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Book Review

Examining US domination, hubris

By Claude R. Marx
June 26, 2010

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It’s hard to be humble when you are the world’s remaining superpower. This immodesty has caused more than a few problems for the United States since the beginning of the 20th century, when the nation first emerged as a significant player on the world stage.

The subject, especially in light of the two wars the country is currently fighting, cries out for an informed analysis that includes an examination of the relevant diplomatic and intellectual history. Fortunately, “The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris’’ touches all the relevant points in an informative and often engaging manner.

Peter Beinart, a journalist whose liberal hawkishness and support of the 2003 Iraq War caused him to be distrusted among those on the left and right, comes across as someone trying to atone for his past positions. He is not, by any means, an isolationist but urges American leaders to use caution when trying to flex the nation’s muscles and export its values.

The book strikes a delicate balance. It does not come across as an ideological screed, but readers are always aware whom Beinart considers the good and bad actors.

He is critical of President Wilson for engaging in the hubris of reason, which entailed trying to remake the world based on abandoning self-interest for a universal good. Wilson, Beinart argues, was blind to the existing alliances and the diplomatic history that had shaped the state of the world in the second decade of the 20th century

“For many European statesmen, who had learned from harsh experience to distrust their carnivorous neighbors, the balance of power was like gravity. You might not love it; but you defied it at your own peril,’’ he writes. “But to progressives such as Wilson, who had witnessed less tragedy than their European counterparts, and more triumph, the balance of power looked both immoral and archaic, the global equivalent of America’s selfish tribes.’’

The results of these efforts included planting some of the seeds for World War II and the current problems in the Middle East. This was a case of the road to hell really being paved with good intentions.

Beinart also takes aim at those who ran the United States and its foreign policy from the post-World War II period through Vietnam for having practiced the hubris of toughness. He rightly contends that this approach dragged the country into an unwinnable war that divided the nation and caused havoc to the country’s reputation abroad.

He contends that for President Kennedy and his top advisers (including former Harvard faculty members McGeorge Bundy and Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.) “toughness connoted something more aggressive [than the views of the earlier generation of leaders], something more like a crusade. It meant demanding more of oneself and one’s nation, paying any price, bearing any burden, meeting any hardship, and thus achieving the impossible.’’

Beinart’s criticism is fair, but it is not at all clear whether the domestic political climate of the time in which both parties tried to show they were sufficiently tough in the fight against communism would have allowed the Kennedy administration to act much differently.

He praises the foreign policy of the Reagan administration for talking tough when needed but also being willing to negotiate arms reductions with the Soviet Union under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev. He also lauds Reagan’s reluctance to commit American troops to unpopular foreign military operations.

More recently, Beinart contends, the United States has practiced the hubris of dominance, which hasn’t always manifested itself in decisions that have helped either the United States or his allies. The title of his chapter on the Iraq war, “The Romantic Bully,’’ says it all. His section containing his grand vision for foreign policy, which seems to be a requisite part of all books on international affairs these days, is fairly conventional liberal fare.

Beinart’s book, the title of which refers to the character in Greek mythology who while trying to escape Crete flew too close to the sun and fell to earth, tackles a great deal of material in an approachable, yet never simplistic, way. Despite the author’s occasional tendency to go off on tangents and show off his intellectual prowess, “The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris’’ is a valuable addition to the public debate about the United States’ ever evolving role in the world.

Claude R. Marx, an award-winning journalist, can be reached at crmarx@aol.com.

THE ICARUS SYNDROME:

A History of American Hubris

By Peter Beinart

Harper, 482 pp., $27