Leo Strauss and the Noble Lie:
The Neo-Cons at War
John G. Mason
As our Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once noted in an off the cuff remark, strategic truths sometimes need be defended by a “bodyguard of lies.”[i] Here Rumsfeld was thinking no doubt of Churchill’s famous quip defending Operation Fortitude, the mock invasion force aimed at Calais that drew the attention of Herr Hitler and his high command away from the Normandy beaches and hid the Allies? operational plans in the summer of 1944. Rumsfeld’s critics in Washington and London, however, have in mind more the history of contemporary philosophy than the history of WWII.
In the past few months, the “bodyguard of lies? metaphor has been redeployed and used to characterize the Bush Administration’s raw manipulation of the CIA and other intelligence agencies for propaganda purposes and for the gross deceit that seems to characterize the rationales put forward for their Iraq policy. Of these there were many–WMDs, a suspected connection between Saddam and Al Qaeda, or the humanitarian rescue of the Iraqi people. They shifted depending on their intended audience and perhaps the day of the week. The “imminent threat” of WMD?s were emphasized for the British public while links to “Al Qaeda-like terrorism? were stressed at home ? where the fiction that Saddam was directly involved in the September 2001 attacks has been firmly embraced by over two thirds of the American public. As Olivier Roy rightly noted last May, “Washington’s stated war goals were not logically coherent, and its more intellectually compelling arguments were usually played down or denied.” [ii]
By the summer of 2003 – when the hunt for banned Iraqi WMD?s had gone nowhere and the Al Qaeda connection to Saddam had disappeared into thin air along with Saddam and Osama themselves, the cumulative disappointment shook the official rationale for the Anglo American invasion of Iraq. This placed Mr. Rumsfeld and the civilian policy makers in his Pentagon group on the defensive and set them up for the critics who had been waiting impatiently in the wings during the short but triumphal march to Baghdad. Secretary Rumsfeld’s credibility problems had now become Blair’s and Bush’s nightmare – provoking a transatlantic media storm that has touched the political establishments of the co-belligerents.
In London this affair has mainly raised questions about the honesty of Mr. Blair and his press and defense secretaries. In Washington it has done so as well, and the prevailing view of the Administration’s war policy among its critics is summed up succulently by the United for Peace slogan: “Bush lies”Americans die.” But this affair has also a raised a related and perhaps even more troubling question about the philosophical roots of the ideology that’s driving the “counter-revolution? in foreign and domestic policy within the Bush Administration. In short, the relation between strategic disinformation and political truth has been very much on our minds of late – along with some concerns about the lessons taught by Leo Strauss to the brilliant group of his former students who now occupy the seats of power in Washington
A Crisis of Intelligence
Last May that Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia gave the speech on the Senate floor that marked the moment when Bush’s Iraq policy began to seriously unravel. “The truth,” he said, “has a way of asserting itself despite all attempts to obscure it. Regarding the situation in Iraq, it appears to this Senator that the American people have been lured into accepting the unprovoked invasion of a sovereign nation, in violation of long-standing international law, under false premises.” He concluded, “We just fought a war that didn’t need to be fought.” And of course, Byrd assumes that “unnecessary wars? can never be just. But if proven this charge alone would constitute technical grounds for the impeachment of the President for “high crimes and misdemeanours”?as Senator Bob Graham of Florida pointed out last July.
The principal false premise in question was the claim that Saddam possessed an arsenal of chemical and biological terror weapons that was both operational in March and an immediate threat to the security of the United States, that is, an “imminent threat.” This is no small matter. This was the central claim made by Colin Powell and Jack Straw at the UN Security Council in order to justify the immediate use of military force against the Iraqi regime. This was the claim that justified the charges of disloyalty and unfaithfulness that put Jacques Chirac, Gerhard Schroeder and Hans Blix on trial in the American and the British media for three long months. And finally this was the claim that?along with the baseless assertion that Saddam was a full partner with bin Laden’s terrorists in the attacks on New York and Washington – finally persuaded a reluctant and divided American public to rally behind their President during the Second Iraq War. But since the invasion ended, as we all know, these claims have been very much in doubt. Both on the ground in Iraq where American weapons inspectors reported having found nothing after a fruitless search for the missing chemical and nuclear arsenal and in London and Washington where this “intelligence failure? has become a major political scandal.
By June, the “policy and intelligence fiasco? had triggered a flood of leaks from the CIA, the DIA and the State Department as the battle between Rumsfeld’s Neo-Con warriors in the Pentagon and the “realists? in Powell’s State Department and the CIA broke into the public arena.[iii] And it was revealed that last year our Secretary of Defence set up his own in-house intelligence service, The Office of Special Plans (nicknamed the “Cabal?) to compete with both the CIA and the DIA. In the policy battles that raged throughout the summer and fall of 2002 within an administration deeply divided over its Iraq policy, this Pentagon group won almost all of the policy fights and as we say, “got their war on.”
But by this past Spring retired intelligence officers from the CIA and senior diplomats from the State department had begun to complain that Rumsfeld’s Pentagon ?hot garbage? from Iraqi defectors around Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress directly to the White house in an exercise of “faith-based intelligence? where the Pentagon knew beforehand “what they wanted the intelligence to show.” They argued that the Neo-Conservative faction in the Pentagon was guilty of “grossly manipulating? intelligence data in order to shape public opinion. In the view of groups like “Veteran Intelligence Agents for Sanity,” Rumsfeld’s decision to create his own intelligence service with a ? stovepipe? leading directly to Oval Office set the stage for “hyping? to the national media whatever reports supported the Rumsfeld line on Iraq and eventually to passing off forged documents like the infamous Niger uranium memo to the highest levels of the Administration, to the U.S. Congress and eventually to the UN Security Council. They said this to anyone who would listen, and among those who did was Nicholas Kristof who put their charges against the “Pentagon crazies” that the Op-Ed pages of The New York Times?the main newspaper of the establishment opposition.
The flap over intelligence issues in the summer of 2003 immediately recalled to mind the controversy over the Pentagon’s Office of Strategic Influence which had flared up in the Spring of 2002 with regard to Donald Rumsfeld’s proposal to conduct orchestrated media campaigns to achieve “strategic influence? with foreign public opinion. The manipulation of intelligence reports was seen as but one piece of a broader campaign of “information warfare”?where the Pentagon and British MOD jointly managed media stories before and during the Iraq conflict in ways that targeted the American and British domestic opinion. Sam Gardiner, a retired Air Force Colonel and professor at the National War College, analysed some fifty different stories in the U.S. and UK that were planted in the press as part of a strategic information warfare campaign to win public support for the war and to isolate and punish opponents. We should note in passing that among the privileged targets of this disinformation campaign were the French and German governments?who were subjected to a mean spirited but very effective campaign of disinformation which helped stoke public anger in the U.S. against “Old Europe” and spark consumer and travel boycotts against these two countries.
These operations were carried out by the Pentagon “Office of Strategic Influence” which after being announced in the Spring of 2002, was dissolved – officially?in the Fall in the face of the public reaction against the idea that the US Government would knowingly plant false stories in the foreign press. But apparently the disinformation campaign went ahead as planned even after the office was disbanded – only with a different target audience in view. As Donald Rumsfeld remarked in a November 2002 press conference: “If you want to savage this thing, fine, I?ll give you the corpse – but I’m gonna keep doing every single thing that needs to be done and I have.” And we can be sure that he did it with a smile.
In May 2003, the charges that U.S. Intelligence had been politically compromised were reinforced in by an inept attempt by Under-Secretary Wolfowitz to downplay the importance of the missing WMDs when he told Vanity Fair that the issue of Iraqi WMDs had been emphasised in the run-up to the war only “for bureaucratic reasons. It was the one reason everyone could agree on.” This effort at political damage control backfired and in a matter of days, the issue of the missing WMDs went from being a story told on the back pages to the lead article for Time, Newsweek and US News and World Report. Newsweek for example, gave the story to Michael Isikoff, their top investigative reporter who had dogged the Clintons for years throughout the Whitewater and Monicagate scandals. Clearly by this July, blood was in the water and the media sharks were circling Rumsfeld’s Pentagon.
The next step in the evolution of this affair followed from Seymour Hersh’s report in the May 5th issue of The New Yorker that the head of Rumsfeld disinformation operation was none other than one Adam Shulsky, a “Straussian? conservative,” who had once co-authored an article on Leo Strauss and role of deception in intelligence operations. The significance of this link went beyond Strauss? belief that the inter-state relations were characterized by rivalries that often dealt in the currency of deceit and deception. What cut to the heart of the current affair was his belief, as William Pfaff put it, “that the essential truths about society and history should be held by an elite, and withheld from others who lack the fortitude to deal with truth. Society, Strauss thought, needs consoling lies.”[iv] This concept of the “consoling lie? became the journalistic key to how and why the Office of Special Operations had in the words of one of its staffers, Lt. Colonel Karen Kwiatkowski, carried off: what she describes as “a subversion of constitutional limits on executive power and a co-optation through deceit of a large segment of the Congress.”
Neo Conservatives and the Strauss Connection
Hersh’s report gave the unfolding story of bureaucratic competition and deception campaigns a new philosophical twist. Not content to denounce a neo-conservative cabal for the disinformation campaign that helped them sell the Iraq war to the Bush Administration, the Congress and finally the American and British publics, critics now drew the philosophical pedigree of Rumsfeld’s Pentagon group into the debate. Quickly the members of the Cabal were dubbed the “Leo-Cons? in The New York Times to highlight their connection to political philosophy of Leo-Strauss?an