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President George W. Bush is sometimes a boastful anti-intellectual, but in the past year he has been touting his reading lists and engaging in who-can-read-more contests with Karl Rove, his chief political adviser. There is even a White House book club.
The most recent selection was A History of the English-Speaking Peoples since 1900 by Andrew Roberts, the conservative British writer. Mr Bush invited Mr Roberts for a discussion over lunch at the White House earlier this month. The author was joined by Dick Cheney, the vice-president, Mr Rove and a variety of other neo-conservative intellectuals, officials and journalists. Mr Bush’s embrace of Mr Roberts’ book is hardly surprising, given how it glorifies his presidency. But it does suggest that all the reading he has been bragging about lately may not be opening his mind.
Mr Roberts’ book picks up in 1900, around where Winston Churchill’s four volumes of a similar title left off. It also takes up Mr Churchill’s pet idea that the Anglo-American alliance is uniquely responsible for the survival of liberty in the world. Though Mr Roberts does not favour the term, his framework closely tracks the notion of an “Anglosphere” – a natural alliance among the English-speaking former colonies of Great Britain that serves to spread civilisation in the form of democracy and capitalism.
His own idiosyncratic definition of the English-speaking world, which includes New Zealand but not Bermuda, Canada but not Ireland, and Australia but not India or South Africa, explains the book’s curious cross-cutting from London to Wellington to Washington to Canberra.
At the core of the book is Mr Roberts’ notion of what might be called the “super-special relationship”. When Britain could no longer rule its empire in 1946, it handed the responsibility for mankind over to its successor, the US. Mr Roberts views British colonialism and American hegemony as alike in their benevolence and effectiveness. Like Mr Bush, he is peevish that the recipients of such generosity are not more grateful.
As a historian, Mr Roberts is present-minded in the extreme, returning at every stage to justifications for Mr Bush’s actions in Iraq. The neo-conservatives who want to spread democracy in the Middle East are the heirs to compassionate Victorians who sought to civilise India, China and Africa. While the reader is still choking on his casting of Richard Perle as Lord Macaulay, Mr Roberts is already at work grafting Mr Bush’s head on to Mr Churchill’s body. The president’s prosecution of the war on terror is “vigorous” and “absolutely unwavering”. The Iraq war has provided “excellent value for money” to the British taxpayer. That Mr Bush has brought “full democracy” to Iraq is stated as unequivocal fact.
Mr Roberts has written several other well-regarded works of history, but it is hard to see how this form of assertion qualifies as scholarship, as opposed to polemic. A true historian explores questions; a great popular one can spin a yarn while revealing complexities. Mr Roberts musters a muscular narrative, but examines nothing. All charges against the Anglo-American imperium are dismissed, from the “supposed ill-treatment” of women and children in Boer war internment camps to Dresden, Nagasaki and the prison camp at Guantánamo, which he declares Mr Bush is “right” to keep open. The abuses at Abu Ghraib, he writes, were overstated and resulted from “the fact that some of the military policemen involved were clearly little better than Appalachian mountain-cretins”.
Mr Roberts is as sloppy here as he is snobbish. Charles Grainer, the alleged ringleader at Abu Ghraib and the only such “cretin” named, grew up in California. I am seldom bothered by minor errors from a good writer, but Mr Roberts’ mistakes are so extensive, fatuous and revealing of his basic ignorance about the US in particular, that it may be worth noting a few of them.
The San Francisco earthquake did considerably more than $400,000 in damage. Virginia Woolf, who drowned herself in 1941, did not write for Encounter, which began publication in 1953. The Proposition 13 tax revolt took place in the 1970s, not the 1980s – an important distinction, because it presaged Ronald Reagan’s election. Michael Milken was not a “takeover arbitrageur”. “No man gets left behind” is a line from the film Black Hawk Down, not the motto of the US Army Rangers. Gregg Easterbrook is not the editor of The New Republic magazine. In a breathtaking peroration, Mr Roberts points out that “as a proportion of the total number of Americans, only 0.008 per cent died bringing democracy to important parts of the Middle East in 2003-05”. Various issues aside, 0.008 per cent of 300m people is 24,000 – off by a factor of 10. If you looked closely enough, I expect you could find an error on every page.
With this book, Mr Roberts takes his place as the fawning court historian of the Bush administration. He claims this role not just by singing its achievements but by producing a version of the past century that confirms its assumptions and prejudices.
He favours Mr Bush, but does him no favour, by feeding his preference for the unknowable future to a problematic present, assuring him that history will vindicate him if only he continues to hold firm.
The writer is editor of Slate.com