|Neocons dance a Strauss
By Jim Lobe
- Is United States foreign policy being run by followers
of an obscure German Jewish political philosopher whose
views were elitist, amoral and hostile to democratic
government? Suddenly, political Washington is abuzz
about Leo Strauss, who arrived in the US in 1938 and
taught at several major universities before his death in
Following recent articles in the
US press, and as reported in Asia Times Online This war is brought to you by ... in
March, the cognoscenti are becoming aware that key
neoconservative strategists behind the Bush
administration's aggressive foreign and military policy
consider themselves to be followers of Strauss, although
the philosopher - an expert on Plato and Aristotle -
rarely addressed current events in his writings.
The most prominent is Deputy Defense Secretary
Paul Wolfowitz, now widely known as "Wolfowitz of
Arabia" for his obsession with ousting Iraq's Saddam
Hussein as the first step in transforming the entire
Arab Middle East. Wolfowitz is also seen as the chief
architect of Washington's post-September 11 global
strategy, including its controversial preemption policy.
Two other very influential Straussians include
Weekly Standard chief editor William Kristol and Gary
Schmitt, founder, chairman and director of the Project
for the New American Century (PNAC), a six-year-old
neoconservative group whose alumni include Vice
President Dick Cheney and Pentagon chief Donald
Rumsfeld, as well as a number of other senior foreign
PNAC's early prescriptions and
subsequent open letters to President George W Bush on
how to fight the war on terrorism have anticipated to an
uncanny extent precisely what the administration has
Kristol's father Irving, the godfather of
neoconservatism who sits on the board of the American
Enterprise Institute (AEI), where a number of prominent
hawks, including former defense Policy Board chairman
Richard Perle, are based, has also credited Strauss with
being one of the main influences on his thinking.
While a New York Times article introduced
readers to Strauss and his disciples in Washington,
interest was further piqued this week by a lengthy
article by The New Yorker's legendary investigative
reporter, Seymour Hersh, who noted that Abram Shulsky, a
close Perle associate who has run a special intelligence
unit in Rumsfeld's office, is also a Straussian.
His unit, according to Hersh, re-interpreted
evidence of Iraq's alleged links to Osama bin Laden's
al-Qaeda terrorist network and possession of weapons of
mass destruction to support those in the administration
determined to go to war with Baghdad. The article also
identified Stephen Cambone, one of Rumsfeld's closest
aides who heads the new post of undersecretary of
defense for intelligence, as a Strauss follower.
In his article, Hersh wrote that Strauss
believed the world to be a place where "isolated liberal
democracies live in constant danger from hostile
elements abroad", and where policy advisers may have to
deceive their own publics and even their rulers in order
to protect their countries.
Shadia Drury, author
of 1999's Leo Strauss and the American Right,
says that Hersh is right on the second count but dead
wrong on the first. "Strauss was neither a liberal nor a
democrat," she said in a telephone interview from her
office at the University of Calgary in Canada.
"Perpetual deception of the citizens by those in power
is critical [in Strauss's view] because they need to be
led, and they need strong rulers to tell them what's
good for them.
"The Weimar Republic [in Germany]
was his model of liberal democracy for which he had huge
contempt," added Drury. Liberalism in Weimar, in
Strauss's view, led ultimately to the Nazi Holocaust
against the Jews.
Like Plato, Strauss taught
that within societies, "some are fit to lead, and others
to be led", according to Drury. But, unlike Plato, who
believed that leaders had to be people with such high
moral standards that they could resist the temptations
of power, Strauss thought that "those who are fit to
rule are those who realize there is no morality and that
there is only one natural right, the right of the
superior to rule over the inferior".
Strauss, "religion is the glue that holds society
together", said Drury, who added that Irving Kristol,
among other neoconservatives, has argued that separating
church and state was the biggest mistake made by the
founders of the US republic.
"Secular society in
their view is the worst possible thing," because it
leads to individualism, liberalism and relativism,
precisely those traits that might encourage dissent,
which in turn could dangerously weaken society's ability
to cope with external threats. "You want a crowd that
you can manipulate like putty," according to Drury.
Strauss was also strongly influenced by Thomas
Hobbes. Like Hobbes, he thought the fundamental
aggressiveness of human nature could be restrained only
through a powerful state based on nationalism. "Because
mankind is intrinsically wicked, he has to be governed,"
he once wrote. "Such governance can only be established,
however, when men are united - and they can only be
united against other people."
that a political order can be stable only if it is
united by an external threat," Drury wrote in her book.
"Following Machiavelli, he maintains that if no external
threat exists, then one has to be manufactured. Had he
lived to see the collapse of the Soviet Union, he would
have been deeply troubled because the collapse of the
'evil empire' poses a threat to America's inner
"In Strauss' view, you have to fight
all the time [to survive]," said Drury. "In that
respect, it's very Spartan. Peace leads to decadence.
Perpetual war, not perpetual peace, is what Straussians
believe in." Such views naturally lead to an
"aggressive, belligerent foreign policy", she added.
As for what a Straussian world order might look
like, Drury said the philosopher often talked about
Jonathan Swift's story of Gulliver and the Lilliputians.
"When Lilliput was on fire, Gulliver urinated over the
city, including the palace. In so doing, he saved all of
Lilliput from catastrophe, but the Lilliputians were
outraged and appalled by such a show of disrespect."
For Strauss, the act demonstrates both the
superiority and the isolation of the leader within a
society and, presumably, the leading country vis-a-vis
the rest of the world.
Drury suggests it is
ironic, but not inconsistent with Strauss' ideas about
the necessity for elites to deceive their citizens, that
the Bush administration defends its anti-terrorist
campaign by resorting to idealistic rhetoric. "They
really have no use for liberalism and democracy, but
they're conquering the world in the name of liberalism
and democracy," she said.