hill with LeHay and about ninety of his followers, and as you look over this spectacularly beautiful pastoral valley, you see a valley that, in their view, won’t be so -- they see a vision that is not so bucolic. They see that it will be filled with blood, the blood of as many as two billion people. And I talked with them about that, and they say there will be a river of blood, 200 miles long, about four-and-a-half feet deep. And I asked one of them when all this would take place. And they said, “Very soon, but not soon enough. Any day now.” So they see this fantasy is taking place, and this is sort of one of the horrific visions that is spelled out in the Book of Revelation.
AMY GOODMAN: Filled with the blood of the more than two billion people who did not accept Jesus Christ as their savior.
CRAIG UNGER: Absolutely.
AMY GOODMAN: And Tim LeHay’s relationship with George W. Bush?
CRAIG UNGER: Well, LeHay is one of the founders of the Council for National Policy. Now, this is a not-very-well-known group, but it’s an umbrella group that oversees dozens of Christian Right groups, like Focus on the Family, which is James Dobson’s group. The Moral Majority was part of it, and so on. And within it was a much smaller group called the Arlington Group, of about fifty religious leaders. Now, they were in regular contact with Karl Rove. And what you have in the Christian Right is as many as 80 million adult evangelicals. You have about 200,000 pastors, and they operate almost as precinct captains did in the labor unions for the Democratic Party. So this is a vast populist movement that operates as part of the Christian Republican Party, and they have regular contact with the White House.
AMY GOODMAN: Craig Unger, I want to thank you very much for joining us. The book has just come out this week. It’s called The Fall of the House of Bush: The Untold Story of How a Band of True Believers Seized the Executive Branch, Started the Iraq War, and Still Imperils America's Future.Amy Goodman is the host of the nationally syndicated radio news program, Democracy Now!