Magazine | July 19, 2010, Issue

Ambition and Its Problems

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

Just as it really does take two to tango, it is a notorious if oft-forgotten truth that it also takes two to book, so to speak. It takes, in other words, not only an author to write but a reader to read to complete any lexical transaction. A book is useful largely on account of the experience and the purposes that the reader brings to it. And, as we all know, too, the same book can produce different effects on first and subsequent readings by the same person.

Why belabor the obvious with a thumbnail phenomenology of the verb “to book”? Because Peter Beinart’s The Icarus Syndrome is particularly elastic in this regard. Survey histories like this one tend to attract relatively heterogeneous audiences, so judgments about its quality depend more heavily on who is reading it than would judgments of a strictly scholarly account of, say, Justinian’s Plague or the neurophysiology of the hypothalamus. The Icarus Syndrome takes this elasticity of judgment even further, however, because it bestrides two guilds: those of the journalist and of the professor. Those of the first guild, those who aspire to it, and those satisfied by its wares will warm to Beinart’s narrative. He is a gifted writer who really knows how to tell a story, and in this case the story itself happens to be endlessly fascinating. Those of the second guild, particularly those who already know these stories (partly from having lived through them), may find themselves rather more frosted by Beinart’s work.

The book does not aspire to treat the entirety of U.S. foreign policy, only its past century or so. It finds its footing with Woodrow Wilson and runs to just beyond George W. Bush. The tale Beinart tells has both a Greek accent and, he insists, a compelling inner shape. The book is indeed Greek, in at least two ways. First, Beinart’s animating metaphor and title come from the story of Daedalus and Icarus; second, it is Greek in the philosophical sense that it wishes to search out and illustrate the virtues of a moderate middle between excessive ambition and too little of it. Since too little ambition has not been a problem for American foreign policy in recent years, Beinart focuses on the sins of hubris: “Hubris is not the possession of any one party or intellectual tradition; it is any intellectual tradition carried too far. And foreign policy wisdom sometimes consists of understanding that the very conceptual seedlings you must plant now can, if allowed to grow wild, ravage the garden.”

Whether his story is Greek in a third sense — that human nature renders memory short and tragedy thus inevitable — Beinart does not say in so many words. But the possibility of salvation from tragedy is implied by his own circumstances, those of a vocal supporter of the Iraq War (when he served as editor of The New Republic) chastened by the treadmarks his enthusiasm left on his conscience and the reliability of his judgment. He has now become avowedly anti-West in a special sense: It was Mae West who said that too much of a good thing can be wonderful; Beinart instead sides with those who hold that nothing fails like success — which brings us to the inner shape of his tale.

Beinart sees 20th-century American foreign policy as a sine wave formed by the successive inflation and deflation of three hubris bubbles: The first, the “hubris of reason,” he ascribes to Wilson; the second, the “hubris of toughness,” applies to the New Frontier and those who inherited it; the third, the “hubris of dominance,” names the post–Cold War swelling that characterized the Clinton administration but came to full grief only after 9/11. The Icarus Syndrome, however, does not treat only Wilson, Kennedy and Johnson, Clinton, and George W. Bush. It rather uses the three-bubble device to link the entirety of the period in a riveting chronological narrative. Beinart draws several insightful parallels between the stages of rise, maturation, puncture, and deflation that characterize all three bubbles. He does this deftly, often allowing the attentive reader to connect the dots rather than using the ball-peen-hammer method common to less skillful writers. And he does not bend reality to his scheme; he lets it dance nimbly at the edges when it must, more like Mercury than Procrustes.

#page#Beinart is also sensitive to the fact that foreign policy does not emerge full-blown from the rarefied air of the Oval Office or the gases of Foggy Bottom. What the book perhaps does best, particularly in the first of its three sections, is to link foreign-policy behavior not only to the personalities of presidents and cabinet officials, but also to the embodied philosophical currents of the day and to the social and economic circumstances in which they reside. So, standing on center stage alongside Wilson and Colonel House are Walter Lippmann, Charles Beard, John Dewey, Reinhold Niebuhr, Herbert Croly, and Randolph Bourne. In the Vietnam era we encounter not only Kennedy, Johnson, Rusk, McNamara, Rostow, and Bundy but also Hans Morgenthau, Irving Kristol, Marcus Raskin, and the foil Beinart uses to launch his story, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (But here the role of social context is less well communicated; Beinart underplays, for example, the connection between the social-engineering mentality of the War on Poverty and the modus operandi of the Vietnam War.) And so, too, in more recent times we meet not only presidents and secretaries of state and such but also Jeane Kirkpatrick, Francis Fukuyama, Paul Kennedy, and a host of others.

Beinart’s book presents a fetching and parsimonious way to tell this particular story, and the thesis at its center is plausible if not entirely encompassing of the reality it tries to capture. Indeed, it may even prove useful, depending on whose eyes pass over its pages (of which more just below). The essential story told by this book is not new, however, merely updated. Several historians have seen similar patterns and very many observers, credentialed by the academy and not, have pointed to the tendency of American leaders to get carried away with ideas and ideals alike. Many a realist has pointed out that interests expand with power, which is at the core of the escalator metaphor Beinart uses to presage the rise of his three bubbles.

Of course, even novelty is relative. Warnings against hubris and indeed all temptations to grandeur lie at the very heart of temperamental conservatism. But Beinart wants to come at this wisdom from the realist left. Fine: Let the lesson spread that way if it can, which is why The Icarus Syndrome has more to teach clueless liberals and unreconstructed neocons than it does true conservatives. One needn’t be a Burkean, with an appreciation for tragedy and the difficulty of building refined social orders as against the ease of destroying them, to catch Beinart’s basic pitch (but it helps).

So if Beinart excels at the narrative arts, has a compelling (if not an entirely new or comprehensive) thesis, and pursues a constructive purpose, then what is there to regret? Let me put it this way: If newspapers represent the proverbial first draft of history, then Beinart’s treatment of Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, et al. is, say, the tenth or twelfth draft of history; his treatment of the Sixties a fifth or sixth draft; and his treatment of the latter Bush administrations a second or third. Since Beinart relies entirely on secondary sources, mostly other survey histories and the occasional biography, he conveys to the reader an uneven redactory terrain. The result is that for the pre–World War II period, where Beinart had the benefit of a great deal of intelligent reflection to help him, his missteps are few and tend to engage major thematic issues over which serious historians still argue. As the book moves the reader closer to the new millennium, the ratio of insights to missteps (mostly of smaller scale) tips toward the latter.

#page#Thus, for example, when Beinart discusses the denouement of World War I, he shows how Wilson’s stubbornness broadly soured the aftermath in America and in Europe. But because he neglects entirely the fate of the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires decided at Versailles, he misses the impact of those forced imperial devolutions on future developments. A good case can be and has been made that American entry into World War I, at the time and in the way it took place, shaped the preconditions of World War II. One part of that case concerns the “rational” application to the Habsburg Empire of Wilsonian self-determination in the form of several new nation-states, which created a devil’s playground for fascists within, and competitions among the European powers without, that fueled the next war. Beinart does not engage this argument one way or the other, thus missing a major opportunity to illustrate the true power of the oscillation of hubris and realism that coursed through the past century. For a man with a bold thesis, here Beinart is not bold enough.

When Beinart comes to the post–World War II era, he makes a smaller but hardly inconsequential misstep that shows how tricky historical narratives can be when one stays aloft like Icarus, drawing only on secondary survey literature. Beinart correctly makes George Kennan and George Marshall main characters in the Truman presidency, but for some reason he devotes only a very few sentences to the Berlin blockade and airlift of 1948–49. He doesn’t even mention Gen. Lucius Clay, the U.S. military governor of Germany, who determined on the airlift essentially by himself, nor does he mention that both Kennan and Marshall opposed it, fearing that it would lead to war with the Soviet Union. Beinart thus cannot tell the reader why perceptions of Kennan’s judgment at the upper echelon of government changed as Paul Nitze soon replaced him at Policy Planning; nor can he suggest one of only a few reasons President Truman replaced Marshall as secretary of state with the harder-edged Dean Acheson after his election victory in November 1948.

As to the mature Cold War, Beinart’s bubble-of-“toughness” narrative particularly assails the obsession with “credibility.” He shrewdly observes that the tendency to conflate issues that should be kept discrete is a sign of an ideologized, unrealistic foreign policy. But he picks the wrong examples and traps himself in contradiction. He excoriates the New Frontierists and President Kennedy himself for exaggerating the seamlessness of the Communist adversary. As illustration, he quotes Kennedy in 1961 saying that Khrushchev “must not misunderstand Laos and Cuba as an indication that the United States is in a yielding mood.”  But then he writes: “Unfortunately, that is exactly what Khrushchev seemed to believe.” Just seven pages later, however, he intones: “Whether this hoary old chestnut, enshrined by NSC-68, was really true — whether concession in one part of the world really did embolden the Communists elsewhere — was far from obvious.” But if it was obvious to Nikita Khrushchev and did in fact embolden him, then Beinart’s chestnut was evidently as true as it needed to be, at least for government work.

With the aging and passing of the Cold War, Beinart’s missteps accumulate. By “missteps” I do not mean factual errors, of which there are few. I mean the wrongly faced details, off-tone nuances, ever-so-slight exaggerations, and repetitions of accepted but mistaken common knowledge that evoke the familiar “yes, but” from the sagacious reader that not even sparkling displays of journalistic talent can suppress. So the Shah of Iran was a tyrant and brute during his entire tenure (he was not); the only choice when he weakened was either propping him up on the Peacock Throne or surrendering Iran to the ayatollahs (it was not); the United States was responsible above all other players and factors in overthrowing Mossadegh and Allende (it was not); the Carter administration withdrew the SALT II treaty from the Senate for political-diplomatic reasons, not because the treaty lacked the votes for ratification even before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (it did lack those votes); the Bosnia conflict was essentially about genocide (it was not); Jeane Kirkpatrick was proven wrong that totalitarian states could not reform (in fact, the Soviet Union did not reform into Russia but collapsed); we remain today trapped deep inside the hubris of dominance (we do not); and so on and on.

#page#It’s odd that Beinart falls into these kinds of errors for, in the end, even after pointing out occasions when Irving Kristol, Kirkpatrick, and sundry others of their basic view got it wrong, he essentially affirms their brand of patient but not cynical realism, their insistence that hard choices must be made and that “no collection of mortals can impose its will on an unruly globe.” Yet dozens of liberal shibboleths that Kristol and Kirkpatrick scorned litter his narrative from the Vietnam War era onward. It’s as if Beinart has newly got the realist faith, but is still reading from the wrong hymnal. (It is similarly odd that Beinart, an avowed if now more mature liberal hawk, manages to write a history of the Cold War without once mentioning the liberal hawk of hawks — Scoop Jackson.)

For all the small flaws, those attuned to the guild of journalism will probably not be put off by them (or, in many cases, be likely to notice them). Those of the academy, however, will note at a deeper level Beinart’s failure to really explain the causes of the hubris bubbles he so well describes. Toward the very end of the book, almost in passing, he writes that “we remain a missionary nation with an enduring desire to repair and redeem the world.” Better late than never, but if Beinart had started his effort at or before 1776, and if he had taken to heart Chesterton’s quip that America is a nation with the soul of a church, he might have been able to anchor his entire narrative on a firmer footing from the start. He would have seen that, for all the hoary platitudes and legal niceties about the separation of church and state, America is still by far the most addicted of all modern Christian-majority nations to the ravages of political theology.

We have never broken away from the messianic idealism of the Founding; we have merely secularized it. We do not feel right about using power unless it has been sanctified by some transcendental (a.k.a. godly) purpose, but once sanctified we do not feel right about not using it. This leaves us vulnerable to confusion over whether we are guided by noble purpose, as we suppose, or by the temptations of power itself in its holy guise. When the Bush administration claimed that the democracy promotion of the “forward strategy for freedom” was not a Christological or even an American-crafted aspiration, but a universal one, the Muslim targets of our noble affections had to wonder just whom we thought we were trying to fool: them or ourselves.

Appreciating this theological dimension, Beinart would have seen, too, that the story of American foreign policy isn’t really Greek after all; Daedalus and Icarus cannot hold a candle to Jonathan Edwards, Governor Winthrop, and the rest of America’s Protestant founders. The native American Manichaeism that springs from our foundational culture best accounts for our wild national mood swings and explains our unique insistence that America and America alone represents the world’s novus ordo seclorum. If Beinart thinks America as a nation can be persuaded away from this inheritance by any number of books or lectures, then he is much more of an optimist than I am — that, or merely much younger.

– Mr. Garfinkle is editor of The American Interest and author, most recently, of Jewcentricity: Why the World Praises, Blames, and Uses the Jews to Explain Nearly Everything (Wiley, 2009).

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