Paul Craig Roberts on the Neocons

I just read Paul Craig Roberts’s review of Claes G. Ryn‘s America the Virtuous, in the Jan 2 TLS. Roberts, author of books like The New Color Line, has bona fide conservative credentials: Hoover Institution, Wall Street Journal, and so on. But he’s far more Edmund Burke than Leo Strauss:

The rise of a new Jacobin ideology…has captured the Bush administration and formerly conservative media, such as the Wall Street Journal editorial page, National Review, the Washington Times, and Fox News. Known to the world as neo-conservativism, this ideology is radical, not conservative. It appears to be conservative because, unlike cultural Marxists who find endless social and moral vices in American values and institutions, neo-conservatives find virtue.

Like the Cato Institute, who haven’t been big Bush boosters for a while, Roberts is enough of a libertarian to have it trump his traditional party allegiances. He’s not concerned with corruption, class stratification, or cultural divisons; he’s worried that the “neo-Jacobin” (i.e., Leo Straussian neo-conservatism) approach will be disastrous and wreck the country economically, militarily, and politically.

Listen to him bemoan the lack of an opposition to the neo-cons:

The alternative voice to the new Jacobins is that of postmodernism and cultural Marxism. This voice, strongest in the universities, is hostile to America and works against enculturation of its youth in traditional American values. As cultural Marxism does not resonate with the general population, it is not a political check on the neo-conservatives.

The description of academia is a little harsh, but I have to admire the pithiness of his assessment of its effectiveness.

But I do think he’s gone astray. With Richard Perle out at the Defense Policy Board and Paul Wolfowitz supposedly the next to go (keeping my fingers crossed there), he picks at the wrong part of Strauss’s agenda. Americans aren’t Romans and they aren’t anywhere near as keen on military adventurism; that would be the first chip to fall. Likewise the proclamation of American virtue over rest-of-world vice: it’s a useful rhetorical device, but the ultimate authorities (I would speculate: Rove and Cheney; maybe Rumsfeld, who had different axes to grind than the neocons) decided the adventure in Iraq was a safe bet, not an ideological necessity. Why else was there such a hard push to convince us all (citizens and executives alike) that Iraq would be a cakewalk?

The Roberts article is interesting to me because after all his excoriation of “conservatism” in America today, it still gives the movement some benefit of the doubt by assigning them some pragmatic motives:

The same pragmatic politicians who have no interests except their own re-election might, in fact, safe us from the world the neo-Jacobins have in mind.

Add “accumulation of unchecked, centralized executive power” to the list of interests. This is the Straussian principle–the presence of a totalitarian Platonic ruling class–that poses the most threat to Roberts’s libertarian agenda, and it’s the one most likely to survive the downfall of neo-conservatism…or the downfall of the Bush administration. Here, I think Paul Krugman is totally on the mark:

There is no higher goal. Bush’s motivations are dynastic–to secure his family’s rightful place. While he may have some policy biases–like that “instinctive policy fealty” to the investment business–policy is basically there to serve the acquisition of power, and not the other way around.

The story of neoconservatism and the movement of a radical ideology to the center of the political establishment is more interesting than your typical power-hungry executive, but it’s secondary to, and I think separable from, the dominant theme of domestic control. Still, I have to respect a classical conservative desperate and consistent enough to end on this note:

Although most Americans are unaware of it, their best hope is that Iraqi insurgents succeed in driving the US out of Iraq, thus destroying Bush’s re-election.

What would Burke say?