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The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris Hardcover – June 1, 2010

4.2 out of 5 stars 26 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

A century of unwise American military adventures is probed in this perceptive study of foreign policy over-reach. Daily Beast and Time contributor Beinart (The Good Fight) highlights three examples of Washington's overconfidence: Woodrow Wilson's hubris of reason: the belief that reason, not force, could govern the world; the Kennedy-Johnson administrations' hubris of toughness during the Vietnam War; and George W. Bush's hubris of dominance in launching the Iraq War. In each case, Beinart finds a dangerous confluence of misleading experience and untethered ideology; the Iraq War, he contends, was fostered both by a 12-year string of easy military triumphs from Panama to Afghanistan, and a belief that America can impose democracy by force. (The book continues the author's ongoing apology for his early support of the Iraq War.) Beinart's analyses are consistently lucid and provocative—e.g., he calls Ronald Reagan a dove in hawk's feathers, and his final conclusion is that Obama will need to... decouple American optimism from the project of American global mastery. The book amounts to a brief for moderation, good sense, humility, and looking before leaping—virtues that merit Beinart's spirited, cogent defense. (June)
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From Booklist

Citing the mythical Icarus, whose wings melted when he flew too close to the sun, political scientist Peter Beinart uses Icarus' character flaw, hubris, as the basis for his study of three major foreign-policy blunders he says America made over the past century. Woodrow Wilson, Beinart argues, believed he could lay a template of reason upon a seething Europe that was not listening; Lyndon Johnson's hubris was in believing sheer toughness could force other nations to act in our interest; and George W. Bush was guilty of hubris in thinking that, buoyed by military successes for nearly 30 years, America was too dominant globally to lose a war. After laying out these three narratives in compelling detail, Beinart also shows how subsequent administrations learned from these blunders—the first two, at least—to effect changes that would strengthen and stabilize the country for years. As for the third, he suggests that President Obama focus on strengthening the country from within, where we have the most power. A thoughtful book that might spark healthy debate on the use of American power. --Alan Moores

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; 1 edition (June 1, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061456462
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061456466
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.5 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #94,178 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Peter Beinart is associate professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. He is the senior political writer for The Daily Beast and a contributor to Time. Beinart is a former fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and is the author of The Good Fight. He lives with his family in Washington, D.C.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is a popular history rather than an academic study, but is well worth reading. Its focus is on the formulation and execution of U.S. Foreign Policies from the presidencies of Woodrow Wilson to George W. Bush. It also provides an interesting look at the intellectuals whose thinking influenced foreign policy development. Beinart's thesis is that U.S. Foreign Policy during this period was the product of three distinct ideological viewpoints: the power of rationality; the power of an unyielding stance; and the power of dominance. He argues that these viewpoints even when they began as flexible and altruistic programs were hardened into inflexible dogmas by a national arrogance generated by the perception of unlimited U.S. military and economic powers. In each case that he reviews, these inflexible dogmas not only failed to achieve the original policy's goals, but also trapped Presidents and their advisors in boxes of unrealistic expectations and ill-informed actions. The "Icarus Syndrome" of the book's title refers to the failure of foreign policy operations when `hubris' rather than reality informs policy formulation.
Many experts in the history of U.S. international relations and students of foreign policy could well quarrel with the details of this book since it does make rather sweeping conclusions on the role of national arrogance in formulating foreign policy. Yet it is easy to imagine that most readers will find Beinart's thesis a veritable cornucopia of food for thought.
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Format: Hardcover
Like the U.S. stock market and real estate bubbles, American foreign policy and actions are prone to cyclical build up of hubris and subsequent disastrous bubble bursts; Vietnam, Iraq.

Mr. Beinart illustrates the pitfalls of initial success leading to hubris in three key moments in U.S. history: Woodrow Wilson's World War I and ethic of reason, LBJ's Vietnam and ethic of toughness, Bush's Iraq and ethic of dominance. In all three instances, American intellectuals were convinced they could reshape the world in their image with minimal effort and cost, and that oppressed people were waiting with open arms to adopt American values of freedom and democracy.

The "Icarus" in "The Icarus Syndrome" is a mythical Greek character who flew too close to the sun with wings constructed by his father, and fell to his death after his wings burned. Icarus' father had advised him not to fly too low close to the sea, or too high near to the sun. Icarus' flight is akin to America's foreign ambitions; too little of it such as isolationism can culminate in a Pearl Harbor event, and too much of it can turn into hubris and drain national blood and treasure. Mr. Beinart uses numerous historical events and arguments from intellectuals of their era in chronological order to show how to strike a balance between the two. Comprehensive and well worth the read.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Peter Beinart has done the detailed research and formed conclusions about American foreign policy that should be read by anyone who thinks there is ever a case for invading another country. Who said that history is boring? I would have until I read "The Icarus Syndrome." Starting with the Wilson era, Beinart shows the development and fluctuation of the invasion and intrusion mentality, which completely ignores understanding world politics until the consequences of our actions result in disasters like Viet Nam, Iraq, and a few others. I can paraphrase this invasion philosophy from someone I know, unfortunately, too well. The reason for going into Iraq was, "Because we can." This and other perceptions of entitlement to do as we want, without considering the risks and consequences, is what has led this country to the current economic chaos and low standing in the world. There's a difference between confidence and hubris. Beinart does an excellent job of talking about that distinction. If only our political leaders could understand this, even more, the population at large. Rather than reading a book that requires the use of intelligence and thinking, instead, the U.S. population watches TV programs, such as, "American Idol," "Ice Road Truckers," and "Eating Freaks." The informed citizens of the United States are not informed, and can't be expected to understand the easy reading style of Beinart. Another recent book I read that fits well with Beinart is "Why Nuclear Disarmament Matters" by Hans Blix. It refers to elements of the hubris that Beinart talks about. It'd be interesting to see the two collaborate.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The Icarus Syndrome is an overview of American foreign policy over the last 100 years. It attempts to contextualize the actions taken by the US and in particular the actions taken by those with the power to direct foreign policy. It discusses the philosophies of various presidents, people in government and people in the military and discusses the origin of their thinking so that one gets a sense of the intellectual currents that existed that (though mostly still exist in modified form-unsurprisingly) shaped policy in the past. All in all this is an interesting overview of american foreign policy and the characters that shaped it, much of it seems to be an accurate description but this is not an academic account with citations. Through reading this book, one learns about the formation of much foreign policy perspective and ideology and how it was often a natural byproduct of recent key events. The confidence of some of those in power in the rightness of their perspectives and the confidence in extending the logical foundations of their original beliefs to arenas that were less equivalent were manifestations of hubris. The waning of that hubris tends to correspond to the aftermath of actions which take/took the nation beyond its reach and the setting in of the public's reaction to that reality.

The book follows historical chronology and discusses the foreign policy of Wilson to Bush. Many forms of US hubris are discussed. The hubris of reason that was promoted at the turn of the century by Wilson in which it was believed that discussion and respects of the rights of man were sufficient to promote order instead of the desire to balance power.
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