James Mann in “Conversations with History” with Harry Kreisler

Image from Google Books

By Anne Crowell, ‘12

I unfortunately missed the Clarke Forum event with James Mann last Thursday, so instead I will focus on another discussion that Mann participated in as a part of “Conversations in History” at UC Berkeley with Harry Kreisler in 2005.  The 2005 event focused on Mann’s then-new book Rise of the Vulcans, which covers the top foreign policy makers in the Department of State and Department of Defense during the George W. Bush administration, which was the current administration at the time of the event.

Before Mann talked about his book, he offered some background about his career.  Though his family pressured him toward medical school, Mann discovered he was interested in journalism and became a foreign correspondent.  The time he spent in China convinced him that typical US coverage of foreign affairs and diplomacy during the 1980s was overwhelmingly focused on the Soviet Union and the Middle East, and he advocated a shift toward increased coverage of other areas, particularly Asia.  I’m not sure how influential Mann was in starting this particular trend or if he had help from other like-minded journalists, but to me, it seems important to increase media coverage of all areas of US foreign policy.  As Mann “uncovered things,” this process helped lead to increased transparency of US policy.

As a journalist, Mann says, he “never defined his job as to serve US policy;”
rather, his job was “to tell people what US policy is.”  Rise of the Vulcans, it seems, is written in much the same spirit.  It details the history of the Vulcans, George W. Bush’s team of foreign policy advisors, who were apparently named for a statue of the Roman god Vulcan in Condoleezza Rice’s hometown of Birmingham, Alabama.  This group includes Dick Cheney, Bush’s vice president; Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense; Paul Wolfowitz, Undersecretary of Defense; Colin Powell, Bush’s first Secretary of State; Richard Armitage, Undersecretary of State; and Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s second Secretary of State.  Mann emphasized that this was an experienced group specifically designed to compensate for Bush’s lack of foreign policy experience—for instance, Dick Cheney had been the Secretary of Defense during George H. W. Bush’s presidency, and other members of the team also had experience from the elder Bush or Reagan administrations.  Because the Vulcans were experienced recruits from previous Republican administrations, Mann argues, the more recent Bush administration actually had quite a bit of continuity in its foreign policy, despite the public’s perception that post-9/11 policy was radically different.  Mann’s theory is that the Vulcans are part of a tradition that emerged after the Vietnam War which was “strongly opposed to détente” and wanted to “rebuild American military power.”  These ideas were embraced by Reagan, who labeled the Soviets an “evil empire.”

In a way, Mann also contradicted his view of continuity among recent Republican
administrations when he talked about the irony of the “turnabouts that all sides make.”  (I have heard this was also a theme he covered in the Clarke Forum event.)  For instance, he pointed out that, when trying to explain how much of a threat al Qaeda was, the Vulcans called the USSR a “stable, status-quo power” by comparison, which would have been laughable during the Cold War.  He also cited a Democratic critique of Republicans which said, “At least during the Cold War we had unity of purpose,” which would have been equally laughable.  These “turnabouts” are why it is so important to keep history in mind
when talking about the present.

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