Monday, September 30, 2013
Leo Strauss, Executive Power and the Bush-Obama "regime," part 2
For the first part of this essay on "Segregation, Aggression and Executive Power: Leo Strauss and 'the boys,'” forthcoming in Sanford Levinson and Melissa Williams, ed., American Conservatism, see here. This part details the near miss on nuclear war over Cuba, and Strauss's, sadly, urging it on to Charles Percy (it is unclear whether he quite took in the consequences of this, though he seems, at the end of his "Restatement on Tyranny," to welcome it...) and the working of Robert Goldwin and others to create arbitrary (anti-Constitional, anti-democratic, anti-decent) executive power. Goldwin's account and distortion of John Locke on royal "prerogative" is especially striking from this point of view. For some reason, the program took the footnotes out of the article. I would be happy to correspond about these (h/t James Connelly).
4. Conquering Cuba and Nuclear War
Cropsey’s letter—written, of course, after the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy—dismissed Sen. Ted Kennedy as “the latest Kennedy” and exemplary of the “huge brood of mediocre aspirants the country will have to suffer, engendered by the unseemly fecundity of that family.” Strauss and his students hated President John F. Kennedy and the Kennedy administration. The theme of Strauss’s criticism is the weakness of the United States, its failure to exert itself as an empire to intimidate the Soviets. The debacle of the Bay of Pigs aggression and the Cuban missile crisis, which was an American defeat according to Strauss, led to this “unmanly” supineness.
In the 1990s, Robert McNamara, who had, of course, been Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense, would go to Cuba for meetings about the Cuban missile crisis with Castro and others. At that point, he discovered that the Soviets, unbeknownst to the United States Government, had nearly two hundred missiles with nuclear warheads on Cuban soil and, perhaps more important (and astoundingly) Soviet field commanders apparently had the authority to order their use. Had the US, as General Curtis Lemay and Strauss advocated, attacked Cuba, a nuclear war might well have occurred, wiping out at least the East Coast of the United States and, assuming an American response, a world-wide nuclear holocaust.
But though wary in writing to future Senator Percy about nuclear war, Strauss recognized the danger and wanted to risk it. In fact, in the “Restatement,” not easily accessible to Percy, he says optimistically that a return to the stone age would be preferable to the supposed decadence of the “last men” (those who fight for freedom, individuality and peace):
“The end of history would be most exhilarating but for the fact, according to Kojeve, that it is the participation in bloody political struggles as well as in real work or, generally expressed, the negating action which raises men above the brutes. The state through which man is said to become reasonably satisfied is, then, the state in which the basis of man’s humanity withers away, or in which man loses his humanity. It is the state of Nietzsche’s ‘last man’…
There will always be men [andres] who will revolt against a state which is destructive of humanity or in which there is no longer the possibility of noble action or of great deeds. They may be forced into a mere negation of the universal and homogeneous state, into a negation not enlightened by any positive goal, into a nihilistic negation. While perhaps doomed to failure, that nihilistic revolution may be the only action on behalf of man’s humanity, the only great and noble deed that is possible once the universal and homogeneous state has become inevitable. But no one can know whether it will succeed or fail. We still know too little about the workings of the universal and homogeneous state to say anything about where and when its corruption will start. What we do know is only that it will perish sooner or later (see Friedrich Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach). Someone may object that the successful revolt against the universal and homogeneous state could have no other effect than that the identical historical process that has led from the primitive horde to the final state will be repeated. But would such a repetition of the process – a new lease on life for man’s humanity – not be preferable to the indefinite continuation of the inhuman end? Do we not enjoy every spring although we know the cycle of the seasons, although we know that winter will come again? Warriors and workers of all countries, unite, while there is still time to prevent the coming of ‘the realm of freedom.’ Defend with might and main, if it needs to be defended, the ‘realm of necessity.’”
On February 12, 1963, Strauss suggested an analogy to Percy between the brutal Soviet conquest of rebellious Hungary in 1956 and U.S. “tit for tat” in Cuba. “Strength” means that the US should respond with the same brutality, using the same methods, as the Soviets. Strauss foolishly suggests that Kennedy shunned such confrontation merely for electoral purposes. He seems not to recognize that Kennedy managed to avoid nuclear war while forcing the Soviets to withdraw nuclear weapons from Cuba, a victory rather than a defeat for American policy, not to mention humankind. Finally, Strauss suggests, brutalizing Cuba would cement American domination in Europe, preventing General De Gaulle in France from suggesting that the US could not protect “European interests.”
Another of Strauss’s recommended policies, the Vietnam War would also damage this alliance, just as a further American invasion of Cuba would have. In Strauss’s formulation, one can hear the commanding tone of the would-be philosophical counselor, modeled on the Laws or Xenophon’s Hiero, instructing the political leader:
“Dear Mr. Percy
I believe that the following points have not been made, or at least have not been made with sufficient audibility: 1) To speak in the only language which Khrushchev understands, Cuba is our Hungary; just as we did not make the slightest move when he solved the problem in his back yard, Hungary, he cannot, and will not make the slightest move if and when we take care of the problem in our back yard, Cuba 2) the President has not succeeded in dispelling the impression that what moved him to a moment’s action, after which he relapsed into the old inactivity, was not a belated understanding of the true situation but the fear to lose elections. 3) We surely give de Gaulle a wonderful excuse (if it is not more than an excuse but a cause); he can justly say, how can a country be trusted to defend the legitimate European interests if it does not defend its own legitimate interests?
The meetings of the PACC [the Public Affairs Council at Chicago] dealing with foreign affairs convinced me perfectly that the President has surrounded himself with advisors who are completed deluded about the character of the Communist menace. This experience contributed very much toward forming my view about the present administration.
One word about the last meeting of the PACC. I thought it was without question the best we ever had. We all must be very thankful to Mr. Goldwin...
Strauss also uses the Public Affairs Conference, with attention to future conferences, to suggest a broad reactionary – anti-President Kennedy, pro-States Rights and segregation, pro-Imperial – policy to Percy. Like the Athenian stranger, he was using his own arguments and the voices of others to try to shape policy. Strauss warns repeatedly against making unreciprocated concessions to the Soviets over Berlin and East Germany. Mirroring his own wishes for the United States, he suggests that the Soviet Union is limitlessly expansionary. Only with a reversal of Communism in fact – a willingness, as he defines it for Percy, to accept the existence of “the free world” – would stability be possible. Until then Strauss recommended, in a memorandum directed to Percy, the policy of aggression:
“To Charles H. Percy
The major premise of American foreign policy must be: no strengthening of the USSR at the expense of the USA. But concessions regarding Berlin and East Germany push Germany toward the USSR and therefore strengthen the USSR. The conclusion: unless concessions in this respect are accompanied by equally great concessions on the part of the USSR, there must not be the concessions now contemplated. Since it is patent that no acceptable concessions on the part of the USSR are in sight, there must be no concessions on our part.
Yet, some people argue, the concessions regarding Berlin and East Germany correspond to the legitimate demand of Russia. They are its only demands, its last demands; thereafter there will be genuine peace. But this argument presupposes that Russia has ceased to be Communist – which is nonsense. There cannot be genuine peace with Communism.
The opponents continue to argue as followers: if we do not seek genuine peace, then we heighten the danger of thermonuclear war, which confronts us with the alternative of annihilation or surrender. Without genuine peace, we must face this alternative.” (emphasis added).
There is a profound cleavage of opinion in this country as to which of the two alternatives is preferable. The issue will be settled not in journals by the people who call themselves and are called by others ‘the intellectuals,’ but, as is meet in a democracy, ultimately by the majority vote of the people at large. If this issue is brought before the American people, I believe the large majority will be opposed to surrender – if for no other reason than for this : because the speakers against surrender will be more trusted by the American people than the speakers for surrender. To make this point quite clear, further considerable setbacks for the United States (super-Cubas) will bring about an anti-‘intellectual’ reaction compared with which ‘McCarthyism’ will look like child’s play. We must start from the premise that the American people, as a strong, virile, and free people will prefer to perish rather than to surrender. (emphasis added)
As in the end of the “Restatement” in On Tyranny, Strauss thought modern
Americans were exemplars of the last men. “Virile” here refers to those who seek
destruction - and self-destruction. Strauss was hoping for “resistance” even at the
risk of nuclear war.
5. A Reduction of Locke to “Prerogative” or “Commander in Chief Power”
It is hard to overestimate the importance, with regard to understanding central aspects of Leo Strauss’s politics, of a May 1933 letter to Karl Loewith:
Just because the German Right will not tolerate us does not mean that there is anything wrong with the principles of the Right. On the contrary only those principles – fascist, authoritarian, imperial – and not the laughable and childish imprescriptible rights of man is the only basis on which to oppose the meskine Unwesen [on a very rightwing interpretation of Nietzsche, the grubby Jewish reality of the last men].
Even if it were certainly true that Strauss could have had no knowledge of what the “fascist, authoritarian, and imperial” policies of the recently empowered Adolf Hitler would lead to, 1933 is, equally certainly, late enough to wonder about the intellectual judgment of anyone who would find “laughable and childish” those who posited notions of “rights of man” against the grandiose visions of conquest and ethnic cleansing of the Nazis and their advocates like Schmitt or Martin Heidegger (in fact, Strauss was an acolyte of Heidegger all the way through ). In Natural Right and History, Strauss’s dismissiveness toward Locke set the stage for followers, particularly Robert Goldwin, disparaging the rights of each individual and elevating, in their place, executive – even tyrannical – power.
Goldwin’s chapter in Strauss and Cropsey’s History of Political Philosophy subtly distorts Locke as overemphasizing the “prerogative” of an authoritarian executive, compared for example, to Locke’s fierce passages on revolution against a tyrant who like “any lyon or tiger” in a state of nature may be struck down. Goldwin’s correction reformulates Locke for impact on the American Presidency. This crafting of their common message coupled with Goldwin’s role as confidante – “philosopher-statesman” or “one man think-tank” – in Republican politics has had a profound public impact.
Goldwin had written a thesis on Locke under Strauss’s direction. In Goldwin’s essay, one can hear Strauss’s “Platonic” emphasis on the best man who rules without laws, but as Simonides in Xenophon’s Hiero insists, “beneficially.” Putatively, action for the public good as opposed to obeying a wooden, “inflexible” rule of law makes such an executive “godlike.” In paragraph 160 of the Second Treatise of Government, Locke defines the idea of “prerogative.” As Goldwin’s “John Locke” in Strauss and Cropsey’s History of Political Philosophy comments, “The executive may act not only without the sanction of law, he may also make the laws ‘give way’ (par. 159) to his power where blind adherence to them would be harmful, and he may even go so far as to act contrary to the law for the public good.” He then invokes Locke’s formulation: `This power to act according to discretion for the public good, without the prescription of law and sometimes against it, is that which is called ‘prerogative’ (par 160).” Locke’s way of putting it emphasizes the idea of a common good: “prerogative is nothing but the power of doing public good without a rule.” (par 165)
Goldwin’s interpretation shades toward arbitrary executive power. The term “prerogative” is a bridge between the word “authoritarian” in Strauss’s 1933 letter to Loewith and the almost unlimited “Commander in Chief Power” that characterized especially the first term of the Bush-Cheney Administration, when torture became near standard operating procedure of what was labeled the “Global War on Terror.” In fact, Goldwin brought this idiom to the White House, echoed in Saturday afternoon luncheon seminars for President Ford by Harvey Mansfield Jr., almost certainly the most exuberant devotee of the supposed necessity of an “untamed prince” as part of the conception of the President.
Goldwin found a receptive audience in President Gerald Ford and his advisors, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and Chief of Staff Cheney, for an almost obsessive concern with restoring the powers of the Presidency that had been weakened in the aftermath of Richard Nixon’s mendacity regarding the Vietnam War and, of course, Watergate. As Ford insisted, “I was absolutely dedicated to doing whatever I could to restore the rightful prerogatives of the Presidency under the constitutional system.” As both Goldwin and Mansfield wrote, though, “prerogative” has, at best, an orthogonal relationship to what we usually regard as “the constitutional system,” at least if we regard it as establishing genuine constraints that operate upon all public officials.
Ford and his aides sought to restore “prerogative” against Watergate; with “Commander in Chief power,” “unitary executive” and “lawfare,” this idea has now become enmity to law under the Bush administration and is achieving bipartisan consolidation in Obama’s odious notion of “state secrets.”
Following Strauss, Goldwin admired philosopher-kings. He knew that such “wise princes” were above the law, that they were philosopher-tyrants. Goldwin’s chapter repeatedly adverts to this idea as a background. He summons this supposed “teaching” of Plato” and Strauss as a quasi-esoteric theme. Modelling Socrates’s action in the Apology and Crito as well as the Republic, one might of course take the idea of philosopher-kingship as leadership in a democracy to defend philosophy as one small city in the “city of cities” which the Athenian democracy was.
Yet invoking Locke’s account, Goldwin also insists:
The danger inherent in the executive’s prerogative is no less obvious than the necessity for it. The prerogative has always grown most extensively in the reigns of the best princes. The people trust a good and wise prince even while he acts beyond the limits of the law, not fearing for their safety because they see that his purpose is to further their good.
One can imagine Ford Chiefs of Staff Cheney and Rumsfeld perking up their ears at this “philosophical” message from their “special assistant” and “confidante.” Goldwin stresses Locke’s idiom about a kind of monarch as the best ruler, “as God himself” or sharing in his “wisdom and goodness.” Esoterically, it is but a short way from this divine wisdom to a tyrant advised by a wise man (Xenophon’s Simonides in the Hiero and in Strauss’s On Tyranny). Exaggerating Locke’s words, Goldwin’s essay draws a metaphorical connection:
Such godlike princes, indeed, had some title to arbitrary power by the argument that would prove absolute monarchy the best government, as that which God himself governs the universe by, because such kings partake of his wisdom and goodness (par. 166)
A few pages later, Goldwin reiterates this theme. He again conjures a prince who like God exercises prerogative.
There are two places in the Second Treatise where Locke speaks of `godlike’ princes. In one he speaks of the princes who are allowed the largest prerogative, who have the greatest freedom from the control of the laws. They are like God, who governs the universe as an absolute monarch, because they ‘partake of his wisdom and goodness.’ (par. 166)
For Goldwin, one might imagine, this is an esoteric emphasis in Locke; like Xenephon and “Mr. Strauss,” he is an advocate of philosopher-tyranny.
Yet in a contradiction, Goldwin also invokes Locke’s image of a prince who rules “by established laws of liberty” and furthers increased production from the land through labor:
But in the earlier passage, the prince is said to be wise and godlike who rules ‘by established laws of liberty.’ Such a prince is like God as Creator, for established laws of liberty are the means of bringing about ‘the increase of the lands,’ which is a kind of creation, as we have seen, although not a creation out of nothing. This increase is not only the cause of domestic prosperity but also the source of the power to protect the society against the hostile attacks of other societies. The godlike prince whose law-abidingness brings increase ‘will quickly be too hard for his neighbors’ (par. 42).
Locke argues for a lawless executive who still “serves the people” or a “public good.” But his defense of a law-adhering leader is part of his core argument on accumulation of property, the lawless executive an error or a rare case, one also limited by the right of revolution. Ironically, Goldwin juxtaposes these opposed arguments as if he notices the contradiction; yet he does not acknowledge, let alone think about it. He follows the master in a scholarly adherence to the surface (or perhaps pointing to a familiar, for Straussians, esoteric meaning) of a text without philosophical analysis.
If Strauss promises cryptography, Goldwin, however, sticks more closely to seeming description. In effect, Goldwin opts for the side of tyranny and downplays Locke’s core argument. In his peroration, Goldwin recurs pregnantly to the theme of a philosopher-king: “John Locke has been called America’s philosopher, our king in the only way a philosopher has ever been king of a great nation.” Esoterically, Goldwin speaks, however, as the student of another “philosopher,” Leo Strauss, whose interpretation of Locke would now be brought to bear in the Ford and Reagan administrations through Goldwin directly, through civil service (Shulsky) or political (Wolfowitz) appointments, the colonizing of rightwing foundations (Goldwin’s long tenure at the American Enterprise Institute) and matriculation into subsequent reactionary administrations, culminating in the sustained attack on the rule of law of George W. Bush.
Consider in this context an essay by Harvey Mansfield defending extraordinary surveillance by the Bush Administration. Mansfield is often regarded as the leading Straussian of his generation, though he was not in fact a direct student of Strauss, having received his doctorate at Harvard. His importance as an “American conservative” comes not only from the quality of his scholarship, but also from his willingness to take part in direct political argument, sometimes in the pages of the Wall Street Journal or Weekly Standard, both central organs of “American conservatism” (they are often authoritarian, and not conservative, however). Thus in January 2006 Mansfield published an essay in the Weekly Standard under the breezy title “The Law and the President: In a national emergency, who you gonna call?” The answer, not surprisingly, is the latter, and it is worth quoting Mansfield at some length:
One can begin from the fact that the American Constitution made the first republic with a strong executive. A strong executive is one that is not confined to executing the laws but has extra-legal powers such as commanding the military, making treaties (and carrying on foreign policy), and pardoning the convicted, not to mention a veto of legislation. To confirm the extra-legal character of the presidency, the Constitution has him take an oath not to execute the laws but to execute the office of president, which is larger.
Mansfied here asserts that legal powers, that of being commander in chief, making treaties, offering pardon or even the veto, is somehow extralegal. It is not. In any case what is extralegal is not illegal, i.e. torture. He illicitly links all three, without offering an argument.
Thus it is wrong to accuse President Bush of acting illegally in the surveillance of possible enemies, as if that were a crime and legality is all that matters. This is simplistic, small-r republican thinking of the kind that our Constitution surpassed when it constructed a strong executive. The Constitution took seriously a difficulty in the rule of law that the republican tradition before 1787 had slighted. The difficulty is obvious enough, but republicans tend to overlook it or minimize it because they believe, as republicans, that power is safer in the hands of many than in those of one or a few. Power is more surely in the hands of many when exercised in the form of law--"standing rules," as opposed to arbitrary decree. Republics tend to believe in the rule of law and hence to favor legislative power over executive.
Yet the rule of law is not enough to run a government. Any set of standing rules is liable to encounter an emergency requiring an exception from the rule or an improvised response when no rule exists. In Machiavelli's terms, ordinary power needs to be supplemented or corrected by the extraordinary power of a prince, using wise discretion. "Necessity knows no law" is a maxim everyone admits, and takes advantage of, when in need. Small-r republicans especially are reluctant to accept it because they see that wise discretion opens the door to unwise discretion. But there is no way to draw a line between the wise and the unwise without making a law (or something like it) and thus returning to the inflexibility of the rule of law. We need both the rule of law and the power to escape it--and that twofold need is just what the Constitution provides for.
Here is the doctine of Carl Schmitt – “he is sovereign who makes the decision in the
state of the exception” via Strauss - pawned off as a) the wisdom of the American
consitution (something both Schmitt and Strauss disliked and disparaged) and b) as a
cliché “Necessity knows no law,” “a maxim everyone admits.” Even Mansfield’s words “an
emergency requiring an exception from the rule [of law]” are self-consciously redolent of
Schmitt. Note that any criminality can be justified in the name of this breezy elision of
things sometimes only allegedly “extralegal.”
Similarly, Walter Berns, unequivocally one of Strauss’s “boys,” published a piece in the
Wall Street Journal on May 23, 2009, with the frank title “Interrogations and
Presidential Prerogative: The Founders created an executive with substantial
discretionary powers.” Though this piece appeared in the early days of the Obama
Administration—and one might wonder if Berns is gratified by the extent to which Obama
has proved more than willing to accept the notion of “an executive with substantial
discretionary powers”—it was clearly motivated by the discussion of whether those who had
been part of the Bush Administration’s torture apparatus should be subject to punishment.
Berns’s answer—and, it turned out, Obama’s as well—was no. Berns relied, like Goldwin,
But Locke admitted that not everything can be done by law. Or, as he said, there are many things "which the law can by no means provide for." The law cannot "foresee" events, for example, nor can it act with dispatch or with the appropriate subtlety required when dealing with foreign powers. Nor, as we know very well indeed, can a legislative body preserve secrecy.
Such matters, Locke continued in the Second Treatise, should be left to "the discretion of him who has the executive power." It is in this context that he first spoke of the "prerogative": the "power to act according to discretion, for the public good without the prescription of the law, and sometimes even against it." He concluded by saying "prerogative is nothing but the power of doing public good without a rule"
The executive in our case, at least to begin with, is represented by the three Justice Department officials who wrote the memos that Mr. Graham [Senator Bob Graham of Florida] and many members of the Obama administration have found offensive. They have been accused of justifying torture, but they have not yet been given the opportunity in an official setting or forum to defend what they did.
That forum could be a committee of Congress or a ‘truth commission’ -- so long as, in addition to the assistance of counsel, they would be judged by ‘an impartial jury,’ have the right to call witnesses in their favor, to call for the release of evidence including the CIA memos showing the success of enhanced interrogations, and the right to ‘confront the witnesses’ against them as the Constitution's Fifth and Sixth Amendments provide. There is much to be said for a process that, among other things, would require Nancy Pelosi to testify under oath. (emphasis added).
To put it mildly, no widely accepted evidence has emerged that “enhanced
interrogation” was in fact “effective” and, therefore, even under the crudest form of
utilitarianism, “justified.” Berns is also far more concerned with the
plight of Administration officials accused of complicity in torture than he is with the
fate of those subjected to medieval brutalities. For him, what might be termed
“patriotic motivation” seems to be the most important thing. His comments track an
earlier 1986 essay, written for a book edited by Benjamin Netenyahu, and entitled
"Constitutional Power and the Defense of Free Government." Berns begins by quoting
James Madison's comment to Jefferson: "It is a melancholy reflection that liberty should
be equally exposed to danger whether the government have too much or too little power."
"But," Berns goes on to ask,
how much power is too much? . . . [T]he Constitution does not answer that question. Too much power is beyond what is necessary, and it is not given to writers of constitutions to foresee what may be necessary. The ends (or purposes) of government are foreseeable and capable of being stated explicitly--a more perfect union, justice, domestic tranquillity, the common defense--but the means of promoting those ends . . . cannot be foreseen.....
The body of the Constitution begins by defining the legislative power, which is to be expected in a document so strongly influenced by the political philosophy of John Locke.. . The legislative, Locke says, is the "supreme power." .... [The Founders] proceeded, however, to establish an executive whose powers, unlike in a parliamentary system, come not from the legislature but from the people.
By making the executive independent, the Founders acknowledged that, however desirable in principle, in practice not all things that government may have to do to advance the public good can be done by law or formulated in law. I hesitate to say this when I lack the space to say it properly, but under our written Constitution, the law is not supreme. Above the law, and the lawmaking body, are the people of the United States, whose will is expressed in the written Constitution. The supremacy of the people over the law is apparent in the first sentence of Article I: "All legislative powers herein granted," thereby indicating that certain legislative powers are not granted. But compare this with the first sentence of Article II: "The executive power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America." There is no suggestion here that any part of the executive power is being withheld. And if John Locke was their guide here, as he was elsewhere, the executive power includes the prerogative, "the power to act according to discretion for the public good, without the prescription of law and sometimes even against it." How great those powers are was demonstrated by Lincoln, in my judgment the greatest of American Presidents.
Like Mansfield, Berns elides executive discretion and rampant criminality. The need to
justify torture as a common good is alluded to – the CIA’s nonexistent evidence he
fanstasizes must be revealed – but he is expessing a sad preference, not even making an
argument, let alone, basing one on facts.
Further, Berns does not see in Lincoln the opponent of a war of aggrandizement with
Mexico as well as the extension of bondage into the border states. He sees him instead
as the employer of emergency powers, violating habeas corpus. Save for a brief mention
of the Emancipation Proclamation, Berns’ distortion of Lincoln parallels Goldwin’s of
Lincoln fought a war that was never declared; without congressional authorization, he called for volunteers to fight that war; he established a naval blockade of ports from Texas to Virginia; he suspended the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus; he put enemy sympathizers in army jails without trial and ignored a demand of the Chief Justice to free them; most important, he used his power as commander in chief to free the slaves, something not even Congress was authorized to do....
....Beyond the obvious fact that we are not involved in a civil war, or formally in any other kind of war, what distinguishes [the contemporary struggle against terrorism] from Lincoln's? Not a lack of constitutional power: the powers are there when they are needed; the Founders saw to that, and they also authorized the President to decide when they were needed.....
Lincoln spoke powerfully of the blessings of liberty and asked his fellow citizens to make sacrifices for it....
There can be no doubt that Berns is fully “American” inasmuch as, like many compatriots,
he is obsessed with Madison and then that most complex of all Presidents, Abraham
Lincoln. The message is that vindication of the Union required doing whatever was
thought to be “necessary” to maintain it. And he offers this foolish nostrum for the
purpose of making the face of America that of waterboarding. It is hard for people who
remember the Vietnam War not to hear overtones of “destroying a village in order to save
Strauss’s acolytes have therefore done their part to bring into the highest levels of
American politics a perspective – anti-Constitutional, against individual rights, leader-
worshipping and endlessly war-making—that is similar to his own attraction, in 1933, to
the merits of politics that are “fascist, authoritarian, imperial.” But, quite
obviously, the truly “American conservative” Straussians, like Goldwin and Berns,
translated these ideas into an American, quasi-Lockean, pseudo-Constitutional idiom.
(What is interesting about Mansfield’s essay is that he evokes the authority of
Machiavelli instead of the comparatively anodyne Locke.) The political Straussians—the
“boys”—were remarkably successful in making Leo Strauss America’s philosopher and
achieved, in George W. Bush (or Dick Cheney), their wish as to what well-tutored leaders
might look like.
Goldwin’s final sentence reads: “We, therefore, more than many other peoples in the
world, have the duty and experience to judge the rightness of [Locke’s] teaching,” that
is, the teaching about the necessity of claiming prerogative powers. Perhaps
paradoxically, the revulsion against Bush and his extreme invocations of executive power
was led by, among others, conservative libertarians like Richard Epstein who drew from
Locke a distinctly different teaching based on the importance of individual rights and
suspicions of overreaching government.
Goldwin was no fool. Like Farabi, he added a Platonic caveat to this account. Although
the rule of the best prince and of a mere tyrant are alike in their lawlessness, the
latter is only a pathetic imitator of the former. Yet following Locke, Goldwin also
notes that even a good ruler smooths the way for an abusive successor:
But even godlike princes have successors, and there is no assurance that one of them,
claiming the precedent, will not make use of the enlarged prerogative to further his own
private interests at the peril of the people’s property and safety. ‘Upon this is
founded that saying that the reigns of good princes have been always most dangerous to
the liberties of their people.’ (par. 166)
Goldwin played a powerful role in the rise of the modern Republican party, as
Rumsfeld said in his eulogy. Rumsfeld even sent Goldwin into the disaster in Iraq as a
trusted advisor. There is, alas, no reason to believe that Goldwin found in Bush,
Rumsfeld, Cheney and others the dangers he himself warned against. Perhaps he would
reply that these men were not using their prerogative powers in order “to further [their]
own private interests,” that they were always motivated by protecting American national
security. Even if one grants, for sake of argument, the premise, one might still believe
that Goldwin and some of the other ‘boys” ended up as apologists for tyranny. “American
conservatism” deserved better.