Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Gurus of Endless War

Shadia Drury is a Canadian Professor of Ploitical Science in University of Regina and she has authority in tracing the contemporary perils of neoconservatism to the "cult" of Straussians: a group of dangerous people who need to be exposed and analyzed not in terms of what they say, but what they do.

In her New Humanist Essay, Gurus of War, she has a serious warning:
In the pages of the neocon bible, The Weekly Standard, William Kristol has attacked the incompetence of the administration, even though it has been doing his bidding. In his recent book America at the Crossroads (2006), Francis Fukuyama has declared that he is a neocon no more. All this has led conventional wisdom to declare the death of neoconservatism as a political force and to relegate its adherents to the trash bin of history. But this is much too optimistic.

In the first place, the neocons have not admitted defeat. They believe that the incompetence of the Bush administration is the only reason for the failure of their brilliant plans. They refuse to abandon their devotion to military solutions, continuing to advocate a military attack on Iran. They refuse to admit that the invasion of Iraq was supported by lies, propaganda and the manipulation of public opinion. They concede only that the Bush administration has made errors that were a result of incompetence and limited information. They continue to link the invasion of Iraq with the so called “War on Terror”, which is merely a convenient term that makes their project of world dominance more palatable. But the neocons refuse to countenance any suggestion that the project of world domination is seriously flawed. They refuse to link the mistakes of the Bush administration to the gargantuan and reckless nature of neoconservative policies.


In truth, the ineptitude of the Bush administration has highlighted the inherent defects of neoconservatism. The neoconservatives were never content with the political realism of a Hobbes or even a Henry Kissinger. They adopted the more strident realism of Leo Strauss, laced as it is with religious self-righteousness – God is on our side and our enemies are allied with the forces of evil. Strauss himself was an atheist, but he thought that religion was the “pious fraud”, indispensable for cultivating deference to authority, undermining hedonism, instilling discipline and making people ready to die for their country. Religion was vital to prepare people for death, tragedy and the horrors of war.

Irving Kristol, in his Autobiography of an Idea, echoed Leo Strauss when he argued that there was no reason to choose between the rational atheism of Freud and the religion of Moses, since the two can be reconciled by adopting, “a double standard of truth. Let men believe in the lies of religion since they cannot do without them, and let the handful of sages, who know the truth and can live with it, keep it among themselves. Men are then divided into the wise and the foolish, the philosophers and the common men, and atheism becomes a guarded esoteric doctrine – for if the illusions of religion were to be discredited, there is no telling with what madness men would be seized, with what uncontrollable anguish.”

Not all the neoconservatives are covert atheists. But the Straussian neocons are deluded into thinking that they are a special breed; they live by a different rule; they are the superior few who can face the abyss of nihilism; they know that God is dead and they have replaced him. For these mortal gods, lying, deceit and the manipulation of public opinion are honourable because the masses are not fit for truth – they need a diet of noble delusions intended to link the political interests of the state with the cosmic forces of justice, goodness and truth.

This double standard is integral to Strauss’s trust in the salutary effects of the covert tyranny of the wise. In his work he returned to classical sources to frame this justification of deception. In City and Man (1964) Strauss revisits the case of Alcibiades, the treasonous Athenian general who was suspected of plotting to destroy Athenian democracy. Strauss defends him by arguing that this would have been the best thing for Athens, adding, “It is impossible for a wise man to benefit his city except by deceiving it.” This glorification of lying and tyranny has had disastrous consequences.

Abram Shulsky, the Director of the Office of Special Plans, which was created by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to find intelligence that would justify the invasion of Iraq, has stated bluntly that he learned from Strauss that “deception is the norm in political life.” We know now that the intelligence used to justify the war was misleading, exaggerated or false. The facts were made to fit the policy and not the other way around.

It is no surprise that one of the Straussians in high office, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, has been convicted of lying to the FBI, obstruction of justice and other criminal offences. Libby was Vice President Dick Cheney’s Straussian-educated chief of staff. He was a student of Paul Wolfowitz, who was a student of Leo Strauss and Allan Bloom. Wolfowitz was Deputy Minister of Defense and a key architect of the war on Iraq. Now he is presiding over the World Bank, where he is mired in scandal for fraud, deception and nepotism.

These Straussians will no doubt compare their predicament to the persecution of Socrates by the Athenian mob: wise men vilified by the ignorant masses. But the comparison is disingenuous. Socrates preferred the death penalty to breaking the law. In contrast, Strauss has cultivated arrogant and unprincipled crooks, liars, cynics and snobs.

But despite the fall from grace of so many of their clan, and the demise of neoconservatism as a brand, this does not mean that the neoconservative culture of war will disappear. The militancy of the neocons is not an aberration in American politics. It is intimately linked to the narcissism at the heart of America’s psyche.

There has always been a tendency for Americans to believe that they are an exceptional nation with a divine calling. It is quite normal for Americans of every political stripe to believe that their manifest destiny is to be servants of truth and justice, an inspiration to all humanity and a beacon of freedom and progress – a nation under God, and a Zion that will light up the world: “The last, best hope for the world”.

This is why something akin to neoconservatism is a perennial American temptation. Long after the defeat of the Bush administration, an aggressive foreign policy similar to that of the neoconservatives will continue to beckon American leaders.

P.S. Also read Francis Boyle's account of the "schooling" of these Straussians.


Monte said...

Indeed. This is why I think the practice of some, who focus exclusively on the incompetence of Bush, serves us badly. The larger threat to world peace - and even American security - is neoconservatism itself. Had Bush been a competent neocon, we might be in a worse mess.

RickB said...

Almost like they think they are a master race..., new clothes on old ideas. As befits a consumer culture Strauss effected a re-branding, he may have thought he was doing something original, stupid people often do.