No Comment — June 3, 2009, 10:32 am

Leo Strauss and the Iraq War

It’s a commonplace among political philosophy students to note that the Neocons may be Straussians, but that hardly makes Leo Strauss a Neocon. After all, he died in 1973, and his daughter insists that he voted for Adlai Stevenson and had liberal leanings before his notoriously negative reaction to the student movement of the late sixties. But Alan Gilbert argues that Leo Strauss’s politics are very close to those of the recent generation of politically active Neocons. He traces the idea of a great anti-modern tyrant in the writings of Strauss, drawing on his discussion of Machiavelli, Xenophon, Plato, and his contemporary Alexandre Kojève. But the most interesting nuggets in Gilbert’s paper relate to Strauss’s direct engagement in the political world.

In the early sixties, Leo Strauss counseled Charles Percy, then contemplating a bid for the G.O.P. presidential nomination in 1964. Some of his advice is striking. Writing before the Cuban missile crisis, he advocates adopting a military strategy of confrontation with the Communists designed to address their program of world domination:

There cannot be a modus vivendi until Russia abandons Communism, in the sense that it ceases to act on the premises of Communism; for it is utterly uninteresting to us and the rest of the non-Communist world whether the Russians go on paying lip-service to Communism, provided they have become convinced that the Free World is here to stay, and they act on this conviction. To bring about this change of mind, the West must be as tough and, if need be, as brutal as the Communists are to the West. The West must demonstrate to the Communists, by words and deeds which allow no possibility of error, that they must postpone forever the establishment of the Communist world society.

And after the Cuban missile crisis, Strauss suggests action. A military invasion and conquest of Cuba are the necessary response, he appears to counsel, even in the face of nuclear missiles:

I believe that the following points have not been made, or at least have not been made with sufficient audibility:… To speak in the only language which Khrushchev understands, Cuba is our Hungary; just as we did not make the slightest move when he solved the problem in his back yard, Hungary, he cannot, and will not make the slightest move if and when we take care of the problem in our back yard, Cuba.

This certainly does not mean that Strauss would have embraced the Neocon project on Iraq, or the still unexecuted Neocon war plans against Iran. But the avenues of analysis and the language that Strauss used in his counseling of Percy bear remarkable parallels to the tropes that Neocons used to sell the Iraq War.

Gilbert also explores the long-standing question of Strauss’s relationship to the liberal democratic tradition. As I noted in “The Letter,” at the time of his emigration to the United States, Strauss’s thinking was pointedly hostile towards the American experiment in democracy, though his criticism seems to have been moderated over time. But there is no doubt that as a political philosopher, Strauss never viewed modern democracy as anything close to an ideal. Rather, it presented challenges as to how the natural leaders would direct the thinking and perceptions of the electorate. Gilbert looks at Strauss’s On Tyranny as a revealing source on this point:

Xenophon’s Socrates makes it clear that there is only one and sufficient title to rule: only knowledge and not force and fraud or election [note how Strauss rules out democracy here] or, we may add, inheritance makes a man a king or ruler. If this is the case ‘constitutional’ rule, rule derived from elections is not essentially more legitimate than tyrannical rule, rule derived from force or fraud. Tyrannical rule as well as ‘constitutional’ rule will be legitimate to the extent which the tyrant or the ‘constitutional’ rulers will listen to the counsels of him who ‘speaks well’ because he ‘thinks well.’ At any rate, the rule of a tyrant, who comes to power by force or fraud or having committed any number of crimes, is essentially more legitimate than the rule of elected magistrates who refuse to listen to such suggestions, i.e. than the rule of elected magistrates as such.

We should note at the outset that the Greek word ????????, rendered as “tyrant,” does not have the negative connotations of the English word. In ancient Greece, a tyrant came to power by assembling the support of different factions of the political community behind himself—the word could just as well be rendered as “master,” “sovereign,” or “king.” The Romans began to use this word, tyrannus, to refer to someone who came to power illegitimately. But the context here makes clear that Strauss is using the word in the later sense, and his suggestion that a tyrant may be more legitimate than an elected government is striking.

Mark Lilla, on the other hand, writing in The Reckless Mind, sees On Tyranny as a warning:

Philosophy must always be aware of the dangers of tyranny, as a threat to both political decency and the philosophical life. It must understand enough about politics to defend its own autonomy, without falling into the error of thinking that philosophy can shape the political world according to its own lights.

There certainly are passages that reflect this more measured, prudent approach. But Strauss shares the Platonic view that a country is best ruled by its elites, and he distrusts, just as most classical philosophers did, the opinion of the common people. He does repeatedly present the notion that an artful leader must learn how to direct the thinking and hold the support of the common people, and he appears to be led more by Machiavelli and Xenophon than by moral philosophers in that process. The last eight years might have revealed how some have understood and applied this teaching.

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