Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Architects of Empire 

In the past we have been known to quote extensively from both James Mann (author of Rise of the Vulcans) and James Bamford (author of A Pretext for War), and so we are pleased to recommend Arthur Schlesinger's exemplary essay from the New York Review of Books, which (for a while, at least) purports to review both of the abovementioned books, along with a third -- After the Empire: The Breakdown of the American Order, by Emmanuel Todd -- which we have not yet seen:
Mann and Bamford agree in their skepticism about the neocon fantasy that the establishment of democracy in Iraq will have a domino effect and democratize the whole Islamic world. Mann attributes the visionary delusions of the neocons to the influence of Leo Strauss (1899–1973), the German refugee philosopher who finally found a home in the University of Chicago. Strauss taught his disciples a belief in absolutes, contempt for relativism, and joy in abstract propositions. He approved of Plato's "noble lies," disliked much of modern life, and believed that a Straussian elite in government would in time overcome feelings of persecution. Strauss's teachings can be found in vulgarized form in Allan Bloom's 1987 best seller, The Closing of the American Mind, a book notable for the total exclusion of the two finest American minds, Emerson and William James.

Strauss's German windbaggery has had much the same effect on more empirical thinkers that Hegel had on William James (see James's "On Some Hegelisms"). "Strauss's influence is surprising," Mann writes, "because his voluminous, often esoteric, writings say virtually nothing specific about issues of policy, foreign or domestic." Yet students of Strauss and Bloom—William Kristol, the editor; Robert Kagan, the anti-Europe polemicist; Francis Fukuyama, the "end of history" prophet; Paul Wolf-owitz, the strategic planner—inspired perhaps by the Straussian vision of philosopher-kings, flocked to the Wash-ington of Ronald Reagan, were discontented during the presidency of the elder Bush, and came into their own under the younger Bush.

Anne Norton, a political theorist at the University of Pennsylvania, did graduate work among the Straussians at the University of Chicago. In her well-informed and witty book, Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire,[1] she lists more than thirty Straussians influential in Washing-ton as of 1999. Given the practice of ideological hiring reminiscent of the Communist Party, there must be more than double that number today scattered among government agencies, military academies, war colleges, and think tanks.

There is a puzzle about the transmutation of traditional conservatives into neoconservative philosopher-kings. "Conservatism reverenced custom and tradition," Anne Norton writes. Conservatives "distrusted abstract principles, grand theories, utopian projects." American conservatism used to be Burkean in its respect for the moeurs, for the wisdom embedded in long-established habits and institutions. But the Straussians changed all this. Appeals to history and memory came to seem antiquated. "In their place were the very appeals to universal, abstract principles, the very utopian projects that conservatism once disdained."

What could be more utopian than the neocon dream that the democratization of Iraq would lead to the democratizion of the Muslim world?

James Bamford in A Pretext for War does not mention Leo Strauss at all. Perhaps he did not encounter Straussians in his tour of the intelligence agencies. On the other hand, he has some blunt pages describing pressures brought by the war party in Washington on CIA analysts—for example, a cynical instruction issued at a CIA staff meeting: "If Bush wants to go to war, it's your job to give him a reason to do so" . . . .

Bamford places considerably more emphasis than Mann does on the role of Israel in getting us into this mess . . . . Yossi Sarid, a prominent member of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said that Mossad knew that Iraq had no WMD stockpiles but didn't inform the US government because it wanted the war to proceed and did not wish "to spoil President Bush's scenario." Bamford goes further. He suggests that Mossad and Ranaan Gissin, "Sharon's top aide," rivaled Ahmed Chalabi in sending Washington phony intelligence designed to frighten President Bush.

The deceit apparently practiced on the US government by the Likud regime in Israel is pertinent to the imperial dreams, and delusions, of the Straussians. The neocon vision is that the United States as the supreme military superpower is bound to work its will on the rest of the world. Comparisons are often made to the Roman Empire and to the nineteenth-century British and French Empires. Is the so-called American Empire a fitting successor?

James Mann, in an afterword to his excellent book recently published in the Financial Times, writes that his Vulcans have reached the end of their road. The Bush doctrine of preventive war has been put back on the shelf; the "axis of evil" is fading away; the vision of the Vulcans that America could spread its influence and ideals through reliance on military power is bankrupt. "These days, the Bush administration's intellectual efforts are devoted not to coming up with new ideas for the future but to devising after-the-fact justifications for its intervention in Iraq."

Most observers regard the Bush Doctrine as dead. President Bush does not, as he made clear in the unre-pentant speeches he delivered in June at the Air Force Academy and in July in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. "We must confront serious dangers," he said, "before they fully materialize." But how many nations is he likely to assemble in his next "coalition of the willing"?

Never in American history has the United States been so unpopular abroad, regarded with so much hostility, so distrusted, feared, hated. Even before Abu Ghraib, Margaret Tutwiler, a veteran Republican who was in charge of public diplomacy at the State Department, testifying before a House appropriations subcommittee in February 2004, declared that America's standing abroad had deteriorated to such a degree that "it will take years of hard, focused work" to repair it. After Abu Ghraib, it may take decades.

The hard work of repair would surely be speeded up if there were a regime change in Washington in November.

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