Wielding the Shield of Neo-conservatism: Manifesting the Illusion
Neo-conservatism, although not originally defined as a movement, began in an assortment of political circles where right-wing Democrats, pundits and political philosophers measured America’s foreign and domestic policies following the commencement of the Cold War. These political actors began to align themselves against what they believed to be the disintegration of core American values in economics, defence and foreign policy. Seeing the enormous financial potential to be gained by the implementation of these aggressive philosophies and attitudes, military corporatists invested in think tanks with cohesive mandates capable of inspiring existing and prospective politicians able to implement these plans at the highest levels of government. The Bush administration,whose political philosophies are a product of these think tanks, created a paradigm wherein the battle between good and evil was resurrected as the champion struggle facing America. This legacy of neo-conservatism, following the collapse of the Bush administration, requires careful deliberation and critical analysis.
The neo-conservatives and their financial backers came to believe their righteous schema carried the same authority and power as the great shield of Achilles once had on the battlefields of ancient Greece. Hephaestus, blacksmith to the Greek Gods, forged this mythic piece of armour for Achilles to carry into battle against the Trojans in the epic war between Greece and Troy. The shield was decorated with layer after layer of imagined society as commanded by its carrier. From the image of the universe carved at the centre, circle layer by circle layer displayed various scenes of society that unified into a cohesive vision, paralyzing and submitting all adversaries that looked upon it. Once you faced the shield, the paradigm it constructed stood righteous and just, impermeable to divisiveness or falsification. It didn’t just exhibit its truth as an option; the truth was compulsory and inescapable. The neo-conservative political pundits, philosophers and the like-minded politicians who have held positions of power in America have fashioned an Achilles Shield of their own; and like the shield of Achilles, it has been wielded by successive parties hoping to reap its benefits. Neo-conservatism has constructed a view of the world that exhibited the same false dichotomy that Achilles used on the battlefields outside the gates of Troy: by the might of his shield, all must submit or face dire consequences.
Leo Strauss, a German-born Jewish-American political philosopher specializing in classical political philosophy, holds the reputation of being the godfather of neo-conservative contemplation. Strauss spent most of his career as a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, where he taught several generations of students and published fifteen books. From Strauss’ political philosophies, there is a key element to neo-conservatism used to justify an aggressive foreign policy. Strauss extrapolated a clear rejection of relativism in political and legal thought. In Strauss’ summation, relativism “rejects the notion that any principle can be entirely and rationally justified.” From this rejection of relativist principles, Strauss declares absolute truths to be justified and, therefore; intolerance is a “value equal in dignity to tolerance.” Transposed into the language of neo-conservatism, the world contains cultures that are right and those that are wrong; the latter must not be tolerated if they affect the growth and security of the righteous nations.
Near the end of WW2, Lewis H. Brown, a politically active industrialist who made his fortune in the asbestos industry in America, founded the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (AEI), an extremely right wing, pro-business think tank whose publicly declared goal was to “improve the institutions of American freedom and democratic capitalism--limited government, private enterprise, individual liberty and responsibility, vigilant and effective defense and foreign policies, political accountability, and open debate.” These stated goals would come to be the mantra of the neo-conservative movement in the years that followed and financial backing of the platforms for advocating these ideas would continue to come from military industrial giants. AEI received $44,636,101 in donations between 1985 and 2006. The John M. Olin Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation and the Scaife Foundation are the largest contributors of this money. All three of these foundations are the product of military industrialists who seized on the idea of backing political institutions that would further private corporatist agendas. A “vigilant and effective defense” required a constant flow of money from government to munitions manufacturers like the Olin Foundation. “Limited government” meant little or no regulation of oil magnates like Gulf Oil Corporation, whose largest shareholder was the Scaife Foundation. Moreover, “vigilant and effective defense and foreign policies” meant continued American control of the Middle-Eastern oil that was the lifeblood of industrialists everywhere.
From the end of WW2 onwards, the stage was set. Carrying a philosophy that rejected relativism, a myriad of forums, backed by industrialists, would bring forth the Achilles Shield of neo-conservatism into the limelight of modern American politics. Political actors were injected into the public forum using funding from these foundations. Ronald Reagan, William and Irving Kristol, Dick Cheney, George W. and Jeb Bush, Paul Bremer, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld and even Dan Quayle were a few among many that were enabled under this dichotomy of intention: a righteous political philosophy would be implemented and military industrialists would make massive revenues in the process. America would be sold on values and an absolutist social paradigm that offered no alternatives: communism must be defeated; the free market must be maintained without regulation, aggressive military campaigns must be undergone to ensure the stability of the Middle East; American hegemony must remain undisputed and unchallengeable regardless of the cost. Foreign paradigms contradictory to this vision must not be tolerated. Reduced to its most basic premise, good must be financed and enabled to win out over evil. For Ronald Reagan, the golden boy of neo-conservatism, the Soviet Union was the “Evil Empire.” George W. Bush defined America’s enemies as the “Axis of Evil.” In both cases, it would require colossal increases in military spending to defeat the enemy.
In 1997, William Kristol formed what would become the hive of the neo-conservatism cabal: the Project for the New American Century (PNAC). This think tank was also formed with donations from the John M. Olin Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation and the Scaife Foundation. The mandate of this group was an expansion of AEI’s, except with much more clarity. In their statement of guiding principles, PNAC articulated consequence instead of purpose, as if America did not have a choice if it wanted to survive. The public statements it made were expressed as compulsory and inescapable. No relativist opinions on the matter would be tolerated. America must “increase defense spending significantly” in order to “modernize our armed forces for the future.” America must “challenge regimes hostile to our interests and values” and “promote the cause of political and economic freedom abroad.” America needed to “accept responsibility for America's unique role in preserving and extending an international order friendly to our security, our prosperity, and our principles.” This is the Achilles Shield PNAC would carry forth into the world, unabashed, unapologetic and above any sort of criticism or doubt.
In 2000, with the election of the Bush administration, PNAC no longer stood on the sidelines proposing American policy to the government; PNAC became the government. Founding members such as Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Elliott Abrams assumed key positions within the Bush administration. In the public sphere, William Kristol used his influential role as editor of the right-wing magazine, The Weekly Standard, to criticize any administration manoeuvres deemed outside the neo-conservatist agenda. To circumvent the dynamic where neo-conservatives in government would have a conflictive relationship with the media, they also became the media. Robert Murdoch, staunch supporter of neo-conservative ideals, such as securing Middle-Eastern oil for western agendas, founded FOX News, a very successful and brazenly right-wing news source. Norman Podhoretz, PNAC member and renowned neo-conservative ideologue, became the Editor at Large for Commentary Magazine, a publication that is self-described as the “flagship of neoconservatism.” Robert Kagan, cofounder of PNAC, writes political editorials for the Washington Post. While this list can continue, this provides clear examples of how the values of neo-conservatism were brought to the public by the media on a massive scale while neo-conservatives in government began to implement their agendas. This holistic, societal approach led to an unquestionable authority that removed the consequence of denying the Achilles Shield of neo-conservatism to as large a degree as possible. By 2001, Saddam Hussein must be removed, permanent military bases must be assembled in the Middle East, the War on Terror must be won, the free market of corporate America must be left unregulated, good must triumph over evil and America must stand as the hegemonic superpower the world over. No other reality would be tolerated.
In the story of the Iliad, upon Achilles death, Achilles’ shield was granted to Odysseus. When this was done, Ajax, who felt he was the rightful owner of the armour, killed himself by falling onto his own weapon. Ajax was denied the shield for his lack of wisdom. For Odysseus, the shield held emotional and defensive value, but once it was in his hands the spell was broken. Without the arrogance and unrepentant vigour that Achilles exhibited as he carried the shield into battle, the paradigm-shifting power of the armour was lost. It became an idea remembered as a product of the over-zealousness and emotional fervour of the Trojan War. The emotional fervour and over-zealousness inspired by the terrorist attacks of September 11th has now also subsided in present-day America, allowing for a period of moderate introspection on western reaction to this terrorist attack. The general consensus of that introspection is that the pre-emptive strike on Iraq, conducted according to core, neo-conservative principles advocated at the time, was a mistake. Now the battle has begun over who will carry the Achilles Shield of neo-conservatism in the wake of the Bush administration’s defeat at the polls and in ideology. Some potential recipients have fallen on their own political swords in this collapse and will not be chosen to bear its message. The rest wait for any opportunity to seize it.
As we move forward into the 21st century with a new leadership holding the reigns of American power, it is important to watch carefully for signs that emotion and over-zealousness are not guiding principles and reality is not being manufactured once again by corporatist factions. There will always be more than one lens with which to view the world and different opinions must always be tolerated and negotiated. If leadership discusses consequence as an irrevocable outcome to not pursuing a particular line of action, false dichotomies are most likely being presented. We are relative to the world around us and our political position must, therefore, remain open to critical thought. The world is not black and it is not white; shades of grey permeate everything.
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