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Empire builders straussians { May 4 2003 }

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May 4, 2003
A Classicist's Legacy: New Empire Builders

All right, so weapons of mass destruction haven't yet been found in Iraq. And no firm link has been established between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. So what was the war in Iraq about, then? According to one school of thought, our most recent military adventure turns out to have been nothing less than a defense of Western civilization — as interpreted by the late classicist and political philosopher Leo Strauss.

If this chain of events seems implausible, consider the tribute President Bush paid in February to the cohort of journalists, political philosophers and policy wonks known — primarily to themselves — as Straussians. "You are some of the best brains in our country," Mr. Bush declared in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute, "and my government employs about 20 of you."

"Employs" is too weak a verb. To intellectual-conspiracy theorists, the Bush administration's foreign policy is entirely a Straussian creation. Paul D. Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense, has been identified as a disciple of Strauss; William Kristol, founding editor of The Weekly Standard, a must-read in the White House, considers himself a Straussian; Gary Schmitt, executive director of the Project for the New American Century, an influential foreign policy group started by Mr. Kristol, is firming in the Strauss camp. One is reminded of Asa Leventhal, the hero of Saul Bellow's novel "The Victim," who asks his oppressor, a mysterious figure named Kirby Allbee, "Wait a minute, what's your idea of who runs things?" For those who believe in the power of ideas, it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to answer: the intellectual heirs of Leo Strauss.

So how did it come to pass that a European-born émigré identified by the Harvard professor of government Harvey Mansfield (also a Straussian) as "an obscure professor of political philosophy at the University of Chicago who died in 1973" now occupies a position of such disproportionate influence?

The answer starts with Strauss's long and influential tenure at Chicago in the mid-20th century and his teachings, mostly from the classics, about the immutability of moral and social values. His lessons were spurned in the 1960's and 70's, in favor of the moral relativism that his disciples believed was polluting foreign policy, from the post-Vietnam imperial malaise to détente with the Soviet Union. During the Reagan administration, some of Strauss's admirers, like Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, emerged as house intellectuals — favored dinner guests who gave the intellectual justification for policies usually drawn up by more practical political types.

Today's dinner guests are the dominant master strategists in their own right, and the transformation brings us face to face with just how much their intellectual roots influence their exercise of power. It is also reasonable to ask: just what would Leo Strauss think of the policies being carried out in his name?

On the basis of his curriculum vitae, Strauss would seem an unlikely figurehead of the Bush White House, hardly a hotbed of intellectual inquiry, as detailed in a recent book by a former presidential speechwriter, David Frum. The child of middle-class Orthodox Jews, Strauss converted to Zionism while still in his teens, attended Martin Heidegger's lectures at the University of Freiburg, and eventually crossed paths with some of the most influential European intellectual figures of the prewar period: Walter Benjamin, Alexandre Kojève, Hans-Georg Gadamer. In 1934, Strauss emigrated to Britain, where he wrote "The Political Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes." Just before the outbreak of World War II, he joined the faculty of the New School for Social Research, a refuge for European intellectuals. His final home was the University of Chicago, where he taught in the political science department for a quarter of a century.

At first glance, Strauss's work seems remote from the heat of contemporary politics. He was more at home in the world of Plato and Aristotle than in debates about the origins of totalitarianism. His major books included "Xenophon's Socratic Discourse," "Thoughts on Machiavelli" and a collection of essays on the ancient Greeks, "The City and Man." But closer scrutiny reveals a mind keenly aware of current events.

Strauss's own experience — he witnessed Russian pogroms as a child and barely escaped the Holocaust — alerted him to the perils of history. "When we were brought face to face with tyranny — with a kind of tyranny that surpassed the boldest imagination of the most powerful thinkers of the past — our political science failed to recognize it," Strauss wrote in his classic "On Tyranny." He believed, as he once wrote, that "to make the world safe for the Western democracies, one must make the whole globe democratic, each country in itself as well as the society of nations." There's a reason that some Bush strategists continue to invoke Strauss's name.

The myth of Strauss derives from a single event: the publication of Allan Bloom's "Closing of the American Mind" in 1987. Bloom, who taught with the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, had been a student of Strauss's; his incendiary best seller argued that democracy as practiced by the Greeks represents the highest form of civilization. The free society is the best man has devised. But Bloom's dense and at times inscrutable polemic was not a call to action; it was a celebration of the classics as a civilizing force. "The open agenda of Straussians is the reading of the Great Books for their own sake, not for a political purpose," wrote Harvey Mansfield in The New Republic.

This agenda became politicized when it was appropriated — some might say hijacked — by a cohort of ambitious men for whom the university was too confining an arena. Alain Frachon and Daniel Vernet, writing in Le Monde two weeks ago, provided a vivid snapshot of these fugitives from the academy. "They have an `intellectual,' often New York, often Jewish, profile, and often began on the left. Some of them still call themselves Democrats. They carry around literary or political magazines, not the Bible; they wear tweed jackets, not the petrol blue suits of Southern televangelists. Most of the time, they profess liberal ideas on social and moral questions. They are trying neither to ban abortion nor to impose school prayer. Their ambition lies elsewhere." By "elsewhere" is meant the world of Washington politics and power.

The most prominent figure singled out by the French journalists was Mr. Wolfowitz, who received his B.A. from Cornell, where he studied with Bloom in his pre-Chicago days, and his Ph. D. in political science and economics from the University of Chicago. Recruited by Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, Mr. Wolfowitz is widely regarded as a chief architect of foreign policy.

In "Ravelstein," a biography of Bloom in the form of a novel published in 2000, Saul Bellow depicts the information-avid professor Abe Ravelstein fielding calls on his cellphone from former students who have made their way to high places in government. His disciples include Philip Gorman, a Wolfowitz-like official in the first Bush administration who rings up his former professor to show that he's in the loop. "Powell and Baker," Gorman confides, have advised the President to call a halt to the 1991 gulf war without a march on Baghdad: "They send out a terrific army and give a demonstration of up-to-date high-tech warfare that flesh and blood can't stand up to. But then they leave the dictatorship in place and steal away. . . ." (Not this time.)

The Bush administration is rife with Straussians. In addition to Mr. Wolfowitz, there is his associate Richard N. Perle, chairman of the Defense Policy Board and the managing partner in Trireme Partners, a venture-capital company heavily invested in manufacturers of technology for homeland security and defense. Mr. Perle and Mr. Wolfowitz are both disciples of the late Albert Wohlstetter, a Straussian professor of mathematics and military strategist who put forward the idea of "graduated deterrence" — limited, small-scale wars fought with "smart" precision-guided bombs.

William Kristol, a former student of Harvey Mansfield's at Harvard, and these days editor of The Weekly Standard, is a highly influential voice in this crowd. "We need to err on the side of being strong," Mr. Kristol said last week on Fox News. "And if people want to say we're an imperial power, fine."

How well have Strauss's hawkish disciples understood him? Are high-level officers in the State Department boning up on his critique of Aristotle's "Politics" late at night, hunched over his knotty texts like grad students cramming for an exam? Or have they just gotten the gist? "It's an opaque and difficult question," says Mr. Kristol. "Strauss's kind of conservatism is public-spirited. He taught a great respect for politics and the pursuit of the common good."

To be sure, Strauss asserted "the natural right of the stronger" to prevail: "The only restraint in which the West can put some confidence is the tyrant's fear of the West's immense military power." But he was skeptical of triumphalism, and conscious of the dangers of foreign occupation: "Even the lowliest men prefer being subjects to men of their own people rather than to any aliens." And in his critique of Aristotle's "Politics," he condemned the Spartan Brasidas, whose countrymen "drew his attention to the fact that he did not promote the liberation of the Greeks from Athenian domination by killing men who had never lifted their hands against the liberating Peloponnesians and were Athenian allies only under duress; if he did not stop his practice he would convert many who were friends of Sparta into enemies."

For Strauss, defending Western democracy against barbarous enemies was a natural right, but it was a right that entailed responsibility. The victor had the obligation to teach and transmit its values, not to impose them. As long ago as 1964, he recognized the tension that had accumulated "during the centuries in which Christianity and Islam each raised its universal claim but had to be satisfied with uneasily coexisting with its antagonist." Four decades later, nations at the heart of the two civilizations have engaged in a violent clash and — for the moment — the Westerners have won.

Next time we might remember to put a tank at the museum door.

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