"Bush derangement syndrome"--the irrational hatred of George W. Bush and the embrace of conspiracy theories about him--has moved from fringe websites to mainstream publishing houses. Circle in the Sand seeks to show how the decisions and unfinished business of George H.W. Bush's Iraq policy shaped his son's decision to invade Iraq. Alfonsi, a New York-based writer trained as a political scientist, argues that Operation Desert Storm reoriented U.S. policy toward Arab states, reoriented Republican foreign policy, and made the second war inevitable. Furthermore, he argues, the first Iraq conflict's inconclusive end sparked a new generation of Al-Qaeda terrorists that led to 9/11.
For Alfonsi, none of these developments were inevitable but instead resulted from foreign policy decisions about which the American people are ignorant. With a tone of hubris, Alfonsi tells readers that he has pieced together the hidden record that others have ignored or failed to detect. What results might sway conversation in a coffee shop but will appear silly to anyone ever involved in policy.
Alfonsi writes well and his narrative flows. In order to develop his thesis, though, he glues together 80 percent truth with 20 percent supposition. He neither understands the complexity of policymaking nor how little power any single individual has in the process. He depicts the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act as a Republican and neoconservative plot but omits mention of overwhelming Democratic support for the bill. He ignores the National Security Council, Deputies Committee meetings, and Policy Coordination committees, which taken together might meet ten or fifteen times a week to hash out policy.
A close read suggests a tendency toward either omniscience or fabrication. Thus, when Vice President Dick Cheney told "a few close friends" that Bush's election victory opened "a whole range of new opportunities in foreign policy," Alfonsi adds darkly that he meant "opportunities to settle scores with old enemies." He transforms think-tank panels on how best to defend U.S. national security--daily occurrences in Washington--into evidence of a conspiracy of predetermined change.
Omission also plagues Circle. In Alfonsi's world, Al-Qaeda grew only because of Riyadh's decision to host U.S. troops to protect the kingdom and the region while Saudi funding of radicals had little to do with it. Nor does Alfonsi explain what Washington should have done differently: Let Saddam annex Kuwait and perhaps attack Saudi Arabia?
U.S., Iraqi, and European documents show Circle in the Sand to be more wrong than right. With hindsight, it appears Alfonsi's chief sources--disgruntled officials such as Richard Haass, a former state department policy planning chief--merely use the author to settle scores or promote petty agendas. Vintage Press may not care, though, because nothing sells books like conspiracy.
Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at AEI.
1. For a better survey of Al-Qaeda ideology, see Uriya Shavit, "Al-Qaeda's Saudi Origins," Middle East Quarterly, Fall 2006, pp. 3-13.