Leo Strauss' Philosophy of Deception
By Jim Lobe, AlterNet
Posted on May 19, 2003, Printed on February 13, 2007
What would you do if you wanted to topple Saddam Hussein, but your
intelligence agencies couldn't find the evidence to justify a war?
follower of Leo Strauss may just hire the "right" kind of men to get
the job done – people with the intellect, acuity, and, if necessary,
the political commitment, polemical skills, and, above all, the
imagination to find the evidence that career intelligence officers
could not detect.
The "right" man for Deputy Defense Secretary
Paul Wolfowitz, suggests Seymour Hersh in his recent New Yorker article
entitled 'Selective Intelligence,' was Abram Shulsky, director of the
Office of Special Plans (OSP) – an agency created specifically to find
the evidence of WMDs and/or links with Al Qaeda, piece it together, and
clinch the case for the invasion of Iraq.
Like Wolfowitz, Shulsky
is a student of an obscure German Jewish political philosopher named
Leo Strauss who arrived in the United States in 1938. Strauss taught at
several major universities, including Wolfowitz and Shulsky's alma
mater, the University of Chicago, before his death in 1973.
is a popular figure among the neoconservatives. Adherents of his ideas
include prominent figures both within and outside the administration.
They include 'Weekly Standard' editor William Kristol; his father and
indeed the godfather of the neoconservative movement, Irving Kristol;
the new Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, Stephen Cambone, a
number of senior fellows at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI)
(home to former Defense Policy Board chairman Richard Perle and Lynne
Cheney), and Gary Schmitt, the director of the influential Project for
the New American Century (PNAC), which is chaired by Kristol the
Strauss' philosophy is hardly incidental to the strategy
and mindset adopted by these men – as is obvious in Shulsky's 1999
essay titled "Leo Strauss and the World of Intelligence (By Which We Do
Not Mean Nous)" (in Greek philosophy the term nous denotes the
highest form of rationality). As Hersh notes in his article, Shulsky
and his co-author Schmitt "criticize America's intelligence community
for its failure to appreciate the duplicitous nature of the regimes it
deals with, its susceptibility to social-science notions of proof, and
its inability to cope with deliberate concealment." They argued that
Strauss's idea of hidden meaning, "alerts one to the possibility that
political life may be closely linked to deception. Indeed, it suggests
that deception is the norm in political life, and the hope, to say
nothing of the expectation, of establishing a politics that can
dispense with it is the exception."
Rule One: Deception
hardly surprising then why Strauss is so popular in an administration
obsessed with secrecy, especially when it comes to matters of foreign
policy. Not only did Strauss have few qualms about using deception in
politics, he saw it as a necessity. While professing deep respect for
American democracy, Strauss believed that societies should be
hierarchical – divided between an elite who should lead, and the masses
who should follow. But unlike fellow elitists like Plato, he was less
concerned with the moral character of these leaders. According to
Shadia Drury, who teaches politics at the University of Calgary,
Strauss believed that "those who are fit to rule are those who realize
there is no morality and that there is only one natural right – the
right of the superior to rule over the inferior."
requires "perpetual deception" between the rulers and the ruled,
according to Drury. Robert Locke, another Strauss analyst says,"The
people are told what they need to know and no more." While the elite
few are capable of absorbing the absence of any moral truth, Strauss
thought, the masses could not cope. If exposed to the absence of
absolute truth, they would quickly fall into nihilism or anarchy,
according to Drury, author of 'Leo Strauss and the American Right' (St.
Second Principle: Power of Religion
to Drury, Strauss had a "huge contempt" for secular democracy. Nazism,
he believed, was a nihilistic reaction to the irreligious and liberal
nature of the Weimar Republic. Among other neoconservatives, Irving
Kristol has long argued for a much greater role for religion in the
public sphere, even suggesting that the Founding Fathers of the
American Republic made a major mistake by insisting on the separation
of church and state. And why? Because Strauss viewed religion as
absolutely essential in order to impose moral law on the masses who
otherwise would be out of control.
At the same time, he stressed
that religion was for the masses alone; the rulers need not be bound by
it. Indeed, it would be absurd if they were, since the truths
proclaimed by religion were "a pious fraud." As Ronald Bailey, science
correspondent for Reason magazine points out, "Neoconservatives are
pro-religion even though they themselves may not be believers."
society in their view is the worst possible thing,'' Drury says,
because it leads to individualism, liberalism, and relativism,
precisely those traits that may promote dissent that in turn could
dangerously weaken society's ability to cope with external threats.
Bailey argues that it is this firm belief in the political utility of
religion as an "opiate of the masses" that helps explain why secular
Jews like Kristol in 'Commentary' magazine and other neoconservative
journals have allied themselves with the Christian Right and even taken
on Darwin's theory of evolution.
Third Principle: Aggressive Nationalism
Thomas Hobbes, Strauss believed that the inherently aggressive nature
of human beings could only be restrained by a powerful nationalistic
state. "Because mankind is intrinsically wicked, he has to be
governed," he once wrote. "Such governance can only be established,
however, when men are united – and they can only be united against
Not surprisingly, Strauss' attitude toward foreign
policy was distinctly Machiavellian. "Strauss thinks that a political
order can be stable only if it is united by an external threat," Drury
wrote in her book. "Following Machiavelli, he maintained that if no
external threat exists then one has to be manufactured (emphases added)."
war, not perpetual peace, is what Straussians believe in," says Drury.
The idea easily translates into, in her words, an "aggressive,
belligerent foreign policy," of the kind that has been advocated by
neocon groups like PNAC and AEI scholars – not to mention Wolfowitz and
other administration hawks who have called for a world order dominated
by U.S. military power. Strauss' neoconservative students see foreign
policy as a means to fulfill a "national destiny" – as Irving Kristol
defined it already in 1983 – that goes far beyond the narrow confines
of a " myopic national security."
As to what a Straussian world
order might look like, the analogy was best captured by the philosopher
himself in one of his – and student Allen Bloom's – many allusions to
Gulliver's Travels. In Drury's words, "When Lilliput was on fire,
Gulliver urinated over the city, including the palace. In so doing, he
saved all of Lilliput from catastrophe, but the Lilliputians were
outraged and appalled by such a show of disrespect."
encapsulates the neoconservative vision of the United States'
relationship with the rest of the world – as well as the relationship
between their relationship as a ruling elite with the masses. "They
really have no use for liberalism and democracy, but they're conquering
the world in the name of liberalism and democracy," Drury says.
Jim Lobe writes on foreign policy for Alternet. His work has also appeared on Foreign Policy In Focus and TomPaine.com.
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