The spectacular triumph of a rabid conservatism at the heart of American liberal society seems like an enigma. Suddenly, that bastion of freedom and licentiousness seems to have metamorphosed into a crusading Christian empire. Liberal regard for freedom of speech, freedom of information, individual rights, limited government, division of powers and the rule of law is being trampled in favour of arbitrary detention, torture, secret trials, secret prisons, rabid nationalism, religious intolerance and an imperial presidency with almost unlimited powers. A small group of intellectuals – the neoconservatives – are taking most of the credit or blame for this supposedly astonishing transformation.

Who are the neoconservatives or new conservatives? And how did they manage to turn Americans against their liberal traditions? Surprisingly, the first neocons were anti-Soviet socialists and devotees of Trotsky; they were mostly children of Jewish immigrant families who grew up in New York. They were lucky enough to get a free education at municipal colleges, which allowed them to become academics, journalists, essayists, founders of think tanks, institutes and the like. The careers of the prominent first-generation neocons – Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, Nathan Glazer, Gertrude Himmelfarb and many others – are examples of America success. Out of the ghetto and into the bourgeoisie.

So why did the neocons abandon their communist convictions and turn to a strident brand of conservatism? In the first place, the intended and unintended evils of the Soviet Union led them to doubt that a planned economy was desirable. Gradually these former reds drifted toward the liberal left. Then, as the father of neoconservatism, Irving Kristol, explains, they were “mugged by reality”. Reality came in the form of Senator Joseph McCarthy, who in the 1950s set out to purge all communists from positions of power and influence with accusations based on the flimsiest evidence from anonymous sources. Although this era is widely regarded as a dark and shameful period in American history, the neocons were, and continue to be, sympathetic to McCarthy. They became convinced that the world was a very dangerous place and that leftists and liberals were simpletons who could not grasp the harsh realities of political existence.

They found their philosophical support in the writings of Leo Strauss (1889-1973), a German Jewish émigré at the University of Chicago who became the intellectual guru of the movement, and whose philosophy regarded liberal faith in freedom of thought and speech to be problematic, even suicidal. Freedom of thought, Strauss suggested, encouraged a sceptical attitude, which undermines the unquestioning belief, unswerving commitment and resolute devotion that a state needs.

At the height of the Cold War the neoconservatives (the term was first used by these early adherents, but only later became common currency) insisted on an aggressive foreign policy that would militarily defeat the Soviet Union. They were not fazed by a situation of mutual assured destruction (MAD). They rejected containment, détente, and co-existence; nothing short of the defeat of the enemy was acceptable. They denounced Truman and Eisenhower for trying to achieve peace by waiting for the Soviets to implode. As it turned out, this policy was quite prescient, but the neocons would have none of it. They were champions of the war in Vietnam, blaming the American defeat (in a pre-figuring of the current neocon stance on Iraq) on liberal weakness and lack of resolve, which made America reluctant to use the full force of her military power.

When Ronald Reagan denounced the Soviet Union as the Evil Empire, he became the darling of the neocons. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, they imagined that Reagan had defeated the Evil Empire single-handedly. Francis Fukuyama, a leading neoconservative intellectual, declared the decisive triumph of the American way in The End of History and the Last Man (1992).

But, despite their triumphalism, the neocons were anxious. The defeat of the Soviet Union triggered an identity crisis. They had defined themselves as anti-communists and in the absence of the looming shadow of the enemy they were at a loss. But not all of the neocons thought that America had no serious external enemies to contend with. In his Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996), Samuel Huntington delivered some uplifting bad news – America still had plenty of enemies, so there was no reason to despair that there was nothing manly left to do, as Fukuyama had implied.

Huntington warned that the Islamic world was a particular menace. Other neoconservatives agreed; we cannot allow the nation to get complacent and let its guard down, they argued. The neocons were determined to wake America from her liberal slumber. Unfortunately for them Bill Clinton, a Democrat, was in the White House. So a group of prominent neoconservatives (some of whom had played a role in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George Bush Snr) got together and wrote a comprehensive foreign policy in the form of a long letter to Clinton.

This famous document, The Project for the New American Century (PNAC) (readily available on the internet), was signed by Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Dan Quayle, Jeb Bush, Francis Fukuyama, William Bennett, Midge Decter and Norman Podhoretz. William Kristol (as the son of Gertrude Himmelfarb and Irving Kristol, virtual neo-con royalty), was the chairman of the project.

The watchwords of the document were boldness, daring, decisiveness, speed, combat readiness and regime change. In the absence of the Soviet Union, a multiplicity of wars could be launched simultaneously around the globe – starting with Iraq. America must defeat all her enemies and create a world favourable to American interests, values, and principles. The neocons advised President Clinton to take advantage of this unique “unipolar” moment to achieve word dominance. The only thing that was missing was the will to take on the task. In an ominous prediction, the authors anticipated that some dreadful catastrophe, comparable to Pearl Harbor, would be necessary to awaken America from her liberal slumber. The attacks of 11 September 2001 created the perfect set of circumstances to implement their policy. This was an opportunity beyond their wildest dreams. It is no wonder that so many Americans suspect that the attacks were orchestrated by their own government.

Despite the political clout of the neo-cons, implementing the policies of neoconservativism has turned out to be very difficult. For all its military might, the United States has not managed a successful invasion of Iraq – a country without an airforce, a navy or any weapons of mass destruction. Iraq was supposed to be the beginning of a grand plan of world domination. Syria, Iran, North Korea and many more were to be the objects of “regime change”. But the American army has been mired in Iraq by an insurgency it cannot suppress.

Meanwhile, the American public, realising that it was duped, has turned decidedly against the war. The Democrats have gained control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. John Bolton, the strident neoconservative representative of the United States in the United Nations, was forced to resign. So was Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld. David Frum and Richard Perle, authors of End of Evil: How to Win the War on Terror (2004), have conceded in recent interviews that the war on terror has been lost. In the pages of the neocon bible, The Weekly Standard, William Kristol has attacked the incompetence of the administration, even though it has been doing his bidding. In his recent book America at the Crossroads (2006), Francis Fukuyama has declared that he is a neocon no more. All this has led conventional wisdom to declare the death of neoconservatism as a political force and to relegate its adherents to the trash bin of history. But this is much too optimistic.

In the first place, the neocons have not admitted defeat. They believe that the incompetence of the Bush administration is the only reason for the failure of their brilliant plans. They refuse to abandon their devotion to military solutions, continuing to advocate a military attack on Iran. They refuse to admit that the invasion of Iraq was supported by lies, propaganda and the manipulation of public opinion. They concede only that the Bush administration has made errors that were a result of incompetence and limited information. They continue to link the invasion of Iraq with the so called “War on Terror”, which is merely a convenient term that makes their project of world dominance more palatable. But the neocons refuse to countenance any suggestion that the project of world domination is seriously flawed. They refuse to link the mistakes of the Bush administration to the gargantuan and reckless nature of neoconservative policies.

Francis Fukuyama has repudiated the term “neoconservatism” only because the incompetence of the Bush administration has made the term an object of disdain. He advocates a new term (“Wilsonian realism”), a new team and new strategies – not new ideas. He instructs the next neoconservative administration to proceed with greater circumspection, prudence and verbal modesty. He refuses to take any responsibility for fuelling the hubris of the Bush foreign policy. The neocons have not repented. They are as doggedly attached to their ideas as ever.

In truth, the ineptitude of the Bush administration has highlighted the inherent defects of neoconservatism. The neoconservatives were never content with the political realism of a Hobbes or even a Henry Kissinger. They adopted the more strident realism of Leo Strauss, laced as it is with religious self-righteousness – God is on our side and our enemies are allied with the forces of evil. Strauss himself was an atheist, but he thought that religion was the “pious fraud”, indispensable for cultivating deference to authority, undermining hedonism, instilling discipline and making people ready to die for their country. Religion was vital to prepare people for death, tragedy and the horrors of war.

Irving Kristol, in his Autobiography of an Idea, echoed Leo Strauss when he argued that there was no reason to choose between the rational atheism of Freud and the religion of Moses, since the two can be reconciled by adopting, “a double standard of truth. Let men believe in the lies of religion since they cannot do without them, and let the handful of sages, who know the truth and can live with it, keep it among themselves. Men are then divided into the wise and the foolish, the philosophers and the common men, and atheism becomes a guarded esoteric doctrine – for if the illusions of religion were to be discredited, there is no telling with what madness men would be seized, with what uncontrollable anguish.”

Not all the neoconservatives are covert atheists. But the Straussian neocons are deluded into thinking that they are a special breed; they live by a different rule; they are the superior few who can face the abyss of nihilism; they know that God is dead and they have replaced him. For these mortal gods, lying, deceit and the manipulation of public opinion are honourable because the masses are not fit for truth – they need a diet of noble delusions intended to link the political interests of the state with the cosmic forces of justice, goodness and truth.

This double standard is integral to Strauss’s trust in the salutary effects of the covert tyranny of the wise. In his work he returned to classical sources to frame this justification of deception. In City and Man (1964) Strauss revisits the case of Alcibiades, the treasonous Athenian general who was suspected of plotting to destroy Athenian democracy. Strauss defends him by arguing that this would have been the best thing for Athens, adding, “It is impossible for a wise man to benefit his city except by deceiving it.” This glorification of lying and tyranny has had disastrous consequences.

Abram Shulsky, the Director of the Office of Special Plans, which was created by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to find intelligence that would justify the invasion of Iraq, has stated bluntly that he learned from Strauss that “deception is the norm in political life.” We know now that the intelligence used to justify the war was misleading, exaggerated or false. The facts were made to fit the policy and not the other way around.

It is no surprise that one of the Straussians in high office, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, has been convicted of lying to the FBI, obstruction of justice and other criminal offences. Libby was Vice President Dick Cheney’s Straussian-educated chief of staff. He was a student of Paul Wolfowitz, who was a student of Leo Strauss and Allan Bloom. Wolfowitz was Deputy Minister of Defense and a key architect of the war on Iraq. Now he is presiding over the World Bank, where he is mired in scandal for fraud, deception and nepotism.

These Straussians will no doubt compare their predicament to the persecution of Socrates by the Athenian mob: wise men vilified by the ignorant masses. But the comparison is disingenuous. Socrates preferred the death penalty to breaking the law. In contrast, Strauss has cultivated arrogant and unprincipled crooks, liars, cynics and snobs.

But despite the fall from grace of so many of their clan, and the demise of neoconservatism as a brand, this does not mean that the neoconservative culture of war will disappear. The militancy of the neocons is not an aberration in American politics. It is intimately linked to the narcissism at the heart of America’s psyche.

There has always been a tendency for Americans to believe that they are an exceptional nation with a divine calling. It is quite normal for Americans of every political stripe to believe that their manifest destiny is to be servants of truth and justice, an inspiration to all humanity and a beacon of freedom and progress – a nation under God, and a Zion that will light up the world: “The last, best hope for the world”.

This is why something akin to neoconservatism is a perennial American temptation. Long after the defeat of the Bush administration, an aggressive foreign policy similar to that of the neoconservatives will continue to beckon American leaders. ■

Shadia B. Drury
is Canada Research Chair in Social Justice at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan. She is author of The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss (updated edition 2005) and Leo Strauss and the American Right (1997), both published by Palgrave Macmillan.