The obsessive secrecy, the ruthless control of what information is given out, the insinuations that anyone who does not support it is a traitor, the lack of a effective Congressional opposition - one way and another, the Bush administration can do a pretty good imitation of the Politburo in its pomp.
How nice, therefore, to learn that everything you instinctively assumed was true. For this deeply satisfying sensation, I must thank Lawrence Wilkerson, soldier, academic and most recently chief of staff of the former Secretary of State Colin Powell - the man invariably at the losing end of the great subterranean power struggles of the first Bush term. For those four years, Wilkerson barely kept his frustration under wraps. Last week, in an freewheeling address to the New America Foundation, he let rip.
National security policy had been hijacked by "a cabal" between Vice-President Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, he said. Condoleezza Rice was "extremely weak". The President himself "is not versed in international relations. And not too much interested in them either."
For Wilkerson, these ingredients add up to something frightening: an unprecedented perversion of the process, when decisions are presented "in such a disjointed and incredible way that the bureaucracy often didn't know what it was doing as it carried them out." He offers chapter and verse: Iraq, North Korea, Iran, "domestic crises like Katrina, Rita". And if any major crisis arose - a nuclear bomb going off in a major American city, or a major pandemic - "you're going to see the ineptitude of this government", unmatched in the republic's history.
Up to a point this is standard stuff, sour grapes from a disgruntled member of the losing team. Why, one wonders for the umpteenth time, didn't Powell resign if he felt he was banging his head against a brick wall? Wilkerson provided out loud the answer you instinctively knew: because Powell "is the world's most loyal soldier" - so loyal, indeed, that he is most displeased at his former top aide's decision to break cover so dramatically.
But Wilkerson insisted he was not making excuses for his side, but merely lamenting the distortions that gave Douglas Feith, number three at the Pentagon, "carte blanche to tell the State Department to go screw themselves in a closet somewhere". Feith, it will be remembered, is the individual described by General Tommy Franks, commander of the Iraq war, as "the fucking stupidest guy on the face of the earth". Wilkerson adds, "He was. Seldom have I met a dumber man."
But the critique extends far beyond personalities. Wilkerson is an old pro who's been around. His hero is the first President Bush - not the most gifted domestic political operator in history, but with two remarkable foreign policy achievements that the Cheney-Rumsfeld "cabal" couldn't get near: creating the environment in which the Iron Curtain (and ultimately the Soviet Union itself) could disappear without bloodshed; and forging a true UN coalition, embracing Arab countries as well as America's traditional allies, to drive Saddam from Kuwait.
And Wilkerson puts his finger on a central weakness of this administration: the shambolic way in which decisions are made. A basic rule of leadership, he argues, is that the more people you involve in the policy- making process, the more effectively a policy will be implemented. "Foist your decisions out of the blue on a bureaucracy, and you can't expect that bureaucracy to carry out the decisions very well." That is what happened with Iraq, based on a vague idea of George W Bush, but brought to you by Messrs Cheney, Rumsfeld, Feith and their neo-con chums.
Today the Bush presidency is trapped in a vicious cycle of failed policies, gathering scandals and plummetting approval ratings - the fag-end of a Republican revolution that is starting to devour its own. And with failure comes score settling and blame avoidance. More and more disillusioned senior officials will be emboldened to break ranks like Wilkerson.
Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton - even the amiable George Bush Snr - spawned shelves of tell-all books. But can this lesser Bush cope? Some fear the worst - economic crisis and foreign policy débâcle combining to produce some unnamed disaster - even though this is far-fetched.
America's system has a proven capacity to self-correct, but these are anxious times nonetheless. And we all know what happened to that other regime where you knew nothing and understood everything.Reuse content