Review of Peter Beinart's 'The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris'

By Carlos Lozada
Sunday, June 6, 2010


A History of American Hubris

By Peter Beinart

Harper. 482 pp. $27.99

The summer of 2010 seems like a strange moment to warn of the perils of American hubris. The United States is struggling to create jobs, waging two wars with questionable conviction and facing a steady flow of embarrassment in the Gulf of Mexico. Humility, not hubris, is the gusher we just can't stop.

Then again, these might prove ideal conditions for a book like Peter Beinart's "The Icarus Syndrome," an insightful and enjoyable -- if somewhat self-involved -- account of the ideas and individuals that have animated America's global ambitions over the past century. After all, it's not when you're soaring above everyone else, but when your wings melt away and you're falling fast, that you pay attention to the spoilsports who say you shouldn't have flown so close to the sun.

Beinart is a spoilsport with a long view. He argues that, for much of the past 100 years, U.S. political leaders (and their intellectual gurus) have fallen in love with national power and overestimated their ability to reshape the world. Victory begets victory until America inevitably overreaches, whether in the jungles of Vietnam or the sands of Iraq. A new generation of leaders takes over, draws questionable lessons and convinces itself that this time, things will be different. Wince and repeat.

The author knows this story up close. On Iraq, Beinart was a self-described "liberal hawk" who initially supported the 2003 invasion, caught hell for it from the left and later admitted he'd been wrong. "The Icarus Syndrome" is a work of history, but it's also a sort of public therapy session for its writer. "Another generation -- mine -- had seen so much go right," Beinart laments, "that we had difficulty imagining anything going wrong."

Maybe he'll take some solace in the company he keeps. An early victim of the syndrome was Woodrow Wilson, exemplar of what Beinart dubs the "hubris of reason." In thrall of American progressivism, the 28th president enlisted the most celebrated minds of the era -- Walter Lippman, Thorstein Veblen and Frederick Jackson Turner, among others -- to craft a global constitution that would usher in a "scientific peace" to follow the Great War. Reason and morality would finally trump force. It seemed to be working for America, so why wouldn't it work for the world?

Except the world was disinclined to follow along. European leaders, too steeped in real-life, balance-of-power politics to ponder things as they ought to be, looked skeptically at Wilson's Fourteen Points, with its calls for disarmament, rights for colonial peoples and a League of Nations, among other warm fuzzies. The president did not fare better back home, where Congress refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, which included U.S. entry into the league. "The real tragedy was that Wilson could not himself abandon his dream . . . and thus help bring Americans to the painful, crucial realization that they must commit themselves to a world they could not perfect," Beinart writes.

The imperfect world gave way to World War II, which in turn gave rise to a new, postwar mutation in America's foreign policy: the hubris of toughness. Containment, a doctrine articulated by diplomat-scholar George Kennan as a narrow political strategy against the Soviet Union, morphed into a military strategy against global communism. Cheap victories against the reds in places such as Iran and Greece soon led U.S. policymakers to believe that they could succeed anywhere.

And apparently they needed to, because the national security doctrine of the age -- embodied in National Security Council Report 68, issued in 1950 -- dictated that America not only had to be strong, but to look strong as well, because even the appearance of weakness in one part of the world would embolden communists elsewhere. This made any spot on the planet strategically important for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, from the Bay of Pigs to Vietnam.

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