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Philosopher Kings Leo Strauss and the Neocons

The Philosopher Kings

by GARY LEUPP

For the neocon cabal running the country, recent news hasn’t been entirely good. The successful invasion of Iraq has met with unexpected opposition (from a people with a dignified capacity to resist occupation that the aggressors, in their arrogance, didn’t quite anticipate). Paul Wolfowitz, deputy Secretary of "Defense," has stated frankly to Congress that the situation will get "messier as Iraqis sort out their political process" (as though the Iraqis, milling about gun-toting and order-barking foreigners, were free to have their own political process). Meanwhile the reinstitution of the Northern Alliance regime in Afghanistan also remains problematic. The reconfiguration of Southwest Asia just isn’t going as smoothly as envisioned by the New American Century Project operators. Richard Perle, who once told the Italian press that the U.S. had "proof" that 9-11 mastermind Mohammed Atta met with Saddam Hussein in Baghdad (and who in making such a statement revealed himself to be a shameless liar) has been disgraced due to some financial dealings, and has been obliged to step down from his powerful (but unpaid and unsupervised) position as chair of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board. This is good, although he is still on that board and remains at large and dangerous.

It’s also good that Perle’s fellow Likudist and career disinformationist Ari Fleischer is stepping down. And that Gen. Tommy Franks, who everybody used to think would be the MacArthur of Iraq, has decided to retire. There is disarray at the top (manifested in the changing appointments for Iraq occupation administration, in policies towards the Mujahadeen Khalq and Iran, etc.) and perhaps a spreading loss of confidence in the neocons’ whole imperialist program. Most importantly, the philosopher-kings, with academician Wolfowitz at their head, are increasingly coming under scrutiny in the mainstream press. This is meet, right and salutary, because they are very bad people, with lots of blood on their hands already, and busily planning further crimes against the world, beginning with Syria and Iran. Their badness most notably was revealed in a vitally important New Yorker article (May 6) by veteran investigative reporter Seymour Hersh. Not to sound Gandalfian, but this may be the turning of the tide

Hersh reveals the philosophical underpinnings of the neocons’ project, and draws attention to their cynical, anti-democratic nature. His piece has stimulated other articles, laying bare the nature of the cabal and its ideological foundations. It will take time for the information to sink in, but if and when the masses come to see what’s been going on, they will probably be very angry, as good people should be, under the circumstances. We have been lied to, relentlessly, systematically, fascistically. The Sept. 12 lie was that Sept. 11 was planned in Baghdad. Profoundly untrue and really, really stupid (to any informed person), but profoundly useful to those prepared to draw upon ignorance, fear and racism to effect their goals. This they have done, and they’re just at the beginning of their project. But it’s just possible that their project might get derailed, due in part to the efforts of journalists like Hersh.

Hersh notes the critical influence of the philosopher Leo Strauss (d. 1973) on Wolfowitz’s thinking. His article stimulated, among other articles, a substantial piece on Strauss by Jeet Heer in the Boston Globe (May 11), and another by William Pfaff in the International Herald Tribune (May 15), the latter noting that "Strauss’s thought is a matter of public interest because his followers are in charge of U.S. foreign policy." Strauss, of German Jewish origins who taught for many years at the University of Chicago, mentoring Wolfowitz among others, was a brilliant man. No question about that. But also a man profoundly hostile to the modern world and to the concept of rule by the people. He believed it was the natural right of the wise and strong to lead societies to the fulfillment of their wise aims, using subterfuge when necessary, because speaking the naked truth won’t get the job done.

Strauss’s point of departure is Socrates, who in Plato’s Republic denounces Athenian democracy (the rule of the untutored masses) and instead promotes government by "philosopher-kings." Strauss had experienced the Weimar Republic (one of the more democratic experiments in modern history) and seen Germany fall into the hands of the Nazis. He understandably opposed the latter, but he derived some lessons from their methodology. The failure of the Weimar regime to prevent the rise of fascism, in his view, resided in its failure to put power into the hands of the strong and good, who inevitably, unable to acquire popular support through honest methods, should (like their Nazi adversaries) have cleverly used Big Lies (towards good ends) to nudge the people towards those ends. Only wise men, acting in secrecy, can do that.

As Hersh points out, the neocons (just about a dozen officials—including Wolfowitz, Perle, Feith, Bolton, Abrams—operating in concert with the oil-baron contingent in the administration-Rumsfeld, Cheney, Rice, Bush—and providing them with intellectual guidance) refer to themselves (with smug amusement) as a "cabal" (a word with an interesting etymology). They have contempt for the masses, and feel utterly justified in wisely misleading those masses into a roadmap for global peace on their terms. That meant, initially, using 9-11 to produce support for the seizure of Iraq. That seizure is still in progress, messily, untidily, brutally and illegally, and with results no cabal, however wise, can really predict. Among the results might be a growing revulsion among the American people themselves at the neocons’ misanthropic arrogance, and perhaps (much though it should be regretted and fought) anti-Semitism. The latter might be provoked by the fact that persons inclined to embrace the most extreme factions in the Israeli political apparatus are disproportionately represented in the neocons’ cabal, and while the general movement of U.S. foreign policy is driven by broad geopolitical concerns, rather than the alliance with Israel, the neocons’ allegiance to what they perceive to be the interests of Sharon’s Israel is highly conspicuous.

Maybe the tide will turn. Or, maybe the cabal will triumph, and the world will for some time pay for their wisdom, throughout a whole American Century, 2001-2099, such as they envision and wish their children to celebrate in appreciative psalms and sagas.

In the Buddhist religion, there are esoteric trends. In Japanese, such esoterism is called hiden ("hidden tradition"). The idea is that wise men pass on directly to their disciples their insights that aren’t appropriate to communicate to the masses, those who don’t have the capacity to understand and attain enlightenment. I respect that viewpoint, best represented in the Shingon (Chen-yuan) tradition rooted in the Tantrism currently fashionable (if for all the wrong reasons) in Hollywood. There is also in Buddhism a concept (called upaya in Sanskrit and hôben in Japanese) that might be translated as "expedient means." You use truth and falsehood flexibly to produce human happiness. The Buddha, carefully considering the audience, said different things to different people, to help alleviate their suffering. Maybe Strauss was well-motivated in urging the use of cryptic language and lies. As a basically collegial, fellow academic I’ll happily give him the benefit of a doubt. I understand he was a good professor. Maybe he was thinking like the Buddha.

But the cabal in Washington is thinking more like Joseph Goebbels, in its eminently wise use of lies. (The "Defense" Department is, by the way, deeply annoyed at the CIA’s disinclination to produce more lies; hence Rumsfeld’s new "Office of Special Plans" which can generate disinformation on demand.) It is using simplistic language of "good" and "evil," preparing the American people, whom it regards with utilitarian contempt and condescension, to support "regime change" in Syria and Iran and elsewhere. This (in my opinion anyway) is unwise for the world, a world falling victim to the philosopher-kings, who do not know what they’re doing, who are totally out of control, who are standing daily in front of the mirror like crazed simians beating their chests and feeling apishly proud and giddy, who should be brought before an objective international tribunal for judgment as soon as possible. We need to (as any good Zen priest will put it) "See things as they REALLY are," and specifically to see what these Straussian neocons are up to, and mount a democratic and moral challenge to their Socratic contempt for ourselves. And we must question their plans for this, our planet, that they want to refashion, in their special dishonest wisdom, in their own image.

GARY LEUPP is an an associate professor, Department of History, Tufts University and coordinator, Asian Studies Program.

He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu