A review of The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, by Peter Beinart

Peter Beinart has terrible timing. One of the iconoclastic young things the New Republic generates with regularity, he ranks among the handful of left-of-center thinkers like Paul Berman and Michael Walzer who engage in self-criticism of liberalism. In the aftermath of John Kerry's loss in the 2004 election, Beinart took to the pages of the New Republic, where he was then editor, with a long essay entitled "A Fighting Faith" that connected Kerry's haplessness with liberalism's broader fecklessness about foreign policy. Unfortunately, the Democratic Party was by then in thrall to MoveOn.org and Michael Moore, heirs of Henry Wallace, who minimized—when they did not outright deny—the significance of the jihadist threat to the Western world. Liberals need to wrest the party back, Beinart argued, like the early Cold War liberals had done in the late 1940s:

Islamist totalitarianism—like Soviet totalitarianism before it—threatens the United States and the aspirations of millions across the world. And, as long as that threat remains, defeating it must be liberalism's north star. Methods for defeating totalitarian Islam are a legitimate topic of internal liberal debate. But the centrality of the effort is not. The recognition that liberals face an external enemy more grave, and more illiberal, than George W. Bush should be the litmus test of a decent left.

Today, the war on terrorism is partially obscured by the war in Iraq, which has made liberals cynical about the purposes of U.S. power. But, even if Iraq is Vietnam, it no more obviates the war on terrorism than Vietnam obviated the battle against communism. Global jihad will be with us long after American troops stop dying in Falluja and Mosul. And thus, liberalism will rise or fall on whether it can become, again, what [Arthur] Schlesinger called "a fighting faith."

The article created a sensation and naturally produced furious argument on the Left along with a book contract for Beinart. Like many in the New Republic circle, he supported the Iraq War at the outset, but by the time his book The Good Fight: Why Liberalsand Only LiberalsCan Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again arrived in 2008, Beinart along with a majority of Americans had soured on the Iraq War. Although The Good Fight repeated and deepened his critique of the Left's indifference to radical Islam and congenital aversion to the use of American power, his overall argument was necessarily more defensive.

Now a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations and the New America Foundation, Beinart has doubled-down with The Icarus Syndrome, tracing the roots of the Iraq mistake to a generation-skipping hubris that has produced an epicycle of disastrous foreign policy overreach. Once again his timing is off. The Iraq War has turned around, and doesn't look as hopeless as it did four years ago. In his new book he notes that the Korean War was very unpopular in its day, but that public opinion reversed itself as the conflict receded into the rear-view mirror. The same dynamic may be starting to play out over Iraq, perhaps setting up the vindication of David Brooks's prediction that 25 years from now few will argue that the Iraq War wasn't the right thing to do. Now it is the Afghan War—the one Barack Obama and other liberals said wasnecessary—that is looking doubtful and hopelessly open-ended. Beinart criticizes Iraq's disproportionate, unsustainable cost, but has less to say about Afghanistan-where every year we are spending more than that sorry nation's total GDP.

* * *

The Icarus Syndrome begins with the elderly and frail Arthur Schlesinger asking Beinart over lunch, "Why did your generation support this [Iraq] war?" The rest of the book can be read as Beinart's mea culpa. As the title suggests, he applies the classical myth of Icarus to U.S. foreign policy over the past century, arguing that American power and success led us to soar ever higher, but with the same result—burning our wings and crashing back to earth, first in World War I, then Vietnam, and now in Iraq. But the United States doesn't merely overestimate its power and mastery—a common mistake of empires since the beginning of time. According to the author, American hubris stems from a particular post-Enlightenment combination of naïveté about human nature, and overconfidence in pure reason. His book is a gloss on Santayana's cliché about those who forget the past being doomed to repeat it; or, to be more charitable, the volume is a restatement of Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of Great Powers (1987) or even Schlesinger's Cycles of American History(1986). Therein lies both the strength and weakness of its argument.

Much of The Icarus Syndrome is a well-written overview of 20th- and early 21st-century American foreign policy, and especially of "the three moments in the last century when a group of leaders and thinkers found themselves in possession of wings…. Politicians and intellectuals took ideas that had proved successful in certain, limited circumstances and expanded them into grand doctrines, applicable always and everywhere." Beinart's mostly conventional narrative is punctuated here and there with a telling detail or pungent judgment. In explaining Franklin Roosevelt's departure from Wilsonianism, for example, Beinart notes FDR's "blood pressure spiked to 240 over 130" while watching the gushing 1944 movie Wilson. (Roosevelt watched the movie with Winston Churchill—another Wilson critic—at the Quebec conference in 1944. The prime minister's private secretary Jock Colville wrote in his diary that Churchill had watched "a shockingly bad film chosen by the President. The PM walked out halfway through which, on the merits of the film, was understandable, but which seemed bad manners to the President.") Although Beinart's portrait of Woodrow Wilson is suitably lacerating, his perception of the broader phenomenon of Progressivism is crabbed, deferring to recent historiography that sees Progressivism as "a swarm of impulses and interests, often colliding with each other" and summed up as "faith in human reason."

* * *

Beinart thinks the Truman doctrine and the ensuing Korean War came close to being another Icarus-like disaster for America, rescued only by Dwight Eisenhower's calm good sense. Here, in Beinart's praise of Eisenhower and later of Ronald Reagan, we encounter a major difficulty with his overall argument. Beinart is not the first center-left thinker to embrace Eisenhower retrospectively, a process that has been going on at least since Murray Kempton in the late 1960s. Nor does Beinart airbrush the fact that liberals in the 1950s held Eisenhower in contempt. But he doesn't ask why liberal astuteness is good only in hindsight, and not contemporaneously. Won't the next statesmanlike conservative to arrive on the scene enjoy the same kind of liberal contempt that Eisenhower and Reagan did? There's a blind spot here somewhere, and Beinart does not acknowledge, much less investigate it.

A vital clue comes in his treatment of George H.W. Bush, whom he compares to Eisenhower and praises for not expanding the first Gulf War beyond its initial aim of ousting Saddam Hussein from Kuwait: "His signature word—it became a running joke on Saturday Night Live—was prudence, which Merriam-Webster defines as ‘caution or circumspection as to danger or risk.'" This lightweight dictionary definition is all we hear about statesmanly prudence, though Beinart's narrative provides the perfect set-up for serious reflection on the difficulty of matching up a hierarchy of ends to a hierarchy of means.

His criticisms of pure reason and of naïve faith in human nature's goodness and plasticity questions, implicitly, modern liberalism's central pillar. The eclipse of prudence by scientific, idealistic politics was a defining feature of Progressive statecraft, and it remains so for modern liberalism today—at least on the domestic scene. In making an elegant call for greater circumspection about government's mastery over all things, Beinart's skepticism stops at the water's edge. Why not apply the lessons of hubris—of overreaching and presuming a greater command of flawed human nature than is realistically possible—to, say, health care reform, or social policy generally?

"The hubris of dominance," Beinart writes, "like the hubris of reason and the hubris of toughness before it, had relied on faith in political authority." But isn't faith in political authority the central premise of domestic liberalism? Beinart doesn't contemplate that the same conceit that leads to foreign debacles is at work in domestic affairs, with similar results. At one point late in the book he offers up the throwaway line, "As our welfare state has withered…." This is a worthy nominee for one of those "sentences-we-didn't-finish" contests, because there is no way the conclusion to this sentence can be sensible. What can Beinart be thinking, even if this was written before Congress passed Obamacare? The U.S. spends more per capita on social programs than honest-to-God Scandinavian welfare states.

Beinart has all the pieces of the story in front of him, but he only assembles half the puzzle. He criticizes the conceit that we could remake Vietnam in our own image because, as Arthur Schlesinger said, "We thought for a moment that the world was plastic and the future unlimited." (Beinart neglects to mention that Schlesinger supported the Vietnam War until the late 1960s, having lost that healthy sense of limits he possessed in the 1940s.) Beinart also raps the utopianism of Walt Rostow, who thought "American society was ‘now within sight of solutions to the range of issues which have dominated political life since 1865.'"

But The Icarus Syndrome tacitly perpetuates (by omission) the liberal fiction that treats the twin wars of the '60s—the War in Vietnam and the War on Poverty—as separate and mutually exclusive phenomena, when in fact they need to be understood as twin expressions of the same impulse to political mastery, which failed for the same reason. Communism in Vietnam and racial strife and poverty at home were considered problems of social science, to be remedied with similar exertions of American know-how and willpower. The Vietnam War, the planners thought, would be over long before poverty was completely eliminated (Sargent Shriver said the latter would happen by 1976). Vietnam and Great Society policies were designed by many of the same people, rotating their brilliance from one bureau to another. One assistant secretary of defense said that "the new [social science] knowledge can literally solve any problem." Adam Yarmolinsky, another defense official turned anti-poverty planner, thought their efforts would lead the way to "the rebuilding of cities, not only in the United States but throughout the world."

* * *

Liberalism was shaken, if not traumatized, by the failure of the Vietnam War; a few liberals had their whole faith shaken to the core. Daniel Patrick Moynihan acknowledged in 1973 that "[m]ost liberals had ended the 1960s rather ashamed of the beliefs they had held at the beginning of the decade." A new generation of what Beinart calls "post-Cold War" liberals, chastened by the Vietnam experience the same way FDR's cohort had been chastened by World War I, arose to pursue limited uses of American power, such as Bill Clinton's humanitarian interventions in the Balkans. But between Clinton's minor excursions and the first Gulf War, the "hubris bubble" swelled again, just as it had after World War II, sweeping along a younger liberal cohort, including Beinart. He admits now that our obligations exceed our power, that foreign policy untethered to a realistic calculation of interests converts promoting American values into an infinite project. This realization, he argues, "should make us pause and pause and pause again before unilaterally invading tyrannical nations on the assumption that their people will thank us for it."

I doubt Beinart has much to worry about on that score, from the Obama Administration or its likely successors. The Iraq War Syndrome may prove more powerful and long-lasting than the Vietnam Syndrome, which cast a shadow of self-doubt over American power for 20 years. But after an engaging history of American overreach, Beinart's ending disappoints: he essentially revives George McGovern's 1972 slogan "Come home, America." President Obama needs to redefine our national faith, advises Beinart, by

re-directing American can-do-ism inward…. In politics, as in life, we should be most ambitious in those spheres where we have the most power. There are limits to the federal government's capacities at home as well, of course; limits of both money and knowledge. But we know better how to rebuild New Orleans than how to rebuild Afghanistan, more about how to regulate the U.S. financial system than how to establish one in Iraq.

Peter Beinart's book does not go deep enough into the modern liberal soul. Though liberals may have put away their wings in foreign affairs, they are ever ready to soar higher at home, and he thinks our foreign policy travails are reason to cheer them on. I'll await his take, several years from now, on the "Mission Accomplished" banner that was implicitly hung at the signing ceremony for health care reform.