I remember years ago reading a blurb about Paul Wolfowitz in my copy of the University of Chicago alumni magazine. It was a little sidebar section dedicated to influential "Straussian" alums, the work they did at the University and what they do now. "Straussian" refers to the work of Leo Strauss, and his ideological heir Allan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind, who was a big influence on Wolfowitz as an undergraduate at Cornell.
The blurb appeared in the June 2003 issue. The war was only months old and at the time I honestly didn't know much about the man. It reads like such:
Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul D. Wolfowitz, PhD'72, is close to the roots of the Strauss family tree. Earning a doctorate in political science, he studied at Chicago with the late mathematician and nuclear strategist Albert Wohlstetter, who, according to Atlas, "put forward the idea of 'graduated deterrence'-limited, small-scale wars fought with "smart" precision-guided bombs." Wolfowitz, who wrote his dissertation on nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, has a c. vitae that includes seven years as dean of Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). He served as U.S. ambassador to Indonesia for three years during the Reagan presidency and as undersecretary of defense for policy (19891993) helped shape both postCold War and Gulf War strategy. "Recruited by Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld," Atlas writes, "Mr. Wolfowitz is widely regarded as a chief architect of foreign policy."
The other Straussian luminaries in the article include Iraq War cogs and Neoconservative disciples Ahmad Chalabi, PhD'69, Abram Shulsky, AM'68, PhD'72, director of the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans and Zalmay Khalilzad, PhD'79, a member of the National Security Council. That's quite a distinctive list; all this from the University that also brought you Milton Freidman and the atomic bomb. Sometimes I can barely contain my alumni pride.
I remember recoiling, somewhat shocked after realizing there were so many plot points on the Iraq War graph so closely clustered together, so far back in time. I realized then that what was unfolding in Iraq was the culmination of the life's work of a handful of like-minded ideologues that read too much Plato and had too little contact with the real world during their intellectual coming of age together in Hyde Park. Since Neoconservatism is rooted in the ideas of its forefathers Strauss and Wohlstetter, it's a heady mix of Plato's politics with a burning desire to broadly impose our military might over an inherently hostile world.
Like other schools of Platonic thought, Neoconservatism is based on universal assumptions and ideal forms. Plato's ethereal philosophy is the perfect underpinning for an ideology that also believes that the only way to world peace is for the rest of the world to be under American military control. The two mix well because words that frequently appear in Plato's writings like Freedom, Justice and Liberty (capitalized, always) have historically been very effective at motivating incursions, civil disruptions, outright wars, and political cabals. Plato makes for potent rhetoric. These concepts can really get people riled up. Since the Neoconservative motive was to spread the kind of pure Freedom, Liberty and Justice Plato spoke of through Socrates in the Republic, there could be no resistance to the attendant spread of military power that went with it. Who would want to resist? This is Freedom we're talking about, here. Get excited, Iraq, it's comin' atcha! Or so said the rhetoricians.
Notice that Neoconservatives don't talk about our freedom versus their freedom, they only talk about the Freedom (capitalized!). This ultimate Freedom is supposedly out there in the ephemera and has an obvious and inherent appeal to everyone, everywhere, regardless of place in time. Ideal forms are perfect, immutable, irrefutable and infallible. As long as advancing Freedom is the goal you don't have to explain yourself to anybody, because eventually everyone is going to come around once they realize you're trying to bless them with the gift of the Freedom. There's a metaphor about a cave in there somewhere that explains everything; talk to Socrates, he'll fill you in.
But it didn't work? Why didn't it work?
Neoconservatism, like other forms of Platonism, assumes above all that people are essentially the same wherever you go. All you need to do first is strip away all the messiness of the real world. Once you've peeled away all that culture and heritage and folklore like leaves on an artichoke and gotten to the heart of the matter you're bound to find common understanding. I remember a cultural psychology professor at Chicago named Richard Shweder pounding this Platonic tenet ("people are the same wherever you go") into my head ad nauseam, and not because he agreed with it. His life's work was dedicated to documenting just the opposite of what Neoconservatism assumes. People actually aren't the same wherever you go. They don't all want the same things. People tend to be molded by culture in a very complicated way that makes a unified understanding of abstract concepts like Freedom difficult to come by because culture tends to color the way these concepts are understood. Alas, all those Big Ideas (capitalized!) of Western Culture that drive Neoconservatism tend not to transport so well. Those pesky Middle East theocracies just don't cooperate. They just don't get it.
The administration's response to Iraq's unraveling in the face of Neoconservative certainty has been fascinating to watch in the way that pathological liars can be fascinating to listen to. What they say confounds in a way that is deeply disturbing because it bears no resemblance to the obvious reality under everyone's nose. The administration continued to operate until very recently under the assumption that the ideas that brought us to Iraq were infallible, and if we just kept restating them eventually they would work like a magician's incantation changing lead into gold.
I was discussing all this with a friend who made a good point; Neoconservatism is like Soviet communism at its worst. The underlying assumption there was that Marx's ideas were infallible. The peasants starved, but their government continued to insist that paradise was always just beyond the horizon. If they could hold on just a little longer, the dream would be theirs because Marx said it would. People suffered, the locus of power remained centered on the Marxists and nobody had to admit that they went wrong somewhere along the way. Eventually the whole apparatus collapsed and the ideologists were discredited.
Sort of like Neoconservatism.
Infallible ideas can be very dangerous. Hopefully we're done swimming with Wolfowitz in the ether of ideal forms and universal assumptions and are ready to come back down to reality.
Jeff Deeney is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia. He primarily covers urban drug culture and poverty issues and has made recent contributions to both the Philadelphia City Paper and the Inquirer.