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The Icarus Syndrome

How hubris – in various shapes and forms – played a role in America’s decision to go to war in Iraq.

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Beinart is a fine writer, able to summarize complex debates and render intellectual arguments readable. For the most part, he also shows wise judgment, recognizing that American foreign policy in the past century is a mixture of triumphs and, especially lately, tragedies. More of the book is focused on liberals’ and Democrats’ ideas about foreign policy than on those of their right-wing counterparts, underscoring the motivations of the book. He clearly reveres Democratic heroes FDR and Harry Truman, but he is fair to Ronald Reagan, Dwight Eisenhower, and even Richard Nixon. Beinart has an impressive amount of knowledge about the schisms in liberal thinking, especially between the mid-century luminaries George Kennan, Walter Lippmann, Hans Morgenthau, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

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But his framework is unfortunately flawed. There is no easy separation between the hubris of toughness and the hubris of dominance, neat as those buzz-phrases are. Cheney and Bush, for instance, were at least as obsessed with appearing tough in the eyes of America’s enemies as they were with dominating the world. Last December, when Cheney accused Obama of displaying “weakness” to America’s “adversaries,” he was very much concerned with the country’s toughness factor. And Bush’s plans to remake the Middle East were as much an act of social engineering as Wilson’s attempts a century earlier to turn Europe into a peaceful continent. Beinart’s three categories of hubris make for neat divisions, but they make little sense.

More worrisome, it seems Beinart is still confused about the direction the US should take. He says towards the end that, “What America needs today is a jubilant undertaker, someone like Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan who can bury the hubris of the past while convincing Americans that we are witnessing a wedding, not a funeral.”

This is a curious statement coming after chapters about America’s vast overreach in the Middle East. For it was Roosevelt who midwifed America’s rise to dominance and Reagan who rewrote the Vietnam War as a “noble cause.” They were both successful presidents in terms of their foreign policy, yes, but they both also inflated America’s hubris in the process.

What America needs now is some combination of Dwight Eisenhower, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter, someone who can end two wars responsibly while still keeping the country positively engaged with the world. Alas, it is difficult to find someone who will tell Americans that the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars are lost, but that America can still survive and prosper even so.

Jordan Michael Smith is a writer in Washington, D.C., who has written for the Atlantic, the Boston Globe, Foreign Policy, and The New Republic.


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