The high price of American hubris

The story mocks a cliche: As they were leaving the Garden of Eden, Adam said to Eve, "Darling, we live in an age of transition." The first sentence of Barack Obama's letter introducing his new strategic review says Americans have often coped with "moments of transition" such as today's "time of sweeping change." Such boilerplate makes one weep — and yearn for serious, meaning unsentimental, assessments of America's foreign policy tradition.

One is at hand. Taken to heart, Peter Beinart's "The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris" might spare the nation some tears.

In the Greek myth, Icarus is given wings in the form of feathers affixed by wax to a wooden frame. He also is given a warning: Do not fly too high lest the sun melt the wax. In the ecstasy of soaring, he forgot, and fell to his death.

Beinart discerns three varieties of high-flying foreign policy hubris in the last 100 years, beginning with Woodrow Wilson, who injected the progressives' faith in domestic policy expertise into foreign policy. He exemplified the hubris of reason, which supposedly could bring permanent, because "scientific," peace to Europe. The political science professor told his wife they should draft a constitution for their marriage, then "make bylaws at our leisure." As president, he created the Inquiry, a bevy of intellectuals using reason to revise the borders that history had given to Old World nations. Colonel Edward House, Wilson's aide, said he and the president received the Inquiry's report on Jan. 2, 1918: "We actually got down to work at half past ten and finished remaking the map of the world, as we would have it, at half past twelve."

Wilson said, in effect, "Stop the world, America wants to get off." He actually said America would "in no circumstances consent to live in a world governed by intrigue and force." And so the next war came, on Sept. 1, 1939, when dignitaries were in Geneva, birthplace and cemetery of the League of Nations, unveiling a statue of Wilson.


The First World War — aka the war to end all wars — was followed by the Second World War, and then the Cold War and the hubris of toughness. America, which Beinart says needed "a wider menu of analogies," now saw every foreign policy challenge through the retrospective prism of Munich:

"In 1939, few American politicians believed that a Nazi takeover of Warsaw constituted a grave danger to the United States. By 1965, many believed we couldn't live with a North Vietnamese takeover of Saigon. In the 1980s, Americans lived peacefully, albeit anxiously, with thousands of Soviet nuclear warheads pointed our way. By 2003, many Washington commentators claimed that even Iraqi biological or chemical weapons put us in mortal peril."

The postwar belief that U.S. "credibility" was crucial, perishable and at stake in far-flung crises "meant," Beinart says, "that unimportant places were important after all," and turned the doctrine of containment into an uncontained, hence hubristic, impulse. As the restraining memory of Korea faded — a memory that helped President Eisenhower conduct a prudent foreign policy -- the (in John Kennedy's inaugural formulation) "trumpet" calling on America to "pay any price, bear any burden" summoned it to worry perhaps excessively about involvement in Guatemala and the Dominican Republic.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, America's supremacy — ideological, military and economic: the stock market doubled in value between 1992 and 1996 — fed, Beinart says, a hubris of dominance. Using only air power, America compelled Serbia to remove its soldiers from part of Serbia — the province of Kosovo. In Bosnia, America acted in response to ethnic cleansing. In Kosovo, Beinart argues, America acted to pre-empt ethnic cleansing: "Kosovo nudged open an intellectual door, a door George W. Bush would fling wide open four years later, when he cited 'pre-emption' to justify his invasion of Iraq."

Events eventually pop what Beinart calls "hubris bubbles." This may soon happen in Afghanistan, where Obama is in a tenuous, uneasy alliance with those Beinart calls "dominance conservatives."

Generational envy has, Beinart believes, propelled some Americans' searches for Hitlers to not appease. Boredom born of Cold War success caused them to find some.

Hubris is a vice arising from ambition, which is, in moderation, a virtue. Hubris is a byproduct of success, of which America has had much. By producing folly, of which America has had too much, hubris is its own corrective. There is, however, a high tuition paid for such instruction.

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