The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris by Peter Beinart. (New York: HarperCollins, 2010). 482 pp. Reviewed by Mel Gurtov.

Written by admin on June 26th, 2011

In this Council on Foreign Relations publication, Peter Beinart presents another in a long line of critics of American foreign policy who take aim at exceptionalism.  His critique falls into the “liberal” camp; it does not seek to follow in the footsteps of Noam Chomsky, Chalmers Johnson, or any other radical dissection.  But like them, Beinart directly addresses the question why U.S. leaders, regardless of party, persist in intervening abroad to spread American values and secure supposedly vital interests.

The analysis was completed as Barack Obama took office, so the George W. Bush administration is the most recent one discussed.  In addition, Beinart also devotes particular attention to the presidencies of Woodrow Wilson and Lyndon Johnson—not just to the decision makers, but also to the foreign-policy intellectuals who stood behind them and gave policy a veneer of establishment authority.  As Beinart sees it, hubris is the fundamental problem—an unstoppable virus to which, when it comes to foreign-policy adventurism, no U.S. leader is immune.  To a greater or lesser degree—he cites FDR and, somewhat strangely, Ronald Reagan (do Central America and the extraordinary nuclear-weapon buildup not count?) as having departed from the norm—all administrations played on the American people’s fears (of communism or terrorism), presumed that the “can-do” spirit would overcome all difficulties, and proceeded to use force abroad in places both important and insignificant to the national interest.

“A wise foreign policy,” Beinart writes, “starts with the recognition that since America’s power is limited, we must limit our enemies.”  The limitations of power, even a superpower’s power, are the pivotal element in his analysis.  If U.S. leaders recognized those limitations, he argues, our fears would not take over clarity of thinking and purpose.  What America needs is another George Kennan—someone who never allowed ideology or idealism to lead the country into crusades; someone whose area expertise created clarity about the enemy’s own limitations.  Evidently, Henry Kissinger need not apply.

Might greater humility about what the United States can accomplish abroad and a larger role for country and regional expertise undermine what the author calls “assumptions about American omnipotence”?  These changes are no doubt necessary.  But are they sufficient?  Examining Beinart’s analysis of the Iraq invasion in 2003 provides some answers.

Beinart’s case study is strongest when discussing Bush’s personal motives and Colin Powell’s beleaguered situation.  And Beinart is undoubtedly correct, as so many inside studies have determined, about the deeper forces that explain the Iraq invasion: the cockiness of US leaders; Bush’s idealism about spreading freedom and democracy; and a pervasiveness blindness to Middle East history and culture at the highest level.  Still, Beinart’s study of the Iraq war would be more compelling if he had delved into other domestic sources of US policy, such as bureaucratic politics (for example, the pressure placed on the intelligence community to mold its findings to conform with official policy, and groupthink in the decision-making process); the role of Middle East oil in US policymaking; Dick Cheney’s promotion of an expanded definition of presidential power; and the neoconservatism movement’s determination, well in advance of 9/11, to push a more militant, specifically Reaganesque, foreign policy (embodied in the Project for the New American Century and the “Vulcans” study group).  Beyond hubris and the hyped fears of terrorism that Beinart so well describes lay the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld team’s effort to firmly establish American hegemony in the Middle East.

Beinart’s conclusion is commendable: America’s real security depends, as FDR once said, on the success of the grand experiment at home.  President Obama’s June 22, 2011 speech on Afghanistan reflected this view, providing some hope that the extraordinary expenditures on two Middle East wars would be in some major part diverted to address the country’s array of economic and social problems.  But don’t hold your breath: Even if some diversion takes place, Pentagon spending will continue its upward path, arms transfers to repressive regimes such as Pakistan’s will go forward, and the prerogatives of presidential power will continue to be used to override legal and legislative barriers.  Thus, the beat goes on.

Mel Gurtov  is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Oregon and Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective.  He previously served on the research staff of the RAND Corporation (1966-71), where he was co-author of the Pentagon Papers.  He has published twenty books and numerous articles on East Asian affairs, U.S. foreign policy, and global affairs.

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