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Alain Frachon and Daniel Vernet
Who are these neoconservatives playing an essential role in the U.S. president's choices, along with fundamentalist Christians? And who were the thinkers who inspired them, Albert Wohlstetter and Leo Strauss?
It was said in a tone of sincere praise: "You are some of the best brains in our country"; so good, George W. Bush added, that "my government employs about twenty of you." The president was speaking on February 26 to the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. (Le Monde, March 20)
He was paying homage to a think tank that is one of the bastions of the American neoconservative movement. He was saluting a school of thought that is marking his presidency, and he was stating how much he owes to an intellectual current which is today a predominant influence. He was taking note of the fact that he was surrounded by neoconservatives, and crediting them with a central role in his political decisions.
At the beginning of the 1960s, John F. Kennedy recruited some left-of-center professors, notably at Harvard University, chosen from among "the best and the brightest," to use author David Halberstam's phrase. President George W. Bush, for his part, has chosen to govern with those who have been in revolt since the 1960s against the centrist, mostly Social Democratic consensus that was dominant then.
Who are they? What is their history? Who were their leading intellectual influences? Where are the intellectual origins of Bushite neoconservatism to be found?
The neoconservatives must not be confused with the fundamentalist Christians who are also to be found in George W. Bush's entourage. They have nothing to do with fundamentalist Protestantism's renaissance, which comes from the southern Bible Belt, and is one of the growing forces in the Republican Party of today. Neoconservatism comes from the East Coast, and also to some extent from California. Its instigators have an "intellectual," often New York, often Jewish, profile, and often began on the left. Some of them still call themselves Democrats. They carry around literary or political magazines, not the Bible; they wear tweed jackets, not the petrol blue suits of southern televangelists. Most of the time, they profess liberal ideas on social and moral questions. They are trying neither to ban abortion nor to impose school prayer. Their ambition lies somewhere else.
But, explains Pierre Hassner, what is singular about the Bush administration is that it has achieved the fusion of these two currents. George W. Bush causes neoconservatives and Christian fundamentalists to make common cause. The fundamentalists are represented in his government by a man like John Ashcroft, the Attorney General; the neoconservatives have one of their stars as assistant secretary of defense, Paul Wolfowitz. George W. Bush, who campaigned just right of center, with no very precise political ties, has concocted an astonishing -- and explosive -- ideological cocktail, marrying Wolfowitz and Ashcroft, neoconservatives and Christian fundamentalists, two opposite worlds.
Ashcroft taught at Bob Jones University in South Carolina, academically unknown but a stronghold of Protestant fundamentalism. Positions bordering on anti-Semitism were common there. Jewish and from an academic family, Wolfowitz is a brilliant product of Eastern universities; he studied with two of the most eminent professors of the 1960s, Allan Bloom, who was the disciple of Leo Strauss, the Jewish philosopher of German origins, and Albert Wohlstetter, professor of mathematics and a specialist in military strategy. These are two names that will count. The neoconservatives have placed themselves in the tutelary shadow of the strategist and the philosopher.
Inappropriately named, they also have nothing about them of people whose aim is to conserve the established order. They reject just about all the attributes of political conservatism as this is understood in Europe. One of them, Francis Fukuyama, who made a name for himself with his essay The End of History, says: "The neoconservatives have no interest whatever in defending the order of things as they are, founded on hierarchy, tradition, and a pessimistic view of human nature." (Wall Street Journal, Dec. 24, 2002)
Idealistic and optimistic, convinced of the universal value of the American democratic model, they want to put an end to the status quo and its limp consensus. They believe in politics for the sake of changing things. On the domestic front, they sketch out a critique of the welfare state, the product of Democratic presidents (Kennedy, Johnson) as well as a Republican president (Nixon), which is struggling to cope with social problems. In foreign affairs, they denounced détente in the 1970s, which, according to them, benefited the USSR more than the West. As critics of the accomplishments of "the sixties" and opposed to the diplomatic realism of a Henry Kissinger, they are anti-establishment. Irving Kristol and Norman Podheretz, the founder of the magazine Commentary, are two of the New York godfathers of neoconservatism, and come from the left. They once drew up a leftist bill of indictment of Soviet communism.
In Ni Marx ni Jésus [Neither Marx nor Jesus] (1970, Robert Laffont), Jean-François Revel offered a description of an America caught up in the tumultuous social revolution of the 1960s. Today, he explains neoconservatism as a sort of backlash. Above all on the domestic front. In the wake of Leo Strauss, the neoconservatives criticize the moral and cultural relativism of the 1960s. For them, relativism leads to the "political correctness" of the 1980s.
There is another intellectual of the first rank who is directing the battle here, Allan Bloom, of the University of Chicago, who was portrayed by his friend Saul Bellow in his novel Ravelstein (Gallimard, 2002). In 1987, in The Closing of the American Mind (translated into French under the title L'Ame désarmée [The Helpless Soul]), Bloom skewers university milieux where everything is equated: "Everything has become culture," he writes; "drug culture, rock culture, street gang culture, and so on, without the slightest discrimination. The failure of culture has become a culture." [Reverse translation from French]
For Bloom, a great interpreter of classic texts like his master Strauss before him, one part of the heritage of the 1960s "leads to a scorn for Western civilization in itself," explains Jean-François Revel. "In the name of the politically correct, every culture is as good as every other culture and Bloom wonders about those students and professors who are perfectly willing to accept non-European cultures that are often hostile to freedoms and that show at the same time an extreme harshness toward Western culture, refusing to admit that it is superior in any way."
While "politically correctness" was seeming to hold sway, the neoconservatives were scoring points. Bloom's book was an enormous success. In foreign affairs, a veritable neoconservative school took form. Networks grew up. In the 1970s, a Democratic senator from the state of Washington, Henry Jackson (who died in 1983), criticized the grand treaties of nuclear disarmament. He prepared at that time a generation of young strategists, among them Richard Perle and William Kristol, who took Allan Bloom's courses.
In and out of the administration, Richard Perle met up with Paul Wolfowitz, since both of them worked for Kenneth Adelman, another critic of the politics of détente, and Charles Fairbanks, under secretary of state. In strategic matters, they looked to Albert Wohlstetter. A Rand Corporation researcher and Pentagon consultant, as well as a great specialist in gastronomy, Wohlstetter (who died in 1997) was one of the fathers of American nuclear doctrine.
More precisely, he was at the origin of the rethinking of the traditional doctrine known as "mutual assured destruction" (MAD, in its English acronym), which was the basis for deterrence. According to this theory, two blocs capable of inflicting upon each other irreparable damages would cause leaders to hesitate to unleash the nuclear fire. For Wohlstetter and his pupils, MAD was both immoral -- because of the destruction inflicted on civilian populations -- and ineffective: it led to the mutual neutralization of nuclear arsenals. No statesman endowed with reason, and in any case no American president, would decide on "reciprocal suicide." Wohlstetter proposed on the contrary a "graduated deterrence," i.e. the acceptance of limited wars, possibly using tactical nuclear arms, together with "smart" precision-guided weapons capable of hitting the enemy's military apparatus.
He criticized the politics of nuclear arms limitations conducted together with Moscow. It amounted, according to him, to constraining the technological creativity of the United States in order to maintain an artificial equilibrium with the USSR.
Ronald Reagan listened to him, and launched the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), dubbed "Star Wars," which is the ancestor of the anti-missile defense taken up by Wohlstetter's pupils. These individuals are the most enthusiastic partisans of a unilateral renunciation of the ABM treaty, which, in their eyes, prevents the United States from developing its systems of defense. And they have also convinced George W. Bush. Following the same path as Perle and Wolfowitz is Elliott Abrams, today responsible for the Middle East on the White House's National Security Council, and Douglas Feith, one of the under secretaries of defense. Both agree on unconditional support for the policies of the state of Israel, no matter what government is in place in Jerusalem. This advocacy of constant support explains why they endorse Ariel Sharon with no hesitation. President Ronald Reagan's two terms (1981 and 1985) were the occasion for many of these figures to hold their first government positions.
In Washington, the neoconservative wove their web. Creativity was on their side. Over the course of many years, they marginalized Democratic centrist or center-left intellectuals and took up predominant positions in the places where the ideas that dominate the political scene are formulated. These are reviews like National Review, Commentary, The New Republic, which was edited for a time by the young "Straussian" Andrew Sullivan; The Weekly Standard, owned by the Murdoch group, whose Fox television network ensures the diffusion of the mass-media version of neoconservative thought. There are also the editorial pages like that of the Wall Street Journal, which, under the direction of Robert Bartley, conveys neoconservative militancy unabashedly. There are research institutes, the famous "think tanks," such as the Hudson Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the American Enterprise Institute. There are families, too: the son of Irving Kristol is the very urbane William Kristol, the editor-in-chief of The Weekly Standard; one of Norman Podheretz's sons worked in the Reagan administration; the son of Richard Pipes -- an émigré Polish Jew who emigrated to the United States in 1939, became a professor at Harvard, and was one of the most important critics of Soviet communism -- is Daniel Pipes, who denounces Islamism as the new totalitarianism threatening the West.
These men are not isolationists. To the contrary. They are generally extremely cultured and knowledgeable about foreign countries, whose languages they often speak. They are not at all like the reactionary populism of a Patrick Buchanan, who is in favor of America turning inward to address her domestic problems.
The neoconservatives are internationalists, partisans of a role of resolute global activism for the United States. They are not, however, in the mold of the old Republican Party (Nixon, George Bush senior), who trusted to the merits of a Realpolitik that cared little about the nature of the regimes with which the United States made alliances in the defense of its interests. For them, Kissinger is a sort of anti-model. But they are also not internationalists in the Democratic Wilsonian tradition (named after Woodrow Wilson, the unfortunate father of the League of Nations), which was the tradition of Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton, who are dismissed as angelic or naïve figures who trust to international institutions to spread democracy.
Let us turn to the philosopher. There were no direct links between Albert Wohlstetter and Leo Strauss (who died in 1973) before the official appearance of neoconservatism. But in the network of neoconservatives, some have built bridges between the teachings of the two men, even though their areas of research were fundamentally different.
Whether as a source or as an incidental influence (Allan Bloom, Paul Wolfowitz, William Kristol...), Strauss's philosophy has served as the theoretical substrate of neoconservatism. He is read and recognized for his immense erudition about classical Greek texts or Christian, Jewish, or Muslim Scripture. He was hailed for the power of his interpretive method. "He succeeded in grafting classical philosophy with German depth in a country that lacks a great philosophic tradition," says Jean-Claude Casanova, whose intellectual mentor, Raymond Aron, sent him to study in the United States. Aron greatly admired Strauss, whom he met in Berlin before World War II. He advised several of his students, like Pierre Hassner or, several years later, Pierre Manent, to take an interest in him. [Translator's note: Raymond Aron (1905-1983) was one of the France's preeminent intellectuals in the twentieth century, and was also important in the political realm, where he played a considerable role as an advisor to French statesmen, including Charles de Gaulle.]
Leo Strauss was born in Kirchhain, in Hesse, in 1899, and left Germany on the eve of Hitler's accession to power. After brief stays in Paris and in England, he arrived in New York, where he taught at the New School of Social Research before founding the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, which would become the crucible where "Straussians" were formed.
It would be simplistic and reductionist to sum up Leo Strauss's teaching as the few principles upon which the neoconservatives who surround George W. Bush draw. And neoconservatism has roots in traditions other than the Straussian school. But the reference to Strauss forms a relevant background for the neoconservatism that is presently at work in Washington. It permits one to understand to what extent neoconservatism is not simply a caprice of a few hawks; and also to what extent is relies on theoretic bases, which, while perhaps doubtful, are certainly not mediocre. Neoconservatism situates itself at the junction of two lines of thought in Strauss.
The first is linked to his personal experience. As a young man he lived through the decrepitude of the Weimar Republic battered by both Communists and Nazis. He concluded that democracy had no chance of prevailing if it remained weak and refused to rise up against tyranny, expansionist by nature, even if this meant resorting to force: "The Weimar Republic was weak. It had only one moment of strength, if not greatness: its violent reaction to the assassination of the Jewish minister of foreign affairs Walther Rathenau in 1922," writes Strauss in a preface to Spinoza's Critique of Religion. "On the whole, it presented the spectacle of a justice without strength or of a justice incapable of resorting to force."
The second line of thought is the result of his readings of the ancients. For us, as for them, the fundamental question is that of the political regime, which shapes the character of human beings. Why did the 20th century engender two totalitarian regimes that, reverting to Aristotle's term, Strauss prefers to call "tyrannies"? Strauss's answer to this question, which obsesses contemporary intellectuals, is: because modernity provoked a rejection of the moral values and the virtue that must be at the base of democracies, and a rejection of European values, which are "reason" and "civilization."
According to Strauss, this rejection finds its source in the Enlightenment, which almost necessarily produced historicism and relativism, that is, the refusal to admit the existence of a higher Good that is reflected in the concrete, immediate, and contingent goods, but not reducing itself to them, an unattainable Good which must be the standard by which real goods are measured. Translated into the language of political philosophy, relativism's extreme consequence was the theory of the convergence of the United States and the Soviet Union, which was much in vogue in the 1960s and the 1970s. It led in some cases to an acknowledgement of the moral equivalence of American democracy and Soviet communism. Now, for Leo Strauss, there are good and bad regimes; political reflection should not refrain from making judgments of value, and good regimes have the right -- and even the duty -- to defend themselves against bad regimes. It would be simplistic to effect a direct transposition between this idea and the "axis of Evil" denounced by George W. Bush. But it is clear that it proceeds from the same origin.
This central notion of a regime as the matrix of political philosophy has been developed by Straussians, who have taken an interest in the Constitutional history of the United States. Strauss himself -- an admirer of the British Empire and of Winston Churchill as an example of a strong-willed statesman -- thought that American democracy was the least bad political system. Nothing better had been found for the flourishing of humanity, even if interests tended to replace virtue as the foundation of the regime.
But it was above all his students, like Walter Berns, Harvey Mansfield, or Harry Jaffa, who enriched the American Constitutional school. This school sees in American institutions the realization of higher principles, even, for a man like Harry Jaffa, of Biblical teachings, more than it sees in these institutions the application of the thought of the Founding Fathers. In any case, religion, perhaps civil religion, must serve as the glue that holds together institutions and society. This appeal to religion is not foreign to Strauss, but this Jewish atheist "liked to cover his tracks," to use Georges Balandier's expression; he thought that religion was useful to maintain the illusions of the masses, illusions without which order could not be maintained. On the other hand, the philosopher was to maintain his critical mind and address the initiated in a coded language, something that needs to be interpreted, but is intelligible to a meritocracy founded on virtue.
Advocating a return to the Ancients as a way of avoiding the pitfalls of modernity and the illusions of progress, Strauss is nonetheless a defender of liberal democracy, that child of the Enlightenment -- and of American democracy, which seems to be its quintessence. Is this a contradiction? No doubt it is, but it is a contradiction that he is willing to live with, like other liberal thinkers (Montesquieu, Tocqueville). For the critique of liberalism is indispensable for its survival, since it runs the risk of getting lost in relativism -- if everything can be expressed, the search for Truth loses its value. For Strauss, the relativism of the Good results in an inability to react against tyranny.
This active defense of democracy and of liberalism reappears in political doctrines as one of the favorite themes of the neoconservatives. The nature of political regimes is much more important than all institutions or international arrangements for keeping peace in the world. The greatest danger comes from states that do not share the (American) values of democracy. To change those regimes and encourage the spread of democratic values constitutes the best means of strengthening the security (of the United States) and peace.
The importance of the political regime, praise for militant democracy, the quasi-religious exaltation of American values, a firm opposition to tyranny: there are quite a few themes that are the mark of the neoconservatives populating the Bush administration which can be derived from the teaching of Strauss, sometimes revised and corrected by the "Straussians" of the second generation. One thing separates them from their putative master: the optimism tinged with messianism that neoconservatives deploy to bring freedoms the world (to the Middle East tomorrow, yesterday to Germany and Japan), as if the belief in political will was capable of changing human nature. This is also an illusion, which it may be good to spread for the sake of the masses, but by which philosophers, for their part, ought not to allow themselves to be deceived.
There remains an enigma: how did "Straussianism," which was first founded upon an oral transmission that was mostly the result of the charisma of the master and was expressed in books of an austere character, texts about texts, establish its influence over a presidential administration? Pierre Manent, who directs the Centre de recherches Raymond-Aron in Paris, proposes the idea that the ostracism to which the students of Leo Strauss were subjected in American university milieux pushed them toward public service, think tanks, and the press. There they are relatively over-represented.
Another, complementary, explanation cites the intellectual vacuum that ensued upon the conclusion of the Cold War, which the "Straussians," and in their wake the neoconservatives, seemed to be the best prepared to fill. The fall of the Berlin Wall proved them right to the extent that Reagan's muscular policy vis-à-vis the USSR led to its downfall. The attacks of September 11, 2001, confirmed their thesis concerning the vulnerability of democracies confronted with different forms of tyranny. From the war on Iraq, they will be tempted to draw the conclusion that the overthrow of "bad" regimes is possible and desirable. As an alternative to this temptation, the appeal to international law can claim a certain moral legitimacy. But until further notice, it lacks the power of conviction and coercion.
Translated by Mark K. Jensen
Associate Professor of French
Chair, Department of Languages and Literatures
Pacific Lutheran University
Tacoma, WA 98447-0003
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Last updated: April 21, 2003