Leo Strauss' Philosophy of Deception
What would you do if you wanted to topple Saddam Hussein, but your intelligence agencies couldn't find the evidence to justify a war?
A 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
Strauss 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 Younger.
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
Rule One: Deception
It's 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
This dichotomy 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. Martin's 1999).
Second Principle: Power of Religion
According 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
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."
"Secular 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
Third Principle: Aggressive Nationalism
Like 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 other people."
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)."
"Perpetual 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
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."
The image encapsulates the neoconservative
vision of the
Jim Lobe writes on foreign policy for Alternet. His work has also appeared on Foreign Policy In Focus and TomPaine.com.