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Leo Strauss and Intelligence Strategy

Abram Shulsky and Gary Schmitt credit the teachings of Leo Strauss, a German Jewish émigré philosopher, with helping them conceptualize...

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Abram Shulsky and Gary Schmitt credit the teachings of Leo Strauss, a German Jewish émigré philosopher, with helping them conceptualize their understanding of good intelligence. Shulsky received his doctorate from the University of Chicago studying under Strauss, who attracted a cult following of neocons with his theories about politics and human nature. Shadia Drury, author of several books on Straussian political philosophy, said that Leo Strauss believed that “truth is not salutary, but dangerous, and even destructive to society–any society.” 1

In their joint 1999 essay, “Leo Strauss and the World of Intelligence,” Shulsky and Schmitt observed that CIA analysts “were generally reluctant throughout the cold war to believe that they could be deceived about any critical questions by the Soviet Union or other Communist states.” But “history has shown this view to be extremely naïve.” 2 Unlike the Soviet Union, which operated with Machiavellian sophistication, according to Shulsky and Schmitt, the U.S. government was constrained by its democratic and moral principles during the cold war.

A political philosophy more closely hewed to the classic philosophers, particularly Plato, and the realist philosophers, such as Strauss, could provide an “antidote” to the CIA’s failings, the authors claimed. Such a philosophy of intelligence would help the U.S. government understand Islamic leaders “whose intellectual world was so different from our own.” To truly grasp a given situation, contend Shulsky and Schmitt, it is necessary to penetrate the surface of information to uncover what Strauss called “the hidden meaning” in political dealings. Such a perspective, they said, “alerts one to the possibility that political life may be closely linked to deception. Indeed, it suggests that deception is the norm in political life, and the hope, to say nothing of the expectation, of establishing a politics that can dispense with it is the exception.”

According to Shulsky and Schmitt, for the United States to operate with good intelligence, it should stop being a naïve player in a very cruel world. Given that adversaries aim to deceive, these two Straussian intelligence analysts warned that astute intelligence experts “can rarely be confident of the solidity of the foundations on which they are building; they must be open to the possibility that their evidence is misleading.” 3 Hence, effective intelligence should rely more on analysis of the intentions of adversaries rather than on details and uncertainties.

In her book Leo Strauss and the American Right, Shadia Drury elaborates on Strauss’ view that a political aristocracy must necessarily manipulate the masses for their own good. The Straussian worldview, according to Drury, contends that “perpetual deception of the citizens by those in power is critical because they need to be led, and they need strong rulers to tell them what’s good for them.” 4

In his “success in looking below the surface” and his “seeming unworldliness,” Leo Strauss resembles George Smiley, the wise but weary protagonist of the spy novels of John le Carré, boast Shulsky and Schmitt. “Indeed, the Iraq intelligence debacle swirling around Shulsky’s OSP [Office of Special Plans] seems to fit some of le Carré’s enduring revelations about the espionage business,” writes Washington Monthly’s national security affairs correspondent Laura Rozen. However, she suggests that the two Straussian intelligence buffs further explore the Smiley-Strauss analogy. In le Carré’s looking glass world of spies, observes Rozen, “intelligence is almost always politicized” and “the ideological assumptions and personal obsessions that drive people in the spook world can be as disabling as the secrets and disinformation with which their enemies set about to deceive them.”

Robert Pippen, chairman of the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, attributes Strauss with believing that “good statesmen must rely on an inner circle. The person who whispers in the ear of the king is more important than the king.” 5

In defending Bush, Richard Perle told the New York Times that the president was a “consumer of intelligence, not a producer of it.” 6 But that isn’t the point of most critics of the administration. No one was accusing Bush himself of manufacturing intelligence. Most Americans critical of the intelligence presented to justify the preventive war have two overriding concerns:

One issue is that the president was not a discriminating consumer of intelligence. Weapons inspector David Kay told Congress that “we were all wrong” about the threat assessments the preceded the war. But neither the UN weapons inspectors nor the International Atomic Energy Commission were wrong when they found no evidence of a nuclear weapons program or stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Apparently President Bush uncritically accepted the politicized intelligence fed to him by his inner circle. However, hundreds of millions of war critics around the world were skeptical of the cooked-up evidence of the Hussein regime’s stockpile of WMDs and the claims of ties with al Qaeda bandied about by Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Perle, and Powell. The lesson is that if the president is a merely consumer of intelligence, then he has the responsibility of being an intelligent consumer.

A second concern relates to the issue about whom the president selects to whisper in his ear. The inner circle surrounding Bush is profoundly influenced by the elitist political philosophy of Leo Strauss and by the dubious theory of politicized intelligence promoted by neoconservatives associated with such groups as the National Strategy Information Center, Project for the New American Century, and Center for Security Policy. Bush relies on a tightly linked network of ideologues and militarists within the Pentagon and vice president’s office, and to a lesser extent at the National Security Council and the State Department, while sidelining the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency. This inside network operates in turn as an extension of a web of right-wing think tanks and policy institutes outside the administration that not only routinely whisper in the king’s ear but successfully convert their own agendas for intelligence, foreign policy, and national security reform into government policy. Endnotes

  1. Shadia B. Drury, Leo Strauss and the American Right (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997), p. 1.
  2. Quoted in Seymour M. Hersh, “Selective Intelligence,” New Yorker, May 12, 2003. The full title of this 1999 essay by Shulsky and Schmitt is Leo Strauss and the World of Intelligence (By Which We Do Not Mean Nous). In classical Greek philosophy, nous is a term that denotes the highest form of rationality.
  3. Abram N. Shulsky and Gary J. Schmitt, Silent Warfare: Understanding the World of Intelligence (Washington, DC: Brassey’s Inc., 2002), p. 176.
  4. Drury quoted by Jim Lobe in “The Strong Must Rule the Weak: A Philosopher for an Empire,” FPIF Commentary, Foreign Policy In Focus, May 12, 2003.
  5. Quoted by Hersh in “Selective Intelligence.”
  6. Christopher Marquis, “Ex-Arms Inspector Now in Center of a Political Maelstrom,” New York Times, February 2, 2004.

Tom Barry is policy director of the Interhemispheric Resource Center (online at www.irc-online.org).



Tom Barry, "A Philosophy of Intelligence: Leo Strauss and Intelligence Strategy," IRC Right Web (Somerville, MA: Interhemispheric Resource Center, February 12, 2004).

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