It might well be excusable for an American author to, when talking about the capitals of two rather important European nations, casually refer to them as Paris and Bonn. It might even be excusable in a book that has been published in 2011. It might, however, be deemed debatable whether it is equally excusable to publish a book with a largely misleading subtitle, as Dov S. Zakheim, has recently done. Zakheim, one of the early picks of Governor George W. Bush to prepare his presidential run in 2000, has now put forward a book with the somewhat intriguing title A Vulcan's Tale. How the Bush Administration Mismanaged the Reconstruction of Afghanistan. It is, unfortunately, everything but. In fact, a more concise subheading would have been something along the lines of “my constant quarrels with OMB and other random rumblings on whatever else crossed my desk.”
Having been part of Bush's presidential advisory team, Zakheim ended up serving in the administration, as chief comptroller of the Department of Defense and later on as the Department's point-man on Afghanistan reconstruction. And even though that gave him a unique insight into the administration, though without having a specific policy position, he is hardly making use of it. Indeed, it is hard to follow him when reading his account. His bottom line—no surprises here—is that the United States had a real chance to pacify Afghanistan in 2002 and 2003 but blew it when it instead began to focus on Iraq. And since the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) constantly immersed itself into decisions that had exclusively to do with the development of policy positions whatsoever and insisted on a level of micromanagement that made it virtually impossible to execute two post-conflict strategies at the same time, taking the eyes of the ball became all the more easy. The role played by OMB is certainly an addition to the picture (In his memoirs, Rumsfeld mentioned OMB only in passing) and still needs to be analysed in greater detail. But Zakheim clearly had an issue with his OMB counterpart, Robin Cleveland. Or more precisely he must have hated her breathing guts. But his book is also an account of how he failed to tackle the OMB issue for good. And it is at times hard to digest his rumbling account. Unfortunately not for the insight he is willing to share—there is hardly any—but for the useless details he volunteers to his readers. Sure Afghanistan is hot and the sand penetrates everything. But is that important, because you've got exclusive access to a shower, as Zakheim goes on to tell us, or might it be important because some allies cannot fly their helicopters in such a hostile climate (yepp, Germany), as Zakheim either does not know or does not find particularly interesting?
The Vulcans, by the way, were a team of intellectuals assembled for the first time in 2000 by Condoleezza Rice, when she began advising Governor Bush on matters of national security and foreign policy, when he began planning his run for the White House and the term is sometimes being used interchangeably with neoconservatives. The initial group of advisers, however, had no clear ideological direction (and in that they had something in common with the president-elect himself, who was initially more inclined to take an isolationist rather than interventionist, let alone neoconservative position) and Dov Zakheim was among the outspoken realists, generally opposed to interventions overseas. Rice herself was initially inclined to share the realist position, with Paul Wolfowitz, aware of his Straussian roots, being the most vocal neoconservative in the group of Vulcans.
James Mann, on the other hand, prefers to define the group of Vulcans very differently. Though aware of the origins of the term, he thinks it more useful to qualify Cheney, Powell, Rice, Rumsfeld, Armitage and Wolfowitz as Vulcans and explains why he does so in his outstanding masterpiece Rise of the Vulcans. The History of Bush's War Cabinet. He rightly points out that the final make-up of Bush's national security circle was somewhat of a surprise and picking Rumsfeld as SecDef was particularly unexpected (Rumsfeld was Bush's second choice). But Mann traces the origins of this entire generation of policymakers to the Vietnam war and their desire to rebuild American strength in its aftermath. Mann is at his best when he explores the intellectual and ideological origins of the neoconservative movement and describes the development of that movement from Kirkpatrick's famous 1979 Commentary article [pdf] to the full embrace of the democratization agenda following the Reagan administration's success in easing the regime of Ferdinand Marcos out of office. He describes the many fault-lines within this exceptional group of politicians, their intellectual quarrels and their common goals. It is all the more remarkable considering the fact that the book was first published in 2004. It still is the landmark volume on Bush's cabinet. And it is quite unfortunate that Dov Zakheim had so little to add to the picture.