The Icarus Syndrome

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

The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris By Peter Beinart Harper 496 pp., $27.99

The Icarus Syndrome is actually two histories in one book. The first is, as the subtitle claims, a history of American hubris. But the second story is a history of Peter Beinart’s hubris. Beinart, a columnist for The Daily Beast, was a prominent voice pushing for the war in Iraq in 2002 and 2003, when he was the editor of The New Republic.

As one of the leading “liberal hawks” – Democrats who supported the Iraq war and other instances of American military power – Beinart played a crucial role in providing bipartisan legitimacy to President George W. Bush’s disastrous foreign policy. As Iraq turned out to be less like World War II and more like Vietnam, Beinart began questioning where he, and most of the rest of the country, went so wrong.

Beinart identifies three problems in American foreign policy over the past 100 years: the hubris of reason, the hubris of toughness, and the hubris of dominance, explaining United States conduct in World War I and its aftermath, the Vietnam War, and the Afghanistan-Iraq wars, respectively.

Woodrow Wilson, Beinart argues, attempted to apply rational principles to the irrational world, ultimately failing to realize that the world could not be organized along peaceful, logical lines, and dooming the reconstruction of Europe in the process. John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson were so obsessed with appearing tough in the face of an electorate that was prone to hysterical anticommunism that they sacrificed an entire generation of American warriors in Vietnam. And, finally, Dick Cheney and George W. Bush had ideas about America’s dominant capabilities that caused them to greatly overestimate US capabilities in Iraq and Afghanistan. “The problem wasn’t the ideas themselves,” Beinart writes.

“[I]n limited form, they had often served the nation well.” But when applied without qualification or modesty, these ideas transform into unsustainable bubbles, the foreign policy equivalent of America’s technology or housing sectors.

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.

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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