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The Strategist and the Philosopher

Alain Frachon and Daniel Vernet
Le Monde

Tuesday 15 April 2003

Who are these Neoconservatives who play an essential role in the United States President's choices alongside the Christian Fundamentalists? And who were their master thinkers, Albert Wohlstetter and Leo Strauss ?


It was said in a tone of sincere praise: "You are some of the best brains in the country''; so good, added George W. Bush, that "my government employs twenty of you''. The President addressed the American Enterprise Institute in Washington on February 26 (See Le Monde of March 20). He was honoring a "Think Tank'' that is one of the bastions of the American Neoconservative movement. He saluted a school of thought that marks his administration and declared all that he owes to the intellectual current of predominant influence today. He recognized that he is surrounded by Neoconservatives and credited them with an essential role in his political choices.

In the beginning of the sixties, John F. Kennedy recruited from the center left, notably from Harvard University, certain professors chosen from "the best and the brightest" - to take up the expression of essayist David Halberstam. President George Bush would himself govern with those, who, starting in the sixties, lashed out from the stretchers of this centrist consensus with a social democratic coloration, then dominant.

Who are they? What is their history? Who were their master thinkers? What are the intellectual sources of Bushian Neo-conservatism?

The Neoconservatives shouldn't be confused with the Christian Fundamentalists who are also found in George Bush's entourage. They have nothing to do with the renaissance of Protestant fundamentalism in the Southern, "Bible Belt'' States which is one of the rising forces in today's Republican Party. Neo-conservatism is East Coast and a little Californian also. Its sources of inspiration have an "intellectual'' profile, often New Yorkers, often Jewish, who started out "on the left''. Some still call themselves Democrats. They have a political or literary magazine in hand, not the Bible; they wear tweed jackets, not the double-breasted blue green suits of the Southern televangelists. Usually they profess liberal ideas regarding social and moral issues. Their goal is neither to prohibit abortion nor to impose prayer in the schools. Their ambition is other.

However, explains Pierre Hassner, the singularity of the Bush administration is to have assured a conjunction of these two currents. George W. Bush has made Neoconservatives and Christian fundamentalists live together. The latter are represented in the government by a man like John Ashcroft, the Attorney General. The former have one of their stars as Deputy Defense Secretary, Paul Wolfowitz. George W. Bush, who campaigned from the center right without any very precise political anchorage, has realized a surprising and explosive ideological cocktail, marrying Wolfowitz and Ashcroft, Neoconservatives and Christian fundamentalists, two opposite planets.

Ashcroft taught at Bob-Jones University, in South Carolina, academically unknown, but a stronghold of Protestant fundamentalism. Jewish, from a family of scholars, Wolfowitz is a brilliant product of the East Coast universities. He studied with two of the most eminent professors of the sixties, Allan Bloom, the disciple of German Jewish philosopher, Leo Strauss, and Albert Wohlstetter, mathematics professor and military strategy specialist. These two names were to count. The Neoconservatives have placed themselves in the tutelary shadow of the strategist and the philosopher.

"Neoconservative'' is a misnomer, as they have nothing in common with people who want to guarantee the established order. They reject virtually all the attributes of conservatism as it is understood in Europe. Francis Fukuyama, one of them, who became famous for his essay, "The End of History'', declares:'' The Neoconservatives have no interest in defending the present order, founded on hierarchy, tradition, and a pessimistic view of human nature'' (Wall Street Journal of December 24, 2002).

Idealist-optimists, convinced of the universal value of the American model of democracy, they want to put an end to the status quo, to a flabby consensus. They believe in politics to change things. On the domestic front, they draw their critique of the Welfare State, a product of Presidencies both Democratic (Kennedy, Johnson) and Republican (Nixon), which tries to solve social problems. In foreign policy, they ognounced detente in the seventies, which, they claimed, profited the USSR more than the West. Critical of the sixties' balance sheet and the diplomatic realism of a Henry Kissinger, they are anti-establishment. Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, founder of the review, Commentary, two of the godfathers of Neo-conservatism, come from the left. They formulated a leftist critique of Soviet communism.

In "Ni Marx ni Jesus" ("Neither Marx nor Jesus'') (1970, Robert Laffont), Jean-Franšois Revel described an America plunging in the waves of the social revolution of the sixties. He explains Neo-conservatism today as a way of turning back the clock: on the domestic front, first of all. The Neoconservatives criticize, in Leo Strauss' wake, the cultural and moral relativism of the sixties. For them, this relativism will culminate in the "political correctness'' of the eighties.

Another serious intellectual comes into the fray here, Allan Bloom, of the University of Chicago, whom his friend Saul Bellow depicted in his novel, "Ravelstein'' (Gallimard, 2002). In 1987, in "The Closing of the American Mind", Bloom assails a university milieu in which everything is of equal value: "Everything has become culture'', he wrote; "drug culture, rock culture, gang culture in the street and so on and so forth, without the least discrimination. The failure of culture has become a culture.''

For Bloom, like his master Strauss, a great interpreter of classical texts, a part of the inheritance of the sixties "ends up as contempt of Western civilization for itself,'' explains Jean-Franšois Revel. " In the name of political correctness every culture is as good as another and Bloom questioned those students and professors perfectly disposed topqccept non European cultures, frequently abusive of liberties, and who demonstrated at the same time an extreme severity towards Western culture, refusing to acknowledge its superiority in any matter.''

While "political correctness'' gave the impression of owning the highway, the Neoconservatives scored points. Bloom's book was an immense success. In foreign policy a true Neoconservative school took shape. Networks were established. In the seventies, the Democratic Senator from the state of Washington, Henry Jackson (deceased in 1983) criticized the great nuclear disarmament agreements. A generation of young people infatuated with strategy crystallized, including Richard Perle and William Kristol, who had taken Allan Bloom's courses.

In and out of the administration, Richard Perle would encounter Paul Wolfowitz, both of them working for Kenneth Adelman, another detractor of detente policies, or Charles Fairbanks, Under-Secretary of State. In strategic matters, their intellectual mentor was Albert Wohlstetter. Researcher at the Rand Corporation, Consultant to the Pentagon, and besides, a great gastronomic specialist, Wohlstetter (who died in 1997)is one of the fathers of American nuclear doctrine.

More precisely, he is the source of the rethinking of the traditional doctrine, known as "mutually assured destruction'' (MAD), the basis of deterrence. According to this theory, since both of the two blocks had the power to inflict irreparable damage on the other, those in power would hesitate to unleash nuclear arms. For Wohlstetter and his students, MAD was at once immoral - because of the destruction that could be wrought on civilian populations-and inefficient: it finished in a mutual neutralization of nuclear arsenals. No sane statesman, and, in any case, no American President, would decide for "reciprocal suicide''. Wohlstetter proposed instead "staggered deterrence'', i.e. acceptance of limited wars, eventually with tactical nuclear weapons, with "smart'' high-precision weapons, capable of targeting the enemy's military dispositions and installations. He criticized the joint nuclear arms control policy with Moscow. According to him, it would amount to tying up the United States' technical creativity in order to maintain an artificial balance with the USSR.

Ronald Reagan listened to him and launched the "Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), baptized "Star Wars'', ancestor of the Anti-Missile Defense System, advocated by Wohlstetter's pupils, who became the warmest partisans of a unilateral renunciation of the ABM Treaty, which, in their eyes, impeded the United States from developing its own defense systems. And they convinced George W. Bush.

On the path of Perle and Wolfowitz, one also meets Elliott Abrams, responsible today for the Middle-East in the White House's National Security Council, and Douglas Feith, an Under-Secretary of Defense. They all share an unconditional support for the policy of the State of Israel, whatever government is in place in Jerusalem. This unwavering support explains their unflinching position behind Ariel Sharon. President Ronald Reagan's two mandates (1981 and 1985) gave a number of them the opportunity to exercise governmental responsibility for the first time.

In Washington, the Neoconservatives wove their web. Creativity is their forte. Over the years, they have marginalized center or democratic center left intellectuals to occupy a predominant position where the ideas are forged that dominate the political landscape. Magazines such as "National Review'', "Commentary'', "The New Republic'', once directed by the young "Straussien" Andrew Sullivan ; "The Weekly Standard'', a property of the Murdoch Group, whose television station Fox News assures the diffusion of a vulgarized version of Neoconservative thinking. Editorial pages like those of the "Wall Street Journal'', which, under Robert Bartley's responsibility, distribute Neoconservative militancy without compunction. There are the Research institutes, the famous "think tanks'', such as the Hudson Institute, the Heritage Foundation, or the American Enterprise Institute. There are families also: the son of Irving Kristol, the very urbane William Kristol of "The Weekly Standard'' ; a son of Norman Podhoretz worked for the Reagan Administration; the son of Richard Pipes - a Polish Jew who emigrated to the US in 1939, Harvard professor and one of the biggest critics of Soviet Communism-, Daniel Pipes, denounces in Islam the new Totalitarianism threatening the West.

These men are not isolationists, on the contrary. They generally have a vast culture and knowledge of foreign countries. They speak foreign languages. They have nothing to do with the reactionary populism of a Patrick Buchanan, who preaches American retreat to its own domestic problems.

The Neoconservatives are internationalists, partisans of a resolute activism of the United States in the world. They are not in the style of the old Republican Party (Nixon, George Bush the Elder), trusting in the merits of "Realpolitik'', little interested in the nature of the regimes with which the United States created alliances to defend its interests. A Kissinger is an "anti-model'' for them. However, they are not internationalists in the Wilsonian democratic tradition either (so-called after President Woodrow Wilson, unhappy father of the League of Nations), that of Jimmy Carter or Bill ),inton. These they judge na´ve to count on international institutions to spread democracy.

After the strategist, the philosopher. There are no direct links between Albert Wohlstetter and Leo Strauss, deceased in 1973 before the official appearance of Neo-conservatism. However, within the network of Neoconservatives, some have linked the teachings of the two men, even though their areas of research had been fundamentally different.

By filiation or by derivation (AllaniBloom, Paul Wolfowitz, William Kristol...), Strauss' philosophy has served as the Neoconservative theoretical substratum. Strauss virtually never wrote about current politics or international relations. He was read and recognized for his immense erudition about Greek classical texts, and Christian, Jewish, and Muslim sacred writings. He was honored for the power of his interpretive methods. "He succeeded in grafting classical!philosophy with German depth into a country without much philosophic tradition", explains Jean-Claude Casanova, whose teacher, Raymond Aron, sent to study in the United States. Aron greatly admired Strauss, whom he had met in Berlin before the war. He counseled several of his students, such as Pierre Hassner, or several years later, Pierre Manent, to turn towards Strauss.

Leo Strauss was born in Kirchhain, in Hesse, in 1899, and left Germany just before Hitler's rise to power. After a brief stay in Paris, then England, he came to New York, where he taught at the New School of Social Research before founding the Committee on Social Thought, which became the crucible of the "Straussians" in Chicago.

It would be simplistic and reductive to reduce Leo Strauss' teaching to several principles which the Neoconservatives surrounding George W. Bush could draw from. Besides which, Neo-conservatism roots plunge into traditions other than the Strauss school. However, the reference to Strauss forms a background pertinent to the Neo-conservatism at work in Washington today. It permits an understanding of how Neo-conservatism is not just a simple insanity of a few hawks; to what extent it is based on theoretical foundations which may be contestable, but are certainly not mediocre. Neo-conservatism is situated at the junction of two reflections present in Leo Strauss.

The first is related to his personal experience. As a young man, he lived the dissolution of the Weimar Republic under the converging extreme attacks of the Communists and the Nazis. He concluded that democracy had no ability to impose itself if it stayed weak and refused to stand up to tyranny, which is expansionist in nature, even if that meant resorting to force: "The Weimar republic was weak. It had only one moment of strength, if not of grandeur: its violent reaction to the assassination of the Jewish Foreign Affairs Minister, Walther Rathenau in 1922'' wrote Strauss in a Foreword to Spinoza's "Critique of Religion''. " Overall (Weimar) presented the spectacle of justice without power, or of a justice incapable of resorting to power.''

The second reflection is related to his frequentation of the Ancients. For us as for them, the fundamental question is that of the political regime which fashions people's character. Why had the twentieth century produced two totalitarian regimes, which Strauss, referring back to Aristotle's terminology preferred to call "tyrannies''? Strauss' response to this question which provokes contemporary intellectuals: modernity provoked a rejection of moral values, of the virtue that is the basis for democracy, and a rejection of the European values of "reason'' and "civilization''. The source of this rejection, he argued, is to be found in the Enlightenment, which produced, almost as a necessity, historicism and relativism, which is to say the refusal to admit the existence of a higher Good, reflected in concrete , immediate, and contingent goods, but not reducible to them, an Unattainable Good that must be the measurement standard for real goods.

Translated into the terms of political philosophy, this relativism has as an extreme consequence the theory, much in vogue in the 1960s and 70s, of convergence between the United States and the Soviet Union. It led at the limit to recognition of moral equivalence between American democracy and Soviet communism. However, for Leo Strauss, there are good and bad regimes; political reflection should not debar value judgment and good regimes have the right -even the duty- of defending themselves against the evil ones. It would be simplistic to operate an immediate transposition of this idea and the "axis of evil'' denounced by George W. Bush. However, it is clear that it comes from the same source.

This central notion of the regime as the womb of political philosophy was developed by the "Straussians'' who have occupied themselves with the Constitutional history of the United States. Strauss himself- also an admirer of the British Empire and of Winston Churchill, as an example of a Statesman with a will- thought that American democracy was the least bad political system. No better system had been found for the flourishing of the human being, even if special interests have a tendency to replace virtue as the foundation of the system.

However, above all, his students Walter Berns, Hearvey Mansfield, or Harry Jaffa, nourished the American Constitutionalist School. They see in the institutions of the United States, even more than the application of the thought of the Founding Fathers, the realization of superior principles, even, for a man such as Harry Jaffa, of Biblical teaching. In any case, religion, eventually civil, must serve as the cement for institutions and society. This call to religion was not foreign to Strauss, but this Jewish atheist, "amused himself in covering his tracks'' according to Georges Balandier's expression; he considered religion useful to maintain the illusions of the many, illusion without which order could not be maintained. In the end, however, the philosopher must conserve his critical spirit and address himself to a small number in coded language, subject to interpretation, intelligible to a meritocracy founded on virtue.

Advocating a return to the Ancients against the traps of modernity and the illusions of progress, Strauss nevertheless defends liberal democracy, child of the Enlightenment- and American democracy , which seems to be its quintessence. Contradiction? Without doubt, but a contradiction that he assumes in the tradition of other liberal thinkers (Montesquieu, Tocqueville) since the criticism of liberalism, which risks losing itself in relativism- if all can be said, the search for Truth loses its value-, is indispensable for its survival. For Strauss, the relativism of the Good has as a consequence an inability to react to tyranny.

This active defense of democracy and of liberalism reappears in the political Vulgate cs one of the Neo-conservatives' favorite themes. The nature of political regimes is much more important than all the international institutions and arrangements for the maintenance of peace in the world. The greatest threat comes from States which do not share American democratic values. Changing these regimes and causing the progress of democratic values constitutes the best method of reinforcing security (of the United States) and peace.

The importance of the political regime, panegyrics for militant democracy, a quasi-religious exaltation of American values and firm opposition to tyranny: many of the themes which mark the Neo-conservatives populating the Bush administration can be drawn from Strauss' teaching, sometimes reviewed and corrected by the second generation "Straussians''. One thing separates them from their putative master: the optimism tainted with Messianism that the Neo-conservatives deploy to bring freedoms to the world (in the Middle-East today, yesterday in Germany and Japan) as though political voluntarism could change human nature. This is another illusion that is perhaps good to spread among the masses, but which the philosopher himself must not be taken in by.

There remains a puzzle: how did "Straussism", which was at first founded on an oral transmission largely tributary of the master's charisma and which was expressed in austere books, texts about texts, establish its influence on a Presidential administration? Pierre Manent, who directs the Paris Raymond-Aron Research Center, advances the idea that the ostracism to which Leo Strauss' students were subject in American University circles pushed them towards public service, "think tanks'' and the press. There, they are relatively over-represented.

Another-complementary-explanation follows from the intellectual void that succeeded the end of the Cold War, which the "Straussians'', and consequent to them, the Neo-conservatives, seemed the best prepared to fill. The fall of the Berlin Wall demonstrated they were right to the extent that Ronald Reagan's muscular policy vis a vis the USSR precipitated its disintegration. The attacks of September 11 confirmed their thesis of the vulnerability of democracy in the face of the diverse forms of tyranny. From the war in Iraq, they will be tempted to draw the conclusion that the reversal of "evil'' regimes is possible and desirable. Faced with this temptation, calls to international law can claim moral legitimacy, but what they lack, in the absence of a new order, are the powers of conviction and constraint.

Translation: TruthOut French language correspondent Leslie Thatcher

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

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