Strauss and Bolton
By Crispin Sartwell
Whether or not, as reported, John Bolton chases people through
hotels throwing things at them (which I think would be an asset or indeed a
necessity for a UN ambassador), he certainly is dedicated to overstating the
threats of mass destruction posed by "rogue states" such as Cuba,
Syria, and Saddam's Iraq.
Indeed, Bolton's entire function in the first
George W. Bush administration seems to have been exaggerating or manufacturing
threats, and one wonders what evils, under his aegis, the "intelligence"
community might have associated with Djibouti or Bhutan.
Be this as it may, the idea of manipulating
policy and public opinion through deception is perhaps the central feature of
the political philosophy with which such architects of administration policy as
Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Stephen Cambone, Elliot Abrams, and Adam Shulsky
are associated. I refer to "Straussianism": the thought of
German/American philosopher Leo Strauss. All of these figures were students of
Strauss (who died in 1972) or of his students.
Bolton's own function seems to have been as a
kind of hatchet man for the Straussian thinkers in the administration
Before I give a sketch of Strauss's philosophy,
let me issue a disclaimer: Strauss is a difficult thinker, and according to his
own philosophy he might have meant the opposite of what he actually said (a
disconcerting and irritating idea to say the least). Great philosophical texts,
for Strauss, have an "exoteric" meaning - a direct interpretation of
what they say, aimed at the common reader - and an "esoteric" meaning
available only to an elite of highly trained intellectuals.
Strauss held that the world should be run by
such intellectuals, inheritors of the grand Western tradition as it existed
previously to such aberrations as democracy and tolerance.
Plato is the Straussians' model and hero, though
Strauss unsurprisingly thought that Plato's dialogues said the opposite of what
they meant. But Plato, in the Republic, argued that the state should be
governed by a group of philosopher-kings who would manipulate the common rabble
through systematic lies. Of course they'd do this for the good of the rabble
I would think the Republican Straussians have
done about as thorough a job of implementing this noble program as is possible
under present conditions. For example, fundamentalist Christianity as a central
governing motif is the very model of a Straussian exoteric text: it's a
strategy for re-instituting absolute values by which the people can be
controlled, though no self-respecting Straussian would take it seriously as a
body of doctrine.
On the other hand, the new German pope, with his "dictatorship
of relativism" seems to have Straussian proclivities.
George W. Bush himself is no Straussian, and perhaps
he's the First Victim: the instrument under whose folksy tutelage the rest of
us are brought to heel
With the possible exception of the Nixon
and Johnson administrations, the Bush administration is the most secretive,
dishonest, and manipulative in American history. The difference, if any, is
that the Nixon and Johnson administrations did not actually have a coherent
philosophy according to which lying was a moral obligation.
In its remarkable perversity, Straussianism is
an interesting philosophy, but let me list some of what I regard as its little
is almost nothing but a pure form of self-congratulation. Strauss and his
followers have erected an astonishing edifice of historical interpretation all
dedicated to a single proposition: we are smarter than you. Straussianism is
soaked in arrogance and profound insecurity.
idea that rulers must govern by publicly promulgated laws, known judges, and
public proceedings is associated with the philosophy of John Locke: the great
intellectual hero of the founders of the American republic, a pernicious,
decadent fool according to Strauss. The actual way the administration conducts
itself for example, its quaint notion that it can imprison people without
charge, trial, or representation of any kind makes you wonder whether all the
talk about democracy is strictly exoteric.
(3) As one uses falsehood to wield
power one becomes not only a liar (although an extremely intelligent liar
superior to people simple-minded enough to regard honesty as a virtue) but
unaccountable to anyone for the policies one then goes on to formulate. In
other words, abuse of power is built into the intellectual structure at its
Perhaps the next wave of American rulers
will be deconstructionists or post-impressionists or equestrians. Until then,
keep your nose to the grindstone and your fingers in your ears.
Crispin Sartwell teaches
political philosophy at Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA.