The Unholy Alliance
Kevin Phillips believes the U.S. is threatened by a combination of petroleum, preachers and debt.
By Richard Lacayo
It's been decades since it made sense to call Kevin Phillips a Republican strategist. The G.O.P. he used to strategize for, the one whose electoral triumph he foretold in his 1969 book, The Emerging Republican Majority, got away from him a long time ago. The party it developed into, the one in which evangelical Christians carry lots of clout and budget balancers just about none, is not for him. With best sellers like Wealth and Democracy, about the widening split between rich and poor, and American Dynasty, which treated the Bush clan as well-connected mediocrities, he shifted to the role of ever more sour apostate. Don't expect him to be invited to the next Republican Convention, although it's not hard to imagine him standing outside with a sign warning against deficit spending, war for oil and the substitution of Scripture for science.
Actually, forget the sign. He will be getting the same message to more people with American Theocracy (Viking; 462 pages). The message is, bad times ahead. Writing in the spirit of Paul Kennedy's 1989 book, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Phillips is a declinist, and a persuasive one. Looking back to the collapse of the Spanish, Dutch and British empires, he has come to warn about a trio of threats to the U.S. that he believes is already taking it down the road to disaster, and not slowly.
One is the increasing domination of U.S. policy by the hunger for cheap oil in a world of dwindling supplies, which has led in turn to an obsession with projecting U.S. power across the endlessly volatile Middle East. Another is the spectacle of a Republican Party seriously under the sway of Christians who believe in biblical inerrancy, a reading of Scripture that inspires them to apocalyptic obsessions with that same part of the world. Finally, there's the headlong growth of American debt of all kinds--household spending, a massive trade gap and a federal deficit that leaves American policy susceptible to the foreigners who buy the securities that keep the U.S. government afloat, and who could sink it with the decision to stop buying. His analysis sometimes depends on strained emphases, and his career record as a prognosticator is mixed, but his book is an indispensable presentation of the case against things as they are.
Phillips believes there's no mystery as to why the U.S. went to war in Iraq. The reason was oil. His thinking goes this way. Geologists disagree about how long it will take before world production peaks, but not by much. Optimists give it 30 years, pessimists say five or 10. For a while in the 1970s the U.S. got serious, sort of, about energy conservation. Then it switched paths, driving an SUV right down the new one. Iraq, which nationalized its oil fields in the '70s, offered the prospect of a state with sizable reserves. For years American oil companies had their eyes on them. Then George W. Bush came to the White House ready for any opportunity to invade. Sept. 11 provided the opening.
And when the opening came, Phillips says, Bush was ensured a cheering section from those elements of the Christian right fascinated by "end times" theology--the belief in Christ's imminent return, and the prospect of Armageddon beginning in the Middle East--popularized in brimstone best sellers like Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins' Left Behind novels. Phillips is convinced that many Americans underestimate the power of that idea among large parts of the electorate. For him, the G.O.P. has become the first religious party in American history, with a predictable effect on the White House policies on global AIDS, the teaching of evolution, gay marriage, global warming and environmental protection. (Who needs to take care of the world if it's coming to an end anyway?) Whatever you think about the influence of the LaHaye factor on Middle East policy, it's useful to point, as Phillips does, to polls suggesting that half of those who voted for Bush in 2004 believe in the word-for-word accuracy of the Bible.
The last part in his gloomy picture concerns the runaway growth of debt, and not just the massive increase in what you and I owe on credit cards and mortgages, although that opens the way to widespread defaults if the economy stumbles badly or real estate comes in for a hard landing. To cover its deficits in recent years, the U.S. became a huge debtor in overseas markets. That kind of borrowing, Phillips reminds us, was a prelude to the collapse of earlier empires. "There have been no heavenly interventions on behalf of past leading international debtors," he says dryly. "The United States is on its own."