For a concise, hair-curling summary of how (if not, fully, why) we invaded Iraq, one can do worse than read Mark Danner's long, great essay "Iraq: The War of the Imagination" in the current issue of the New York Review of Books.
Danner, who manages to keep his head about him while teaching simultaneously at Berkeley and Bard, reviews Bob Woodward's State of Denial: Bush at War Part III, Ron Suskind's The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America's Pursuit of its Enemies Since 9/11, and James Risen's State of War: The Secret History of the C.I.A. and the Bush Administration.
If, like me, you're exhausted from reading (never mind typing) all those sub-titles, don't be deterred. What you get from Danner's summaries, extracts, and observations, may not tell you anything you didn't already generally know--Bush is walled off from facts, criticism, and expert input; Rumsfeld is arrogant and impervious to bad news or informed dissent; Rice is obedient and dutiful but always a step off the pace; Jay Garner got a raw deal; L. Paul "Jerry" Bremer crisply executed orders of the highest lunacy, etc.--but these snapshots have, at least to me, a sharper focus, and come arrayed in a dramatically more meaningful pattern, than hitherto.
And what emerges? A fucking nightmare, is what: an absolute travesty of institutional dysfunction, ineptitude on an operatic scale, and that special, special something that magically occurs when the narrow and rigid self-righteousness of evangelical certitude meets, falls in love with, and marries the bone-deep insecurity of a second-rate mind harboring first-rate unresolved Oedipal mischegoss. That's amore.
We speak here, of course, of the dependable disaster and walking delusion that is our President. One thing continually confirmed by Danner's piece is how very right those of us were who, back in 2000, perused the individual that is George Walker Bush and thought, "Sweet Jeebus on a Barcalounger, what a disaster." Some men achieve greatness, yes, but some achieve exactly the level of catastrophic failure, at the expense of others, that you expect them to.
The three books under review create a picture, alternately depressing and infuriating, in which solemn affairs of state are deformed by institutional rivalries, then perverted by individual personalities, and finally blown to smithereens by the unpredictable exigencies of a war conducted for political purposes and with the systematic exclusion of people who knew what they were talking about. For a visual aid, imagine a single large canvas depicting every scene, simultaneously, from Three Kings, as painted, in order, by Jacques-Louis David, Hieronymus Bosch, and Jackson Pollock.
Like everything else in the life of George Bush, it would be comic if it weren't so tragic, if the triumphs of his miserable little ego didn't come at such vast expense, as expressed in our money and, worse, other people's lives. But, for all the light Danner is able to shed upon some heretofore unknown matters, one central mystery remains.
When I was halfway through the piece, my wife asked me what it said about Cheney. "I'm not at the Cheney part yet," I answered. But there wasn't any. While Rummy strides and preens through the pages, and Bush follows his "gut"--or, rather, while everyone but Bush follows his "gut"--into Hell, Cheney remains a shadowy, veiled figure, perhaps more concerned with institutional power (and impunity) than with the actual fate of living Iraqis or Americans. The great Cheney book is yet to be written. (The uber-stupid Cheney book is probably being written as we speak, by Fred Barnes.)
Of course, the anti-great Cheney book, the one that will not merely insult the intelligence of all living mammals but actually increase the amount of darkness in the world, will have to be written by Cheney himself. He might not get around to it; it's not as though he cares about the good opinion of others. But if he does favor us with an autumnal tome of his thoughts and reflections, we can bet our non-existent retirement funds that it will be, to lies, what the Great Wall is to Chinese masonry.
So what, I still wonder, does he want?
Why is it that Cheney will say any damned thing, no matter how disprovable or disproved? From describing the Iraqi insurgency as being in its "last throes" (when it was patently just getting revved up for its second throes) to calling the acceptability of waterboarding a "no-brainer" (when even the people who conduct it say that the information it yields cannot be relied upon), he continues to defend the indefensible with the implausible and the discredited. Why?
Why does he even lie about complete trivialities, as he did when he (untruthfully) told John Edwards, during their 2004 debate, he had never met him before?
Never mind wondering why he still thinks others believe and agree with him. Because they do; there are others (and, by definition, they don't know who they are) who will believe anything. No, the real question is, why does Cheney still agree with himself? Why does he still even believe himself?
Unless, of course, he doesn't, and everything he says amounts to an exercise in cynicism and pretense. But then why do that? What is he defending and championing? A war of choice that boosted Halliburton's stock price? (Five year trend: from around 7 to around 42.) It can't be the money--can it? Doesn't he have enough? Okay, granted: it's never enough. But won't he get much more once he leaves office? And how much longer can he live to spend it?
Is it the job itself? He presides over a regime that has pandered to the stupid, subverted the truth, and ruined everything it has touched--and everybody on earth knows it. Is that fun? Is it "satisfying"? Is he proud of his accomplishments? Does he really enjoy being a synonym, to all but the credulous or the self-interested, for soulless evil?
I can't decide whether these questions are pertinent or simply naïve. Articles about Cheney describe a man all but obsessed with throwing off constraints on the power of the President, increasing his (or her!) ability to ignore or defy Congress, and generally putting the boot in as regards checks and balances. Why? Because he truly believes the President, in this dangerous time, should be unfettered? Whereas everyone in town, with the possible exception of Laura the wife and Barney the dog, believe the president should be more fettered.
Cheney's reported notion of a freed-up, "unitary," unconstrained presidency is a thing, if not of beauty, then of efficiency. The courts? Not competent, have no "standing," to make decisions regarding national security. Congress? Too slow, too divided, too deliberative, too talky to act with the swift boldness and bold swiftness these times require. If, as I am told by someone speaking authoritatively, brown is The New Black, then this is The New Democracy, i.e., a monarchy, complete with bi-cameral Parliament and a judiciary in fancy robes.
But surely it has dawned on Cheney that George Bush will be out of office in two years. (Or will he...? Yes, he will.) The powers gained by the Chimpster today will be transferred to the possibly Democratic victor in '08. Is Cheney "okay" with that? Because he's acting out of principle?
Stop. You're killing me. I'm killing me. Principle? Please.
When, in Chinatown, Jack Nicholson's J.J. Gittes confronts John Huston's charming monster, Noah Cross, the scrappy middle-class detective asks the amoral tycoon why, since he's already easily worth more than ten million dollars ("Oh my, yes."), he continues to pursue power and wealth. "Then why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What can you buy that you can't already afford?"
The script tells Cross to pause for a moment, and then answer, "The future, Mr. Gitts...the future."
Is that it? He wants to affect history, or, rather, History?
Or is it for a less lofty, more abstract and existential motive of which Cross--who, you will recall, purred, "...some people are capable of anything"--would approve?
Does Cheney do that thing he does simply because he can?