Book review: “The Icarus Syndrome” by Peter Beinart

I forget exactly where I picked up The Icarus Syndrome, but I believe it was in the footnotes of one of the political books I have read semi-recently. In general terms, it is a history of American foreign policy in the 20th and 21st century. I am by no means a foreign policy expert, but in my humble opinion this book is an absolute masterpiece.

The general premise is that American history in the 20th century can be broken up into three ages defined by their particular brand of hubris: the hubris of reason, the hubris of toughness, and the hubris of dominance. The hubris of reason is characterized by an unmerited confidence that all international relations problems can be solved by well-reasoned argument, good planning, and a panel of experts. It ignores the fact that countries– and people– aren’t always going to be reasonable, and that they have unique interests that can’t be accounted for in optimizing “general welfare.” Woodrow Wilson was the big player here, and he flied too close to the sun when he thought the League of Nations and his Fourteen Points would essentially end all war, or at least get pretty darn close.

The age of toughness was ushered in by FDR who was able to speak the language of reason to the American public, but behind doors openly acknowledged that power politics is a necessary evil that needs to be accepted. FDR acknowledged that a post-WWII world would require some security for the Soviet Union. In secret meetings that weren’t made known to the American public, FDR agreed that Stalin would carve out a sphere of influence in eastern Europe. Was that right? In the age of reason no, but the age of toughness argued that America had to pick its battles– we couldn’t fight communism on all fronts, but we could let the USSR know that we meant business. Things took a turn for the worse when we some thought this limited approach was “weak”. It was “soft on communism.” Enter McCarthy. Vietnam is the turning point here where our hubris catches up with us.

The age of dominance emerged in a post-Cold War world where we are essentially the only world superpower. Without one big “bad guy”, what would be America’s role in the world? Reagan initially took a limited approach. But just like in the age of toughness, we eventually overextend. We learn from Kosovo, Bosnia, and Afghanistan that we can create democracies with the barrel of a gun. But that all collapses in the Iraq War. We’re still trying to figure out what approach we should take to foreign policy.

So, why do I give it such high praise? This book really solidified for me the significance of major world events. A good historian has to be a good story teller, and interpreting history is just as important as telling it. If history is limited to names and dates, it doesn’t have a long shelf life in your brain, really. It’s just a snooze-fest. Honestly, the more recent stuff– the 60’s and onwards– was the most interesting to me, because I have never really learned these more recent events that happened during my parents’ lifetime and my own lifetime. My U. S. history textbook covered through Reagan, but it got limited attention, because it wasn’t going to be a major topic on the AP exam. And even though I was a teen during the Iraq War, I have nothing more than a fuzzy idea that it was really bad for America and that the word “weapons of mass destruction” was thrown around a lot.

One of the things Peter Beinart did that really captured my imagination was that not just the events themselves, but their motivations are presented. You get an inside look at what conversations were going on between the president and his cabinet– as well as with other world leaders. It was also a reminder that these presidents were human– and often colorful characters. You think Trump was bad– you should see Lyndon B. Johnson. Check of this passage, when LBJ was corned by the media about Vietnam:

At a private meeting in 1967, when reporters repeatedly badgered him about why America was in Vietnam, Johnson finally unzipped his pants, pull out his penis, and screamed, “This is why!”

In addition to an insider look in the Oval Office, Beinart includes news stories from the day (like Jimmy Carter’s encounter with a feral rabbit and how the public interpreted that as weakness) and major intellectuals who drove a lot of the ideas in foreign policy including Reinhold Niebuhr, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and Irving Kristol.

The main takeaway from the book is a sense of balance: we have limits in what we can accomplish and we should be aware of those limits. If it were possible to have an overconfidence barometer, that would definitely be a plus. There were a few really thought-provoking points in the conclusion like:

Talking about threats makes us feel tough and talking about values makes us feel virtuous, but only talking about interests forces us to acknowledge the limits of our ability to be either tough or virtuous. This discomfort with the language of interest is a symptom of America’s post-cold war inability to prioritize.

and

It is this recognition that our idealism is tainted by self-interest that should make us pause and pause and pause again before unilaterally invading tyrannical nations on the assumption that their people will thank us for it. Even if we genuinely believe that we are acting from altruistic motives, the people whose country we invade will generally be more suspicious, especially if they have been on the receiving end of armed Western altruism before, and especially once an American soldier shoots their cousin or breaks down their door.

Thinking back, this book was probably was referenced in one of the books on conservatism, because the argument is essentially a small-c conservative one (not to be mis-interpreted as the current embodiment of the Republican party): that their are limits to human reason, that messing with existing systems can do more harm than good, and that you usually underestimate the amount of self-interest in your actions.

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