I don’t know quite what to make of John Howard’s decision to almost double Australia’s commitment of troops to Iraq by sending 450 Darwin-based soldiers to protect Japanese engineers around Basra. Is it, as Tim Dunlop seems to imply, just another example of Howardian deceit and duplicity? Or is it, as Tim Blair aggressively asserts, a generous humanitarian gesture to assist the plucky Iraqis to build a new democratic nation in the face of murderous Islamo-fascist thuggery?
I don’t see any signs that Howard or Downer were lying when they protested repeatedly over the last two years that Australia had no intention of boosting military numbers in Iraq, and didn’t see a significant role for Australian troops in peacekeeping or nation-building. I think Howard fairly clearly changed his mind. But why? Michael Costello in The Australian speculates that Howard “may be starting to listen to the siren song of those who see a global military role for Australia“. But that doesn’t fit with Howard’s longstanding relentless pragmatism. I also don’t see any signs that Howard has suddenly developed a late-career Gareth Evans-ish desire to strut the world stage.
Howard’s conversion on the road to
Damascus Baghdad may be in part a praiseworthy conviction that the current period in Iraq is an absolutely critical one, a ‘tipping point’ if you will, when in the wake of a successful exercise in democratic self-determination the country could either move towards stability and prosperity or descend into chaos and civil war. And Howard would be right in that conviction.
But, as Michael Costello also points out, why Australia? Iraq is on the other side of the world and not a part of Australia’s zone of strategic concern. Moreover, there are plenty of potential troublespots in our immediate region that might foreseeably require the urgent dispatch of Australian troops: the Solomons, East Timor and Papua New Guinea are just three examples, not to mention a conceivable (if unlikely in view of our neighbours’ sensibilities) need to use troops to combat Jemaah Islamiyah and other local Islamic terrorist outfits, as well as humanitarian interventions like the current Aceh involvement.
Given our proximity to Islamic-dominated potential troublespots in south-east Asia, and our role as sole credible western/first world guarantor of south Pacific stability, Australia should be the last nation expected to shoulder additional military burdens in Iraq. The US, Britain and European nations are all in a much better position to provide additional troops for Basra than is Australia.
Australia currently has a very modest military capability in terms of supporting foreign engagements of large numbers of troops on the ground for a prolonged period. I’m not an expert in the area, but I strongly suspect that our military forces will be stretched to the limit by Howard’s new Iraq commitment. And you’d have to assume Howard knows this.
So why has he made this decision? I reckon part of the reason may be a belief in a neoconservative Straussian conception explained by Shadia Drury, author of Leo Strauss and the American Right (extracted in this article from the Asia Times):
“You want a crowd that you can manipulate like putty,” according to Drury.
Strauss was also strongly influenced by Thomas Hobbes. Like Hobbes, he thought the fundamental aggressiveness of human nature could be restrained only through a powerful state based on nationalism. “Because mankind is intrinsically wicked, he has to be governed,” he once wrote. “Such governance can only be established, however, when men are united – and they can only be united against other people.”
“Strauss thinks that a political order can be stable only if it is united by an external threat,” Drury wrote in her book. “Following Machiavelli, he maintains that if no external threat exists, then one has to be manufactured. Had he lived to see the collapse of the Soviet Union, he would have been deeply troubled because the collapse of the ‘evil empire’ poses a threat to America’s inner stability.
“In Strauss’ view, you have to fight all the time 1,” said Drury. “In that respect, it’s very Spartan. Peace leads to decadence. Perpetual war, not perpetual peace, is what Straussians believe in.” Such views naturally lead to an “aggressive, belligerent foreign policy”, she added.
However, although you can make a powerful case for the Bush administration being strongly influenced by Straussian thinking via administration associates (including Jeb Bush) of the Project for a New American Century, the same can’t be said in relation to the Howard government. There’s no overt sign of any Coalition figure or apparatchik being a devotee of Straussian philosophy as such, and I can’t really imagine Howard himself poring over the works of Leo Strauss or Alan Bloom in the dark watches of the night at Kirribilli House. But it still may be an influence, partly via the zeitgeist and partly through Howard’s own pragmatic responses to his own recent political experience. The 1999 East Timor involvement led to a significant upsurge of patriotic pride in Australia, and it together with the somewhat confected Tampa/children overboard refugee crisis and the aftermath of September 11 palyed a powerful role in Howard’s 2001 election victory. Similarly, the Iraq involvement (contrasted with Latham’s idiotic “troops out by Christmas” stance) was important (if only arguably critical) to his 2004 win.
So if you’re John Howard, and you’ve become convinced that keeping the people “alert but not alarmed” with a perception of perpetual immediate external threat (if not perpetual warfare) is critical to your continuing electoral success (and therefore cementing your place in history), and you also don’t want to incur military casualties on a level that would provoke a Vietnam-style voter backlash, , how do you go about achieving it? Stationing troops in relatively peaceful Shiite southern Iraq, under a new Shiite-dominated Iraqi government, seems a fairly good bet (although it would only take one very lucky suicide bomber to place the strategy under a bit of pressure).
I’m not suggesting that you can equate Howard with the Bush neocons as such. As I said, Howard’s beliefs and policies seem to be rooted in a pragmatic response to 30 years of political experience rather than in an ideological/intellectual commitment to the arcane philosophies of Strauss and Bloom. The same is true, I think, of Howard’s evident commitment to the strategic virtues of wholesale lying (over the original intention to participate in the Iraq invasion; children overboard; the GST etc etc). This too is an aspect of Straussian philosophy, an ideological underpinning that may well go some considerable way towards explaining the even greater enthusiasm of the Bush administration for telling porkies on a grand scale:
“Strauss was neither a liberal nor a democrat,” 2 said in a telephone interview from her office at the University of Calgary in Canada. “Perpetual deception of the citizens by those in power is critical 3 because they need to be led, and they need strong rulers to tell them what’s good for them.
“The Weimar Republic 4 was his model of liberal democracy for which he had huge contempt,” added Drury. Liberalism in Weimar, in Strauss’s view, led ultimately to the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews.
Like Plato, Strauss taught that within societies, “some are fit to lead, and others to be led”, according to Drury. But, unlike Plato, who believed that leaders had to be people with such high moral standards that they could resist the temptations of power, Strauss thought that “those who are fit to rule are those who realize there is no morality and that there is only one natural right, the right of the superior to rule over the inferior”.
Again, I suspect Howard has reached a not dissimilar conviction through a combination of the zeitgeist and his own political experiences. Howard was denied national leadership for most of his career by a combination of duplicity by members of his own party (Peacock, Kennett etc) and the glib lies of Hawke and Keating (“no Australian child will live in poverty …; L-A-W law …). He learnt the political lesson of the virtues of dissembling and duplicity, and then took them to a new and higher level by making dissembling central to his “small target” 1996 election victory.
Of course, we shouldn’t overstate the Straussian influence on the shape of modern conservative politics, even in the US let alone Australia. As Michael C. Desch argues in this recent article from The American Conservative magazine:
For Strauss, Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger were the two great philosophers of late modernity. The fact that both were directly or indirectly linked to National Socialism must have made him acutely aware that mixing philosophical radicalism and practical politics can lead to disaster. Not surprisingly, Strauss concluded that prudence dictates that one choose between the life of philosophy (his choice) and sustained political engagement.
In contrast, the political Straussians, who have now become largely indistinguishable from neoconservatives, are radicals, clearly lacking the prudence that Strauss advocated in practical politics. Political Straussians and their neoconservative allies argue that the spread of democracy is a panacea for many of America’s global problems. But the intellectual justification for such a policy could hardly have been Strauss, who was a critic of modern liberalism and democracy. Strauss maintained that political regimes encompass more than just their formal institutions but also depend upon the habits, mores, and customs of a society. It is hard to imagine that he would be sanguine about the prospects for the promotion of democracy in countries lacking these prerequisites. Indeed, Strauss’s view ought to lead to caution, rather than enthusiasm, for making regime-change the cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy. To find philosophical support for such a policy, one has to look to liberal thinkers such as Kant or Montesquieu. As Lilla argues, what has happened since 1973 was not a Straussian takeover of neoconservatism but rather a hijacking of Strauss’s thought or at least the kidnapping of some of his less astute students.
But one can also argue that Desch (wilfully?) misunderstand the nature of the influence of any given philosophy or intellectual movement on practical politics. Politicians are pragmatists by necessity, and a successful politician must subordinate coherent philosophy and “the vision thing” to the exigencies of retaining power. There’s probably never been a purist classical liberal democracy, just as there will probably never be a purist Straussian neocon polity. But that isn’t to say that the thinking of Mill or Bentham, or Hayek or Popper, have been irrelevant to practical politics.
Moreover, Desch also (wilfully?) ignores the possibility/probability that Bush administration professed intentions of fashioning a western liberal democratic nation state may in part be just a Straussian noble lie. Certainly there are at least some indicators that the Bushies only concurred reluctantly in a genuinely democratic exercise in Iraq after Sistani gave them no choice. American self-interest requires a regime that will deliver stability and prosperity, be reliably pro-American (or at least not anti-American) and that won’t threaten its neighbours like Saddam did. American self-interest doesn’t require a liberal democratic state in Iraq, and the fact that Straussian thought deprecates that possibility rather confirms the suggestion that fostering democracy actually wasn’t high on the list of priorities, and that pious protestations to the contrary are better explained in terms of Straussian lying.
As you may have noticed, I’ve strayed rather a long way from my starting point (why is Howard sending 450 additional troops to Iraq?). In fact, if this was a comment, rather than a primary post, I’d probably point out that it was off-topic. But the whole question of the extent of the influence of Straussian thought on the Bush and Howard governments is one I find fascinating. The similarities between the strategies of the Bush administration, which has manifestly been strongly influenced by Strauss and Bloom, and Howard’s Coalition, where no such immediate influence is evident, are quite remarkable, right down to the attempts to weave religious issues into the political cloth despite Ausralia’s culture being radically different from the US. Again Shadia Drury explains:
For Strauss, “religion is the glue that holds society together”, said Drury, who added that Irving Kristol, among other neoconservatives, has argued that separating church and state was the biggest mistake made by the founders of the US republic.
“Secular society in their view is the worst possible thing,” because it leads to individualism, liberalism and relativism, precisely those 5 traits that might encourage dissent, which in turn could dangerously weaken society’s ability to cope with external threats. “You want a crowd that you can manipulate like putty,” according to Drury.
The extent and manner of Straussian influence on Howard and his strategic advisers (e.g. Arthur Sinodhinos, Lynton Crosby, Mark Textor) seems to me to be a relatively unexplored aspect of current Australian politics. Is it just the zeitgeist and pragmatic coincidence, or something more direct? For instance, I know that Mark Textor spent significant amounts of time in the US in the early 1990s (when he was just a young, up-and-coming NT CLP apparatchik) learning about Republican negative campaigning tactics. Did he also fall under the influence of Straussian thinking at that time? Can one trace similar influences in the backgrounds of other Howard advisers? Textor would have been a perfect candidate/sucker for Straussian conversion. After all, he’d grown up around the Country Liberal Party, which kept an iron electoral grip on the Northern Territory for 23 years through a combination of confected external threats (blackfellas and the evil federal government) and wholesale lying to support the popular “alert but not alarmed” public mindset.
PS – For any readers new to the dubious delights of neocon thinking, another good populist discussion of Straussian philosophy can be found in this 1997 article by Ronald Bailey in Reason magazine.
- to survive
- Shadia Drury
- in Strauss’s view
- in Germany