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March 14, 2006

The politics of terrorism-2: The origins of the neoconservatives

Yesterday, I discussed how the BBC documentary The rise of the politics of fear traced the origins of al Qaida to the influence of an Islamic scholar Syed Qutb.

Meanwhile, in the US, there was a cult brewing around a University of Chicago professor of political philosophy by the name of Leo Strauss (1899-1973). That ideology has now come to be called neoconservatism. Strauss and his neoconservative disciples (which include Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Irving Kristol, John Bolton, Richard Perle, William Kristol, Michael Ledeen, and others) were people who felt, like Qutb, that US society was decadent and losing its moral strength.

The Straussians felt that it was necessary for America to develop a positive image of itself, to see itself as the ultimate force for good in the world and its role as spreading its influence over the entire world, by force if necessary. They were fundamentally elitist, seeing people as the "masses" to be led, sometimes in spite of themselves. They believed that people needed "grand myths" in order to be persuaded to take serious actions like war, and they did not hesitate to manufacture them when necessary. For America, the "grand myth" they propagandized was the idea that Americans were a good and chosen people, under siege from dark forces from within and without, with a mission to convert the world to its own way of life.

In order to mobilize the people in this way, the neoconservative movement needed a grand enemy. It is hard to mobilize people for war and conquest unless they feel threatened by a darkly evil force. As Nazi Reichsmarshall and Luftwaffe-Chief under Hitler Hermann Goering famously said: "The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country." (Nuremberg Diary by Gustave Gilbert, Farrar, Straus and Company, 1947, pp. 278-279.)

So grand enemies were created. At first, Communism and the Soviet Union served this purpose and was the enemy and from the 1950s onwards. The strength of the Soviet Union and the world Communist movement was consistently overestimated and its motives were consistently questioned, all leading to a feeling of paranoia at home. This paranoia enabled the US to create a huge military machine. But while the neoconservatives gained some influence in government, especially during the second Reagan administration, they did not actually seize the reins or power.

Ray McGovern, who served as a CIA analyst for 27 years from the administration of John F. Kennedy to that of George H. W. Bush and who, during the early 1980s, was one of the writers/editors of the President's Daily Brief and briefed it one-on-one to the president's most senior advisers, said that President George H. W. Bush kept the neoconservatives at arm's length, because he knew how dangerous they were. In fact, the neoconservatives were known among political insiders as "the crazies." McGovern writes:

During his term in office, George H. W. Bush, with the practical advice of his national security adviser Gen. Brent Scowcroft and Secretary of State James Baker, was able to keep "the crazies" at arms length, preventing them from getting the country into serious trouble. They were kept well below the level of "principal" -- that is, below the level of secretary of state or defense.

The neoconservatives are so rabid in their expansionist ambitions that they even considered Henry Kissinger (one of the key architects of the vicious bombing of Vietnam and Cambodia, and who supported vicious dictators like General Suharto in Indonesia and General Pinochet in Chile as they murdered thousands) as too moderate and someone who had to be elbowed aside. "Crazies" seems like a good name for them.

The neoconservatives ambitions were finally fully realized in 2000 with the election of George W. Bush, where they now had a pliant president. Now they were in charge of the major policy decisions and set about fulfilling their dreams.

In order to consolidate their power and extend their influence over American politics, the neoconservatives made a tacit alliance with Christian fundamentalists, using the enticing idea of America being God's favorite country, specially chosen to carry out its mission of being a civilizing force in the world. Conveniently, this tied in with the neoconservatives' military and political goals of overthrowing other countries, especially those in the middle east.

This alliance also marked a shift in American religious fundamentalism, from a movement that had shunned involvement in electoral politics as being not worthy of people whose ultimate interest is life after death and whose goal is heaven, to one that became intensely involved with politics, seeking to have its moral perspectives become the law of the land.

This merging of fundamentalist Christian religion with a geopolitical neoconservative worldview is portrayed in the documentary as being in parallel with the Islamic fundamentalists seeking to embed their religious perspective into the political framework and impose their moral code as the laws of the Islamic countries.

Meanwhile, the Soviet Union ceased to exist as an equal superpower with the US. The documentary argues that the fundamental cause was internal, that the Soviet Union simply was a failed state, unable to deliver the goods to its people, but the actual collapse was partly triggered by its defeat in Afghanistan in 1989 at the hands of the US backed Islamic fundamentalists. The collapse of the Soviet Union, while hailed as a victory by both the US and the Islamic fundamentalists who battled them in Afghanistan, left the US neoconservatives without a grand evil enemy with which to frighten the US public and thus get them to agree to the their global strategy of spreading democracy by force all over the world.

But the rise of al Qaida provided that new enemy. The BBC documentary argues that while the attacks of September 11, 2001 were spectacular in the manner and level of destruction they caused, they were not a sign of wide support and deep strength. But by constantly harping on al Qaida as if it were some giant malevolent and dangerous foe, the current US administration, along with the Blair government in the UK, has managed to recreate a level of fear that exceeds perhaps even that which existed during the cold war, thus enabling them to mobilize public support to systematically attack countries like Iraq, and keep Iran and Syria in its target sights. In addition, it has enabled them to also undermine civil liberties at home, and create a climate where anything (indefinite and arbitrary detention, torture, murder, kidnapping) are considered acceptable.

The neoconservative movement sees as its goal the use of force to overthrow real and perceived enemies of the US. They see themselves as being the vanguard, the people who really understand the world and of America's destiny to be its leader, and to use its military power to establish the new world order.

To be continued. . .

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Comments

"Meanwhile, in the US, there was a cult brewing around a University of Chicago professor of political philosophy by the name of Leo Strauss (1899-1973)."

Yes, a cult of people devoted studying Plato, Aristotle, Al Farabi, Hobbes, etc. There is no simple or direct connection between the study of such figures and U.S. foreign policy.

"That ideology has now come to be called the neoconservatism."

Those orginally labelled "neoconservative" -- James Q. Wilson, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Daniel Bell, among others, simply had no connection to Leo Strauss. Only Irving Kristol claims to have been influenced by Strauss and that was from reading on of his books. Even if there is something like "neoconservatism," Strauss's views are just on of many influences and by no means the most important.

"Strauss and his neoconservative disciples (which include Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Irving Kristol, John Bolton, Richard Perle, William Kristol, Michael Ledeen, and others) were people who felt, like Qutb, that US society was decadent and losing its moral strength."

Don Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney first served in the Nixon White House. Neither has any connection to Leo Strauss. Nor in fact do John Bolton or Richard Perle. Kristol never studied under Strauss, but claims to have been influenced by his ideas from reading one of his books. His son, Bill, studied under Harvey Mansfield who claims to have been influenced by Strauss (as does Bill). Bill served briefly as an advisor to Dan Quayle, but otherwise, like his father, he has not held a government position. Only Wolfowitz ever took courses from Strauss, one on Plato's "Laws" and another on Montesquieu's "Spirit of the Laws." When asked by Eric Alterman if he considered himself a "Straussian," Wolfowitz dismissed such speculation as nonsense. There are many counter examples of Straussians who oppose the Bush administration including William Galston, Michael Zuckert and George Anastoplo.

The claim that there is a cabal of Straussians guiding the Bush administration is a myth. The "Power of Nightmares" is a neatly produced piece of propaganda supporting that myth. The keenness of your mind has been dulled by wallowing nonsense. I pity you as I would the village idiot.

Posted by Sarah on March 14, 2006 12:17 PM