The Strategist And The Philosopher

By Alain Frachon et Daniel Vernet

Le Monde: Translated by Mark K. Jensen
April 15, 2003,5987,3230--316921-,00.html

Who are these neoconservatives who are playing an essential role in the U.S.
president's choices, along with fundamentalist Christians?  And who were the
thinkers who inspired them, Albert Wohlstetter and Leo Strauss?

It was said in a tone of sincere praise: "You are some of the best brains in
our country"; so good, George W. Bush added, that "my government employs about
twenty of you."  The president was speaking on February 26 to the American
Enterprise Institute in Washington. (Le Monde, March 20)

He was paying homage to a think tank that is one of the bastions of the
American neoconservative movement.  He was saluting a school of thought that
is marking his presidency, and he was stating how much he owes to an
intellectual current which is today a predominant influence.  He was taking
note of the fact that he was surrounded by neoconservatives, and crediting
them with a central role in his political decisions.

At the beginning of the 1960s, John F. Kenney recruited some left-of-center
professors, notably at Harvard University, chosen from among "the best and the
brightest," to use author David Halberstam's phrase.  President George W.
Bush, for his part, has chosen to govern with those who have been in revolt
since the 1960s against the centrist, mostly Social Democratic consensus that
was dominant then.

Who are they?  What is their history?  Who were their leading intellectual
influences?  Where are the intellectual origins of Bushite neoconservatism to
be found?

The neoconservatives must not be confused with the fundamentalist Christians
who are also to be found in George W. Bush's entourage.  They have nothing to
do with fundamentalist Protestantism's renaissance, which comes from the
southern Bible Belt, and is one of the growing forces in the Republican Party
of today.  Neoconservatism comes from the East Coast, and also to some extent
from California.  Its instigators 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 somewhere else.

But, explains Pierre Hassner, what is singular about the Bush administration
is that it has achieved the fusion of these two currents.  George W. Bush
causes neoconservatives and Christian fundamentalists to make common cause.
The fundamentalists are represented in his government by a man like John
Ashcroft, the Attorney General; the neoconservatives have one of their stars
as assistant secretary of defense, Paul Wolfowitz.  George W. Bush, who
campaigned just right of center, with no very precise political ties, has
concocted an astonishing - and explosive - ideological cocktail, marrying
Wolfowitz and Ashcroft, neoconservatives and Christian fundamentalists, two
opposite worlds.

Ashcroft taught at Bob Jones University in South Carolina, academically
unknown but a stronghold of Protestant fundamentalism.  Positions bordering on
anti-Semitism were common there.  Jewish and from an academic family,
Wolfowitz is a brilliant product of Eastern universities; he studied with two
of the most eminent professors of the 1960s, Allan Bloom, who was the disciple
of Leo Strauss, the Jewish philosopher of German origins, and Albert
Wohlstetter, professor of mathematics and a specialist in military strategy.
These are two names that will count.  The neoconservatives have placed
themselves in the tutelary shadow of the strategist and the philosopher.

Inappropriately named, they also have nothing about them of people whose aim
is to conserve the established order.  They reject just about all the
attributes of political conservatism as this is understood in Europe.  One of
them, Francis Fukuyama, who made a name for himself with his essay "The End of
History," says: "The neoconservatives have no interest whatever in defending
the order of things as they are, founded on hierarchy, tradition, and a
pessimistic view of human nature." (Wall Street Journal, Dec. 24, 2002)

Idealistic and optimistic, convinced of the universal value of the American
democratic model, they want to put an end to the status quo and its limp
consensus.  They believe in politics for the sake of changing things.  On the
domestic front, they sketch out a critique of the welfare state, the product
of Democratic presidents (Kennedy, Johnson) as well as a Republican president
(Nixon), which is struggling to cope with social problems.  In foreign
affairs, they denounced détente in the 1970s, which, according to them,
benefited the USSR more than the West.  As critics of the accomplishments of
"the sixties" and opposed to the diplomatic realism of a Henry Kissinger, they
are anti-establishment.  Irving Kristol and Norman Podheretz, the founder of
the magazine Commentary, are two of the New York godfathers of
neoconservatism, and come from the left.  They once drew up a leftist bill of
indictment of Soviet communism.

In *Ni Marx ni Jésus* [Neither Marx nor Jesus] (1970, Robert Laffont),
Jean-François Revel offered a description of an America caught up in the
tumultuous social revolution of the 1960s.  Today, he explains neoconservatism
as a sort of backlash.  Above all on the domestic front.  In the wake of Leo
Strauss, the neoconservatives criticize the moral and cultural relativism of
the 1960s.  For them, relativism leads to the "political correctness" of the

There is another intellectual of the first rank who is directing the battle
here, Allan Bloom, of the University of Chicago, who was portrayed by his
friend Saul Bellow in his novel *Ravelstein* (Gallimard, 2002).  In 1987, in
*The Closing of the American Mind* (translated into French under the title
*L'Ame désarmée* [The Helpless Soul]), Bloom skewers university milieux where
everything is equated: "Everything has become culture," he writes; "drug
culture, rock culture, street gang culture, and so on, without the slightest
discrimination.  The failure of culture has become a culture." [Reverse
translation from French]

For Bloom, a great interpreter of classic texts like his master Strauss before
him, one part of the heritage of the 1960s "leads to a scorn for Western
civilization in itself," explains Jean-François Revel.  "In the name of the
politically correct, every culture is as good as every other culture and Bloom
wonders about those students and professors who are perfectly willing to
accept non-European cultures that are often hostile to freedoms and that show
at the same time an extreme harshness toward Western culture, refusing to
admit that it is superior in any way."

While "politically correctness" was seeming to hold sway, the neoconservatives
were scoring points.  Bloom's book was an enormous success.  In foreign
affairs, a veritable neoconservative school took form.  Networks grew up.  In
the 1970s, a Democratic senator from the state of Washington, Henry Jackson
(who died in 1983), criticized the grand treaties of nuclear disarmament.  He
prepared at that time a generation of young strategists, among them Richard
Perle and William Kristol, who took Allan Bloom's courses.

In and out of the administration, Richard Perle met up with Paul Wolfowitz,
since both of them worked for Kenneth Adelman, another critic of the politics
of détente, and Charles Fairbanks, under secretary of state.  In strategic
matters, they looked to Albert Wohlstetter.  A Rand Corporation researcher and
Pentagon consultant, as well as a great specialist in gastronomy, Wohlstetter
(who died in 1997) was one of the fathers of American nuclear doctrine.

More precisely, he was at the origin of the rethinking of the traditional
doctrine known as "mutual assured destruction" (MAD, in its English acronym),
which was the basis for deterrence.  According to this theory, two blocs
capable of inflicting upon each other irreparable damages would cause leaders
to hesitate to unleash the nuclear fire.  For Wohlstetter and his pupils, MAD
was both immoral - because of the destruction inflicted on civilian
populations - and ineffective:  it led to the mutual neutralization of nuclear
arsenals.  No statesman endowed with reason, and in any case no American
president, would decide on "reciprocal suicide."  Wohlstetter proposed on the
contrary a "graduated deterrence," i.e. the acceptance of limited wars,
possibly using tactical nuclear arms, together with "smart" precision-guided
weapons capable of hitting the enemy's military apparatus.

He criticized the politics of nuclear arms limitations conducted together with
Moscow.  It amounted, according to him, to constraining the technological
creativity of the United States in order to maintain an artificial equilibrium
with the USSR.

Ronald Reagan listened to him, and launched the Strategic Defense Initiative
(SDI), dubbed "Star Wars," which is the ancestor of the anti-missile defense
taken up by Wohlstetter's pupils.  These individuals are the most enthusiastic
partisans of a unilateral renunciation of the ABM treaty, which, in their
eyes, prevents the United States from developing its systems of defense.  And
they have also convinced George W. Bush.

Following the same path as Perle and Wolfowitz is Elliott Abrams, today
responsible for the Middle East on the White House's National Security
Council, and Douglas Feith, one of the under secretaries of defense.  Both
agree on unconditional support for the policies of the state of Israel, no
matter what government is in place in Jerusalem.  This advocacy of constant
support explains why they endorse Ariel Sharon with no hesitation.  President
Ronald Reagan's two terms (1981 and 1985) were the occasion for many of these
figures to hold their first government positions.

In Washington, the neoconservative wove their web.  Creativity was on their
side.  Over the course of many years, they marginalized Democratic centrist or
center-left intellectuals and took up predominant positions in the places
where the ideas that dominate the political scene are formulated.  These are
reviews like "National Review," "Commentary," "The New Republic," which was
edited for a time by the young "Straussian" Andrew Sullivan; "The Weekly
Standard," owned by the Murdoch group, whose Fox television network ensures
the diffusion of the mass-media version of neoconservative thought.  There are
also the editorial pages like that of the "Wall Street Journal," which, under
the direction of Robert Bartley, conveys neoconservative militancy
unabashedly.  There are research institutes, the famous "think tanks," such as
the Hudson Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the American Enterprise
Institute.  There are families, too:  the son of Irving Kristol is the very
urbane William Kristol, the editor-in-chief of "The Weekly Standard"; one of
Norman Podheretz's sons worked in the Reagan administration; the son of
Richard Pipes - an émigré Polish Jew who emigrated to the United States in
1939, became a professor at Harvard, and was one of the most important critics
of Soviet communism - is Daniel Pipes, who denounces Islamism as the new
totalitarianism threatening the West.

These men are not isolationists.  To the contrary.  They are generally
extremely cultured and knowledgeable about foreign countries, whose languages
they often speak.  They are not at all like the reactionary populism of a
Patrick Buchanan, who is in favor of America turning inward to address her
domestic problems.

The neoconservatives are internationalists, partisans of a role of resolute
global activism for the United States.  They are not, however, in the mold of
the old Republican Party (Nixon, George Bush senior), who trusted to the
merits of a Realpolitik that cared little about the nature of the regimes with
which the United States made alliances in the defense of its interests.  For
them, Kissinger is a sort of anti-model.  But they are also not
internationalists in the Democratic Wilsonian tradition (named after Woodrow
Wilson, the unfortunate father of the League of Nations), which was the
tradition of Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton, who are dismissed as angelic or
naïve figures who trust to international institutions to spread democracy.

Let us turn to the philosopher.  There were no direct links between Albert
Wohlstetter and Leo Strauss (who died in 1973) before the official appearance
of neoconservatism.  But in the network of neoconservatives, some have built
bridges between the teachings of the two men, even though their areas of
research were fundamentally different.

Whether as a source or as an incidental influence (Allan Bloom, Paul
Wolfowitz, William Kristol.), Strauss's philosophy has served as the
theoretical substrate of neoconservatism.  He is read and recognized for his
immense erudition about classical Greek texts or Christian, Jewish, or Muslim
Scripture.  He was hailed for the power of his interpretive method.  "He
succeeded in grafting classical philosophy with German depth in a country that
lacks a great philosophic tradition," says Jean-Claude Casanova, whose
intellectual mentor, Raymond Aron, sent him to study in the United States.
Aron greatly admired Strauss, whom he met in Berlin before World War II.  He
advised several of his students, like Pierre Hassner or, several years later,
Pierre Manent, to take an interest in him.  [Translator's note: Raymond Aron
(1905-1983) was one of the France's preeminent intellectuals in the twentieth
century, and was also important in the political realm, where he played a
considerable role as an advisor to French statesmen, including Charles de

Leo Strauss was born in Kirchhain, in Hesse, in 1899, and left Germany on the
eve of Hitler's accession to power.  After brief stays in Paris and in
England, he arrived in New York, where he taught at the New School of Social
Research before founding the Committee on Social Thought at the University of
Chicago, which would become the crucible where "Straussians" were formed.

It would be simplistic and reductionist to sum up Leo Strauss's teaching as
the few principles upon which the neoconservatives who surround George W. Bush
draw.  And neoconservatism has roots in traditions other than the Straussian
school.  But the reference to Strauss forms a relevant background for the
neoconservatism that is presently at work in Washington.  It permits one to
understand to what extent neoconservatism is not simply a caprice of a few
hawks; and also to what extent is relies on theoretic bases, which, while
perhaps doubtful, are certainly not mediocre.  Neoconservatism situates itself
at the junction of two lines of thought in Strauss.

The first is linked to his personal experience.  As a young man he lived
through the decrepitude of the Weimar Republic battered by both Communists and
Nazis.  He concluded that democracy had no chance of prevailing if it remained
weak and refused to rise up against tyranny, expansionist by nature, even if
this meant resorting to force:  "The Weimar Republic was weak.  It had only
one moment of strength, if not greatness: its violent reaction to the
assassination of the Jewish minister of foreign affairs Walther Rathenau in
1922," writes Strauss in a preface to *Spinoza's Critique of Religion*.  "On
the whole, it presented the spectacle of a justice without strength or of a
justice incapable of resorting to force."

The second line of thought is the result of his readings of the ancients.  For
us, as for them, the fundamental question is that of the political regime,
which shapes the character of human beings.  Why did the 20th century engender
two totalitarian regimes that, reverting to Aristotle's term, Strauss prefers
to call "tyrannies"?  Strauss's answer to this question, which obsesses
contemporary intellectuals, is:  because modernity provoked a rejection of the
moral values and the virtue that must be at the base of democracies, and a
rejection of European values, which are "reason" and "civilization."

According to Strauss, this rejection finds its source in the Enlightenment,
which almost necessarily produced historicism and relativism, that is, the
refusal to admit the existence of a higher Good that is reflected in the
concrete, immediate, and contingent goods, but not reducing itself to them, an
unattainable Good which must be the standard by which real goods are measured.
 Translated into the language of political philosophy, relativism's extreme
consequence was the theory of the convergence of the United States and the
Soviet Union, which was much in vogue in the 1960s and the 1970s.  It led in
some cases to an acknowledgement of the moral equivalence of American
democracy and Soviet communism.  Now, for Leo Strauss, there are good and bad
regimes; political reflection should not refrain from making judgments of
value, and good regimes have the right - and even the duty - to defend
themselves against bad regimes.  It would be simplistic to effect a direct
transposition between this idea and the "axis of Evil" denounced by George W.
Bush.  But it is clear that it proceeds from the same origin.

This central notion of a regime as the matrix of political philosophy has been
developed by Straussians, who have taken an interest in the Constitutional
history of the United States.  Strauss himself - an admirer of the British
Empire and of Winston Churchill as an example of a strong-willed statesman -
thought that American democracy was the least bad political system.  Nothing
better had been found for the flourishing of humanity, even if interests
tended to replace virtue as the foundation of the regime.

But it was above all his students, like Walter Berns, Hearvey Mansfield, or
Harry Jaffa, who enriched the American Constitutional school.  This school
sees in American institutions the realization of higher principles, even, for
a man like Harry Jaffa, of Biblical teachings, more than it sees in these
institutions the application of the thought of the Founding Fathers.  In any
case, religion, perhaps civil religion, must serve as the glue that holds
together institutions and society.  This appeal to religion is not foreign to
Strauss, but this Jewish atheist "liked to cover his tracks," to use Georges
Balandier's expression; he thought that religion was useful to maintain the
illusions of the masses, illusions without which order could not be
maintained.  On the other hand, the philosopher was to maintain his critical
mind and address the initiated in a coded language, something that needs to be
interpreted, but is intelligible to a meritocracy founded on virtue.

Advocating a return to the Ancients as a way of avoiding the pitfalls of
modernity and the illusions of progress, Strauss is nonetheless a defender of
liberal democracy, that child of the Enlightenment - and of American
democracy, which seems to be its quintessence.  Is this a contradiction?  No
doubt it is, but it is a contradiction that he is willing to live with, like
other liberal thinkers (Montesquieu, Tocqueville).  For the critique of
liberalism is indispensable for its survival, since it runs the risk of
getting lost in relativism - if everything can be expressed, the search for
Truth loses its value.  For Strauss, the relativism of the Good results in an
inability to react against tyranny.

This active defense of democracy and of liberalism reappears in political
doctrines as one of the favorite themes of the neoconservatives.  The nature
of political regimes is much more important than all institutions or
international arrangements for keeping peace in the world.  The greatest
danger comes from states that do not share the (American) values of democracy.
 To change those regimes and encourage the spread of democratic values
constitutes the best means of strengthening the security (of the United
States) and peace.

The importance of the political regime, praise for militant democracy, the
quasi-religious exaltation of American values, a firm opposition to tyranny:
there are quite a few themes that are the mark of the neoconservatives
populating the Bush administration which can be derived from the teaching of
Strauss, sometimes revised and corrected by the "Straussians" of the second
generation.  One thing separates them from their putative master: the optimism
tinged with messianism that neoconservatives deploy to bring freedoms the
world (to the Middle East tomorrow, yesterday to Germany and Japan), as if the
belief in political will was capable of changing human nature.  This is also
an illusion, which it may be good to spread for the sake of the masses, but by
which philosophers, for their part, ought not to allow themselves to be

There remains an enigma: how did "Straussianism," which was first founded upon
an oral transmission that was mostly the result of the charisma of the master
and was expressed in books of an austere character, texts about texts,
establish its influence over a presidential administration?  Pierre Manent,
who directs the Centre de recherches Raymond-Aron in Paris, proposes the idea
that the ostracism to which the students of Leo Strauss were subjected in
American university milieux pushed them toward public service, think tanks,
and the press.  There they are relatively over-represented.

Another, complementary, explanation cites the intellectual vacuum that ensued
upon the conclusion of the Cold War, which the "Straussians," and in their
wake the neoconservatives, seemed to be the best prepared to fill.  The fall
of the Berlin Wall proved them right to the extent that Reagan's muscular
policy vis-à-vis the USSR led to its downfall.  The attacks of September 11,
2001, confirmed their thesis concerning the vulnerability of democracies
confronted with different forms of tyranny.  From the war on Iraq, they will
be tempted to draw the conclusion that the overthrow of "bad" regimes is
possible and desirable.  As an alternative to this temptation, the appeal to
international law can claim a certain moral legitimacy.  But until further
notice, it lacks the power of conviction and coercion.

Translated by Mark K. Jensen
Associate Professor of French
Chair, Department of Languages and Literatures
Pacific Lutheran University
Tacoma, WA 98447-0003

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