The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris

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Peter Beinart's provocative account of hubris in the American century describes Washington on the eve of three wars: World War I, Vietnam, and Iraq—three moments when American leaders decided they could remake the world in their image. Each time, leading intellectuals declared that the spread of democracy was inevitable. Each time, a president held the nation in the palm of his hand. And each time, a war conceived in arrogance brought tragedy.

But each catastrophe also imparted wisdom to a new generation of thinkers. These leaders learned to reconcile the American belief that anything is possible with the realities of a world that will never fully conform to this country's will—and in their struggles lie the seeds of American renewal today.

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  • The Icarus Syndrome
    The Icarus Syndrome  

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
A century of unwise American military adventures is probed in this perceptive study of foreign policy over-reach. Daily Beast and Time contributor Beinart (The Good Fight) highlights three examples of Washington's overconfidence: Woodrow Wilson's “hubris of reason”: the belief that reason, not force, could govern the world; the Kennedy-Johnson administrations' “hubris of toughness” during the Vietnam War; and George W. Bush's “hubris of dominance” in launching the Iraq War. In each case, Beinart finds a dangerous confluence of misleading experience and untethered ideology; the Iraq War, he contends, was fostered both by a 12-year string of easy military triumphs from Panama to Afghanistan, and a belief that America can impose democracy by force. (The book continues the author's ongoing apology for his early support of the Iraq War.) Beinart's analyses are consistently lucid and provocative—e.g., he calls Ronald Reagan “a dove in hawk's feathers,” and his final conclusion is that “Obama will need to... decouple American optimism from the project of American global mastery.” The book amounts to a brief for moderation, good sense, humility, and looking before leaping—virtues that merit Beinart's spirited, cogent defense. (June)
“A rollicking history. . . . Beinart is a wonderful storyteller. There’s not much that he leaves out of The Icarus Syndrome. (It’s exactly the book I wish I’d had when I was teaching American foreign policy.)”
The Economist
“Impressive. . . . Mr Beinart has produced an original and ambitious study.”
Kirkus Reviews
A New America Foundation senior fellow traces the numerous instances of hubris that have often swollen American pride to the bursting point. Daily Beast senior political writer Beinart (Journalism and Political Science/City Univ. of New York; The Good Fight: Why Liberals-and Only Liberals-Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again, 2006) identifies three types of hubris, "Reason," "Toughness" and "Dominance." Each led America to great heights of international power and prestige, then shoved the country from its lofty ledge. The author begins with Woodrow Wilson and his contemporaries-Walter Lippmann, Randolph Bourne, John Dewey and others-who believed they could craft "a scientific peace" in a world governed by rationality. It didn't work out. Franklin Roosevelt modified the theory, keeping the optimism but realizing, as well, the importance of power. Then came George F. Kennan and the theory of containment, which, argues Beinart, many followers both misunderstood and misapplied in Vietnam and elsewhere. This "hubris of toughness" led first to success, then to debacle under Lyndon Johnson. Richard Nixon "considered fear a more powerful force than love," and thus crafted a political strategy that still has enormous power in America. Jimmy Carter, the national "scold," gave way to Ronald Reagan ("America's Mr. Magoo"), whose devotees still believe he destroyed the Soviet Union. Beinart says otherwise, crediting instead the struggle between China and the Soviet Union. Following the first President Bush's defeat of Saddam Hussein in Kuwait, Bill Clinton, after some wheel-spinning and grotesque failure (Rwanda), found success in 1995 with the Dayton Accords. Then came the neocons, Bush II, Cheney and the missed opportunities and miscalculations of the past decade. Beinart persuasively argues that it is time to accept that America's power and resources are limited. Tightly argued and both elevating and profoundly depressing. Author appearances in New York and Washington, D.C.
Carlos Lozada
…an insightful and enjoyable…account of the ideas and individuals that have animated America's global ambitions over the past century…If anything, [Beinart's] account underscores how many of the best-known and most respected intellectuals either despaired at their lack of influence, watched their ideas get twisted beyond recognition or found themselves abandoned precisely at the moment when their insights could have mattered most. The Icarus Syndrome should be required reading for all [George] Kennan wannabes and aspiring Washington wonks. Its lesson: Abandon hope all ye who theorize here.
—The Washington Post
Leslie H. Gelb
…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…[Beinart's] 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.
—The New York Times
The Economist
“Impressive. . . . Mr Beinart has produced an original and ambitious study.”
“A rollicking history. . . . Beinart is a wonderful storyteller. There’s not much that he leaves out of The Icarus Syndrome. (It’s exactly the book I wish I’d had when I was teaching American foreign policy.)”
Jane Mayer
“Energetically researched and entertainingly written, Peter Beinart’s The Icarus Syndrome is both a fascinating intellectual history and an important coming-of-age parable about his generation’s hard-learned lesson in the limits of American power.”
Geoffrey Wheatcroft
The Icarus Syndrome is a readable survey of ‘America in the world’ over the past hundred years. Nothing is more chilling than Beinart’s catalog of the continuous, wrong-headed invocation of ‘Munich’ and ‘appeasement.’”
The Los Angeles Times
“A brilliant new book about the pendulum swings of U.S. foreign policy between excessive ambition and excessive retrenchment.”
The San Francisco Chronicle
“Beinart possesses the analytical skills of a seasoned historian. . . . He’s a smart, reasoned political analyst who doesn’t resort to hyperbole and hysteria when making a point. . . The result is a book that’s generally enlightening.”
The Boston Globe
“Informative and engaging. . . . Beinart’s book tackles a great deal of material in an approachable, yet never simplistic, way. . . . The Icarus Syndrome is a valuable addition to the public debate about the United States’s ever evolving role in the world.”
The Washington Post
“Powerful. . . . An insightful and enjoyable account of the ideas and individuals that have animated America’s global ambitions over the past century. . . . Required reading.”
Leslie H. Gelb
“A highly readable and useful hundred-year account of American ventures abroad that can serve as a path to understanding the past failures and uncovering why policy renewal is now proving so elusive. . . . Beinart usefully grapples with the practical impediments to making good policy.”
Walter Russell Mead
“With this book Beinart vindicates his standing as one of the major thinkers of his generation on the United States’ world role.”
Fareed Zakaria
“Why do we succomb to hubris? Peter Beinart has written a highly intelligent and wonderfully readable book that answers the question by looking at a century of American foreign policy. As with everything Beinart writes, it is lucid, thoughtful and strikingly honest.”
Steve Coll
“Peter Beinart has written a vivid, empathetic, and convincing history of the men and ideas that have shaped the ambitions of American foreign policy during the last century—a story in which human fallibility and idealism flow together. Beinart’s book is not only timely; it is indispensible.”
Jon Meacham
The Icarus Syndrome does what works of history and journalism do at their very best: use the past to illuminate, in often stark and surprising ways, the challenges of the present. This is an important book.”
Paul Kennedy
“Beinart’s The Icarus Syndrome is very much a book with a message: a cautionary message to avoid hubris and to recognize the messy reality of world politics.”
Sean Wilentz
The Icarus Syndrome is a confident and contentious history of more than a century of American foreign policy and its recurring tragic flaws.”
George Packer
“Beinart is at his most illuminating when he lingers on forgotten episodes that reveal how difficult it is to understand the implications of any event at any given moment—the extent to which everyone is a prisoner of past failure or past success.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061456466
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 6/1/2010
  • Pages: 482
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Peter Beinart

Peter Beinart is associate professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. He is the senior political writer for The Daily Beast and a contributor to Time. Beinart is a former fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and is the author of The Good Fight. He lives with his family in Washington, D.C.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1

Part I The Hubris of Reason

Chapter 1 A Scientific Peace 15

Chapter 2 The Frightening Dwarf 39

Chapter 3 Twice-Born 60

Chapter 4 I Didn't Say It Was Good 83

Part II The Hubris of Toughness

Chapter 5 The Murder of Sheep 109

Chapter 6 The Problem with Men 126

Chapter 7 Saving Sarkhan 141

Chapter 8 Things Are in the Saddle 161

Chapter 9 Liberation 172

Chapter 10 The Scold 188

Chapter 11 Fighting with Rabbits 204

Chapter 12 If There Is a Bear? 218

Part III The Hubris of Dominance

Chapter 13 Nothing Is Consummated 243

Chapter 14 Fukuyama's Escalator 265

Chapter 15 Fathers and Sons 293

Chapter 16 Small Ball 312

Chapter 17 The Opportunity 327

Chapter 18 The Romantic Bully 337

Chapter 19 I'm Delighted to See Mr. Bourne 357

Conclusion The Beautiful Lie 378

Acknowledgments 391

Notes 397

Index 467

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Posted October 14, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    An interesting treatment of contemporary US foreign policy

    In "The Icarus Syndrome" Peter Beinart, senior political writer for "The Daily Beast" and professor of journalism at CUNY, argues that US foreign policy since WWI can be better understood as manifestations of ever-evolving hubris - the hubris of reason, toughness, and dominance. Beinart frames his treatment with an account of the legend of Icarus who, by ignoring the limits of his wings (and the advice of those wings' creator) flew too high and crashed when they burned. Likewise, contemporary US foreign policy, according to Beinart, has regularly ignored the limits presented by reality, developing instead as a progression of inflexible, ultra ideas both emanating from, but breaking with, past experience. Beinart assigns both intellectual and presidential standard-bearers to each hubristic epoch and crafts a masterful presentation of his thesis. By re-introducing seemingly settled characters such as Walter Lippmann, Woodrow Wilson, Reinhold Niebuhr, Irving Kristol, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, George Kennen, Charles Krauthammer, Ronald Reagan, and George W Bush, Beinart successfully challenges some of the conventional wisdom about them, their ideas, and their actions. Though one might think "American Hubris" is a self-contained redundancy - and Beinart does not spend much time attempting to separate the two - "The Icarus Syndrome" successfully increases the chances that much of contemporary US foreign policy can be better understood if thought of in his paradigm. Indeed, Beinart manages the Herculean feat of making even George W Bush's overseas adventurism more understandable - though it remains irredeemable. I could not help but read "The Icarus Syndrome" with another text in mind - Gary Wills' recent work "Bomb Power." There is a great deal of literal and conceptual overlap between the two. While Beinart indicts hubris as the predominant culprit in modern US foreign policy, Wills takes aim at the steady advance of executive power birthed by the introduction of the atomic bomb. Taken together, these two pieces can only serve to increase our understanding of how US policy is influenced, shaped, and enacted. With the stakes of US policy and action reaching unparalleled heights, this is an essential undertaking.

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