The Icarus Syndrome
A History of American Hubris
By Peter Beinart
(Harper, Hardcover, 9780061456466, 496pp.)
Publication Date: June 2010
Other Editions of This Title: Paperback
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In The Icarus Syndrome, Peter Beinart tells a tale as old as the Greeks -- a story about the seductions of success. Beinart describes Washington on the eve of three wars -- World War One, Vietnam, and Iraq -- three moments when American leaders decided they could remake the world in their image. Each time, leading intellectuals declared that history was over, and the spread of democracy was inevitable. Each time, a president held the nation in the palm of his hand. And each time, a war conceived in arrogance brought untold tragedy.
In dazzling color, Beinart portrays three extraordinary generations: the progressives who took America into World War I, led by Woodrow Wilson, the lonely preacher's son who became the closest thing to a political messiah the world had ever seen. The Camelot intellectuals who took America into Vietnam, led by Lyndon Johnson, who lay awake at night after night shaking with fear that his countrymen considered him weak. And George W. Bush and the post-cold war neoconservatives, the romantic bullies who believed they could bludgeon the Middle East and liberate it at the same time. Like Icarus, each of these generations crafted "wings" -- a theory about America's relationship to the world. They flapped carefully at first, but gradually lost their inhibitions until, giddy with success, they flew into the sun.
But every era also brought new leaders and thinkers who found wisdom in pain. They reconciled American optimism -- our belief that anything is possible -- with the realities of a world that will never fully bend to our will. In their struggles lie the seeds of American renewal today. Based on years of research, The Icarus Syndrome is a provocative and strikingly original account of hubris in the American century -- and how we learn from the tragedies that result.
Peter Beinart is an 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 the author of The Good Fight. He lives with his family in Washington, D.C.
The Daily Beast editor-in-chief joins NPR's Steve Inskeep for another chat about the best reading she's been doing lately -- books and articles about an iconic Depression-era photo, campaign promises and a country that has a way of flying too close to the sun. More at NPR.org
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“A rollicking history. . . . Beinart is a wonderful storyteller. There’s not much that he leaves out of The Icarus Syndrome. (It’s exactly the book I wish I’d had when I was teaching American foreign policy.)”
“Beinart’s The Icarus Syndrome is very much a book with a message: a cautionary message to avoid hubris and to recognize the messy reality of world politics.”
-Paul Kennedy, author of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers
“Energetically researched and entertainingly written, Peter Beinart’s The Icarus Syndrome is both a fascinating intellectual history and an important coming-of-age parable about his generation’s hard-learned lesson in the limits of American power.”
-Jane Mayer, author of The Dark Side
“The Icarus Syndrome does what works of history and journalism do at their very best: use the past to illuminate, in often stark and surprising ways, the challenges of the present. This is an important book.”
-Jon Meacham, author of American Lion
“With this book Beinart vindicates his standing as one of the major thinkers of his generation on the United States’ world role.”
-Walter Russell Mead, Foreign Affairs
“Beinart possesses the analytical skills of a seasoned historian. . . . He’s a smart, reasoned political analyst who doesn’t resort to hyperbole and hysteria when making a point. . . The result is a book that’s generally enlightening.”
-The San Francisco Chronicle
“Beinart is at his most illuminating when he lingers on forgotten episodes that reveal how difficult it is to understand the implications of any event at any given moment—the extent to which everyone is a prisoner of past failure or past success.”
-George Packer, The New Yorker
“The Icarus Syndrome is a readable survey of ‘America in the world’ over the past hundred years. Nothing is more chilling than Beinart’s catalog of the continuous, wrong-headed invocation of ‘Munich’ and ‘appeasement.’”
-Geoffrey Wheatcroft, The New York Review of Books
“A brilliant new book about the pendulum swings of U.S. foreign policy between excessive ambition and excessive retrenchment.”
-The Los Angeles Times
“Impressive. . . . Mr Beinart has produced an original and ambitious study.”
“A highly readable and useful hundred-year account of American ventures abroad that can serve as a path to understanding the past failures and uncovering why policy renewal is now proving so elusive. . . . Beinart usefully grapples with the practical impediments to making good policy.”
-Leslie H. Gelb, The New York Times Book Review
“Informative and engaging. . . . Beinart’s book tackles a great deal of material in an approachable, yet never simplistic, way. . . . The Icarus Syndrome is a valuable addition to the public debate about the United States’s ever evolving role in the world.”
-The Boston Globe
“Peter Beinart has written a vivid, empathetic, and convincing history of the men and ideas that have shaped the ambitions of American foreign policy during the last century—a story in which human fallibility and idealism flow together. Beinart’s book is not only timely; it is indispensible.”
-Steve Coll, author of Ghost Wars
“The Icarus Syndrome is a confident and contentious history of more than a century of American foreign policy and its recurring tragic flaws.”
-Sean Wilentz, author of The Age of Reagan
“Why do we succomb to hubris? Peter Beinart has written a highly intelligent and wonderfully readable book that answers the question by looking at a century of American foreign policy. As with everything Beinart writes, it is lucid, thoughtful and strikingly honest.”
-Fareed Zakaria, author of The Post-American World
“Powerful. . . . An insightful and enjoyable account of the ideas and individuals that have animated America’s global ambitions over the past century. . . . Required reading.”
-The Washington Post