Three years ago, Sidney Blumenthal offered an insider's perspective on the Clinton presidency in "The Clinton Wars." Today, he's delivered an outsider's dissection of the Bush presidency in "How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime."
On Aug. 31 Mr. Blumenthal joined LiberalOasis, for the second time (our first interview is here), to discuss his latest work, the true Bush agenda, Condi Rice, John Bolton, PlameGate and the Democratic chances in '06. The following is an edited transcript:
LiberalOasis: What makes the Bush presidency "radical" as opposed to merely "conservative" or "right-wing"?
Sidney Blumenthal: It's certainly not conservative in any classical definition of the sense of conserving something.
And, it's radicalism, in some ways is of the Right, but it is a unique radicalism...
...we're in the grip of this radical presidency, and I don't think that the country is fully aware of how radical Bush is, what the true and sweeping agenda is, and how this is changing our country fundamentally, including an attempt to change the nature of our government and Constitution.
It is unique because it's a kind of perverse mutation of conservatism and right-wing thought, but it's unto itself.
And it is unique in that Bush is more radical than any other president we have ever had in American history.
LO: You say that many Americans don't know what the agenda is. How would you summarize that agenda?
SB: I think that agenda is to completely transform our system of government, so that we have an unaccountable, unfettered concentration of power in the Executive.
It's an agenda that also seeks to transform the place of the United States in the world.
Bush has discarded 60 years of broad bipartisan consensus in foreign policy and internationalism.
And in place, asserted an agenda of, using the attacks on 9/11 as the proximate cause, ... first-strike pre-emptive attacks, unilateralism, de facto dismissal of internationalism.
He has shattered our traditional coalitions, including the Western Alliance.
And you can go through the whole foreign policy, but particularly, point to the immense dangers that he has created to our national security interests, coming from the utter fiascos he has engendered in the Middle East.
He also [is] the only President ever to show hostility to science.
It didn't matter whether a President was Democratic or Republican or Whig ... no President has ever been hostile to science until Bush.
We have an Administration where government scientists are being given orders on what they can say, in terms of science, by political appointees, and in one case as we saw, people who fabricated their resumes in terms of their education.
This is not something that's abstract.
Bush's utter contempt for science has led to the paralysis of medical research on stem cells which might affect the development of cures on a whole host of diseases, and could affect, potentially, every single person living in the United States...
LO: Ronald Reagan left the Republican Party with an anti-government domestic philosophy that guides it to this day.
When Bush's term ends, will he leave the Republican Party with his ideological legacy in foreign policy? Or are you sensing that Washington Republicans are uneasy about where he is taking them and they might scale it back somewhat?
SB: I think the Republicans have to cope with the Bush legacy. It's the single most important factor that affects the future of their party.
I have grave doubts about whether they are capable of doing it, because the Republican Party has been transformed so fundamentally over decades, and especially during the Bush Era.
I don't think they can come to terms with the drastic changes that Bush has made, and the dire conditions he will have put his party.
Bush is the number one issue in the midterm elections, Republicans are running away from him.
He will be the number one issue in the 2008 election. And his legacy, such as it is, may overshadow the Republican Party for a generation, and define it. I don't see how they get away from it.
One of the ways which Bush is radical is that he is the first, and I say the first, elected Southern conservative in the White House. Ever, in our history.
LO: And what is the specific relevance of him being a Southern conservative?
SB: He comes from a very particular part of the South. He comes out of Texas. He comes out of kind of oil-based politics.
It's the most conservative part of the country, in terms of conservatism. It's far more conservative even than conservatism in the Midwest.
It has a different view of government, for example. It's certainly not the Reagan view.
Reagan came out of California. And while he was making ideological statements about hostility to government, he actually accepted large parts of government in terms of public works.
And Reagan himself, personally, at every juncture where he encountered serious difficulty, was willing to negotiate his way out, and even throw overboard all the important people in his Administration if need be, and change course.
In the end, he signed the intermediate nuclear treaty with Gorbachev, and made gestures toward ending the Cold War, in defiance of the conservative movement, who were openly hostile to him.
Can't imagine Bush doing any of that. Bush comes from a very different tradition.
Southerners we've had in the White House have all been Southern liberals, in that tradition, in the Southern tradition,
Bush is a complete aberration out of the South in the White House, it's something the Republicans -- their party is in the grip of this, and in the grip of what he's done to them.
LO: There's been some chatter that Secretary of State Condi Rice is more of a "realist" than a "neoconservative" and can provide a check on the neocons in the White House. Is this an accurate portrayal of the fault lines in the Administration, or is it wishful thinking?
SB: I believe that is wishful thinking.
I think Condi Rice is a strange case. I've written about her a lot in this book.
Condi Rice is not assigned as much as responsibility for what's happened in the Bush Administration as she deserves.
Instead, people focus on others. But Rice herself has been a major factor.
She is someone who Bush trusts and listens to. She is his most trusted briefer.
She throughout the first term as National Security Adviser, consistently stabbed Colin Powell in the back as he sought more diplomatic and political solutions to problems,
And she sided fairly consistently with Vice President Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, and Bush himself, in taking extreme radical and neoconservative positions.
It was Rice, all on her own, who decided to ignore Richard Clarke, the counterterrorism chief, and his reports and warnings.
And she has filtered out a lot of worst-case scenarios and negative information and intelligence from Bush, and protected him, as it were.
She's also created a kind of academic dreamland for Bush. She operates through flattery. She's a great flatterer. And she's propelled her ambition on it.
And she tells Bush he's a great world historical figure. He's going to transform the world, which is going to make her like Dean Acheson at the beginning of the Cold War, present at the creation, and this is not only as great as creating the whole Cold War foreign policy, but it's as a big as the beginning of the nation-states. This is epical.
And she tells Bush, people don't understand him because he's such a great figure.
The Bush-Rice relationship needs more investigation in its strange dimensions of Bush's self-conception, involving elements of noblesse oblige, deference and ignorance -- all of which contribute to Rice's immense influence with Bush, which for the most part has been overwhelmingly to encourage him in his worst instincts.
LO: How would you characterize the efforts of Democrats to counter the neoconservative campaign to frame the foreign policy debate?
SB: Democrats have basically been non-players. And have been rolled over.
The Democrats prove the maxim, what I believe, which is that absolute lack of power corrupts absolutely.
They're held in contempt in large part because they have no power anywhere in the system. People don't understand how damaging that is to you, not to have any power....If they had any power, people would say, "You know, the Democrats have some good ideas."
The idea of Democrats generating these policy papers or idea forums is well and good, but no one will ascribe anything positive to them until they actually hold power.
That's simply the basis of politics for the future here for them.
In terms of foreign policy, where Bush has caught the Democrats is ... he's created such a nightmare in Iraq, [while] the Democrats, some Democrats, still trying to act responsibly, come up with alternative policy ideas on what ought to be done.
The result of coming up with alternatives, is that Bush listens to nobody and the Democrats are left to simply hang out to dry.
Events then pass you by, and you appear impotent, foolish and beside the point, underlying the Democratic predicament of powerlessness.
It runs against the grain of Democrats who like to think of themselves as responsible for government, and even being bipartisan. But they're operating on premises that Bush doesn't accept at all.
By acting in a positive way, you don't hold to Bush account wholly for his failure, and put the entire burden, as it should be, on Bush to come up with a strategy, of which he has none.
LO: What have we learned from the first year of John Bolton as Ambassador to the UN?
SB: I don't know if we know the whole Bolton story.
Bolton has been very effective in stigmatizing and tainting the United Nations. He has blocked reform at the UN.
He's a Cheney person, he's part of the Cheney neocon network, even though he's not a neocon. He's actually an older kind of, even more right-wing, deeper conservative than that, who not only worked for Helms, but began his career as a political aide for Vice President Spiro Agnew. And it's important to remember exactly who he is.
But he's connected to them and acts as their agent. He spied on Colin Powell, and tried to throw a wrench in every bit of Colin Powell's diplomacy often successfully.
Condi Rice -- very well aware of that, having been a backstabber herself, and seeing what Bolton was up to and how Cheney operated -- would not accept Bolton as her deputy secretary of state, which Cheney was trying to push on her. So they moved him over to the UN, where Bolton would report to her.
Well, I assume Bolton is still very much part of this Cheney neocon operation as well, and part of the pressure on Rice, and they know that applying pressure on Rice often works.
So that's how I see Bolton, he's an aspect of largely of Cheney and ultimately of what Bush wants. After all, the president is always responsible.
LO: Regarding Bush and Cheney's efforts to greatly expand the scope of executive power, how would you simply describe the practical impact of that? Why does it amount to a threat to democracy and not simply a sincere effort to stop terror attacks?
SB: Bush has adopted a radical theory about, not only the law, but international law and our treaty obligations.
He has broken with the policy of the United States, going back to George Washington, and is engaged in actions that the American Bar Association has said are contrary to the rule of law.
We've seen that his fundamental policy ... is that as commander-in-chief, he has the authority to make any law he wishes that relates to what he calls his war, calling himself a "war president."
And he's also shown through his abuse of so-called signing statements -- of which there are more than 750 appended to legislation passed by the Congress -- that he has declared that he can enforce or not enforce any laws as he sees fit in this role, which is what aroused the ABA...
...The overall effect of Bush's torture policy, ... the way in which he's engaged in domestic surveillance outside the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court, his signing statements, the extraordinary powers granted to the Vice-President including through Executive Orders allowing the Vice-President equal control as the President over intelligence matters -- extraordinary expansion of power for Cheney -- all of that has created the impression of lawlessness.
Which has drastically undermined the national security interest of the United States, and brought our prestige to its lowest ebb, ever, in the world.
All of that has an immediate bearing on our alliances, our ability to act, our long-term prospects in dealing with terrorism and other important matters.
The contempt for the rule of law in creating this Imperial Presidency, the culmination of Nixon's vision, the seed of which is carried by Cheney and Rumsfeld, and executed by Bush, has drastically undermined the US in the world.
LO: You dedicated your new book to Joseph Wilson. What was your interest in doing that?
SB: Joe Wilson and I are good friends. I admire him a great deal for what he's done, in standing up for what I regard as the national security interest of the country, and defending it against the degradations of the Bush Administration.
He has been made a particular target because he spoke truth to power about the lies told in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq...
...I think he's provided an example, in this scoundrel time, of patriotism and how a patriot ought to act in the face of these attacks on our country by a radical Administration.
LO: How do you think the revelation that Richard Armitage was one of the leakers impacts the Wilsons' legal efforts against Dick Cheney, Scooter Libby and Karl Rove?
SB: It has no impact whatsoever.
I had known that Armitage was that source for a long time, many months, and it has been fairly well known among some people in Washington.
It has no bearing whatsoever on the legal case against Scooter Libby on the counts of perjury and obstruction of justice ... which have been filed by the [special] prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald...
...Nor does it have any impact on the reality, of the concerted action, as Fitzgerald put it, taken by key individuals of the Administration including the Vice-President to smear Joe Wilson.
Why did Rich Armitage do this? Rich Armitage was deputy secretary of state, long-time friend of Colin Powell ... Why would he tell Bob Woodward and Robert Novak this?
First of all, he learned it in a document that had been created as a result to provide information within the State Department, after Cheney began his interest in attacking Wilson.
That document specifically notes that Valerie Plame's identity as an undercover CIA operative was secret. It's marked with a letter "S." That means secret.
So why did Armitage yap his head off?
Because he's a fool. And he wanted to impress and maintain his relationships with famous journalists, and as a Washington player.
He's a gossip. He put what he considered to be gossip above his sworn, written oath to defend the national security of the United States. And for someone with his background, this is extraordinary.
So Armtiage is a fool. And what this revelation shows, it's a sad tale of Washington, and really the disgrace of a long-time public servant because of his own foolishness.
But it has no bearing, at all, on the concerted attack on Wilson that was instigated by Cheney, and which involved high members of the Administration.
And it has no legal ramifications whatsoever for Fitzgerald's case against Scooter Libby.
LO: The question on everyone's mind: what are the odds of a Democratic takeover of Congress this year?
SB: Pretty good.
I think that the issue is Bush. That's the issue that my book makes clear. That's really the issue facing the country, Bush and his works.
And if Democrats can focus on that, and the fact that ... he hasn't gotten the job done, he doesn't do the job for them, then I think they stand an excellent chance of taking the House and perhaps even scaling the heights of the Senate.
It is essential that Bush be blocked and checked, precisely because he's such a radical president.
His radical presidency is dependent on one-party rule, and a certain kind of one-party rule. It's a one-party rule where there is no oversight by the Congress.
Now we've had Congresses and presidencies in which one party has controlled all of them. But the Congress had enough institutional integrity and sense of itself so that it would always stand up for its own prerogatives, its own oversight.
This happened under Franklin Roosevelt. It happened under Harry Truman. It happened as we well know to John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. And it certainly happened to Bill Clinton in his first two years. It happened to Jimmy Carter.
But it doesn't happen now. It's because we have this disciplined Republican Party that has applied extraordinary pressures on the members of the Congress, stifled the oversight function, and prevented any investigations or hearings into the Bush policies, and has allowed this radical presidency to flourish.
If Bush is allowed two more years of unaccountable power, the damage will be untold, and the public needs to understand those stakes.
This is a crisis that we can see, not only out in the world, and not only in terms of the immediate issues facing the country, but also a constitutional crisis, because of the agenda on the part of Bush and his Administration to [shift] the constitutional balance of power.
So that's why this midterm election is so crucial.