Everybody knows that President George W Bush is not the sharpest set of spurs in the political stable. The question the transatlantic left has more trouble answering is if Bush is as stupid as they say, why is he winning? Whatever else the spokesmen for the old left have lost, they retain sufficient powers of self-delusion to avoid blaming themselves. Instead, fingers are pointed at a powerful conspiracy behind Bush, a cabal of neoconservative ideologues, oilmen, hawks and hatchet-men who stole the presidential election in Florida, then drummed up the post-9/11 wars on terrorism and Iraq to hoodwink the public. They are a version of Michael Moore's stupid white men, only this time they are in the White House (the unspoken assumption is that the truly stupid ones are the American people who fall for it).
A play called The Madness of George Dubbya (childlike president wearing jim-jams over Superman T-shirt is manipulated by dark figures from the oil and arms industries, while mad US general launches nuclear strike on "Iraqistan") was recently promoted from the Fringe to the mainstream of the West End in London. Bush's Brain is a rather more sophisticated, American version of essentially the same thesis.
The "brain" of the title belongs to Karl Rove, the political strategist credited with moulding Bush into a credible presidential candidate, and then, from his office in the West Wing, positioning the Bush administration to maximum effect in the polls. This book provides a detailed insider account of how Rove guided Bush through the Republican primaries and the presidential campaign, when he was given little chance of defeating the Democrat candidate Al Gore. Later chapters focus on how Rove helped the hawks to turn the "war on terror" into a domestic issue for the 2002 midterm elections, and to move Iraq up the political agenda as the pursuit of Osama Bin Laden faltered.
They quote a top Democratic Party consultant's description of this last manoeuvre as "just brilliant" but an "evil political calculation". "We can't invade al-Qaeda. We can't occupy it. We can't even find it. But we do know where Baghdad is. We've got a map. We can find it on a map. And they've got oil and an evil guy. So let's go there . . . It has to be the most evil political calculation in American history."
The emphasis that Bush's critics place on the evil, scheming, calculating character of the White House hawks and fixers conveniently distracts attention from their own failings. Florida fix or not, the Republicans could never have won the presidency unless the Democrats imploded. As Bush's Brain observes, those notorious hanging chads would have been irrelevant if Rove's strategy of attacking the feeble Gore campaign had not already made inroads in other traditionally Democrat states. Bush's successful use of the wars on terror and Iraq is also largely dependent on the pathetic Democrat response.
For all the Dubbya jokes, much of the left appears to have a stupidity gene of its own. It is predisposed to overestimate the power and the political coherence of the neo-con right; typically, Bush's Brain predicts "the dawn of the New American Empire" in Iraq. Much of the laughter at Bush comes from those who are shocked and awed by the mere sight of Donald Rumsfeld and sounds like whistling past the graveyard.
Yet behind the bluster, the Bush administration is acting more out of uncertainty than strength. The American elite has long since lost its historic sense of Manifest Destiny through the defeats it suffered in the Vietnam war and in the wider culture wars at home. Whatever their private fantasies, the White House hawks cannot simply reverse time.
Far from bestriding the world and confidently building a new empire, US foreign policy is characterised by an odd combination of defensiveness and panic. A buzzword in policy documents is how the terrorist attacks of 11 September exposed America's new sense of "vulnerability". Bush launched the war on Iraq with a speech declaring that America "would not live at the mercy of an outlaw regime that threatens the peace with weapons of mass destruction". The bizarre notion of the world's one superpower being "at the mercy" of the enfeebled Iraqi regime revealed the culture of fear at the heart of US foreign policy. If America is building an empire, it is an empire that dare not speak its name - so uncertain of itself that it ordered no US flags to be flown by its forces in Iraq.
In truth, Bush, Rumsfeld and the rest owe their reputations for decisive idiocy less to Rove's machinations than to the stupid propaganda of their critics. Compared to an old-school hardman such as Henry Kissinger, Rumsfeld looks like a blowhard. Kissinger did not make big speeches to the media about what he intended to do to America's enemies. He just did it, often without even informing others in the Nixon administration. Yet he was also enough of a self-confident diplomat to get his hands on the Nobel Peace Prize - something even Karl Rove is unlikely to be able to fix for Donald Rumsfeld.
Mick Hume is the editor of spiked-online.com