The Prophet of Prevarication and His Disciple

Updated February 10, 2007

Thirty years, two months and five days after North Carolina Senator Sam Ervin gaveled to order the Senate Watergate hearings, congress opened hearings into the use of "intelligence" to justify military action in Iraq. 1973 also marked the death of Leo Strauss, a little-known German émigré philosopher who fled Nazi Germany and found a home at the University of Chicago. While at Chicago, Strauss and mathematician Albert Wohlstetter trained a number of students who themselves became, or whose students became important figures in the neoconservative movement. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz studied with Strauss protégé Allan Bloom, and earned his Ph.D. from the U of C in 1972. William Kristol, chairman of the currently influential conservative advocacy group the Project for a New American Century (PNAC), studied with Strauss student Harvey Mansfield. NSC southwest Asia specialist Zalmay Khalilzad earned his Ph.D. under Wohlstetter in 1979, 10 years after Ahmed Chalabi, the "man who would be king" of Iraq.

The most intriguing Strauss disciple in the Bush administration, however, may be Abram Shulsky. Shulsky earned both a master's and Ph.D. from Chicago just after Strauss left, but is notable in the current context for an essay published in 1999 that he wrote with fellow U of C alum and PNAC executive director, Gary Schmitt, titled "Leo Strauss and the World of Intelligence." Until March 2003 when the US and Britain invaded Iraq, Shulsky was director of the Defense Department's Office of Special plans. Dissatisfied with the analyses he was obtaining from the CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, and the State Department, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld established the OSP as a small working group "to search for information on Iraq's hostile intentions or links to terrorists," according to an October 2002 article in the NY Times. On July 25, former Dow Jones Newswires bureau chief Jason Leopold reported that several former CIA agents investigating prewar intelligence discovered that the OSP was responsible for "bulk of the intelligence information on Iraq’s weapons program that turned out to be wrong."

Strauss's Return

Leo Strauss was born September 20, 1899 and left Germany in 1932. He became a US citizen in 1944, and taught at the New School for Social Research from 1938 to 1949, the University of Chicago from 1949 to 1967, Claremont Men's College 1968 to 1969, and at St. John's College, Annapolis, MD from 1969 until his death in 1973. At the University of Chicago, with which he is now primarily identified, Strauss's classes regularly ran longer than the allotted 90 minutes, and were attended by at least as many auditors as enrolled students. A former student describes Strauss as a small man with a quiet voice who nonetheless exhibited a powerful intellect, and clearly enjoyed communicating his close readings of ancient and modern texts to students. Strauss's stated course topics were evenly divided among ancient Greek texts (primarily Plato and Aristotle), medieval texts (starting with Machiavelli), and general questions (such as "Natural Right.").

Notably, Strauss's final appearance in Chicago was not on campus, but at an adult education center where, according to George Anastaplo "he had more 'political' support than he evidently did by that time on campus." The U of C political science department, says Anastaplo, before and after Strauss's tenure did not emphasize a classical approach to political philosophy -- a characteristic shared with other major universities in the US. The predominant emphasis was instead "scientific," exemplified by a quote from Lord Kelvin that adorned the U of C Social Science Research building, "When you cannot measure, your knowledge is meager and unsatisfactory."

Strauss has been described as a "defender of the cause of philosophy, the cause of reason in the world ... an advocate of enlightenment and rationalism." One of Strauss's self-imposed tasks was to discover and communicate to the world what Plato's political philosophy is. In the introduction to his translation of Plato into English, Francis Cornford outlines the central problem of politics, "How can the state be so ordered as to place effective control in the hands of men who understand that you cannot make either an individual or a society happy by making them richer or more powerful than their neighbours?" But as long as knowledge is valued as the means to power, and power as the means to wealth, the ambitious and avaricious will seek positions of political leadership. The core of Plato's political philosophy, then, is a paradox, says Cornford:

... that the human race will never see the end of troubles until political power is entrusted to the lover of wisdom; who has learnt what makes life worth living, and who will "despise all existing honours as mean and worthless, caring only for the right and the honours to be gained from that, and above all for justice as the one indispensable thing in whose service and maintenance he will reorganize his own state."

Strauss's teachings and his students have had a significant influence on American politics. As has been widely publicized recently, the New York Times labeled Strauss the godfather of the 1994 Republican Party "Contract with America." But Laurence Lampert of Indiana University has made the point that Strauss "did not become a Straussian." In Lampert's view, Strauss was too much of a rigorous skeptic -- a seeker -- to have endorsed the popular appropriation of some of his teachings by his followers. In particular Lampert assert that Strauss "was not ultimately a loyalist to God and nation, because he was not ultimately a loyalist at all."

Strauss is generally regarded as an agnostic, but in a lecture on liberal education he asserted that "the act of understanding may be accompanied by the awareness of our understanding ... and this is so high, so pure, so noble an experience that Aristotle could ascribe it to God." There are radical implications to this assertion, however.

This experience is entirely independent of whether what we understand primarily is pleasing or displeasing, fair or ugly. It leads us to realize that all evils are in a sense necessary if there is to be understanding. It enables us to accept all evils which befall us and may well break our hearts in the spirit of good citizens of the city of God.

Lampert labels these statements essentially Platonism: "... insight into the goodness of the world even where the world offers the citizen only tragedy, tragedy masked perhaps by an impossible pampering comedy."

This view of the relationship of the philosophical life to the world links Strauss to Nietzsche, whose views Strauss publicly distanced himself from, while privately acknowledging their influence on his own thought. Strauss's ability to write on multiple levels is displayed in the last essay he wrote, which was on "Xenophon's Anabasis"
In Lampert's view, what appears to be Strauss's emphasis on Xenophon's piety and justice in fact highlights what is unusual about that piety and justice.

When invited by a friend to join the Greek force in the service of Persian emperor Cyrus, Xenophon is advised by Socrates to consult the Delphic oracle. But rather than ask whether he should go on the expedition or not, Xenophon asks to which gods he should offer sacrifice when he goes. This, according to Xenophon's own account, brings criticism from Socrates. Strauss, says Lampert, sees such behavior as illustrating Xenophon paying lip service to the gods, while doing as he pleases.

Similarly when Xenophon, an Athenian by birth, remained in the service of Athens' arch-rival, Sparta, Strauss reads this as resulting from "realistic self-interest," says Lampert, rather than abstract admiration of the Spartan way of life, as others had suggested. Strauss is writing, suggests Lampert, on a surface level that is accessible to most readers, and a second level that is accessible only to those who take the time to read closely and interpret writing in the context of an author's full corpus of work. Read in this way, Strauss is seen to advocate "the appearance of shared loyalties with believers in God and nation," a view consistent with his 1959 volume What Is Political Philosophy? in which he argues that moral virtues can only be understood in the context of their political function.

But this, says Lampert, is "Strauss's chosen rhetoric for philosophy" -- a rhetoric that "gave heart to a school of patriots in a land that took itself to be founded on what is almost literally an updated version of the lie of noble origins, even while it was committed to the pursuit of comfortable self-preservation in the best modern way."

Strauss and Nietzsche

Also rhetorical, argues Lampert, is Strauss's apparent opposition to Nietzsche. In a private letter to Heidegger disciple Karl Löwith, Strauss wrote, "Nietzsche so dominated and charmed me between my 22nd and 30th years that I literally believed everything I understood of him." Yet, the statement of Strauss's that has had the greatest influence on his followers' characterizations of Nietzsche appeared in the final paragraph of the first essay in What Is Political Philosophy?, which excoriates Nietzsche for having "prepared a regime which, as long as it lasted, made discredited democracy look again like the golden age...."

There are many reasons that Strauss might have wanted to distance himself publicly from Nietzsche's views. Nietzsche was essentially an elitist; the qualities he admired he believed were only possible for an aristocratic minority. Nietzsche advocated thinking of women as property, and objected to Christianity as "slave morality." He also opposed any kind of union among non-aristocrats, because such organizations might be able to overcome their individual weakness through collective action. Bertrand Russell has summarized Nietzsche's ethic as follows:

Victors in war, and their descendants, are usually biologically superior to the vanquished. It is therefore desirable that they should hold all the power, and should manage the affairs exclusively in their own interests.

Russell goes on to examine what "desirable" might mean in Nietzsche's philosophy, and concludes that, in the absence of an ethics based in a belief in God, Nietzsche's ethics can be reduced to:

If men will read my works, a certain percentage of them will come to share my desires as regards the organization of society; these men, inspired by the energy and determination which my philosophy will give them, can preserve and restore aristocracy, with themselves as aristocrats, or (like me) sycophants of aristocracy. In this way they will achieve a fuller life than they can have as servants of the people.

Russell notes that that recent history shows "the attempt to secure [Nietzsche's] ends will in fact secure something quite different." In the 20th century, Russell observes, hereditary aristocracies are on the decline, and the substitute has been organizations like the Fascist party in Italy and the Nazi party in Germany. If not defeated in war, Russell writes, "In such a community faith and honour are sapped by delation, and the would-be aristocracy of supermen degenerates into a clique of trembling poltroons." (In fairness to Nietzsche, it should be noted that he warned against German nationalism and anti-semitism in 1888.)

Russell concludes that he finds Nietzsche's philosophy, particularly the absence of sympathy, objectionable, but internally consistent, and confesses that he cannot prove that he is right "by any argument such as can be used in a mathematical or scientific question."

Lampert's interpretation of Strauss's 1959 diatribe against Nietzsche is as another instance of Strauss writing on multiple levels. Like with his essay on Xenophon, Strauss's surface condemnation is something of a facade. It is, in Lampert's words, "a descent to the people with an edifying message or an opinion to be held." One set of clues that Lampert sees are quotes and citations from Nietzsche in the early essay that can either not be found in Nietzsche's writing, or at least are not prominent. But more significant evidence is to be found in one of the last essays Strauss wrote, titled Note on the Plan of Nietzsche's 'Beyond Good and Evil', a work that illustrates how Nietzsche informed Strauss's view of Plato and political philosophy in general.

Central to Strauss's reading of Plato's Republic is the character of Thrasymachus. Thrasymachus was a real person -- a Sophist and teacher of rhetoric from Chalcedon. Rhetoric was regarded as the "the art of influencing public assemblies without any real knowledge of right and wrong," says Cornford. In Book I of the Republic, Thrasymachus argues vehemently that justice is merely the interests of the party in power. While initially rejecting Thrasymachus's point of view, Socrates eventually articulates a very similar position. Strauss characterizes it in this way: "The difference between Thrasymachus and Socrates is then merely this: according to Thrasymachus, justice is an unnecessary evil whereas according to Socrates it its a necessary evil." In other words, Thrasymachus reasoning was faulty, but his point of view carries the day.

When Thrasymachus reappears in Book V, he is no longer raging like a "wild beast," but votes with Socrates's other companions concerning the topics that will be taken up. Strauss notes that the companions are acting like a city, and Thrasymachus has become a citizen.

Bertrand Russell observes:

The difference between Plato and Thrasymachus is very important, but for the historian of philosophy it is one to be only noted, not decided. Plato thinks he can prove that his ideal Republic is good; a democrat who accepts the objectivity of ethics may think that he can prove the Republic bad; but anyone who agrees with Thrasymachus will say: "There is not question of proving or disproving; the only question is whether you like the kind of State that Plato desires".

Russell makes an explicit comparison to Nietzsche, noting that the Nietzschean hero and the Christian saint are both "impersonally admired." There is no way to decide between the two except by emotional appeals, or force, including military force. In the ethical realm there is nothing analogous to the scientific method. If this is the case, however, "ethical disputes resolve themselves into contests for power -- including propaganda power."

And it is apparently as a propagandist that Thrasymachus held the greatest appeal for Strauss. In Book V of the Republic when Thrasymachus reappears, Plato's Socrates has just told Adeimantus that the Sophists only teach "the beliefs and opinions expressed by the public itself." Anyone who makes choices based on public opinion will end up giving the public what it wants, but no one believes this to be the same as doing what is truly good, Socrates argues. Hence, he concludes, "the multitude can never be philosophical," and is bound to disapprove of philosophers.

Then, in a section titled "A Philosophic Ruler is Not an Impossibility," Socrates declares that he and Thrasymachus "have just become friends -- not that we were enemies before." Socrates has just proposed that, to avoid disaster, the state must not permit the public practice of philosophy, and in particular young people should not be exposed to it. Adeimantus thinks that Thrasymachus will oppose the idea, but Thrasymachus remains silent. Strauss's interpretation of this section is that Thrasymachus will persuade the public that philosophy is not harmful. "...[T]he rule of the wise will be a secret spiritual kingship mediated by the art of persuasion and its famous practitioner."

Yet, Strauss writes, "the Republic repeats, in order to overcome it, the error of the sophists regarding the power of speech." So although rhetoric is not as powerful as the sophists assert, it can nonetheless moderate the city's otherwise negative view of philosophy.

Strauss also relates Thrasymachus to Plato's discussion of poetry, which at the beginning of Book Ten Socrates says is to be banned from the ideal state. Like the sophist who moves the multitude by feeding back its own opinions, the poet "will go on with his work without knowing in what way any of his representations is sound or unsound. He must, apparently, be reproducing only what pleases the taste or wins approval of the multitude," Moreover, Plato's Socrates says, poetry (drama) encourages us to participate sympathetically with the experience of emotion that we would be ashamed of if we experienced them ourselves. "... [T]he poet ministers to the satisfaction of that very part of our nature whose instinctive hunger to have its fill of tears and misfortunes is forcibly restrained in the case of our own misfortunes," Socrates continues. "We can admit into our commonwealth only the poetry which celebrates the praises of the gods and of good men." Strauss refers to this as poets becoming "ministerial" to the philosopher kings. And "The greatest example of ministerial poetry is the Platonic dialogue."

Plato's Socrates supplies an example of "ministerial poetry." in the discussion of how the new rulers will be chosen. A crucial phrase in this section of the Republic is frequently translated the "noble lie." Cornford derides "noble lie" as "a self-contradictory expression no more applicable to Plato's harmless allegory than a New Testament parable." Pseudos, the Greek word sometimes translated "lie" Cornford argues is more appropriately "fiction," or here "invention." And for gennaion, sometimes translated "noble," Cornford argues the related Latin "generous" (as in large scale) is more appropriate in this context. So for "noble lie" Cornford reads "bold ... invention."

The bold invention is a story that Socrates proposes to convince the community is true. Building on the belief, common in Plato's time, that certain peoples originate in the earth, the story is that humans are all brothers, with the Earth as their mother. Differences in social roles are not due to education, however, which was "only something they seemed to experience, as it were, in a dream," but the result of different precious metals having been mixed in during their creation. Rulers (the philosopher kings), the story goes, were created with gold, "Auxiliaries" (administrators, soldiers, etc.) were created with silver, and farmers and craftsmen were created with iron and bronze. Cornford notes that the Rulers themselves are to accept the allegory, "It is not propaganda to be foisted on the masses by the Rulers."

But Strauss, like Nietzsche, Lampert writes, found in Plato a philosopher who distinguished between public pronouncements, which could appear to conform to popular opinion, and private views that were accessible only to the few who took the time to seek them. This tradition, known as esotericism, "flowed, in part, from the recognition that some truths are likely to do harm and that philosophy's social responsibility dictated that philosophy shelter society from the harmful truths", says Lampert. "[T]he truth is not attractive, lovable, life-giving, but deadly," Strauss wrote, paraphrasing Nietzsche.

The most serious criticism that Lampert levels at Strauss is that he "misjudged the power of modern virtue -- honesty or intellectual probity.... The post-Enlightenment intellectual world of science and scholarship has no place for a defense of noble lying; it questions both lying and the nobility of the lied for." Noting the ancient rumor that Plato wanted all of the physicist Democritus's books burned, Lampert faults Strauss for "unwisely" holding on to two Platonic delusions "just as their time was passing."

First: Does the public good always depend upon the public belief in just gods and immortal souls? When a public science has discredited such beliefs, and when the history of such beliefs, including contemporary history, testifies to their principled inhumanity, can it serve the interests of philosophy to make it seem that philosophy itself is tied to such beliefs, or even that philosophy's reasoned opposition to them leaves them standing in proud obstinacy, dumb with certainty. Second: Does the public good always depend upon public identification of one's own with one's people or nation? When a public science has discredited the grounds of such localism and provided a new basis for appreciating the unity of our species across space and time, and when history continues to testify to the dangers of such local loves and hates, can it serve the interests of philosophy to make it seem that philosophy itself is tied to such beliefs.

Strauss could not show his followers any way toward political responsibility except perpetuating a supposedly noble lying on behalf of views rendered both incredible and unpalatable by modern experience.

Strauss, Liberalism and Conservatism

Whether Lampert's criticism is valid or not, Strauss's impact on American intellectual life has been described as the largest academic movement in the twentieth century. His influence on American politics begins with his critique of liberal democracy, which he associated with the Weimar Republic -- the German parliamentary government created at the end of World War I. Hitler's Nazi party rose to dominance through democratic elections under the structure of the Weimar constitution. This, for Strauss, represented a practical working out of what Plato had warned of in his critique of democracy, namely that it leads to tyranny. The Athenian democracy that Plato criticized was not a representative government, but based on the principle that every adult male (nonslave, and not a foreigner) had a right to participate. Representatives were determined by lot. Plato faults democracy because it violates the principle embodied in the "bold invention," namely that not all men are fit to govern, and hence will tend to make decisions based on obtaining short term pleasure with no long term view.

Similarly Strauss faulted liberal society because it valued all preferences and beliefs equally. This, he worried, would create an emptiness at the core of society that would make it easy for a tyrant to seize control. Allan Bloom, perhaps Strauss's most famous student, has identified vestiges of Weimar in American culture. Bloom cites among other things, Louis Armstrong's rendition of "Mack the Knife" from Brecht's Threepenny Opera, the colloquial phrase "stay loose" which Bloom relates to Heidegger's "Gelassenheit", and the expression of German nihilism in cultural artifacts as diverse as Max Weber's value-free social science and the movies of Woody Allen.

Strauss critic Shadia Drury objects that the comparison of liberal democracy to Weimar is not fair, principally because "The political institutions established at Weimar after World War I were foreign to German culture." Missing were the elements of the liberal tradition valuing individual rights and freedoms, which tend to check the excesses of majority rule.

Strauss's critique of liberalism went beyond his distaste for democracy, however. He believed that liberalism devalued religious faith. Working in the largely liberal environment of American academia, Strauss was cautious in his criticism of liberalism, often targeting "modernity" instead.

"Modernity" is a perhaps intentionally ambiguous term. In everyday usage it refers simply to being "modern," but one definition of modern is a cultural style that rejects "traditionally accepted or sanctioned forms and emphasize[s] individual experimentation and sensibility." "Modern-ism" -- colloquially just "modern character, tendencies, or values," also refers to the movement in Roman Catholic thought that tries to reconcile church teachings with contemporary science.

But while modernity was often a stand-in for liberalism in Strauss's public statements, on one notable occasion he was direct in his indictment. In a commentary on a Jewish-Protestant Colloquium sponsored by the U of C Divinity School, Strauss wrote that believers in one religion could not respect believers of another without violating their own sense of truth. Hence, society cannot contain multiple religions, which in turn leads to the demise of all religions, and the rise of secularism and Strauss's chief bugaboo nihilism. (Philosophically, nihilism refers to an extreme form of skepticism that denies all real existence or the possibility of an objective basis for truth.)

Some of Strauss's followers like to claim that liberalism is based on nihilism. Drury faults that characterization, pointing to John Locke, who believed that liberty was a natural right, and John Stuart Mill who believed that the truth can only emerge where there is freedom. Drury suggests that the Straussians are confusing liberal skepticism about politics with skepticism in general. "For the sake of truth, liberals reject the imposition by those in power of a single and indisputable reality," she writes. This conflicts with the Straussian view that society requires orthodoxy.

Drury notes that Strauss's criticism of liberalism is not because he thinks it will fail, but because he fears it will succeed. Characterizing Strauss's political assumptions, she writes, "If a political society is to hold together and function as a unit, it must have a shared set of truths that are inculcated by one religion or another." In this view it is religion that lends authority to the social order, and inspires citizens to defend it.

The Straussian conservative does not believe that tradition as embodied in the fabric of society is the product of the "wisdom of the ages," but with Nietzsche believes that tradition is the conscious creation of philosophers. This view conflicts with the liberal attempt to base society on secular rational foundations. Strauss, says Drury, believes that individual self-interest will always conflict with what is best for society, and that religion is necessary to camouflage the conflict. From this perspective belief in a god who will punish the wicked and reward the righteous is necessary to coerce individuals into sacrificing themselves. Moreover, Strauss does not believe that the existence of such a god can be established by philosophy, hence the need for religion. Drury disputes Strauss's notion of the political utility of religion, noting that even members of ostensibly the same religion can disagree about its meaning. Further, she observes, religion is equally likely to inspire civil disobedience as it is to lull citizens into complacency.

The United States began as a revolution against what Drury calls "the aristocratic and authoritarian model of European society." Can there be an American conservatism consistent with that heritage, she asks. Followers of Strauss have tended to respond to this challenge by reinterpreting the intentions of the nation's founders, revisiting the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Federalist papers, looking for evidence that the country is not modern and liberal, but conservative and ancient. But while Straussians can be found on both sides of that question, all agree that liberalism must be curbed. This is to be accomplished by "creating a wedge between liberalism and democracy," says Drury. In the same way that factions were able to assume political control in the Weimar Republic, an elite is to be created in the midst of liberal democracy. Noting that elitism can be found in liberal as well as conservative thought, Drury voices alarm that the so-called conservatives who claim to follow Strauss, do not believe, as traditional conservatives do, that those born to advantage "owe a debt to the society that has provided them with these privileges " (noblesse oblige). Instead they delude themselves, she says, into thinking that their privileges are a natural right, and that they owe nothing to the less advantaged members of society. "Strauss has contributed a great deal to the development of an elite that is intoxicated with its own self-admiration," she writes.

The Leo-Cons

Irving Kristol, whose ideas by some accounts have become "dominant ideology of the Republican party" has written that Leo Strauss was one of two principal influences on his thought. Kristol credits socialist Michael Harrington with originating the term neoconservative, although Harrington claims he was not the first to use it. Kristol helped spread usage of the term, applying it to his own point of view, and that of like-minded colleagues. Many of the important features of neoconservative ideology can be found in the work of Leo Strauss: emphasis on religion and nationalism, deprecation of liberalism and belief in its relation to nihilism, interest in the role of intellectuals in political life, and a preference for democracy over liberalism.

Traditional conservatism values moderation and resists change. Among the characteristics of its political ideal are hierarchy, order, shared values, and mutual concern. Drury suggests that "feudal society in the Middle Ages came closest to actualizing this ideal." Classical conservatism arose when liberal ideas inspired revolutions against a privileged aristocracy in the 17th and 18th centuries. This kind of conservatism did not fit the American experience because its history did not include the overturning of a feudal culture. Drury notes that some Southerners held on to the illusion that their social order embodied the conservative ideal -- an illusion whose reconciliation with the realities of serfdom was difficult, and with slavery, impossible.

Kristol claims that his new conservatism does not share the old right's nostalgia for an aristocratic society. In fact, he claims to celebrate bourgeois economics. Kristol believes that bourgeois society is so egalitarian that the distribution of income in America parallels the distribution of natural abilities among the population. Drury objects that this makes a false distinction between the bourgeois ethos and capitalist economics. While capitalism may reward talent and hard work, "its greatest rewards are linked to daring, risk, and luck." Separating bourgeois ethos from capitalist reality creates a Straussian "pious fraud," i.e. like the "noble lie" a fiction told by philosophers to the public to align the appearance of philosophy with public taste. Second, Drury complains, the liberal dimension of the capitalist world was part of its appeal. Its work ethic was not connected to resigning oneself to one's fate, but rather being self-reliant and an individualist. Thus, argues Drury, neoconservatism is really celebrating corporate capitalism, which is consistent with a hierarchical view of life.

In 1983 Kristol wrote:

Patriotism springs from love of the nation's past; nationalism arises out of hope for the nation's future, distinctive greatness.... Neoconservatives believe ... that the goals of American foreign policy must go well beyond a narrow, too literal definition of 'national security.' It is in the national interest of a world power, as this is defined by a sense of national destiny, ... not a myopic national security.
--"Reflections of a Neoconservative"

Drury derides this view of foreign policy as "not conservative or defensive, but radical and aggressive," adding that it is belligerent. For Kristol and Strauss, borrowing from Machiavelli, a common enemy and the threat of annihilation are necessary to unite a people.

Practical Straussianism?

The current skepticism in the mainstream media, the Congress, and increasingly the public over the justifications used by the Bush administration to initiate the ground war in Iraq occurs at the junction of a neoconservative approach to foreign policy and the practical implementation of Strauss's distinction between public and private truths. In May 2003 the New Yorker's Seymour Hersh examined the OSP -- a small group of policy advisers in the Defense Department. "These advisers and analysts, who began their work in the days after September 11, 2001, have produced a skein of intelligence reviews that have helped to shape public opinion and American policy toward Iraq," Hersh wrote. The workings of the Office of Special Plans read like a University of Chicago seminar, if not a Straussian "lab" project. The group was conceived by Paul Wolfowitz, now Deputy Secretary of Defense, a U of C product and student of Strauss protég&eacute Allan Bloom. The office's director is Strauss devotee, Abram Shulsky. U of C alum Ahmed Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress were key resources for the group.

Also in the OSP is retired Navy Captain William Luti, who in April 2002 was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs, but is referred to by Hersh as Under-Secretary of Defense. Following the terrorist attacks of September 2001 Luti was among those who advocated that a policy paper justifying military response should make the case that Iraq was involved. Luti was also among a small number of US officials dispatched to London in December 2002 to monitor a conference of Iraqi exile groups.

But it was Shulsky, according a Luti staffer interviewed by Hersh, who was "carrying the heaviest part." Shulsky is an academic expert on intelligence and foreign policy matters. Shulsky was at one time an aide to Senator Henry M. Jackson of Washington, and later Senator Patrick Moynihan of New York. Richard Perle was also a former Jackson aide, and when Perle became Secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration, Shulsky went with him.

In 1985 and 1986 Shulsky received grants from the conservative John M. Olin Foundation, through the National Strategy Information Center (NSIC), to write a book on intelligence and national security. (Among the founding directors of NSIC was "Poppy" Bush's brother, Prescott, Jr.) Roy R. Godson, director of NSIC's Washington office (and son of Joseph Godson who for many years served as the labor attaché at the US embassy in London and is considered by some observers to have been a spy) is a longtime associate of Shulsky's. Godson now teaches government at Georgetown University, and is head of the Consortium for the Study of Intelligence, a project of NSIC on which Gary Schmitt, now executive director of the Project for the New American Century, served. Schmitt and Shulsky co-authored the essay applying Strauss's thought to intelligence work mentioned above, and the textbook on intelligence sponsored by the Olin foundation, titled Silent Warfare. (PNAC Chairman is William Kristol, son of Strauss adherent Irving Kristol whose views we discuss above, and student of Strauss disciple Harvey Mansfield.)

Seymour Hersh reported that the Luti staffer he interviewed was explicit about the role of the OSP. It was to "find evidence of what Wolfowitz and his boss, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, believed to be true-that Saddam Hussein had close ties to Al Qaeda, and that Iraq had an enormous arsenal of chemical, biological, and possibly even nuclear weapons that threatened the region and, potentially, the United States." These were points of view for which existing US intelligence organizations had found little or no supporting data.

The assignment fit Shulsky perfectly. Hersh noted that during the Cold War, Shulsky's expertise was in Soviet disinformation techniques. The 1996 Snyder Commission Report, prepared by the school of international affairs at Princeton, refers to Shulsky's advocacy of "competitive analysis and institutionalized devil's advocacy, along with intellectual reform in the field of intelligence analysis." The report cautions that project-based analysis with competing teams "has not proven popular with intelligence professionals," and "is far from efficient," while "Institutionalized devil's advocacy is also impractical the term itself is probably oxymoronic."

In Silent Warfare: Understanding the World of Intelligence Shulsky and Witt pooh-poohed the notion that intelligence should be independent of policy.

...[O]nce a policy is chosen, the arguments against it must be largely ignored. Attempts to reargue the basic policy question whenever a tactical decision must be made or to reorient the policy in response to each new piece of intelligence can only lead to a weak, confuse, vacillating, and ultimately ineffective policy.

Shulsky and Witt argued that the intelligence analyst's view that a policy maker's "attachment to a policy leads him or her to ignore or to try to distort or suppress relevant information" is not necessarily rational.

...[T]he probability that the policy maker is right -- that his judgment will be superior to that of the intelligence analyst -- is not necessarily small....Thus, in the absence of a particular piece of secret information, or of a specialized method of analysis, the intelligence analysts's judgment often does not have any special entitlement to be accepted over the judgment of anyone else.

The concern for intelligence independence is characteristic of the American system, Shulsky and Witt wrote, but less so that of other countries. In the UK, for instance, they claimed, "policy makers' own expertise can be brought into the estimative process." The authors also indicted the community of intelligence analysts for refusing to cooperate in implementing policies they do not support. As an example they cited the CIA's response to Alexander Haig's assertion while serving as Richard Nixon's Secretary of State, that the Soviet Union was behind international terrorism. Quoting former CIA director Robert Gates, Shulksy noted that the CIA attempted to prove that the Soviet Union was not the sponsor of all international terrorism.

If intelligence concentrates too much on its (admittedly necessary) adversarial role (such as would be involved in reviewing ongoing policies), it becomes all the more difficult for it to support the actual implementation of policy. In a supportive role, intelligence must concentrate its efforts on finding and analyzing information relevant to implementing the policy.

On July 12, Knight-Ridder papers reported that despite their extensive efforts to justify military action in Iraq, OSP had no plan for the post-war period. An eight-month long effort by the State Department, labeled the "Future of Iraq" project, which had consulted dozens of Iraqi exiles and 17 government agencies in developing plans for everything from judicial code to environmental protection, was ignored. Instead, according to government officials interviewed for the Knight-Ridder report, "The Pentagon group insisted on doing things its way because it had a visionary strategy that it hoped would transform Iraq into an ally of Israel, remove a potential threat to the Persian Gulf oil trade and encircle Iran with U.S. allies." Consistent with Shulsky's theoretical writings, when State Department and CIA officials objected that the plan was impractical, they were simply ignored.

U of C alum and convicted embezzler Ahmed Chalabi figures prominently in OSP efforts to justify the war, and in their postwar vision. According to the Knight-Ridder report, the OSP was convinced that Iraqis would welcome US forces (a view Chalabi voiced often to US media), and that Chalabi would assume power. Responding to the Knight-Ridder report, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas J. Feith denied that OSP wanted to put Chalabi in charge, but the plan was confirmed by former Defense Policy Board chair Richard Perle, in an interview.

Jason Leopold's July 25 exposé of the OSP reported that the group leaked to the New York Times information that Iraq's attempt to purchase aluminum tubes last year was part of a nuclear weapons program. In public statements Bush and National Security adviser Rice both referenced the Times story as evidence of the Iraqi threat to the US. OSP also attempted to document links between al-Qaeda and the Iraqi government, but when the OSP presented their findings to the CIA, the CIA did not change their assessment that no significant links existed. According to the agents who spoke to Leopold, the OSP also "routinely rewrote the CIA’s intelligence estimates on Iraq’s weapons programs," removing qualifiers such as "probably" or "likely," in order to exaggerate the appearance of an imminent threat.

Ironically, as Hersh noted, Shulsky's book warned of relying on defectors to provide intelligence because "it is difficult to be certain that they are genuine...." While they can provide unique insight, Shulsky and Witt write, they "may be greedy; they may also be somewhat unbalanced people who wish to bring some excitement into their lives; they may desire to avenge what they see as ill treatment by their government; or they may be subject to blackmail." As an example Shulsky cited conflicting information provided to the US by Soviet defectors, which is still being sorted out. One of Strauss's philosophical forbears warned of the dangers of relying on information from exiles. Chapter 31 of Machiavelli's Discourses is titled "How Dangerous It Is to Believe Exiles."

When Alexander the Great passed over into Asia with his army, Alexander of Epirus, his brother-in-law and uncle, came with his men into Italy, called there by the exiled Lucianians, who led him to believe that he could take possession of that country with their assistance. Whereupon, on the basis of their word and in that hope, he came into Italy and was killed by them after their fellow citizens promised to take them back into their native city....Therefore a prince should be slow to undertake actions based upon the report of an exiled man, for in most cases he will either end up in shame or suffer grave damage.

Defectors and exiles identified to OSP by Chalabi were channeled to reporters in the US and Europe. In October 2001 a former Iraqi army captain told the Times and PBS Frontline that the September 11 attack "was conducted by people who were trained by Saddam." Another defector, identified as a retired member of the Iraqi intelligence service, said that in 2000 he had witnessed Arab students being given hijacking lessons on a Boeing 707 at an Iraqi training camp near Salman Pak. A former CIA station chief and a former military intelligence analyst confirmed independently to Hersh that the Salman Pak camp was a training facility not for terrorism but for counter-terrorism. The camp was apparently established in the late 1980s with the assistance of Britain's MI6. Acknowledging that the camp could have in theory had a dual capability, the CIA official nonetheless asserted that terrorists would not train in the open. "That's Hollywood rinky-dink stuff," he told Hersh. "They train in basements. You don't need a real airplane to practice hijacking. The 9/11 terrorists went to gyms. But to take one back you have to practice on the real thing." The Salman Pak camp was occupied by US troops on April 6, 2003. No evidence of biological weapons or terrorist training facilities has been reported.

Another dubious source was Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri, a civil engineer who fled Iraq in 2001. Al-Haideri claimed to know the whereabouts of WMD production sites, including one under a Baghdad hospital. When UN teams returned to Iraq in the winter of 2002 they were unable to verify any of al-Haideri's claims. The hospital site al-Haideri identified was examined with ground-penetrating radar. "No underground facilities for chemical or biological production or storage were found so far,"l chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix told the UN in March 2003.

As noted above, by one account the OSP was closed down following the invasion of Iraq. Whether that is true or not, as the Guardian reported in May, "Since the office's claims have so far not been backed by facts, its credibility looks damaged." And Jason Leopold's exposé suggests the OSP may face continued scrutiny as Congressional into prewar intelligence continue.

Noble Lies or Genealogy of Morals

At first glance it's something of a leap from esoteric philosophy to the halls of the Pentagon. On the other hand, commenting on the annual 4th of July gathering of Straussians, the Economist observed, where but in Washington DC "could 60 Plato-worshipping politicos and academics have a picnic?" Seymour Hersh wrote of the "deep theoretical underpinnings" of Shulsky's work. One can only speculate to what extent Shulsky might have identified with the philosopher who publicly advocates his "inventions," or fictions, privately espousing the belief that truth is fabrication and justice is "doing good to friends and evil to enemies," in Drury's words. As Bertrand Russell observed was the case with Nietzsche, the attempt to secure Strauss's ends may in fact result in something quite different. Shadia Drury's indictment is harsh:

In truth the education Strauss and Bloom espouse is little more than a blind adherence to a doctrine whose secrecy shields it from scrutiny and criticism. When ideas are inculcated by whispering to boys in corners, the result is not just corruption, but stupidity. I contend that the pernicious influence of Leo Strauss has its source in the kind of elite he cultivates -- an elite that is not fit for power because it is neither wise nor good. It is not wise because it cannot defend its beliefs before the tribunal of reason; it preaches only to the converted. It is not good because it is a manipulative elite that eschews the truth in favor of lies and deceptions, and because it exempts itself from the moral standard it imposes on others -- and this is the road to tyranny.

"The true impact of all these Straussians walking the corridors of power is not really to do with telling noble fibs in diplomacy; it has to do with domestic policy," wrote the Economist. While the Republican party of Newt Gingrich may have wanted (or may still want) want to behead government, the party of George Bush "has no qualms about using big government to improve people's behaviour." "American conservatism has shifted its focus from liberty to virtue."


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