Leo Strauss, Neo-Conservatism & U. S. Foreign Policy
Tibor R. Machan
One has been hearing much about how U. S. foreign policy is influenced by neo-conservatives, especially the ideas of the famous political scientist Leo Strauss (1899-1973) and many of his students. One book, by Anne Norton, is even titled, Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire (Yale, 2004), suggesting that Strauss’s ideas are quite directly responsible for policies that precipitated the war against Iraq.
Strauss, who left Germany before the Nazis took over and came to the U. S. A., is, first of all, largely responsible for having reintroduced a serious study of classical Greek political philosophy. He promoted a very close re-reading of Plato and Aristotle, among others, believing that modern political philosophy—starting with Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and Baruch (Benedict) Spinoza (1632-1677) and ending with the anti-politics of logical positivists such as A. J. Ayer (1910–1989)—laid the foundation for value free politics. This amounted to the belief that moral and political ideals cannot be rationally defended since reason can only deal with sensory evidence, nothing else. Since what is right and wrong in any area goes way beyond such evidence, right and wrong must remain notions beyond reason.
Strauss and his students believed this wrongful idea was responsible for many of the modern age’s problems, especially liberal democracy’s inability to defend itself intellectually against totalitarian and authoritarian ideologies like Hitler’s Nazism and Stalin’s Communism. Today they tend to hold that the same applies when it comes to the West’s inability to respond intellectually, philosophically to Islamic radicalism. The West has been intellectually disarmed by modern philosophy, so it is necessary to recover its superior ancient heritage.
Not that Strauss and Co. had much to offer even from those venerable sources—their view tended to be that philosophy really doesn’t provide us with any firm ideas, only with a wonderful exploratory intellectual journey. Some of Strauss’s students even came to advocate nihilism as the only honest philosophy; others adhered to the view, which Strauss ascribed to the great philosophers and seems to have embraced, namely, that ordinary folks just cannot cope with what serious philosophy has to offer—the hard truth, for example, that nothing much is known for certain about anything. So the public may have to be deceived for its own good. (For example, Alan Bloom’s famous book, The Closing of the American Mind , is arguably such a work of “big lies.”)
However, one thing Strauss and his followers did champion without reservation is that philosophical reflection, conversation, exploration, and so forth are all extremely important. Even though no results can be expected from these, our only hope lies in a society that makes philosophy possible. And the only regime that does that is liberal democracy, with its substantially free institutions, especially freedom of inquiry—the press, religion, writing and reading and research of all kinds.
What follows from this is that we owe it to ourselves to defend this regime from all the totalitarian and authoritarian enemies that would squash its institutions, including, of course, the radical Islamic terrorists. Exactly how to mount this defense was not spelled out by Strauss and even by most of his students. I believe Strauss would have been inclined to promote peaceful means—advocacy, exemplification, exhortation, diplomacy and so forth—rather than aggressive military action. But some of those who learned at Strauss’s feet believed otherwise and did, in fact, come to believe that we need to defeat the enemies of liberal democracy before they get us.
Neo-conservatives are not all followers of Strauss but they have picked up a good deal from Strausseans and are among this latter group. The likes of Irving Kristol, founding editor of The Public Interest, which was the flagship publication of neo-conservatism, and his son, William, editor of The Weekly Standard, lean in this direction, as does the architect of significant portions of America’s current foreign policy, former Deputy Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz.
Many on the Left criticize neo-conservatism and, especially, its aggressive foreign policy but the Left is intellectually undermined in this because in its domestic policies, including most recently, environmentalism, the Left is also aggressive (“precautionary”), caring little about individual rights, civil liberties and due process. So we have in the U. S. A. two sides arguing about how to conduct foreign affairs neither of which has a clear cut, principled argument in favor of confining military action to genuine, bona fide defense.
This is not what one would have expected in a country begun with the presidency of George Washington who in his farewell letter warned us all quite explicitly against foreign entanglements.