37 of 40 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Arrogance of Power
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...
Published on July 1, 2010 by Retired Reader
0 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Historical book
It looks like a good book, but I have not finished it yet
It includes an interesting lead in of other history
Published 18 months ago by Hawaii Ted
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37 of 40 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Arrogance of Power,
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.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Reconciling politics of manhood with the reality of limits,
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.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars We Never Learn,
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.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Icarus Syndrome,
Absolutely the best buy and the book is one everyone should read. Knowing the past history of the US gives a true perspective on our attitudes toward the decisions made today in our government.
49 of 72 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Reaction to the anti-Kindle non review below,
I am sick to wretched death of folks who use review space to vent about Kindle. People, stop taking your Kindle frustrations out on an author who has no control over the situation and stop wasting EVERYONE ELSE IN THE WORLD'S time when we come to look for a new book.
Let's say you manage to tank the sales for this and every other book you can't get on Kindle, and Amazon finally does whatever it is you want them to do. Meanwhile, you have taken money right out of the authors' kids' college funds, just so you can have your $2 cheaper Kindle edition. Congratulations.
Take your Kindle complaints and put them on the Kindle page where they belong.
26 of 38 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Thought Provoking Lessons Learned,
First, I agree that BOOK ratings should not be used for KINDLE ratings. Very unfair, especially here.
Second, this book is well worth reading. It is basically a history of US involvement in international politics in the twentieth century, starting with Woodrow Wilson (with some mention of Teddy Rooseveldt). The book is divided into three sections, hubris of reason, hubris of toughness, and hubris of dominance. These comments are based on the first section, hubris of reason, extending from Wilson to FDR.
I found the book very insightful and quite interesting. Wilson was a fascinating person, and I recently finished Cooper's excellent biography of Wilson. The history of Wilson's presidency is so rich, however, that one learns something new from each book. The author's scene with House and Lippmann walking through the space now occuppied by the Mall to discuss the "Inquiry" and the envisioned new order was an example of the excellent and original writing in this book.
Interpretations and assessments of Wilson's presidency have been quite diverse; there are those who love, despise, or love-despise Wilson. I felt that the author was somewhat too critical of Wilson and not critical enough of FDR. After all, despite being in a wheelchair, FDR's hubris was indicated by the fact that he refused to let go of the reins of power. Just like Wilson, FDR was incapacitated or unable to deal with the world near the end. Wilson made a political mess of the League, FDR made a mess of Eastern Europe and left Truman in the dark, so that Truman did better than might be expected under the circumstances - at least he was in good health, which seems to be essential for an effective presidency, as witnessed by the last days of FDR and Wilson.
Thus, I would respectfully disagree to some extent with the author's assessment of Wilson and FDR. First, I do not believe that Wilson was a racist, lacked human affection, or was naive. By today's standards, Wilson was not enlightened on social justice issues, but lack of action does not amount to racism. The historical record was that though not a warm personality as a politician, Wilson privately or with close friends and family was anything but cold. More to the point of this book, however, I don't believe Wilson was as naive as portrayed in the book. Wilsonian idealism was something that perhaps derived in part from Wilson, but Wilson himself was as much a realist as an idealist. He was well prepared for politics and government in the real world and understood the need for compromise at times, in order to get things accomplished, and except for a unsuccessful conclusion to the League, few other Presidents accomplished more that Wilson, domestically and internationally. He did keep the US out of the war for most of it and saved many lives by limiting US involvement. The fact that he did not compromise on the League was perhaps a political mistake, perhaps a result of his deteriorating mental health, or perhaps the best he could do. Perhaps he realized that too much compromise would have been worse than no League.
I would ask, what could Wilson have done better to prevent future war? The author portrays Clemenceau as wiser or more realistic. Yet Clemenceau was proved wrong by WWII more so than Wilson. Perhaps a League would have deterred Hitler, perhaps a more fair treaty, for which Wilson unsuccessfully but strenuously fought against our allies, would have prevented Hitler's rise to power - we will never really know. One could argue that Wilson did the best he could under the circumstance, fought the good fight to spare future generations the plague of war, and at least set a noble standard for future generations. As later stated in the book (I peeked ahead) Kennan admitted Wilson was ahead of his time. Real world shortcomings was not naively ignored by Wilson in search of perfection, as alleged in this book; he fought with all his might to make a peace that would prevent future wars. Again, it is difficult to see what more he could have done under the circumstances. It is doubtful that the League, if successful, would have done more harm than good. But, again, we will never really know.
Turning to FDR, FDR was naive about Stalin and Russia. Goverment intelligence on that subject was seriously lacking for whatever reason. The author seems to argue FDR could not have done anything differently, that "spheres of influence," including Russia dominant in Eastern Europe, was the only realistic option, followed by containment. Again, the author brings fascinating history into the book. I had not been aware of Churchill's private meeting with Stalin in which he agreed to give most of Eastern Europe to Russia. My opinion of Churchill has been lowered. Apparently both Churchill and FDR were so anti-German that they were too pro-Russian, a serious mistake in hindsight.
But another good question is, could FDR have prevented the takeover of Eastern Europe by Russia? The author thinks not. Perhaps the full evil of Stalin was not understood, could not have been imagined. Perhaps mistakes were inevitable and the choice was battling Stalin and compromising with Stalin. Perhaps standing up to Stalin would not have been enough, but it was not really tried. Thus, I think in terms of doing one's best, Wilson may come out ahead of FDR. Wilson was the statesman, FDR more the politician. However one tries to blur the matter, FDR did allow Russia to take over Eastern Europe to Russia, after fighting a war to stop Germany from doing the same.
Having said the above, I agree with much, even most, of the author's interesting assessments, the frequent errors due to hubris. The author makes an excellent point that the science of government does not apply on the international scale, that reason will always be face to face with power politics. That analysis is well presented. I would go further, however, and say that the science of government, government by the experts, may also have serious limitations and be the subject of hubris with respect to domestic government; instead of the effects of power politics, we have the adverse effects of corruption, whether legalized or not. We are seeing the fruits of that more and more.
There are lessons learned and to be learned in history, which is why this book is both enlightening and controversial.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars America first,
This review is from: The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris (Hardcover)
Good discussion with a plethora of references and insights into the attitude of Americans, we lowly citizens and our leaders, who have long acted as if we have the power and might and right to do about anything. A reevaluation of hubris in the U.S. ... Much as the ancient Greeks recognized.
As the book progresses it seemed to slow down and stretch the metaphor.
So I looked up reviews and agree with Gelb in his NYT review of June 2010.
It is ever fascinating to think about the American's often often competing ideals and values.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good overview of 100 years of varying ideologies behind American foreign policy,
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. The hubris of containment where the perception that all forms of non US aligned parties shifted the balance of power and were a threat to democracy at large. This is described more as an era of paranoia instead of an era of hubris but nonetheless the paranoia led to an era of hubris about America's reach that led Vietnam. The hubris of the extent of America's reach was ended in this war and subdued for a generation until it resurfaced. This form of hubris which was a combination of belief in both US power as well as democratic ideology (in which Fukuyama's end of history and the natural evolution of all states to democracy is taken way too far) is what is argued, took the US to afghanistan and Iraq.
This is a great narative about the history of american foreign policy. The "evolution" that is described flows very naturally as a product of the various agents own histories. To that effect nothing seems to be controversial about why people ended up believing something different than a previous generation. It is also an excellent account of various perspectives that most of us partially share beliefs with (in more than one category simultaneosly). The effect of which is that we as a reading audience can sympathise with most of the characters irrespective of having differing ideologies. I gave four stars as a lot of people's motives are stated without proof, and though through the lense of the authors narrative, those motives make sense, sufficient detail is not provided. All in all one gets a refreshing course on why history repeats itself and how we fall into believing too much as a result of only our history rather than studying other people's.
9 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the best books I've read this year,
Not sure where to begin about this excellent book -one of the best, most thought provoking I've read this year. Beinart helped me fill in many historical gaps I've pondering for some time. Very well written. Just when I think the book is starting to get a bit tedious I realize how rich a tapestry he is working to convey. Kudos to him for a masterful job of story telling. Impressively partisan-neutral. Our country could benefit from having a copy in every Congressman's hands. Thanks Peter.
5.0 out of 5 stars Essential American history,
This review is from: The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris (Paperback)
What a refreshing read; Peter Beinart is a master storyteller and knows how to express even the most complex ideas in crisp, entertaining prose. Here he lays out the last century of American foreign policy, demonstrating how our modern history has cycled between ebbs and flows of hubris - hubris of "reason", of "toughness" and of "dominance". Beinart leads us through three generations and three major wars, tracking the birth, meteoric rise, and burst of each of these hubris bubbles. The book is fascinating for its overview of modern American military history alone, but I found Beinart's method of combining all of the figures, events and perspectives of our era into such a compelling theory as he did to be simply outstanding. If I could require one book for every congressman to read, it would be this one - it's that good. But even if you're not a congressman, you'll be sure to get something important out of this book; if not for yourself, then for our world.
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The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris by Peter Beinart (Hardcover - June 1, 2010)