One of the sorriest spectacles attending the invasion of Iraq has been the blatant anti-Americanism, not to mention anti-Semitism, of the anti-war Left. But more interesting, and perhaps more important, are the passionate outbursts the war has provoked among conservatives about the meaning of the United States, the idea of "empire," and the nature of patriotism in America.
David Frum, in an article published in the April 7 issue of National Review, assails several prominent paleo-conservatives for the near-fanaticism with which they are opposing the war in Iraq. Simply by quoting several of their statements, to devastating effect, he shows how that opposition has gone
far beyond the advocacy of alternative strategies. They have made common cause with the left-wing and Islamist antiwar movements in this country and in Europe. They deny and excuse terror. They espouse a potentially self-fulfilling defeatism. They publicize wild conspiracy theories. And some of them explicitly yearn for the victory of their nation's enemies.
Another recent incident brings into question a much different part of conservatism. At a "teach-in" on the war at UCLA, sponsored by Americans for Victory over Terrorism (AVOT) and broadcast on C-SPAN, a bizarre exchange broke out when some members of the audience asked William Bennett about a "Straussian" cabal of war-mongering officials in, or advisors to, the Bush administration. Here is what one questioner said:
Wolfowitz, Perle, Rumsfeld are enthusiastic Straussians, followers of Leo Strauss, whose two main teachers were Karl Schmidt and Martin Heidegger, two leading members of the Nazi Party.... [H]is interpretation of Plato... was the Thrasymachian notion of justice was superior to Socratic notion of justiceâ€¦.
What I'm wondering is, aligning yourself with this philosophy, this Straussian outlook of a Thrasymachian notion of justice, that might is right, how can you also say that you're defending the Declaration of Independence, which was the Socratic notion of justice?
Bennett, after disclaiming that he was a Straussian of any stripe, offered a lucid mini-tutorial on justice in Plato's Republic, and gently (perhaps too gently) advised his interlocutors that they were not in full command of their faculties, or the facts. This was followed by a nice addendum by Seth Liebsohn, executive director of AVOT, explaining that Strauss was not (absurdly) a Nazi, and was in fact a defender of the Declaration of Independence.
Now, if Leo Strauss and "Straussian" are not familiar terms, or if the divisions between paleo- and other kinds of conservatives are not wholly clear, read on. Even if you do know all about these things, you will still want to examine, or re-examine, this classic essay by Charles Kesler. It is a review of The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism, a collection of Strauss's writings edited by Thomas Pangle.
Kesler's review-essay, written in 1989 for National Review, looks at Strauss's influence on America, and provides an incisive survey of the conservative movement—including the unique contributions of Claremont conservatives—and its various internecine struggles. In the intervening fourteen years some of the particular controversies have taken on new forms, and several of the participants have changed (Allan Bloom and Mel Bradford, for instance, have since passed away). Nevertheless, the overall taxonomy Kesler sketches has changed very little, while the arguments, and the principles being contended for, are more urgent than ever.