Skip to main content

Reviewed by Dr. John M. Handley

The Icarus Syndrome, A History of American Hubris, by Peter Beinart; New York: Harper Collins, 2010, ; ISBN 978-0-06-145646-6,  496 pp., $28.00

Peter Beinart is an Associate Professor of Journalism and Political Science at City University of New York and a Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation.  A former fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Beinart contributes to Time and is the senior political writer for The Daily Beast.  He previously authored The Good Fight.

The Icarus Syndrome is an effort by Peter Beinart to explain a century of American presidential policy making through the prism of hubris or overconfidence.  Much like Larry Sabato, in Feeding Frenzy, who divided journalists into three camps—lap dogs, watch dogs, and attack dogs—Beinart addresses three stages of hubris—reason, toughness, and dominance.  While Sabato’s evolution of journalism makes sense, the evolution of hubris does not.  The hubris of reason purportedly began with Woodrow Wilson and lasted until the Lyndon Johnson administration when reason morphed into toughness.  Less than 40 years later, toughness from the Johnson era had changed to dominance with the advent of the G. W. Bush administration.

Personally I believe these divisions of hubris are artificial at best and misleading at worst.  The diplomatic failures of Woodrow Wilson stem as much from liberalism or idealism of his time as espoused by James Beard and John Dewey—the belief that a wise leader, in this case an American leader, could educate other nations into a permanent peace built on fairness and collective security—as opposed to the hubris of self-interest.  Lyndon Johnson’s inherited the language of toughness from the Kennedy administration and found himself in a war he could neither win nor withdraw from without losing domestic political capital.  Johnson probably felt trapped by his circumstances and did not want to go down in history as the first American president to lose a war.  His attitude reflects the hubris most politicians have towards their legacy rather than that of toughness.  The hubris of dominance attributed to G. W. Bush is just another word for toughness, but from some reason we seem to like things in threes.  One reason George Bush wanted to remove Saddam Hussein from power certainly included the belief that Saddam’s removal would redress the senior Bush’s failure to remove Saddam in the 1991 Gulf War.  Although not emphasized at the time was the administration’s belief that Saddam’s treatment of his own people, especially Kurds, Marsh Arabs, and Shia Muslims constituted humanitarian grounds for regime change.  Of course, the majority of intelligence centers, political analysts, and journalists truly believed that Iraq possessed WMD since Saddam had used chemical and biological weapons on his own people and seemed determined to develop nuclear weapons as well.  What seems certain from this look back at nearly a hundred years of American foreign policy is that small successes in foreign affairs bred larger successes and with each success, regardless of size or impact, American leaders thought they had a mandate to try to do even more to influence international relations.  The result of growing success was overconfidence and this, in turn, led to excess and a growth in hubris.

What I found fascinating about this book was the author’s treatment of the smaller players—the lesser lights—elites in their own right who contributed to U.S. foreign policy through their writings and their influence on the principal players.  For example, in covering Woodrow Wilson, Beinart explains the influence of Beard and Dewey on Wilson, mentioned above, as well as the unique role of Colonel Edward House and Walter Lippmann, the latter of whom was influenced by William James, George Santayana, Sigmund Freud, and Theodore Roosevelt.  Beinart also addresses the intellectual rebellion of Reinhold Niebuhr against Dewey’s faith in the inevitability of progress, which gave pause to Wilsonian liberalism.  Beinart introduces his readers to Harry Hopkins and explains his influence over FRD while also introducing Han Morgenthau and the latter’s criticism of Wilson’s scientific peace.  As Lippmann’s ideas changed over time from liberal to conservative, by the end of World War II, his and Morgenthau’s writings served to slay the hubris of reason (97).  Enter the hubris of toughness.

Actually, toughness is not FDR’s hubris, according to Beinart, but that of his vice-president, Harry Truman, and toughness doesn’t come about until Truman and his entire cabinet misread the assessment of Russia by George Kennan, along with what we now call containment.  Kennan wanted the U.S. to do two things, contain the USSR economically but only at those places on this earth that are of strategic importance to the U.S.  The Truman and many subsequent administrations decided to attempt to contain the USSR in every way imaginable and at every location in the world.  In the toughness era, political leaders were advised by intellectuals like Irving Kristol and Jeane Kirkpatrick, they also influenced by Morgenthau.  As success bred success and toughness changed to dominance, the next generation of political analysts became more emphatic and more demanding.  Thus Beinart addresses the influence on the Bush Administration by Richard Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, as well as the writings of William Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, and Robert Kagan.


authorDr. John M. Handley, American Diplomacy Publishers’ Vice-President, is a Professor of International Relations for Webster University’s Ft. Bragg and Pope AFB campuses.  A retired U. S. Army Colonel, Dr. Handley spent his Army career in military intelligence, including as a Defense Attaché, the Dean of the School of Attaché Training at the Defense Intelligence College, and Deputy, Resource Management, for the Defense Intelligence Agency.


Comments are closed.