Beinart's 'Icarus Syndrome': We Are Too Ambitious

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The United States is ramping up its presence in Afghanistan for a huge offensive this month—the most aggressive in the nine-year occupation—in Kandahar, a southern Afghan city of about half a million people. Code-named Hamkari (Dari for "cooperation"), its ambition is nothing short of stupefying: to blow the Taliban out of its strategic stronghold and simultaneously win over the hearts and minds of the locals. "Our mission is to show irreversible momentum by the end of 2010," Brig. Gen. Frederick Hodges, who commands troops in southern Afghanistan, said recently. For President Obama, the stakes couldn't be higher. This is the turning point of the war.

To know how it'll work out, look no further than Peter Beinart's rollicking new history of hubris in American foreign policy during the last 100 years. Beinart, a former editor of The New Republic who teaches writing and political science at CUNY's Graduate Center, might say we've grown wings. And mighty big ones, in this case. In The Icarus Syndrome, he argues that the United States repeatedly follows an old Greek script: the mythical story of Icarus, whose wings of feathers and wax allow the boy to fly, until—becoming overconfident and heedless of his father's warning—he flies too close to the sun, melts his wings, and falls to his death. Hubris, which the Greeks called "insolence toward the gods," sealed his fate—making it a useful allegory for American adventures like World War I, Vietnam, and, most recently, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The tendency is so natural, and Beinart lays out the consequences with such aplomb, that it's bewildering how, time and again, the best and brightest in Washington (to say nothing of the American public) flap those wings right at the sun. Back in the 1920s, in Beinart's analysis, it was the "hubris of reason" that drove President Woodrow Wilson to naively assume that a system of international law—the League of Nations—could eradicate high politics and keep overzealous powers like Germany under control. Four decades later, the "hubris of toughness," brought to the fore by President John F. Kennedy, sent nearly 60,000 Americans to their deaths in Vietnam. And the "hubris of dominance" instilled a false sense of capability in the administration of George W. Bush (and Beinart himself, who supported the war), which resulted in fiasco. "In important ways, America's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq echo the Icarus tale," Beinart writes. "But they differ in one crucial respect: Icarus dies from his hubris; America does not."

It's not much of a stretch to say that there's a pathology at work here. As American economic power grew during the 20th century, its people and policymakers came to believe they could surmount the impossible. As Beinart puts it, "In our political culture, publicly acknowledging that something is beyond America's power is perilous." In politics, that has meant that making war equals votes. When President Lyndon Johnson pushed through the Tonkin Gulf resolution—essentially a blank check for escalation in Vietnam—his poll numbers shot up some 30 percent. After George H.W. Bush invaded Panama in 1989 (remember that one?), his approval ratings hit heights not seen since Vietnam. Ditto that for George W. Bush after 9/11, when he invaded Afghanistan to topple the Taliban (for the first time).

But each time the country has flown higher and higher, fighting more strategically ambitious wars, there's been an accompanying crash back down to earth. Wilson's failed project resulted in World War II. The period of withdrawal from Vietnam, and the socioeconomic malaise of the 1970s, couldn't have been further from Kennedy's soaring idealism of 10 years before. Likewise, the severe political polarization—not to mention the unforeseen cost in blood and treasure—that came with the Iraq invasion ended the jingoism of the months after September 11, 2001. The wings come off, we hit the ground, and it all starts again.

Beinart is a wondrous storyteller. There's not much that he leaves out of The Icarus Syndrome. (It's exactly the book I wish I'd had when I was teaching American foreign policy to undergraduates.) He covers just about every one of the U.S.'s overseas military interventions since World War I, and unlike the authors of many wide-ranging histories, he has the writing chops to infuse the story with the dramatic tension and flair it deserves. Consider this psychological snippet: "Walter Lippmann also seduced the powerful, but he did it through the front door. Disappointed by his own father, he acquired others, becoming the brilliant son that great men felt they deserved." The book is largely an intellectual history, so it's not just presidents and politicians: Beinart sincerely believes that ideas matter in world politics. That means early on we meet progressives like John Dewey and Lippmann, and realists like Hans Morgenthau and Reinhold Niebuhr. George Kennan is a central figure through the Cold War. And much later, neoconservatives like Irving Kristol and Francis Fukuyama come front and center for the expedition in Iraq.

Beinart's argument, however, suffers from one serious flaw. Though he carefully draws out the nuances of each era, he compares the domestic political ramifications of very different conflicts without adjusting for the evolution in the way wars are fought. The fact is that, as the geopolitical order changed in the last 100 years, the nature of war, battle, and security changed even more radically. Vietnam and Afghanistan are not state-on-state military wars like World Wars I and II. That means the fundamentals—like winning and losing—play differently at home, altering Washington's (and voters') calculus of what's worth fighting and how. In other words, the American electorate expects something very different from the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan than it did from the unconditional surrenders that ended earlier wars. Beinart's analysis would have benefited from not assuming politics always played more or less the same.

So what do our wings look like in Afghanistan? The eeriest echo from Beinart's book is undoubtedly Kennedy's inaugural address: "In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger," the young president said. "I do not shrink from this responsibility—I welcome it." But, setting the stage for a country about to grow tragically huge wings, Beinart points out that "1961, unlike 1938, was not freedom's hour of maximum danger." And as the U.S. soars into Kandahar—a dangerous city in a little-understood country on the other side of the world—it's worth asking again if this is an hour of maximum danger, worthy of extending, even amplifying, what will soon be a decade-long war. Or whether, before we close in on the sun, it's finally time to clip those wings.