The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris

In This Review

The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris
By Peter Beinart
Harper, 2010
496 pp. $27.99
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As a former editor of The New Republic, Beinart stands well within the tradition he sets out to examine: that of progressives who seek to express liberal ideas in U.S. foreign policy. This legacy is complex and mixed; the liberal intellectual Walter Lippmann had more lives, ideologically speaking, than a cat. Progressives such as John Dewey and Charles Beard had the rare gift of being dogmatic, judgmental, and wrong on almost every major issue in American foreign policy during their lives. On the other hand, those such as George Kennan and Reinhold Niebuhr, who broke with core progressive ideals (Kennan did not much like democracy), often understood the world more clearly than either liberal internationalists or neoconservatives. Not all of this book is of equal value; editors have a ghastly habit of asking thinkers to make books of intellectual history "relevant" by ending with contemporary political analysis and, worse, prescription, and Beinart's concluding chapter is, intellectually, an anticlimax. The book is strongest when Beinart is examining the foundations of progressivism; the analyses of Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush are less original and less masterly than the handling of U.S. foreign policy between 1913 and 1941. Nevertheless, with this book Beinart vindicates his standing as one of the major thinkers of his generation on the United States' world role.