Excerpt: The Icarus Syndrome

Return to The Icarus Syndrome.

So where does ambition end and hubris begin? There's no formula for answering that. in fact, the belief that you've discovered a formula that works in all situations is itself a sign that you've crossed the line. To some degree, foreign policy is all about deciding in which direction you'd rather be wrong. Are you so intent on making sure America doesn't fly too high that you oppose not only invading Iraq, but saving Kuwait? Are you so determined to avoid flying too low that you support not merely World War II but Vietnam? Barely anyone will be right every time, because the gods don't speak to us. Or, as Warren Buffett has said about investing in a bull market, it's like Cinderella at the ball. She knows that if she stays too late her chariot will turn into a pumpkin and her gown will turn to rags. But she doesn't want to leave too early and miss meeting Prince Charming. The problem is that there are no clocks on the wall.  

No clocks, but there are warning signs, the kind that someone with lots of experience at balls might notice. One warning sign is overconfidence: a political climate in which influential people assume that the war's outcome is preordained; that because of America's military prowess or economic resources or ideological appeal, we cannot possibly lose. When influential Americans talk that way, it's usually because America has not lost in a long time. We're all prisoners of analogy, and people tend to imagine that the future will be like the immediate past: that Vietnam will be like Korea or World War II; that Iraq will be like the Gulf War or the initial phase of Afghanistan. But that reliance on analogy often blinds us to the ways in which, rather than replicating the successes of the past, we are reaching beyond them, taking on more risk. We think we are running on a treadmill when we are actually ascending a ladder.  

If overconfidence is one danger sign, unilateralism is another. France, Canada, and Britain, which had fought alongside the United States in World War II and Korea, refused to join us in Vietnam. France, Canada, and Germany, which had supported the United States in the Gulf War, the Balkans, and Afghanistan, opposed invading Iraq. The problem with failing to convince other countries--and particularly the Western democracies that broadly share our values and interests--to back us in war is not necessarily that we need their help to win. (These days, given the vast gap between our military capacity and theirs, they may be as much a burden as a help.) The problem is that their unwillingness to back us may be evidence that winning is impossible. What we need, in other words, is not our allies' tanks but their judgment. It's like a patient contemplating a high-risk medical procedure: You may not need several doctors to perform the operation, but you want several doctors to confirm that the operation can be successfully performed at all.  

The sober judgment of allies is especially important for a nation intoxicated with success. (As the old saying goes, when three friends say you're drunk, lie down.) Americans sometimes dismiss our European allies as defeatist, so burdened by their tragic histories and so enfeebled by their military weakness that they instinctively choose retreat over confrontation. But it is precisely because they have been battered by history that they may be able to spot hubris when we, because of our more triumphant experience, cannot. Before Vietnam, and again before Iraq, French leaders urged the United States to learn from France's imperial misfortunes in Southeast Asia and the Arab world. but Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush scoffed at the idea that we had anything to learn. The French, after all, were history's losers. We were its winners. They were mere mortals; we were America.  

A third flashing light is excessive fear. Even when America's leaders fly nearest the sun, they generally insist that they are merely taking defensive measures against grave threats. Hubris rarely speaks its name. and to some extent, those leaders are right: Foreign threats usually have something to do with America's decision to launch a war. Woodrow Wilson would not have taken America into World War I just because he believed he could reorder world politics; German subs were sinking our ships. The United States would not have fought the Vietnam War had Ho Chi Minh not been a communist, no matter how confident we were of our military might. But the problem with explaining America's wars solely as a response to threats is that our threat perceptions vary wildly over time. Thing we take in stride at one moment terrify us at another. In 1939, few American politicians believed that a Nazi takeover of Warsaw constituted a grave danger to the United States. By 1965, many believed we couldn't live with a North Vietnamese takeover of Saigon. In the 1980s, Americans lived peacefully, albeit anxiously, with thousands of Soviet nuclear warheads pointed our way. By 2003, many Washington commentators claimed that even Iraqi biological or chemical weapons put us in mortal peril. How threatened American policymakers feel is often a function of how much power they have. The more confident our leaders and thinkers become about the hammer of American force, the more likely they are to find nails.  

That's the problem with explaining Iraq merely as a response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, as the Bush administration did. Obviously, 9/11 mattered: Without it, we would not have sent more than one hundred thousand U.S. troops into Iraq. But had 9/11 occurred in 1979 or 1985 or 1993, moments when America was less confident that its military was unstoppable, its economic resources plentiful and its ideals universal, it is unlikely that we would have responded by launching two distant war in short succession, something the United States had never done in its entire history. In fact, even in 2002, had the war in Afghanistan not initially gone well, thus further buoying the Bush administration's self-confidence, America probably would not have invaded Iraq. And had Bush officials doubted that they could successfully invade and remake Iraq, they probably would not have declared Saddam an urgent and intolerable threat. America's leaders tend not to tell us we are in grave danger unless they think they can do something about it.

This is not to say it's always a mistake for the United States to wage war in places it once considered irrelevant. Over the course of the last century, as America has risen to global power, we have naturally come to worry about regions of the world to which we previously gave little thought. But when we allow our fears to swell so dramatically that quelling them would require virtually unlimited quantities of money and blood, something has gone wrong. Once Lyndon Johnson declared a communist takeover in backward and remote Vietnam to be a grave threat to the United States, then a communist takeover in virtually any country constituted a grave threat. Once the Bush administration said America was in mortal danger because Saddam was supporting terrorism (not even terrorism against the United States, just terrorism) and seeking weapons of mass destruction, America was suddenly in mortal danger from Iran, North Korea, Syria, and perhaps Pakistan, too.  

A wise foreign policy starts with the recognition that since America's power is limited, we must limit our enemies. That's why Franklin Roosevelt hugged Stalin close until the Soviet Union had helped us defeat Nazi Germany, and why Richard Nixon opened relations with China, so the United States wasn't taking on Moscow and Beijing at the same time. By contrast, when America's leaders outline doctrines that require us to confront long lists of movements and regimes simultaneously, it's a sign that we've lost the capacity to prioritize. And that, in turn, is a sign that we think we are so powerful that we don't need to prioritize. And that, in turn, is a sign that we're flying too high.  

Copyright © 2010 by Peter Beinart. All rights reserved.

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