Programs for American diplomacy tend toward extremes. In advocating one philosophy of action, their precepts are invariably sunnily outlined while competing ideologies are dealt with as things to be despised or feared. The books written in response follow the same formula while advocating antithetical ideas. Not much falls in the middle lest one inadvertently give credence to the opposition.
In his new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, journalist Peter Beinart seeks to admonish these practices while venerating the tempered wisdom of the middle. A former cheerleader of the Iraq war as a cause celebre for international liberalism, this book represents the fruits of his own shame. He drank too deeply from the depths of American power, rhetorically and philosophically overreached, and now he's here to tell the rest of us how to sober up.
Beinart looks at three periods in American history—intervention in World War One, Vietnam and Iraq—and shows how stretches of American prosperity and freedom from inconvenience led our leaders to the luxury of facile doctrinal views of the world. Indeed, "doctrine" is Beinart's enemy in the book, as he sees something hubristic in the notion that we can stand at a remove and suddenly understand how everything works, intercede and fix everything for the dimwits in the rest of the planet who couldn't figure this stuff out.
The Icarus Syndrome addresses its three examples via three kinds of hubris. The progressives of WWI suffered the hubris of reason. The liberal anti-communists of Vietnam suffered the hubris of toughness, believing that they could counter communism anywhere on the globe. And neoconservatives of this century suffer the hubris of dominance: that, aided by technical military superiority, we can assert our political will to change regimes at any place on earth.
Beinart's book is smart and smartly researched. He relies on quality sourcing and has an eye for illuminating and memorable quotes. There's not any original historiography, here, but Beinart admits that. He aims at a synthesis of ideas: from, say, the thesis of progressivism and the antithesis of the failure of the League of Nations to a wise evaluation of how that happened. Nonetheless, here is where the book starts to break down a bit.
Taking the above example, Beinart is rightly critical of Woodrow Wilson's belief that mankind could, at that point, ratiocinate away conflict. He's also right that the League lacked the ability to compel nations to act through a proactive interventionist structure. What he does not recognize, though, is that part of the League's failure as a moral force began when the United States refused to join it, crippling it from the outset. (Historian A.J.P. Taylor once described America's post-war involvement in European affairs as akin to the curious case of the dog in the nighttime: it did nothing.)
Moreover, given Beinart's applause for FDR and the immediate post-WWII generation, he effectively endorses the principles Wilson established: that America should be part of an internationalist body (in this case, the UN), and that as a nation we needed to emerge from our long, self-indulgently isolationist adolescence and recognize our fundamental connectedness with the world.
Surprisingly, given his pedigree, Beinart is strongly supportive of Ronald Reagan's foreign policy legacy. He calls him a "dove in hawk's clothing," and applauds his ability to talk tough but to be selectively interventionist and temper American expectations. He brings up the hoary conservative interventionist watchword of "Munich" (referring to the negotiated peace over Czechoslovakia between Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler) and says that Reagan's brilliance wasn't that he rejected or accepted Munich but that he considered it irrelevant.
But here Beinart is himself being as selective as Reagan. He praises Reagan's withdrawal of marines from the Beirut barracks following the terrorist bombing of 1983, noting that, rather than pursuing a punitive military intervention, Reagan calmly just walked away. Yet both liberal and conservative historians have argued that this swift withdrawal only accelerated terror bombings in the middle east by showing how immediately and totally effective they could be.
On that note, Beinart also fails to address American aid to the Afghan insurgency and CIA training of the same people who would then nurture Al-Qaeda. He's curiously silent on this point, and it's hard to tell if this is because the topic is such a thorny one for his thesis. At this point, the conventional wisdom is that the Reagan White House dropped the ball by failing to plan for continued post-occupation aid to nurture the restoration of Afghan democracy and prevent power falling into the hands of those who had so recently practiced terror.
One last problem nags at Beinart's thesis, and that is, "Where do we draw the line?" The point at which confidence passes into hubris is ill-defined, even within his own examples. As said above, what makes the League of Nations an overreach and a folly when American postwar internationalism is laudatory? What is the elemental difference between the two?
Likewise, Beinart clearly admires George F. Kennan, the architect of postwar containment doctrine, and he chooses the Kennedy administration's intervention in Vietnam as the moment we turned our backs on Kennan's program. But that's a very blurry historical line. Kennan's system began breaking down when the Truman administration intervened in the Greek Civil War in the late 1940s. Further, it was Eisenhower and Dulles who first sent troops to Indochina, during a "tranquil" administration fraught with its own pointless overreach. Look to the CIA's mindless ouster of Jacopo Arbenz in Guatemala to secure the interests of the United Fruit Company, or the disastrous coup against Mossadegh in Iran.
Still, no diplomatic history is perfect, and a book that inspires these criticisms is one thoughtful enough that it has met its aims. Beinart wants us to be more tempered in our interventionism, to strike a balance between the hubris of isolation and the hubris of imperial power. Somewhere in the middle lies an American attitude that secures our safety and the safety of others, without a needless loss of life or our own heads. The Icarus Syndrome ends with a plea for more wisdom in our actions and our ideological approaches. Even a reader looking critically at Beinart's own thesis is on his way to finding it.