The Strategist and the Philosopher

Translated for CounterPunch by Norman Madarasz.

Who are the neoconservatives playing a vital role in the US president’s choices by the side of Christian fundamentalists? And who were their master thinkers, Albert Wohlstetter and Leo Strauss?

It was said in the tone of sincere praise: “You are some of our country’s best brains”. So good, added George W. Bush, “that my government employs around twenty of you.” The president was addressing the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC on February 23 (quote from an article published in Le Monde, March 20, 2003). He was paying homage to a think tank that is one of the bastions of the American neoconservative movement. He was saluting a school of thought that has marked his presidency, avowing everything he owes to an intellectual stream whose influence is now predominant. He was also acknowledging the fact of being surrounded by neoconservatives, and giving them credit for the vital role they play in his political choices.

At the outset of the 1960s, John F. Kennedy recruited professors from the center-left, from Harvard University especially. They were chosen among the “best and the brightest”, in the words of the essayist David Halberstam who coined the phrase. As for President George W. Bush, he would go on to govern with precisely those who, since the Sixties, began to rebel against the then-dominant center consensus colored as it was with a hue of social democracy.

Who are they and what is their history? Who were their master thinkers? Where do the intellectual origins of Bushian neoconservatism lie?

The neoconservatives must not be confused with Christian fundamentalists who are also found in George W. Bush’s entourage. They have nothing to do with the renaissance of protestant fundamentalism begun in the southern Bible Belt states, which is one of the rising powers in today’s Republican Party. Neoconservatism is from the East Coast, and a little Californian as well. Those who have inspired them have an ‘intellectual’ profile. Often they are New Yorkers, often Jewish, having their beginnings ‘on the Left’. Some still call themselves Democrats. They have their hands on literary or political reviews, not the Bible. They wear tweed blazers, not the navy blue double-breasted suits of Southern TV-evangelists. Most of the time, they profess liberal ideas on questions related to society and social trends. Their objective is neither to prohibit abortion nor to make school prayer obligatory. Their ambition lies elsewhere.

The peculiarity of the Bush administration, as Pierre Hassner explains, is to have ensured the junction of these two streams. George W. Bush has brought the neoconservatives and Christian fundamentalists to co-exist. The latter are represented in government by a man like John Ashcroft, the Attorney General. The former have one of their stars in the position of Deputy Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz. George W. Bush, who led his campaign on the center-right without any very specific political anchorage, has performed a stunning and explosive ideological cocktail. It weds Wolfowitz and Ashcroft, neoconservatives and born-again Christians, planets diametrically opposed.

Ashcroft has taught at Bob Jones University in South Carolina, an academically unknown college though a stronghold of Protestant fundamentalism. The kind of talk one overhears there brushes on anti-Semitism. Jewish and from a family of teachers, Wolfowitz is for his part a brilliant product of East Coast universities. He has studied with two of the most eminent professors of the 1960s. Allan Bloom, the discipline of the German-Jewish philosopher, Leo Strauss, and Albert Wohlstetter, professor of mathematics and a specialist in military strategy. These two names would end up counting. The neoconservatives have placed themselves under the tutelary shadow of the strategist and the philosopher.

‘Neoconservative’ is a misnomer. They have nothing in common with those striving to guarantee the established order. They reject just about all the attributes of political conservatism as it is understood in Europe. One of them, Francis Fukuyama, who became famous from his book on The End of History, insists: “In no way do the neoconservatives want to defend the order of things such as they are, i.e. founded on hierarchy, tradition and a pessimistic view of human nature” (Wall Street Journal, December 24, 2002).

As idealist-optimists convinced of the universal value of the American democratic model, they want to bring the status quo and soft consensus to an end. They believe in the power of politics to change things. On the domestic front, they have worked out the critique of the welfare state created by Democratic and Republican presidencies (Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, respectively), which has belabored to resolve social problems. On foreign policy, they denounced 1970s Détente, which, they claimed, had benefited the USSR more than the West. As critics of the Sixties’ balance sheet who are opposed to Henry Kissinger’s diplomatic realism, they are anti-establishment. Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, the founders of Commentary and two of neoconservatism’s New-York godfathers, come from the Left. And it was from the Left that they formulated their condemnation of Soviet communism.

In Ni Marx, ni Jesus (Neither Marx nor Jesus) (Robert Laffont, 1970), Jean-François Revel described the USA plunged in the turmoil of the 1960s social revolution. More recently, he has explained neoconservatism as a backlash, above all on the domestic front. The neoconservatives criticize the cultural and moral relativism of the Sixties in the wake of Leo Strauss. In their view, relativism culminated in the ‘politically correct’ movement of the 1980s.

Another high-ranking intellectual wages the battle at this point. Allan Bloom from the University of Chicago was depicted by his friend Saul Bellow in the novel Ravelstein (Which Books, 2000). In 1987 in The Closing of the American Mind, Bloom assails the university community for having given everything equal merit: “Everything has become culture”, he wrote. “Drug culture, Rock culture, Street Gang culture and so on without the least discrimination. The failure of culture has become culture.”

For Bloom, who was an important interpreter of the classic works of literature, very much in the image of his mentor Strauss, a part of the legacy of the 1960s “ends up as contempt of Western civilization for itself,” explains Jean-François Revel. “In the name of political correctness, all cultures are of equal merit. Bloom questioned the students and professors who were perfectly disposed to accept non-European cultures that often stood against liberty, while at the same time protesting with extreme harshness against Western culture to such a point as to refuse any acknowledgement of it as superior in any respect.”

While political correctness gave the impression of holding the high ground, neoconservatives were making headway. Bloom’s book was a major best-seller. Within US foreign policy, a true neoconservative school was taking shape. Networks were set up. In the 1970s, the Democratic Senator from Washington State, Henry Jackson (d. 1983) criticized the major treaties on nuclear disarmament. He helped shape a generation of young lions keenly interested in strategy, in which one comes across Richard Perle and William Kristol. The latter had attended Allan Bloom’s lectures.

From within the administration and from without, Richard Perle would meet up with Paul Wolfowitz when they both worked for Kenneth Adelman, another contrarian of Détente policies, or Charles Fairbanks, Under-Secretary of State. In strategic matters, their guru was Albert Wohlstetter. A researcher at the RAND Corporation, Pentagon advisor and a gastronomy connoisseur nevertheless, Wohlstetter (d. 1997) was one of the fathers of the American nuclear doctrine.

More precisely, he engaged in the early attempts to reformulate the traditional doctrine that had been the basis for nuclear deterrence: the so-called MAD or “Mutual-Assured Destruction”. According to that theory, as both blocs had the capacity to inflict irreparable damage onto each other, their leaders would think twice before unleashing a nuclear attack. For Wohlstetter and his students, MAD was both immoral–due to the destruction it would inflict on civilian populations–and ineffective: it would end up in a mutual neutralization of nuclear arsenals. No sane head of state, or at any rate no American president, would decide on “reciprocal suicide”. To the contrary, Wohlstetter proposed “staggered deterrence”, i.e. accepting limited wars that would eventually use tactical nuclear weapons with high-precision “smart” bombs capable of striking at the enemy’s military apparatus.

He criticized the joint nuclear weapons control policy with Moscow. According to him, it amounted to bridling US technological creativity in order to maintain an artificial balance with the USSR.

Ronald Reagan heard him out, and launched the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), baptized “Star Wars”. It is the ancestor of the Antimissile Defense System pursued by Wohlstetter’s students. They would be the partisans warmest to the idea of a unilateral renunciation of the ABM Treaty, which in their view prevented the US from developing other defense systems. And they managed to convince George W. Bush.

In Perle and Wolfowitz’s tracks, one meets Elliott Abrams, these days in charge of the Middle-East at the National Security Council, and Douglas Feith, an Under-Secretary of Defense. They all share unconditional support for the policies of the State of Israel, whatever government sits in Jerusalem. This unwavering support explains how they have stoically sided with Ariel Sharon. President Ronald Reagan’s two mandates (1981 and 1985) gave many of them the opportunity to exercise their first responsibilities in government.

In Washington DC, the neoconservatives have woven their web. Creativity is on their side. Throughout the years, they have marginalized intellectuals from the Democratic center and centre-left to hold a preponderant place where the ideas that dominate the political scene are forged. Among their fora are reviews such as the National Review, Commentary, the New Republic, headed for a time by the young ‘Straussian’ Andrew Sullivan; the Weekly Standard, once under the ownership of the Murdoch group, whose Fox News television network takes care of broadcasting the vulgarized version of neoconservative thought. Under Robert Bartley’s charge, the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal have also fallen into neoconservatist activism without qualms. Their hunting grounds are also the research institutes and think tanks such as the Hudson Institute, the Heritage Foundation or the American Enterprise Institute. Families play a role as well: Irving Kristol’s son, the very urbane William Kristol runs the Weekly Standard; one of Norman Podhoretz’s sons worked for the Reagan administration; the son of Richard Pipes–a Polish Jew who emigrated to the US in 1939 to become a Harvard University professor and one of the major critics of Soviet communism–Daniel Pipes has denounced Islamism as a new totalitarianism threatening the West.

These men are not isolationists, on the contrary. They are usually very well-educated, having vast knowledge of foreign countries whose languages they have often mastered. They share nothing with Patrick Buchanan’s reactionary populism, which espouses a US retreat to deal with its domestic problems.

The neoconservatives are internationalists, partisans of a resolute US activism in the world. Their ways do not resemble those of the GRAND Old Republican party (Nixon, George Bush Sr.), trusting in the merits of a Realpolitik and caring little about the nature of the regimes with which the US was doing business to defend their interests. Someone like Kissinger, for example, is an anti-model for them. Yet they are not internationalists in the Wilsonian democratic tradition (in reference to president Woodrow Wilson, the unfortunate father of the League of Nations), that of Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton. The latter are deemed naive or angelic for counting on international institutions to spread democracy.

After the strategist, introducing the philosopher. There are no direct links existing between Albert Wohlstetter and Leo Strauss (d. 1973) prior to the official emergence of neoconservatism. But within the neoconservative network, some of them have spawned bridges between the teachings of these two men, despite the fundamental difference separating their fields of research.

Either by filiation or capillary action (Allan Bloom, Paul Wolfowitz, William Kristol and so on), Strauss’s philosophy has served as neoconservatism’s theoretical substratum. Strauss hardly ever wrote on current political affairs or international relations. He was read and recognized for his immense erudition of the classical Greek texts and Christian, Jewish and Islamic scriptures. He was feted for the power of his interpretive method. “He grafted classical philosophy to German profundity in a country lacking a great philosophical tradition”, explains Jean-Claude Casanova who was sent to study in the US by his mentor, Raymond Aron. Aron admired Strauss greatly, whom he had met in Berlin before the war. He advised many of his students, like Pierre Hassner or Pierre Manent a few years later, to turn toward him.

Leo Strauss was born in Kirchain, Hesse, in 1899 and left Germany on the eve of Hitler’s rise to power. After a short stint in Paris and then in England, he left for New York where he taught at the New School for Social Research before founding the Committee on Social Thought in Chicago, which would become the ‘Straussian’ crucible.

It would be simplistic and reductive to trace back to Strauss’s teaching a few principles from which the neoconservatives in George W. Bush’s entourage may have drawn. After all, neoconservatism plunges its roots in traditions other than the Straussian school. But the reference to Strauss forms a pertinent background to the neoconservatism currently at work in Washington. It allows one to understand how neoconservatism is not the simple caprice of a few Hawks. It leans on theoretical bases that are perhaps debatable, though hardly mediocre. Neoconservatism sits at the crossroads of two thoughts present in Strauss’ thinking.

The first is linked to his personal experience. As a young man, Strauss lived through the decay of the Weimar Republic under the converging thrusts of Communists and Nazis. From this experience, he concluded that democracy had no chance of being imposed were it to remain weak, even if that meant refusing to bolster itself against tyranny. Expansionist by nature, tyranny might have to be confronted by resorting to the use of force: “The Weimar Republic was weak. It had only one moment of strength if not greatness: its violent reaction to the assassination of the Jewish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Walther Rathenau, in 1922, ” wrote Strauss in a foreword to Spinoza’s Critique of Religion (1966, trans. 1980). “All in all, Weimar showed the spectacle of justice without force, or of a justice incapable of resorting to force.”

The second thought results from his frequentation of the ancients. What is most fundamental for them, as it is for ourselves, is the kind of political regime that ends up shaping the character of people. Why had the 20th century engendered two totalitarian regimes, which Strauss preferred to call “tyrannies” in reference to Aristotle’s terminology? To this question that has not ceased provoking contemporary intellectuals, Strauss answered: for modernity caused a rejection of moral values, of the virtue that is the basis for democracies, and a rejection of the European values of Reason and Civilization.

Strauss argued that this rejection had its roots in the Enlightenment. The latter produced historicism and relativism as quasi-necessities, which means as a refusal to admit the existence of a Higher Good reflected in concrete, immediate and contingent goods, but irreducible to them. This Good was an unattainable Good that is the measure for real goods.

Translated into the terms of political philosophy, the extreme consequence of this relativism was the USA-USSR convergence theory, very much in vogue during the 1960s and 1970s. It amounted to eventually acknowledging a moral equivalence between American democracy and Soviet communism. Admittedly for Leo Strauss, there exist good and bad regimes. Political thought must not be deprived of casting value judgments. Good regimes have the right–even duty–to defend themselves against evil ones. It would be simplistic to immediately transpose this idea with the “axis of Evil” denounced by George W. Bush. But it is very clear, indeed, that it proceeds from the same source.

This central notion of regime as political philosophy’s matrix was developed by the Straussians who developed an interest in the Constitutional history of the United States. Strauss himself–also an admirer of the British Empire and Winston Churchill as an example of the will-driven statesman–was inclined to think that American democracy was the least-worst case of political systems. Nothing better had been found for the flourishing of mankind, even were there a tendency for special interests to replace virtue as the regime’s foundations.

His students, Walter Bens, Hearvey Mansfield or Harry Jaffa, were especially the ones to fill the ranks of the American Constitutionalist school. In the institutions of the United-States they saw much more than merely the application of the thought of the US’ Founding Fathers. They saw the living performance of higher principles, or indeed, for a man like Harry Jaffa, of Biblical teachings. In any case, religion, eventually civil religion, must serve as the cement to bind institutions and society. This call to religion was not foreign to Strauss. But the atheist Jew “enjoyed covering his tracks”, in Georges Balandier’s words. He considered religion as useful to upkeep illusions for the many, without which order could not be maintained. By contrast, the philosopher must conserve a critical spirit to address the few in a coded language as matter to be interpreted and intelligible only to a meritocracy founded on virtue.

Advocating a return to the ancients against the trappings of modernity and illusions of progress, Strauss nonetheless defended liberal democracy as the Enlightenment’s daughter–and American democracy as its quintessence. A contradiction? Doubtless, but a contradiction he tackles in the tradition of other thinkers on liberalism (Montesquieu, Tocqueville). For the critique of liberalism, which runs the risk of losing itself in relativism ­schematically speaking: the search for Truth loses value­ is indispensable for its survival. For Strauss, the relativism of the Good results in an inability to react against tyranny.

This active defense of democracy and liberalism reappears in the political vulgate as one of the neoconservative’s favorite themes. The nature of political regimes is much more important than all of the institutions and international arrangements to maintain world peace. The greatest threat comes from States that do not share the values of (American) democracy. Changing these regimes and working for the progress of democratic values are the surest ways to reinforcing security (of the US) and peace.

The importance of political regimes, praise for militant democracy, quasi-religious exaltation of American values and firm opposition to tyranny: any number of these themes, which are the stock and trade of the neoconservatives populating the Bush administration, may be drawn from Strauss’s teachings. At times, they are reviewed and corrected by second-generation ‘Straussians’. Yet one thing separates them from their putative mentor: the Messianic-tainted optimism the neoconservatives unfold to bring freedoms to the world (to the Middle East tomorrow, to Germany and Japan yesterday), as though political voluntarism could change human nature. This is yet another illusion that is perhaps good enough to spread to the masses, but by which the philosopher must not be fooled.

Still, a riddle remains: How does ‘Straussism’, which was first founded on an oral transmission largely tributary of the master thinker’s charisma and expressed in austere books, texts on texts, come to seat its influence in a presidential administration? Pierre Manent, who directs the Raymond-Aron Research Center in Paris, puts forward the idea that the ostracism to which Leo Strauss’s pupils were subject in the American university milieu propelled them toward public service, think tanks and the press. They are relatively over-represented in all of these domains.

Another–complementary–explanation holds to the intellectual void that followed the Cold War which the ‘Straussians’, and in their wake the neoconservatives, seemed best prepared to fill. The fall of the Berlin Wall showed they were right insofar as Reagan’s strong-armed policies with respect to the USSR triggered its downfall. The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks confirmed their thesis on the vulnerability of democracies faced with tyranny’s diverse forms. From the war on Iraq, the neocons will be tempted to draw the conclusion that toppling “evil” regimes is possible and desirable. Faced with this temptation, calls to international law may claim moral legitimacy. What is lacking, as things stand today, are the powers of conviction and constraint.
Article originally published in Le Monde, April 16, 2003.

Translated for CounterPunch by Norman Madarasz, Ph.D., May 24, 2003. Philosopher/international relations analyst:
Reproduced with kind permission.