For all their daily efforts to disembowel one another, American foreign policy experts agree on one thing: the United States needs a new, coherent and practical strategy for the 21st century. Peter Beinart's “Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris” doesn't attain this policy nirvana. Still, it's a highly readable and useful hundred-year account of American ventures abroad that can serve as a path to understanding past failures and uncovering why policy renewal is now proving so elusive.
Thomas L. Friedman tried to provide a new strategy by proclaiming in “The World Is Flat” that globalization had leveled power among strong and weak. But while he rightly concentrated on economics, he palpably misread a world where international power remains highly tiered.
The journalist Fareed Zakaria provocatively titled his book “The Post-American World,” which suggested the rise of a new era led by China and others. But in fact his text portrayed a world with America still on top, even if weaker than before. Zakaria was right to place Beijing and economics at the core of any new thinking, yet he offered no strategy for working with a China that now wants everything and offers little in return.
In perhaps the most coherent of recent policy books, “The Return of History and the End of Dreams,” Robert Kagan of the Carnegie Endowment correctly reminded Americans of the world's evils. But his answers fell back on neoconservative bromides about prevailing with greater will, more threats and superior military power, seemingly all in the service of promoting democracy.
Beinart, a journalist and an associate professor at the City University of New York, shifts this search for a new strategy away from the international arena to American society and character. The source of the nation's foreign policy woes, he argues, lies not in the stars but in ourselves. His thesis is not new, but it is indefatigably rendered: America's shortcomings flow entirely from hubris or overconfidence, much as the mythical Icarus perished because he flew too near the sun.
Beinart blames Woodrow Wilson's diplomatic failures on “the hubris of reason” — the belief that a wise America could educate other nations into a permanent peace built on fairness and collective security, as opposed to self-interest. He goes on to chastise Lyndon Johnson for “the hubris of toughness” — the misguided belief that “through unyielding force America could halt Communism's march anywhere in the world.” Finally, he clobbers George W. Bush for “the hubris of dominance,” an awkward phrase that he defines as “the belief that America could make itself master of every important region on earth.”
This is far too much historical water for any single concept to bear. Wilson's misconceptions sprang as much from idealism as from reason — the same sort of idealism that today leads to foolish dreams about softening Islamic extremists with understanding and love. And while Johnson was seduced from time to time by toughness, that wasn't the main explanation for the escalation of the war in Vietnam. The United States fought because of a conviction that Vietnam was in danger of becoming the first of many Asian dominoes to fall to Communism. Domestic politics reinforced this notion: losing would be seen as weakness and would cause the fall of the ultimate domino — the White House. Johnson was driven less by hubris than by a sense of being trapped: he felt he couldn't win and he couldn't get out.
As for Bush's lunge into Iraq, he certainly believed he could vanquish a tin-horn dictator like Saddam Hussein. What drove him to battle, however, was a desire not simply to strut his power, but also to redress what he saw as his father's greatest mistake, letting Hussein survive the Persian Gulf war of 1991. Even more, the invasion flowed from Bush's view that Hussein was close to developing nuclear weapons. (It's worth mentioning that most foreign policy experts, including Beinart and me, did not dissent from this line of thinking.)
In his devotion to the explanatory magic of hubris, Beinart touches on, but glides over, the dual nature of the American character, society and politics. Yes, overconfidence can result in excess. Yet its roots rest in the can-do spirit of Americans, a virtue that has led to great ventures like NATO and the Marshall Plan.
Yes, ideology triggers bizarre commitments to bring democracy to countries run by corrupt and ineffective leaders. Yet American principles are also what drove Washington to prevent genocide in Bosnia and Kosovo, even as civilized Europeans averted their eyes. And yes, domestic politics have produced unconscionable losses in lives and treasure. Yet American democracy has always fixed itself and rebounded. So much of what is bad about the United States is the flip side of what is good about the United States. That is why America's demons — dogmatic principles, self-destructive politics and the arrogance of power — can never be eliminated, only juggled by great leaders.
When Beinart shelves his Icarus metaphor, he usefully grapples with the practical impediments to making good policy. He explores how presidents have trapped themselves by exaggerating American power. John F. Kennedy pretended that Nikita Khrushchev removed Soviet missiles from Cuba without getting anything in return, when in truth the United States secretly agreed to remove missiles from Turkey. An artful compromise was presented as an outright unilateral triumph, which taught Americans a false lesson about the invincibility of toughness, rather than one about the limits of power.
Beinart repeatedly points out the virtues of restraint. He notes that Dwight Eisenhower rejected the military's advice to try to win the Korean War and unify the peninsula. Instead, Eisenhower vaguely threatened the use of nuclear weapons and negotiated a truce. More broadly, both Harry Truman and Eisenhower strove to contain Communism without committing troops to combat, relying instead on covert operations, enhancing America's nuclear retaliatory threat and strengthening Western economies.
Ronald Reagan followed suit, Beinart explains, refusing to spill American blood in El Salvador and Nicaragua, and pulling Marines out of Lebanon before that country exploded. He wound down the cold war by embracing cooperation over confrontation with Mikhail Gorbachev. “Soviet Communism collapsed,” Beinart writes, “not because Reagan made America more frightening, but because he made it less so.”
The first President Bush also treasured restraint. He refrained from ordering troops into Baghdad to unseat Hussein because he didn't want to assume responsibility for running an Arab country. Moreover, he wished to keep Iraq as a counterweight to Iran.
In the end, Beinart can't resist exhuming Icarus one last time — to great excess. He says that his book aims to help President Obama overcome “the beautiful lie” — “a series of assumptions about American omnipotence that, if not challenged, threatens to drive our foreign policy deeper into the red.” Frankly, it's difficult to unearth even one serious foreign policy expert today who believes the United States is omnipotent. To me, the gravest danger is to assert the primacy of American economic renewal and then ignore the tough foreign and domestic choices that must attend this priority. To his credit, Beinart calls for a renewal of American schools, politics and economic vitality. But these good ideas dissipate in a haze of hubris.
Leslie H. Gelb, a former Times columnist and government official, is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.