Pride and Prejudice

The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris BY Peter Beinart. Harper. Hardcover, 496 pages. $27.

The cover of The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris

Reading America’s destiny in the entrails of its foreign-policy doctrines and wars is no job for amateurs. But in The Icarus Syndrome, Peter Beinart—a Yale-to-Oxford-to-Beltway wunderkind who flew too close to the sun of liberal-hawk glory while he edited the New Republic during the Iraq war—pirouettes to keep his wings from melting and lands safely, bringing us an essay in history that’s insightful, if also a little self-serving.

When he tells you that Colin Powell judged Paul Wolfowitz’s grand plan for Iraq “the kind of militarily ludicrous suggestion you got from people who had spent their twenties in think tanks, not foxholes,” Beinart knows he’s writing about himself and the large cohort of liberal hawks and Vulcan mini-cons who helped stampede America into Iraq. But he doesn’t describe his own trajectory explicitly, and wisely so; the only time he comes close, in the introduction, the account (of a penitential lunch with Arthur Schlesinger Jr.) is so self-servingly self-flagellating that it rings false.

His ambitious survey of varieties of American foreign-policy hubris since World War I hints often at having been undertaken partly to help him outgrow his own past heroes, mentors, and political pals—to grow up, really, and fly better next time. He calls a chapter “Fathers and Sons,” and the book follows “generational envy” through many iterations. He revisits FDR’s worship of his distant cousin Teddy and the overconfidence of Beinart’s childhood heroes JFK and Schlesinger that their Camelot would surpass Eisenhower’s “politics of fatigue.” On the right, Beinart assesses the disdain that mini-cons such as Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan felt for their political elders’ wiser—and ultimately sturdier—accommodations to ineradicable evil in the world.

Easing us down from this harrowing tour, Beinart cautions against both hero worship and Oedipal rebellion in foreign-policy making; only with maturity can we know that “strength and dominance are not the same thing.” But can history as therapy resolve such conflicts? Beinart’s mythic, Freudian views of our policy past need to be supplemented with harder-headed structural reckonings that would take fuller account of the economic and nationalist currents driving our leaders and their political progeny. His renderings of their movements are sometimes acute but often schematic (three kinds of hubris; two kinds of toughness), and his suggestions for a new foreign-policy flight plan follow recent political-climate change in Washington.

He shifts from the Yale-bred apologetics for American hegemony advanced by Wolfowitz, John Lewis Gaddis, Donald and Robert Kagan, Charles Hill, Steven Smith (a political theorist and mentor of Beinart’s at Yale), and other celebrants of the Bush National Security Strategy of 2002, toward a different strain of Yale-bred foreign policy, one that’s been voiced in the principled multilateralism of professors Harold Koh and Bruce Ackerman and the dubious neoliberalism of the journalist Fareed Zakaria (a member of the Yale Corporation and a blurber of Beinart’s book). Following Zakaria and Francis Fukuyama, Beinart argues that capitalism subtly spreads the rule of law to developing nations, turning even China from totalitarianism to authoritarianism and thereby brightening democracy’s prospects. But the USSR did that under Gorbachev, before capitalism. And neither Zakaria nor Beinart reckons with mounting evidence that, in the developed world, including post-Soviet Russia, corporate and finance capital are subverting the democratic virtues and prospects a more entrepreneurial capitalism helped create.

Beinart’s move from Manichaean unilateralism to neoliberalism won’t please the nationalist right or satisfy the anticapitalist left. But it’s the Washington elite he’s addressing, and in offering Beltway policy makers the potted history and gentle admonitions they prefer over the scathing polemics they avoid in handling one another’s work, he allows Kristol, Robert Kagan, Max Boot, Charles Krauthammer, Elliott Abrams, and David Brooks to hang themselves with their own oversmart, serpentine words. But only in one footnote does Beinart cite an article of his own, announcing “the great liberal duty of the age” to combat Islamofascism. He leaves no other trace of his many war whoops and liberal bashings.

He quite rightly wants American foreign policy to be what Walter Lippmann called “the shield of the republic,” not a global crusade that distracts us from our own internal challenges. He criticizes both liberal hawks of the past decade for whom “spreading American power was worthwhile if it spread democracy and human rights” and conservative militarists for whom “spreading human rights and democracy was worthwhile if they spread American power. Both groups were more confident than their ideological forefathers”—those fathers, again!—“that democratic values and American might generally went hand in hand.” Because the neocons and liberal hawks were both wrong, they became duplicitous in selling their preferred interventions to Americans, who were generally less confident about them. Barack Obama “will need to redefine our national faith, to decouple American optimism from the project of American global mastery,” Beinart warns, urging us to “remember the things we admired about our country when militarism and Americanism were not so deeply intertwined.” Here he defends a civic-republican ethos that may, indeed, be our liberal, capitalist republic’s last, best hope.

All this is fine as far as it goes, but the book is missing something important, as an essay in history and as a national reckoning with our sins of pride. To know what that something is, one needs a bit of history that Beinart doesn’t provide. The Icarus Syndrome is the second of two books he contracted with HarperCollins to write, for nearly six hundred thousand dollars, in 2005, when he was still the editor of Martin Peretz’s (and Leon Wieseltier’s) New Republic. A young thirty-four at the time, he had been at the magazine nearly all his adult life, writing intelligent if term-paperish articles on a range of topics. During those years, the magazine had trouble distinguishing itself editorially from neoconservatism, even though it held liberal positions on many social issues. That problem wasn’t the magazine’s alone; it was a dilemma for many post-Clinton liberals. But “throughout the Bush era,” Salon’s Glenn Greenwald noted in 2008, “the Democratic Party has been dominated by The New Republic Syndrome—Democrats who are either petrified of meaningfully opposing the right-wing agenda . . . or who . . . serve as the most vocal demonizers of those who want our country to have a real opposition party.”

One could have added that the magazine itself suffered from a still more specific malady—Joe Lieberman syndrome. At Beinart’s urging, the magazine endorsed the neoconservative Connecticut senator against Howard Dean and John Kerry for the Democratic nomination in 2004. And as late as 2006, Beinart was complaining in interviews that Lieberman was “getting a bum rap” from the “liberal blogosphere” for refusing to “really snarl at George W. Bush.”

The New Republic’s endorsement of Lieberman assailed Dean supporters for “excessive faith in multilateralism and an insufficient faith in the moral potential of U.S. power” and for being “dangerously out of touch with a country that feels threatened by terrorism, not Donald Rumsfeld.” But after Bush’s reelection, Beinart tried to deflect the wrath of liberals more centrist than Greenwald by writing “A Fighting Faith: An Argument for a New Liberalism.” That New Republic essay urged liberals to revive their old, cold-war antitotalitarianism to fight jihadist terrorism.

Beinart repackaged and extended that argument into his first HarperCollins book, The Good Fight: Why Liberals—and Only Liberals—Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again (2006), putting a slightly “liberal” spin on alarums about Islamofascism by Paul Berman and Christopher Hitchens—“two of the most eloquent left hawks.” But neither the Salafist variant of Islam that Beinart explored nor the more dubious polemical construct “Islamofascism” grew in Western soil, as fascism and Communism had; nor did they win Western hearts and minds or do any more damage to Western capitalism than Western capitalism was already doing to itself.

Sensing, perhaps, that he was going nowhere, Beinart spent pages assailing the anti-Iraq-war left, even though, compared with the scale of the anti–Vietnam War left, it barely existed: When L. Paul Bremer III was spirited secretly out of the Green Zone in June 2004, no antiwar Congress had forced America to fight with one hand tied behind its back; no Jane Fonda had gone to Baghdad and lent aid and comfort to the enemy or demoralized our side. The war makers had done that all by themselves.

Lacking a persuasive analysis and a foothold in the political present, The Good Fight flopped, but Beinart bulked up his policy résumé by landing a fellowship at the Council on Foreign Relations, a way station for many a sidelined, if unchastened, policy professional in the Washington circuit, from Henry Kissinger on down. There Beinart discovered that New Republic syndrome was really about something darker and deeper than liberal guilt, and perhaps the highest irony of his two books is that they never mention that something. One would expect an editor of the New Republic, writing of mortal threats to Western democracy from the Middle East, to discuss Western democracy in Israel. Israel, Jews, and Zionism are scarcely mentioned in The Good Fight, and in The Icarus Syndrome, Beinart never says how Israel figured into the New Republic’s foreign-policy calculations during his editorship, when Peretz and Wieseltier worked closely with Kristol and Dick Cheney to make war on Iraq.

Why are both books as reticent about Israel as they are about military-industrial capitalism? My kindest explanation while reading them was that silence was Beinart’s protest against the duplicitous foreign-policy reckonings of his New Republic years. Now, in the June 10 issue of the New York Review of Books, he comes clean, not about his past but about his fears for Israel under a Manichaean Jewish nationalism Hannah Arendt opposed presciently even as she assisted Israel’s birth. The Icarus Syndrome should have done this to redress fully the bellicosity that marred his journalistic ascent and dishonored his patrimony.

Jim Sleeper is a lecturer in political science at Yale and the author of The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York (Norton, 1991).