Originally Published: 10/18/2006
By The Issue Wonk
Leo Strauss, a German-Jewish philosopher who fled Nazi Germany, appears to have tried to make sense of Germany’s devolution from the Weimark Republic to the National Socialist regime of Adolph Hitler. What resulted was a philosophy of government that many believe gave rise to the neoconservative movement and, according to Wikipedia, “he has gained the reputation for being an enemy to democracy.” Given the rise of neoconservatism today, it is appropriate that we look at this philosophy.
From everything I’ve read, Strauss was a “difficult” thinker and much has been, and is still being, written on what he really believed. However, Strauss clearly based his philosophy on the teachings of the ancient Greek philosophers which led him to a rejection of modernism, as evidenced in liberalism, individualism, and democracy.2 Some of the principles of Straussianism to which most adherents can agree and which have come to be the foundation of this philosophy are:
- That the world should be run by intellectuals in the Western tradition before it was bastardized by such things as democracy and tolerance.
- That the state should be governed by a group of philosopher-kings who would manipulate the people through systematic lies, for their own good.
- Fundamental religion is a governing principle in that it establishes absolute values by which the people can be controlled.
Straussian philosophy has been promoted and taught primarily by two academics: Allan Bloom and Harry V. Jaffa. Jaffa was a speechwriter for Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater and “is credited with suggesting that Goldwater quote in his nomination acceptance address Cicero’s famous expression, ‘Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, and moderation in the pursuit of justice is not a virtue.’” Bloom authored The Closing of the American Mind, which drew “analogies between the United States and the Weimar Republic.” (See Strauss’s concerns above.) He believed that liberal philosophy, encapsulated in the philosophy of John Locke, (see Liberalism) had led to a crisis in America.
Shadia Drury1, an academic who has produce a large body of work on Leo Strauss and his philosophy, believes that the Strauss philosophy is essentially an attack on Liberalism. According to Wikipedia, in her 1999 book Leo Strauss and the American Right, she
argues that Strauss taught different things to different students, and inculcated an elitist strain in American political leaders that is linked to imperialist militarism and Christian fundamentalism. Drury accuses Strauss of teaching that “perpetual deception of the citizens by those in power is critical because they need to be led, and they need strong rules to tell them what’s good for them.”
Is there an effect of Straussianism on today’s politics? Many of the leaders in the Bush administration are students of Straussian principles.
Paul Wolfowitz, currently the president of the World Bank, was formerly the Deputy Secretary of Defense under Donald Rumsfeld. He is known as the architect of Bush’s foreign policy, known as the Bush Doctrine, which resulted in the invasion of Iraq. He was mentored in his early years by Allan Bloom (see above) and attended the University of Chicago for his graduate studies primarily because Bloom’s mentor, Leo Strauss, was there. He eventually studied under Professor Albert Wohlstetter, who believed in the “importance of maintaining U.S. supremacy through advanced weaponry.” In the summer of 1969 he and Richard Perle joined the Committee to Maintain a Prudent Defense Policy set up by Paul Nitze and Dean Acheson. In 1980 he went to work as a visiting professor at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
Vice President Dick Cheney, as Secretary of Defense under President George H.W. Bush, was a close ally of Paul Wolfowitz, then Under Secretary of Defense for Policy. He also reportedly played a key role in the appointment of Elliott Abrams to head the Middle East office on the National Security Council. Though he has not been dubbed a Straussian, his close ties to Wolfowitz, Abrams, and Libby, as well as to Shulsky at the Office of Special Plans (OSP), indicates a similar philosophy.
Richard Perle served as Assistant Secretary of Defense under President Reagan. He is an advocate of pre-emptive strikes. In 2001 President Bush appointed him as Chair of the Defense Policy Board Advisory Committee, which advises the Department of Defense. (He resigned in 2004 amid allegations of conflicts of interest.) He is closely allied with Paul Wolfowitz.
Elliott Abrams was Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director on the National Security Council during Bush’s first term. At the start of Bush’s second term he was promoted to Deputy National Security Advisor responsible for promoting Bush’s strategy of advancing democracy abroad. During the Reagan administration he served first as Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and later as Assistant Secretary for Inter-American Affairs. He was involved in the Iran-Contra Affair, to which he pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of unlawfully withholding information from Congress. One of his earliest mentors was Richard Perle and, like Perle, he “favors a Middle East strategy based on the overwhelming military power of both the United States and Israel.” (Wikipedia) It has been alleged that he planned the failed coup against Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez in 2002.
Abram Shulsky, who worked under Douglas Jay Feith at the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans (OSP), charged with making the case for a war with Iraq, has also been named as a Straussian. Shulsky formerly had worked for the Rand Institute where he collaborated with I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s Chief of Staff before he resigned after being indicted for obstruction of justice. While at the OSP he is said to have been the architect of the Iraq War. He is currently heading up Iranian Directorate at the Pentagon.
Douglas Feith, who has close ties to Shulsky, Perle, and Wolfowitz, headed up the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans (OSP) from September 2002 to June 2003. According to Wikipedia:
Feith’s former deputy, Lieutenant Colonel Karen Kwiatkowski, the Office of Special Plans was “a propaganda shop” and she personally “witnessed neoconservative agenda bearers with OSP usurp measured and carefully considered assessments, and through suppression and distortion of intelligence analysis promulgate what were in fact falsehoods to both Congress and the executive office of the president.”
. . .
Feith is currently under investigation by the Pentagon’s Inspector General and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
David Wurmser formerly served as special assistant to John Bolton at the State Department. He was appointed Principal Deputy Assistant to the Vice President for National Security Affairs in 2003. In 1998 he and Richard Perle, a close friend and political ally, wrote a letter promoting an insurgency in Iraq and supporting Ahmad Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress.
I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby began being mentored by Paul Wolfowitz while a student at Yale. In 1992 he co-authored the draft of the Defense Planning Guidance with Wolfowitz for then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney. According to Wikipedia, this document was “widely criticized as imperialist as the document outlined a policy of unilateralism and pre-emptive military action to suppress potential threats from rogue nations and prevent any other nation from rising to superpower status. . . Many of its tenets have since re-emerged in the Bush Doctrine.” He was also active in the Defense Policy Board at the Pentagon while it was chaired by Richard Perle.
Eliot A. Cohen is a professor at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. He also became a member of the Defense Policy Board Advisory Committee at the recommendation of Richard Perle.
Zalmay Khalilzad is currently the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq and was previously the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan (2003-2005). He received his doctorate at the University of Chicago where he studied closely with Albert Wohlstetter (see Wolfowitz above). In 1984 he did a one-year fellowship on the Council on Foreign Relations at the State Department, where he worked for Paul Wolfowitz.
Another key neoconservative who is also a Straussian is William Kristol, editor of the Rupert Murdoch-sponsored publication The Weekly Standard. He is the son of Irving Kristol, considered to be one of the founders of the neoconservative movement.
It is also interesting to note that many of these people are founders of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), an “educational organization whose goal is to promote American global leadership. According to Wikipedia:
Critics allege the controversial organization proposes military and economic space, cyberspace, and global domination by the United States, so as to establish – or maintain – American dominance in world affairs (Pax Americana). Some have argued the American-led invasion of Iraq in March of 2003 was the first step in furthering these plans. Others have gone so far as to accuse PNAC of orchestrating the September 11, 2001 terror attacks in order to enable the government in progressing toward their goals, but these allegations remain highly controversial.
Supporters of the PNAC counter that such criticisms are little more than conspiracy theories and assert that the organization’s stated purposes have been mischaracterized.
What is the result of these Straussians being in key positions in the Bush administration? In 2004 Adam Curtis produced a three-part documentary for the BBC on the threat from organized terrorism called The Power of Nightmares. He said, “Instead of delivering dreams, politicians now promise to protect us from nightmares.” He compares the rise of American neoconserva-tives with that of radical Islamists. The documentary claimed that Strauss’ teachings, among others, influenced the neoconservatives and, thus, U.S. foreign policy, especially following the September 11, 2001 attacks. Paul Wolfowitz and William Kristol are cited. Since they were students of Strauss, the documentary claims that their political views and actions are a result of Strauss’ philosophy and teaching. The central theme of the documentary is that the neoconservatives created myths to make the Soviet Union and terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda appear to be better organized and coordinated, as well as more threatening, than they actually were, and that such “nightmares” enabled the neoconservatives to gain disproportionate power in the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations.3
Clearly there is much contention over the influence of Straussianism in the Bush administration. There is also a lot of contention about Curtis’ allegations in The Power of Nightmares. However, given the prestige and power of well-known Straussians, it is a political philosophy that deserves our attention.
1 Shadia Drury is a scholar with an expertise on the Strauss phenomenon. She has been writing about it for 15 years: The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss (1988) and Leo Strauss and the American Right (1997).
2 Dictionary by Labor Law Library.
3 Bergen, Peter. June 2, 2005. Beware the Holy War: The Power of Nightmares. The Nation.
© The Issue Wonk, 2006