Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Icarus Syndrome

As a species we have ideals but we are also fallible creatures. We continually fall short. I’ve finished Beinart’s ‘The Icarus Syndrome’ very readable account of American foreign policy from Woodrow Wilson on. Each time the nation went to war the conflicts did not end with the anticipated outcome. Like Icarus, successive generations flew too high. This is Beinart’s thesis: he tells it convincingly. The desire to remake the world is a very American thing. Anything is possible. Moon, Mars, Peace on Earth, Democracy (Uncle Sam’s style).

Except things don’t go according to plan. Beinart’s heroes are the realists – those who accept a theory should not be flown to close to the sun, Truman, Eisenhower, Carter, Reagan and Colin Powell. And the quick learner, Kennedy? One of history’s unanswered questions is would JFK have continued the expansion into Viet Nam. Beinart says ‘unlikely’ but I’m not so sure. The argument that skewered Lyndon Johnson ‘America can’t be seen as backing down’ would have been used, the ‘hubris of toughness’ was alive and kicking in that era. Indeed JFK was given that very advice over the Cuban missile crisis. Johnson was trapped – he couldn’t win. He couldn’t get out. Ironically, a Republican president could get out but I wonder if Ford’s loss to Carter did not reflect a little of a sense of America having been whipped.

Beinart quotes Kennedy as saying just before his assassination, ‘if I tried to pull completely out of Viet Nam now, we would have another Joe McCarthy red scare on our hands, but I can do it after I’m re-elected.’

Beinart doesn’t like Johnson. I’ve a hunch history will be kinder. The Civil Rights Bill is a significant step in the nation’s history. When Johnson was a young congressman he saw McCarthy in action. That experience helped shape the future President.

Beinart did give a significant twist to my perceptions of George W Bush. A lazy man who had a hankering for greatness – which made him easy prey for the ‘hubris of dominance’. I found the account of the intellectual development during the Clinton years of this theory fascinating. It led to the quagmires of Afghanistan and Iraq. ‘Quagmire’ is probably the wrong word for those two desert nations, but it reflects the situation.

Beinart is good on the economic forces shaping foreign policy with one surprising exception – oil. Powell was amazed, according to Beinart’s account, at the first cabinet meeting to discover Cheney and others wanted to topple Saddam. While I accept the ‘unfinished business’ argument I ask why was there not similar talk about, say, Myanmar.

The flip-side of optimism is over-confidence. That is the appeal of the American spirit. What concerns this onlooker from the distance is the downturn of that confidence. 9/11 introduced a new note of vulnerability. The recession hasn’t helped. Going-nowhere wars sap enthusiasm. Obama caught that yearning for a better world, but expectations carry their own seeds of decay. Neither big business nor government can cap a gushing under-water oil well. Let’s hope the lessons of messianic imperialism have been learnt. Probably not. And a withdrawal into isolationism is an equally disturbing idea. No nation is an island

The president personifies the period. But they are not isolate creatures. Reading Beinart’s account I realised the danger of the great person approach to history. (Behind the sole individual are brains trusts, think tanks, cronies, lovers, siblings and peers). But it is an obvious and easy approach. The imperial power wielded by the President of the United States of America is massive. It is a Roman system rather than Greek. But the Greek legend is a useful handle to its understanding.

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