History Commons Groups

July 21, 2008

The Collapse of Fortress Bush

The Collapse of Fortress Bush: The Crisis of Authority in American Government, by Alasdair Roberts. 2008 New York University Press

I’m not starting this new category with a sensationalistic, partisan book — there are plenty of those out there, and I like some of them 🙂 This book has obviously been given a dramatic title by its publisher to try to take advantage of the wave of books criticizing the Bush administration. Likewise, the cover photo — a stern Bush laying down the law from a podium while enormous engines of war loom over him — adds to the sense that this is another scathing indictment of all things Bush.

But readers hungry for red meat will instead come away from this book with an uncomfortable taste of tofu and granola. Roberts is a public administration professor at Syracuse University, and the author of a 2006 book, Blacked Out, about governmental secrecy, which I intend to find and read ASAP. He is sober, thoughtful, deliberate, and, as befits his position, more concerned with an examination of process than he is in calling for this or that specific outcome. I don’t agree with some of his fundamental suppositions — he argues, for example, that because of bureaucratic inertia, Democratic resistance, and its own incompetence, the Bush administration has actually made very few depredations against Americans’ fundamental Constitutional rights and protections. Certainly Bush and Cheney have accomplished far less than they intended to, but Roberts seems to believe that the inroads the Bush administration has made into civil liberties, for example, are minimal and most likely temporary. I hope he’s right, but I fear he is not. Nevertheless, while I could and would argue with him, I respect his views and grant that he makes a solid case for his positions.

Roberts gave enough factual information in the book to make it useful for our purposes in the Commons — as with other books like this, I spent a lot of time poring over the footnotes and jotting down source information. Because of the fact-based nature of the site, few of Roberts’s observations and opinions will make it into entries. In his final chapter, he writes, “The central challenge … is not simply to restrain presidential authority, but to decide what powers the president must have and in what way that authority should be regulated.” Roberts argues that Bush has not merely overstepped his authority as president, but has rarely shown any inkling of foresight in exercising that authority. Instead of preparing alternate plans for unforeseen outcomes, the Bush administration marches confidently into a situation — the occupation of Iraq, for example, or its response to Hurricane Katrina — cocksure that everything will go just as they have planned. When, inevitably, events and people do not perform as scripted, the administration responds with little more than denials, slogans, and insults.

If I remember rightly, Roberts never uses the word “neoconservative” in his book. It is not in his index. But I would observe that the Bush administration’s failure to consider the possibility that things might not go as they believe is a hallmark of neocon thinking. It will happen because we say it will happen, they assert, and if you think otherwise, you’re a Neville Chamberlain-type appeaser who secretly dreams of shoveling babies into furnaces. Hence the neocons’ latest position: Iraq will be fine once the US overthrows a few more governments in that region. Iraq isn’t a failure, they say, it’s just a beginning. In his book The Dead Zone, Stephen King used a metaphor that I believe is apt. You go to the state fair and get sick from a bad hot dog. “Here, sonny boy,” they say. “We’ll help you out: have another hot dog.”

Roberts may fail to perceive some of the fundamental approaches used by the Bush administration, particularly of Dick Cheney’s office. Or he may not choose to write about them, choosing instead to focus on the actual policy processes. But he has written a book worthy of careful study and thoughtful consideration by readers on both sides of the partisan divide. Both will find things with which they agree, and, if they are honest, will find things that give them pause.

Note: This is copied from the HC’s old, temporary blog. I reposted it to get the ball rolling. Please add your thoughts about this book, if you’ve read it, or comment about another book that is worth discussion.


  1. Your blog is interesting!

    Keep up the good work!

    Comment by AlexM — August 17, 2008 @ 7:58 am | Reply

  2. Glad you like it. Feel free to visit us on a regular basis.

    Comment by Max — August 17, 2008 @ 9:37 am | Reply

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