The high price of hubris

Austin American-Statesman - - OPINION -

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 Dwight 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.” That 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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