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.

The Icarus Syndrome is filled with elaborate metaphors, from the title character Icarus — in Greek mythology, he has wings made from feathers and wax, but flies too close to the sun — to physical comparisons: “The more confident our leaders and thinkers become about the hammer of American force, the more likely they are to find nails.”

Beinart is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York, Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, and senior political writer at The Daily Beast. The book is aimed squarely at his colleagues in these circles. Policy wonks, pundits and politicians are the elites who should learn the lessons of past American failures. But the histories make for a good read and serve as important warnings for constituents too often sways by heady rhetoric. What Beinart offers are fine-point sketches of presidents’ lives — Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s blood pressure spiked when he watched a movie about Woodrow Wilson — characters who have big, principled dreams and the confidence — or self-delusion — to see them through. This is hubris, not of a particularly American sort, but hubris of the powerful who are mortal after all.

As Beinart recounts it, the hubris of Lyndon Johnson both built and destroyed his presidency. Johnson succeeded John F. Kennedy, who was just beginning to give up his tough-guy image and largely failing foreign policy when he was assassinated. But Americans were still looking for a leader like Kennedy, an “ask what you can do for your country” president, and Johnson fit the bill. His “hubris of toughness” got him elected handily, but also drove America even deeper into the Vietnam War, which ultimately destroyed his chances for re-election.

Ironically, it was Ronald Reagan who put an end to the “hubris of toughness.” The consummate Hollywood man, he played the tough guy for Americans but used little force abroad. He was restrained by his internal conflicts about war, and also by Congress which increasingly checked executive power.

By the time we get to George W. Bush, however, that hesitation about war fell by the wayside. The prudence of checking power, along with memories of combat failures, vacated the White House. “The bar for going to war kept going down, and the bar for achieving victory kept going up,” Beinart writes. Senator John McCain, tempered by his experience as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, agreed with George H. W. Bush’s decision not to topple Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War. But by the 2000 presidential primaries, even he succumbed to the temptations of military success and became hawkish. Bush had no such ambition or intimate knowledge of foreign policy. He campaigned instead in opposition to the Clinton era and his father’s presidency. Instead of “a bold foreign policy agenda,” Beinart writes that Bush had “a taste for boldness.” His hubris played out in the Iraq War, which was plagued by miscalculations and ill-preparation that continue to haunt America and the Middle East today.

At its best, The Icarus Syndrome is a springboard for much-needed conversation about what drives American foreign policy. But it is the kind of book that leaves you tongue-tied. Beinart reasons through his own lapsed support for the Iraq War, but he does not denounce all wars all the time. He does not suggest that America should retreat from the world. But he also does not answer his own stridently presented questions: In a moment of crisis, is the kind of self-reflection that can prevent acts of hubris even possible? Is it politically feasible? Or is it inevitable that the cycles of success, hubris and destruction are doomed to continue?

Barack Obama now has the challenge of offering “symbolic balm for America’s wounded pride” while replacing Bush’s “hubris of dominance” with the strength of bounded power. What Beinart is calling for is enlightened leadership with a nuanced message, which is difficult to reconcile with the sound bite rhetoric so important to cable news and YouTube videos. “We lack even the vocabulary for hard choices,” Beinart writes. The task of ending hubris, then, is not just one for presidents and elites. It is one for Americans themselves, who nurture a broader vocabulary and demand that policies are formed in their interests, instead of the black holes of ideological hubris, however tempting those easy takes on the world might be.

Peter Beinart answered questions for this short Q&A by telephone. The transcript is edited only for clarity.

Q: What came first for you in writing this book: your examination of presidents’ history or the idea of hubris?

I suppose it came together. It grew out of my own experience with the Iraq War, trying to make sense of that, and I think I knew enough about the Vietnam story to have a feeling that there might be some parallels. I had reading a bit about [Woodrow] Wilson and [Walter] Lippman. There wasn’t a clear either-or. I had the germ of an idea, but the idea evolved as I was going through the reading.

As I say in the introduction, when you’re writing about cycles and patterns you’re taking an infinitely complex series of events and putting them in a structure. Inevitably, you’re doing a certain amount of violence to the pure history. The challenge was always to be able to step back and see the forest for the trees, and allow the reader to see larger themes while also being fair to the material. There’s an inevitable tension between that, as it is for anyone who is  trying to follow a certain theme. You always have to make decisions about what you leave in and what you take out.

Q: In your book it seems that many American presidents succumbed to hubris because it was politically pragmatic. That is to say, they could get elected or re-elected by taking doctrines to the extreme. You discuss presidents’ relationship with hubris in your book at length. But do you think Americans have a cultural relationship to hubris, which makes it so politically advantageous for presidents to take extreme positions?

I do think there are cultural roots to it that come out of the success that America had and the optimism that it has produced. I think that’s been stronger at particular moments after America has had particular periods of great success.

But I think the public rarely drives foreign policy. Foreign policy tends to be fairly elite-driven. All that [hubris in American culture] does in certain moments is create public openness to elites doing the hubristic things. It also makes certain elites vulnerable to other elites using this [hubristic] language against them. I don’t think the public is a prime mover but I think that elites can play off certain public tendencies and use those to their advantage.

Q: At the end of your book, you offer prescriptions for Barack Obama to curb this cycle of history. Do you think he can actually do it?

The public tends to, at certain points, become more resistant to elite designs. You see after a while that the public becomes tired and disillusioned and then less willing to pay taxes or sacrifice lives for some elite-driven agenda. That creates possibilities for other politicians to push against hubristic tendencies. I think Obama is wrestling with all of this: On one hand, the really serious constraints that are being brought to bear on how much longer America can stay in these wars, and on the other hand, the political anxieties that particularly Democrats tend to have from being attacked from the right.

Some elements of the foreign policy have been reasonably good. I think it was good that they managed to do some kind of coordinated global stimulus at the beginning of his presidency. I think the Afghanistan policy may be a situation in which he’s being swept along by pressure from the military and perhaps also by his political anxieties, and not coming to terms with the degree to which this is an unsustainable effort that he’s getting himself into.

Q: How do you want readers in the Middle East to see your book? What do you think they should take away from it?

I think that readers should recognize that American foreign policy is not static, that it changes in response to events. If it’s easy for readers in the Middle East to wish that America would retreat from the world, they should be mindful of those parts of the book in which American involvement , even military involvement, in the world has been a positive force. For instance, Bosnia and Kosovo [during the Clinton administration], might be of particular interest given these were Muslim societies that America helped save from destruction.