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Two Recent Books That Attack Neoconservatism: Are They Persuasive?


Friday, Apr. 22, 2005
Stefan Halper & Jonathan Clarke, America Alone: The Neo-Conservatives and the Global Order (Cambridge Univ. Press 2004)

Anne Norton, Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire (Yale Univ. Press 2004)

While imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, learned attack must be right up there.

If so, the neoconservative movement should be highly flattered by two recent, well-informed and well-argued assaults - Stefan Halper & Jonathan Clarke's America Alone: The Neo-Conservatives and the Global Order, and Anne Norton's Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire. (Strauss, a philosopher, is thought of as the patron saint of neoconservatism)

Neoconservatism has, by any measure, achieved an extraordinary measure of success in this administration at this moment in time. Its adherents occupy positions of the highest influence and power; their long-time burr Saddam has been vanquished; and the President has adopted their activist bearing towards world affairs.

These successes have prompted any number of attacks, some less learned than others. The two books under review are learned indeed. Whether one agrees with their conclusions or not, they deserve a place within the canon of neoconservative studies.

While similar in topic, the two books are quite different in scope and approach. America Alone is a sober but highly engaging study of the history of neoconservatism from the early part of the last century through to the present with a focus on foreign affairs. Leo Strauss is more difficult to categorize. It is, in part, a memoir of Professor Norton's academic rearing at the University of Chicago under the tutelage of Strauss's contemporaries and direct descendants - and these passages are often beautifully written and evocative. But other chapters, the weaker parts of the book, descend into soapboxing broadsides.

Every movement needs a founding myth. Neoconservatism has at least two. It ascribes to itself an intellectual wellspring in Strauss, and a political wellspring in Ronald Reagan. These authors would dash both myths. Halper and Clarke, both of whom might be termed neo-Burkean George H.W. Bush conservatives, would strip the neoconservatives of any of Reagan's reflected glory. And Professor Norton makes the argument that the neoconservatives, while calling themselves Straussians, have in fact betrayed the legacy and teachings of Leo Strauss.

The Neoconservatism Movement: Its History

The neoconservative movement grew out of a particular group of scholars and students in the 1930s at the City University of New York. Among them were both Irving Kristol and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. I note these two adherents, in particular, because their names presage a split that evolved in the decades that followed between Republican and Democratic neoconservatives.

In the early days, the tenets of neoconservatism were roughly balanced between domestic and international concerns, and built around a core belief in American exceptionalism. America was the cradle of democracy and market economies, and its mission was to preserve these bulwarks of individual liberty. These early pronouncements also had softer edges that would later be honed. For instance, they endorsed the role and value of the welfare state.

As with so many things in American life, the great split within the neoconservative movement was triggered by the issue of Vietnam or, more precisely, by the issue of what lessons were to be drawn from that experience. The group that went on to become Democrats took caution (some would say too much) from the experience and, like Moynihan, turned their energies to the domestic side of the agenda. The group that went on to become Republican saw the Vietnam experience as a failure of tactics, not strategy, and saw grave danger in America's turning its back on its historic mission of tending to the fires of individual liberty.

If this all seems a bit overblown, keep in mind that the split was experienced in a world very different from our own: At the time, there appeared to be a very lively global competition between market driven democracy and Soviet-style command-and-control autocracy. The current crop of neoconservatives came to maturity in this era of steely Cold War confrontation.

Have the Neoconservatives Betrayed Their Hero Ronald Reagan?

As the neoconservative take on things would have it, muscular confrontation of the Soviet menace was what brought about victory in the Cold War. Thus, President Ronald Reagan is the standard bearer for their cause - and Reagan, they insist, would have endorsed their doctrine as it has evolved in the post-Soviet era.

Halper and Clarke argue strenuously, and with some force, that the neoconservatives are wrong on both fronts.

First, they argue that the neoconservatives overstate their influence in the Reagan administration. They say it is actually Reagan's bold move away from confrontation -- in entering a dialogue with Gorbachev -- that is the true hallmark of his success.

Second, they argue that even when Reagan was in a confrontational mode, he worked within the structures and traditions of America's alliances and international organizations. These traditional concerns of conservatism, they note, are antithetical to the neoconservatives' emphasis on achieving the muscular exportation of markets and democracies.

Halper and Clarke thus suggest that the neoconservative movement has betrayed both its roots and its hero, Reagan. Whatever the truth of that claim, the neoconservatives faced a crisis with the end of the Cold War. Like the March of Dimes before it, this group confronted an identity crisis when its unifying enemy disappeared. Some neoconservatives, like Francis Fukuyama, famously declared the end of history -- that with the passing of the Soviet system the market-democratic model was the unchallenged victor, the great battles of history were over. Others were less enthusiastic about declaring an end to the neoconservative project just as they were coming into positions of control. They identified a new battle for the ages.

This brings us of course to Iraq. There, Halper and Clarke argue, neoconservatives leveraged 9/11 to undertake an unrelated program of Americanization in the Middle East -- deceptively marketing that program as a response to a phantom threat of weapons of mass destruction. Let there be no doubt: Halper and Clarke view that war as a travesty and its selling as a fraud. And their explicitly stated aim is to bring what they describe as the neoconservative moment to a close.

Halper and Clarke go overboard in spots, however. For instance, I think their entire argument that the neoconservatives should be deemed an "interest group" and regarded as something new on the American scene is an unhelpful adornment. Surely the New Dealers and other ideologically motivated collections of individuals have previously acted in a coordinated fashion to bring about change in the country -- that is simply entrepreneurial democracy.

In the end, Halper and Clarke's argument is powerful. That is why I must take issue, and not entirely tongue-in-cheek, with the hyphenation of "neo-conservatives" in the subtitle to America Alone. In the present times, this movement cannot be considered a revival of traditional conservatism. Better or worse, it is something new and apart that must be assessed and reckoned with on its own terms. The neoconservatives are not the new conservatives; they are something else entirely.

Have the Neoconservatives Betrayed Their Founder, Leo Strauss?

Just as Halper and Clarke tell a fascinating history of political developments and its implications for the present day, Professor Norton of the University of Pennsylvania spins a tale of patrimony, intrigue and betrayal in the academic world.

Norton studied with, and in the very bosom of, the neoconservatives. As a result, her personal experiences intersected with the nation's history. As she puts it: "Certain of the people I know came to power. The nation went to war. Because the nation went to war, and because the Straussians are prominent among those who govern, [my experiences] are no longer part of a curious personal history but elements of a common legacy."

Who was Leo Strauss, and what was the true nature of the school he started?

Strauss was among the great "University in Exile" of Jewish academics and intellectuals that formed in the aftermath of the rise of Nazism. Intellectually, he is a direct descendant of the eminent Martin Heidegger; he was, along with Hannah Arendt, chief among Heidegger's acolytes. Betrayed, and also informed, by Heidegger's accommodation with the Nazis, Strauss saw that the political was personal, and that the political and the philosophical could never be separated. And so Strauss emphasized that personal actions were political and that value-laden political philosophy was essential to an understanding of the political.

Thus, Strauss railed, for example, against the advent of "political science" -- on the ground that it was premised on a false separation of the political and the personal. Professor Norton extends Strauss's stinging critique in her insightful and lyrically written analysis of the development of the discipline of political science in this country's academy. Norton concludes that the proponents of political science "wanted, in short, no politics worth studying, and they very nearly got it." Any undergraduate who has sat through an analytical political science course would be hard-pressed to disagree.

Not surprisingly, given his refugee status, Strauss also believed in the exceptionalism of America and American democracy and its essential mission to preserve liberty in the world. Indeed, he thought philosophy ought to consist of close study of the canonical texts upon which American exceptionalism had its foundation -- from Plato, Thucydides, and right on through to the Federalist Papers.

There is a language of Straussianism that speaks in terms of the "privileged reader," who by close study may discern the "hidden meanings" in these canonical texts. Strauss argued that because the early texts were written in the face of oppression, revolutionary thoughts had been tucked into allusions, or were revealed only by omissions. Only close study, he suggested, could tease out the writer's true point.

Certainly, close study of these texts is warranted. But the elitism of the "privileged reader" phrase tends to obscure how unremarkable the "technique" is. Anyone who has read Tartuffe and realized that Moliere was making the point that his audience was a bunch of asses can consider himself a privileged reader. The other methodological fetish of at least some of the Straussians is a pension for Farrakhan-esque numerology called gamatria. The idea is that another level of meaning in texts can be found, for instance, in the sequence and numbering of the structure of arguments. If you find a colleague feverishly laboring to structure an argument in nested series of three propositions each, you've got a Straussian on your hands. They love three and nine.

In Professor Norton's terms, the so-called Straussians have betrayed the teachings of Strauss. They have transformed Strauss's sophisticated, subtle methodology into a series of snide gimmicks. Worse, she argues they have embraced an anti-Islamic know-nothingism that stands Strauss's underlying respect both for ideas in general, and Islamic teaching and scholarship in particular, on its head.

Norton pulls no punches and delivers a stinging rebuke. But its persuasiveness is undermined by occasional excesses. (One chapter devoted to an excoriation of Allan Bloom is particularly weak, in my view.) That said, some of the writing is so good that these lapses are readily forgiven.

Now Is the Time to Evaluate and Critique Neoconservatism

Both of these books should be read. And this is of course a fascinating time to be criticizing neoconservativism, especially as it relates to America's foreign policy.

I would hazard that when the authors set out working on these books, Iraq probably appeared a morass, and the war a debacle. But it is a different world now -- a world where even the New York Times has editorialized in praise of the Administration's larger Middle East project and the successes it appears to be achieving.

Watching this policy play out over the next decades will be fascinating. It will also be, as Strauss would have it, a political development of striking personal interest to us all.

Whether this policy was the right one, history will show. But whether the neoconservatives can be forgiven for selling their project to the nation under false pretenses, is a larger and different question.

Matt Herrington, a frequent FindLaw book reviewer, is an attorney in Washington, D.C.

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