International Politics

, Volume 42, Issue 2, pp 174–202

Leo Strauss, Neoconservatism and US Foreign Policy: Esoteric Nihilism and the Bush Doctrine

  • Jim George


The re-election of the George W. Bush administration in November 2003 and the unrelenting hard-line perspectives subsequently articulated by the President and senior foreign and defence policy figures, has led to much controversy within the US and the international community in general. Concern in particular has been expressed at the continuing influences upon the President of neoconservative thinkers and activists in and around his administration and the impact, more generally, of neoconservatism upon the key decision-making processes concerning the current war in Iraq and the post-9/11 ‘war on terror’. This paper concentrates primarily on the ‘why’ questions concerning the neoconservative ascendency — questions of why it understands the world the way it does — of why it is committed to radically changing both liberal and (traditional) conservative approaches to US foreign policy and the traditional systemic order. The paper suggests that intrinsic to this understanding and commitment, for some of the most significant of contemporary neoconservatives, is the work and legacy of Leo Strauss (1898–1973). There is contention associated with precisely what Strauss' dense and (consciously) ambiguous writings sought to convey to his readers. In this paper, I propose that for Straussian inspired neoconservatives his meaning and its implications are clear enough, in the (interpreted) injunction to wrench political and cultural power from the (perceived) liberal establishment in the US, and to forcefully and unapologetically impose American power, values and hegemonic design upon the global system, for the long-term good of that system. More precisely, I argue, neoconservatives have drawn from Strauss a thematic agenda of sorts which emphasizes; the re-invocation of strong nationalism and cultural unity in modern western societies; the value of a simple religious and philosophical morality, and (ultimately) of a ‘war culture’ as the basis of maintaining such unity; the use of maximum force by the Western democracies in the face of endemic threat; and of a more general ‘peace through strength’ approach to foreign policy by the US, the political and ideological leader of modern Western civilisation. From Strauss too has come the notion that elite rule is crucial if post-Enlightenment liberalism is not to further threaten the (classical) democratic model of governance, and that the neoconservative elite has the right and indeed the obligation to lie to the masses in order that the ‘right’ political and strategic decisions be made and implemented. Hence, the use of the so-called ‘noble lie’. I explore elements of this ‘Straussian’ agenda in this paper, emphasizing its significance for US and global politics in general and, in more specific terms, for the war in Iraq. The paper concludes with a discussion of the way in which Straussian and broader neoconservative influences were integral to the processes by which the ‘shock and awe’ attacks of March, 2003 were rationalized and legitimated within the Bush administration, via some eminently (ig)noble lies.


Bush doctrine US foreign policy neoconservatism Wohlstetter Leo Strauss Straussian legacy Iraq war bogus intelligence noble lie 


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Copyright information

© Palgrave Macmillan Ltd 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jim George
    • 1
  1. 1.School of Social Sciences, Copland Building, Australian National UniversityCanberraAustralia

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