American Hubris Leads to Melted Wings in New Foreign Policy Book

Posted June 7, 2010 at 3:11pm

Peter Beinart is turning heads in Washington once again.

In a recent, and much-discussed, essay in the New York Review of Books, he lambasted the leading American Jewish institutions for reflexively defending the actions of Israel’s government and for alienating a younger generation of American Jews.

It was a powerful essay not only because of its arguments, but also because of who Beinart is — a liberal hawk who had enthusiastically supported the war in Iraq. While he was editor of the New Republic, the magazine endorsed then-Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) for president in 2004.

In an interview with the online Jewish magazine Tablet, Beinart acknowledged that his views had changed in recent years.

“Yeah, I think I have shifted, not only on this issue” of Israel, he said. “Anyone who reads my new book will clearly see a shift.”

Part of the explanation for that shift comes in the introduction to “The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris,” Beinart’s new book. Beinart describes sipping martinis with Kennedy family confidant Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in 2006. Schlesinger asked him why his generation had supported the Iraq War. At the time, Beinart says, he didn’t really have an answer.

“The Icarus Syndrome” is his belated, and thought-provoking, response. It is an examination of American foreign policy that undergoes, in Beinart’s words, “cycles of success leading to hubris leading to tragedy, leading, perhaps, to wisdom.”

The book’s title comes from the Greek myth of Icarus who, using wings made of feathers and wax, flies higher and higher, until ignoring his father’s warnings, he flies too close to the sun, which melts the wings and dooms the boy. In his book, Beinart explores three instances in which the United States, employing its own set of wings, similarly flies too high, to disastrous effects.

He begins with early 20th-century progressives, who succeeded at reforming much of domestic politics and then set their sights on cleaning up the world. Blinded by what Beinart calls the “hubris of reason,” the United States entered World War I in hopes of spreading democracy the world over. That failure led to an isolationism that would delay America’s entry into World War II, with perilous consequences for millions.

After a period of some levelheadedness, the “hubris of toughness” followed. Policymakers, wary of another “Munich” when Adolf Hitler was appeased, and fearful of the spread of communism (as well as being seen as weak), pushed containment to its breaking point in Southeast Asia. The debacle of Vietnam melted the politics of toughness, at least momentarily.

Finally, in a post-Soviet world, as the unchallenged economic and military superpower, the United States embraced the “hubris of dominance.” Neoconservatives and pro-war liberals like Beinart became convinced that not only had America won the war of ideas, but that the American idea could bloom anywhere and easily. For Beinart, at least, Iraq crushed that fantasy.

For observers of American foreign policy or history, “The Icarus Syndrome” will shed little new light on the country’s broader actions and motives. And to observe that history is cyclical is also not terribly original; as Mark Twain noted, history may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

But Beinart presents his argument clearly and persuasively and employs the “hubris” device well, never overextending it and providing an important framework with which to view the limits of American power. He deserves praise for crafting a narrative that is heavily researched without descending into needless minutia.

The book is also a pleasure to read, as Beinart knows how to turn a phrase. Discussing those who criticized President Harry Truman for refusing to go to war with China over North Korean communism, he notes dryly, “Politicians who once considered it no shame to let America’s enemies have Paris now cried treason because we were letting them have Pyongyang.”

Beinart pays close attention to how the flow of ideas has shaped American foreign policy. But even more so, the book is about individuals — bureaucrats and Congressmen and presidents — and how they have nudged the country one way or another. A person’s childhood, or even that of his parent’s, can shape a worldview, Beinart observes, and while U.S. foreign policy may seem monolithic, it is, in the end, designed by imperfect men and women, beings of flesh and blood.

For that reason, it is likely that future chapters will be added to the history of American hubris. Beinart concludes with a few recommendations to guard against foreign policy overreach that fit squarely in the liberal internationalist vision of foreign policy, including partnering with multilateral institutions and acknowledging national self-interest, which are good and useful, but not groundbreaking.

Beinart’s success is in demonstrating that Americans will always be tempted to fly higher and higher, often despite their fathers’ warnings, and because they are only human, they too, will eventually fall.