Temptations of Power

Reading about Wikileaks’ release of American diplomatic cables makes me think about our vocabulary around foreign policy. How do we talk about foreign policy and who exactly should have access to information that U.S. representatives abroad collect? This summer, Peter Beinart, autho told me that the public rarely drives foreign policy. In his book, he called for Americans to push back against ideologies pushed to the extremes. He recently wrote in The Daily Beast that Wikileaks’ actions are little more than voyeuristic fodder and add little to public debate, but my conversation with him makes me wonder if the Wikileaks project could, at least, be a springboard for greater conversation about American foreign policy.

I wrote a review of The Icarus Syndrome and short Q&A with Beinart for the Abu Dhabi-based Afaq Al Mustaqbal Magazine, which translated the piece into Arabic and edited for length. It ran in Issue No. 7, Sept/Oct 2010 (PDF with Arabic text). Below is the text as I submitted it.

Temptations of Power

The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris
By Peter Beinart

By Angilee Shah

If the power of Fox News is a conundrum to Americans on the political left now, what Peter Beinart chronicles in the history of American politics shows that it is not a new dilemma. The tendency of the political elite to push ideologies to its extremes is cyclical and disastrous, or so goes the lessons of The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris.

Beinart’s last book, The Good Fight: Why Liberals–and Only Liberals–Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again, chronicled the history of liberals’ foreign policies and called for liberals in 2006 to take a strong position in the war on terror while remembering that power is not always a force for good. The Icarus Syndrome takes a broader view on the same theme. Writing across political parties, Beinart retells stories of political power at the outsets of World War I, Vietnam and Iraq, and sections them into ideological cycles, to remind us that power and success should not make us disregard the limits of our ideologies.

Book Reviews: Full List

All reviews published by Zócalo Public Square unless otherwise noted. Not looking for book reviews? See my portfolio.


The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa
by Deborah Brautigam
March 9, 2010
If the headlines are any indication, it’s time for a proper China scare.

China Watcher: Confessions of a Peking Tom
by Richard Baum
May 26, 2010
China Watcher is a memoir and a contemporary history rolled into one….

China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know
by Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom
and Burma/Myanmar: What Everyone Needs to Know
by David I. Steinberg
April 21, 2010
Think of the What Everyone Needs to Know series as Lonely Planet for the politically inclined — rich context for the diplomat, the observant traveler, or the news junkie.

Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory
By Peter Hessler
April 14, 2010
Country Driving begins with a driver’s license.

“If You Leave Us Here, We Will Die”:How Genocide was Stopped in East Timor
By Geoffrey Robinson
January 22, 2010
The United Nations has defined genocide as “any act committed with the idea of destroying in whole or in part a national, ethnic, racial or religious group,” but what does genocide really mean?

Mao Zedong and China in the Twentieth Century World
By Rebecca E. Karl
September 24, 2010
The “cultural worker” who created art for the benefit of mass politics was Mao’s ideal artist; now his own image is an icon of pop art, overlayed by Warhol hypercolors and juxtaposed with commercial symbols. The kitsch of his anti-capitalist Red Guard — the little red books and propaganda posters that were powerful ideological tools during the Cultural Revolution — have become commodified collectibles.

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea
By Barbara Demick
March 3, 2010
As Barbara Demick introduces it, North Korea is quite literally a dark spot in East Asia. At night the country goes black.

Rock & Roll Jihad: A Muslim Rock Star’s Revolution
by Salman Ahmad
February 17, 2010
Rock & Roll Jihad is a straightforward autobiography of a man who, by age 18….

The Uyghurs: Strangers in Their Own Land
by Gardner Bovingdon
January 6, 2011
Gardner Bovingdon fills a large gap in our understanding and misunderstanding of Uyghurs’ political lives. The Uyghurs, a scholarly history that is both cognizant of the past and relevant to the present, illustrates not only how the minority group was oppressed in the northwest province of Xinjiang, but also how its stories have been twisted to fit a “war on terror” narrative.

Whirlwind: The Air War Against Japan, 1942-1945
by Barrett Tillman
March 31, 2010
Barrett Tillman love planes. He loves pilots and dogfights and engines. This propensity comes through quite clearly in Whirlwind, his history of “The Air War Against Japan” in World War II.


The Aid Trap: Hard Truths About Ending Poverty
by R. Glenn Hubbard and William Duggan
October 29, 2009
In 2006, Warren Buffet made a $31 billion gift to the Gates Foundation. He explained the generous donation this way: “A market system has not worked in terms of poor people.” R. Glenn Hubbard and William Duggan, the dean and a senior lecturer at Columbia Business School, turn Buffet’s assertion on its head in The Aid Trap. Free markets, they say, are not the cause of poverty. Indeed, the market system and strong private business sectors are the solution to poverty.

Beyond America’s Grasp: A Century of Failed Diplomacy in the Middle East
by Stephen P. Cohen
November 25, 2009
It is essential, as the saying goes, to “know thine enemy.” Citizen diplomat and social psychologist Stephen P. Cohen has a different message: Know thine history.

Forces of Fortune: The Rise of the New Muslim Middle Class and What It Will Mean for Our World
by Vali Nasr
November 5, 2009
Americans’ view of Iran has certainly evolved since President George Bush declared the rogue nation a part of his “Axis of Evil”….

Hostage Nation: Colombia’s Guerrilla Army and the Failed War on Drugs
by Victoria Bruce and Karin Hayes, with Jorge Enrique Botero
July 20, 2010
When three American contractors were taken hostage after their plane crashed in the jungles of Colombia in 2003, Victoria Bruce and Karin Hayes were positioned well to tell their stories… The proposal sat on the shelf for years, but the three hostages became an “unshakable part” of the authors’ lives, even though they’d never met.

The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris
by Peter Beinart
Afaq Al Mustaqbal Magazine (Abu Dhabi), Issue No. 7, Sept/Oct 2010
A review of The Icarus Syndrome and short Q&A with author Peter Beinart, which was translated into Arabic and edited for length (PDF, Arabic).

The Left at War
by Michael Bérubé
December 18, 2009
The central irony of Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech is that he used it to make a convincing case for war.

Mohamed’s Ghost
by Stephan Salisbury
August 30, 2010
The introduction to Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Stephan Salisbury’s investigative memoir Mohamed’s Ghosts is titled “How to Take Down A Mosque.” It’s an eye-grabber for anyone who is watching closely the controversy around the Park51 Islamic community center and mosque slated to be built in Lower Manhattan. But Salisbury’s book takes us to another mosque in a rundown neighborhood in Philadelphia.

A Mosque in Munich
by Ian Johnson
June 7, 2010
Reading nonfiction is not usually an adventure the way reading fiction can be. It is more often an intellectual exercise that rarely enters the realm of imagination. But A Mosque in Munich lets readers do both.

The Muslim Brotherhood: The Organization and Policies of a Global Islamist Movement
Edited by Barry Rubin
August 5, 2010
The essayists, mostly scholars, vacillate between taking an even, careful tone and proscribing the decades-old group’s existence outside Egypt. But they also take the more crucial step of explaining what this movement is not.

Questioning the Veil: Open Letters to Muslim Women
By Marnia Lazreg
January 28, 2010
If Muslim women’s bodies represent the war of ideas about Islam, the veil is the greatest battleground.

Reset: Iran, Turkey and America’s Future
By Stephen Zinzer
June 8, 2010
Stephen Kinzer’s 2007 book Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq …demonstrated that Kinzer has an uncanny ability to draw unexpected links between histories of many places. Reset is another accomplishment in that regard. It is a dual history of emerging democracies, histories that resonate with America’s own democratic narrative. Iran and Turkey, Kinzer argues, make for excellent partners in the Middle East because they have, embedded in their cultures, a struggle for democracy. If all this sounds too far-fetched, particularly with oft-maligned Iran, Kinzer’s work begs the reader to take a longer view.

Small Change: Why Business Won’t Save the World
By Michael Edwards
June 29, 2010
Anyone who has worked in the nonprofit sector, with big or small organizations, has likely felt pressure to think about markets and quantify outcomes in a corporate style. Michael Edwards’ Small Change does much to explain and challenge this kind of corporatization of the nonprofit world.

The Twilight of the Bombs: Recent Challenges, New Dangers, and the Prospects for a World Without Nuclear Weapons
By Richard Rhodes
September 28, 2010
Like the training scenes in “The Karate Kid”, it’s hard to understand why we are reading Twilight of the Bomb’s historical minutiae while in the midst of it. If Richard Rhodes’ history is a review of nuclear challenges since the Cold War, it is also a political history, a technical manual, and a diffuse tome to culminate his monumental four-part series on the subject.

War and the Health of Nations
by Zaryab Iqbal
May 26, 2010
The premise of War and the Health of Nations is not all that startling: War is bad for your health.

War is Not Over When it’s Over
by Ann Jones
November 24, 2010
Ann Jones’ first feat is to frame extreme suffering, often seen as something “over there” and “far away,” with immediacy for readers in their comfortable and safe homes.

Why the French Don’t Like Headscarves: Islam, the State, and Public Space
By John R. Bowen
February 10, 2010
Americans share with the French an ideal of religious freedom. But last month, France considered a law ….

Globalization and Immigration

Hyperconflict: Globalization and Insecurity
by James H. Mittelman
May 12, 2010
James H. Mittelman must be watching the crisis in Greece with keen interest. He is the author of Hyperconflict, a book that proposes to change the scale of our language concerning global business, power and conflict.

The Lucky Ones: One Family and the Extraordinary Invention of Chinese America
by Mae Ngai
December 3, 2010
Hyphenated cultures seem to be a natural part of California’s landscape today, but it wasn’t always so. The Lucky Ones by Mae Ngai offers a fresh look at California history by reconstructing the lives of immigrant and second generation pioneers who lived between cultures when it was not such a common phenomenon.


Captive: My Time as a Prisoner of the Taliban
by Jere Van Dyk
July 27, 2010
It had been six years since Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was beheaded in Karachi, and Van Dyk spent his days in a dark room wondering if he would also be killed. This is not a memoir with easy answers about good and evil, however.  It is one that complicates issues of journalistic license, one in which Van Dyk’s anxiety and ambivalence about being a prisoner of the Taliban is palpable.

The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution that Will Begin the World Again
by Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols
March 21, 2010
Healthcare reform passed perhaps because enough people recognized a hard-to-swallow truth: people need healthcare and the free market is not providing it well enough. Substitute the news for healthcare and you have a compelling argument for subsidized journalism.

The Tyranny of E-mail: The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox
by John Freeman
November 17, 2009
It is not particularly surprising that a ubiquitous literary critic finds our growing e-mail culture a soul crushing experience. John Freeman was a freelance writer before becoming the editor of Granta, the century-old literary magazine….

Health and Science

Science vs Religion: What Scientists Really Think
by Elaine Howard Ecklund
July 13, 2010
The 2005 lawsuit known as the Dover trial pit religion against science in the most virulent of ways. Parents challenged a school district’s requirement that intelligent design be taught alongside evolution in high school biology classes. The judge’s ruling — that intelligent design is not science, but rather an intrusion of religion on a state institution — sparked criticism and praise from all sides. Around the same time, Congress tried to loosen restrictions on embryonic stem cell research — another flashpoint in the battle between science and religion — only to face criticism and a veto. It was during these tumultuous years that Elaine Howard Ecklund entered the fray to record the conflict from the nation’s ivory towers.

Life at the Speed of Books

I’m spending most of this month and last looking over the Hudson River, from Jersey City to New York. It’s a good vantage point to be an observer of global interactions and politics. It is from here that I read wrote most of the books I have reviewed so far for Zócalo Public Square.

Three of those books have been about American foreign policy in the Middle East. To be sure, the three were very different in style and content, but in so many ways they all underscore the simple need for context.  It is a desperate need in these days of information overload and soundbite news. While the foreign policy histories and opinions in the books that I reviewed are essential for thinking about monumental existential issues like national security, the act of consistently reading books is a reminder to take more time to think about, well, everything. Sometimes it’s best that life move at the speed of books.

Here are some excerpts and links in case you’re interested.

Clinton on Pakistan

A quick post — I was really surprised to hear Secretary of State Hillary Clinton being very forthright about America’s errors in Pakistan and Afghanistan. “Let’s remember here,” she told a congressional hearing, “the people we are fighting today, we funded 20 years ago.” She links the problems in the region now, in part, to America’s policies in fighting the Soviet Union. “Let’s be careful what we sow, because we will harvest,” she said. Here’s the clip from CNN:


Front page, DawnThe major English-language daily in Pakistan, Dawn, highlighted her comments: US created Taliban and abandoned Pakistan: Clinton. Reporter Anwar Iqbal writes the lead, “Two days of continuous congressional hearings on the Obama administration’s foreign policy brought a rare concession from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who acknowledged that the United States too had a share in creating the problem that plagues Pakistan today.”

While it is significant for Clinton to have made such a blatant statement, the U.S. policy on Pakistan is still problematic, according to a Saturday editorial. Dawn writes: “Secretary Clinton may well be right in saying that the Pakistani people ‘need to speak out forcefully’ against the government’s policy of appeasement in Swat. But this amounts to going over the head of the government it claims is an ally and undermining its authority among the people. And all the tough talk against Pakistan cannot conceal that the Americans are themselves puzzled about how exactly to approach Pakistan.”

Update: Turns out, the State Department is looking for suggestions.