The Straussian Waltz –– 

By ‘The New American Empire Builders’

An IDC Analysis 


New Delhi, 25 May 2003  

People generally associate the name Strauss with waltzes, music and the great composers and conductors with Jewish sensibilities and Germanic flair, who enriched both Vienna and Berlin in the 19th and 20th centuries. Till recently it was less well known that this name had also influenced USA through émigré merchants, philanthropists, diplomats and the newly added list of philosophers.

Leo Strauss, was a relatively unknown and obscure German–Jewish political philosopher who arrived in the US in 1938 and taught political science at several major universities (longest at Chicago) before his death in 1973. However, political Washington was abuzz about Leo Strauss when in February, while fine fine-tuning the projected subjugation of Iraq, President Bush paid compliments to the bearer of this musical name, "You are some of the best brains in our country and my government employs about 20 of you." He was speaking to a cohort of journalists, political philosophers and policy wonks known –– primarily to themselves –– as Straussians.

To political scientists, the Bush administration's foreign policy is entirely a Straussian creation. The most prominent disciple of Strauss is Paul D Wolfowitz, the Deputy Secretary of Defence, who received his BA from Cornell, where he studied with Bloom another follower of Strauss, 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 Rumsfeld, Mr Wolfowitz is widely regarded as the chief architect of Bush’s foreign policy. In addition to Mr Wolfowitz, there is his associate Richard N Perle, Chairman of the Defense Policy Board. He is also the managing partner in Trireme Partners, a venture-capital company heavily invested in manufacturers of technology for homeland security and defence. 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. Others include –– William Kristol, founding editor of The Weekly Standard –– a must-read in the White House; Gary Schmitt, executive director of the Project for the New American Century, an influential foreign policy group started by Mr Kristol.

They are all the intellectual heirs of Leo Strauss. Nobody analysing the Bush administration’s foreign and defence policies can do without understanding the prescriptions and philosophy of the “Project for the New American Century” (PNAC), a six-year-old neo-conservative group whose alumni include Vice President Dick Cheney and Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, as well as a number of other senior foreign policy officials. PNAC's early prescriptions and subsequent open letters to President George W Bush on how to fight the war on terrorism had anticipated to an uncanny extent precisely what the administration has done. Arundhati Roy referred to it as the ‘manifesto’ of the American war machine in her Centre for Economic and Social Rights (CESR) sponsored lecture in Harlem, New York on 13 May (Outlook, May 26).

We have tried to examine the tenets of Strauss as preached by him and the manner in which they have been practiced by his followers –– the new ‘American Empire Builders’.

  • Strauss asserted "the natural right of the stronger" to prevail. 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."

  • Like Plato, Strauss taught that within societies, "some are fit to lead, and others to be led. But, unlike Plato, who believed that leaders had to be people with such high moral standards that they could resist the temptations of power, Strauss thought 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".

  • For Strauss, "religion is the glue that holds society together”. Irving Kristol, among other neo-conservatives, had argued that separating church and state was the biggest mistake made by the founders of the US republic. "Secular society in their view is the worst possible thing," because it leads to individualism, liberalism and relativism –– precisely those traits that might encourage dissent, which in turn could dangerously weaken society's ability to cope with external threats. "You want a crowd that you can manipulate like putty". (Just like our own ‘Hindutva’!!)

  • He believed 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."

  • "Isolated liberal democracies live in constant danger from hostile elements abroad", and where policy advisers may have to deceive their own publics and even their rulers in order to protect their countries.

  • "Perpetual deception of the citizens by those in power is critical because they need to be led, and they need strong rulers to tell them what's good for them”.

  • 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 are engaging in a violent clash and — for the moment — the Westerners have won. (Huttington’s “Clash of Civilizations!)

  • The fundamental aggressiveness of human nature could be restrained only through a powerful state based on nationalism. "Because mankind is intrinsically wicked, it has to be governed. Such governance can only be established, however, when men are united –– and they can only be united against other people."

  • Strauss thought that a political order could be stable only if it was united by an external threat. If no external threat existed, then one had to be manufactured.

As for a Straussian world, the philosopher often talked about Jonathan Swift's story of Gulliver and the Lilliputians. "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." For Strauss, the act demonstrates both the superiority and the isolation of the leader within a society and, presumably, the leading country vis-a-vis the rest of the world. (Like a Texan cowboy!!)

So now one can understand how smoothly the key neo-conservative strategists behind the Bush administration's aggressive foreign and military policies are waltzing to the tunes of Strauss. They are the dominant master strategists in their own right, and just how much their intellectual roots influence their exercise of power, is for all to see. But it would also be reasonable to ask –– just what would Leo Strauss think of the policies being carried out in his name?

Some interpreters of his thoughts feel, "Strauss's kind of conservatism is public-spirited. He taught a great respect for politics and the pursuit of the common good." For the mandarins of the Bush establishment, the common good is what is good for the elite of America.

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