Hubris, Tragedy, Wisdom — Repeat

As it turns out, yesterday’s post about George Kennan sets up today’s link to George Packer’s review of Peter Beinhart’s The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris.  The review, titled “Air America,” appeared in the New Yorker yesterday.  Kennan plays a prominent role in Beinhart’s account of American foreign policy through the last 100 years having been one of the few historical figures “who have a deep knowledge of specific countries, a healthy respect for other people’s nationalism, a skepticism toward claims of disinterested morality in the conduct of foreign policy, and an aversion to war except as a last resort.”

Here’s Packer’s summary of Beinhart’s thesis:

Beinart is alert to the circular turns of the historical wheel (with a nod to Schlesingers senior and junior): “cycles of success leading to hubris leading to tragedy, leading, perhaps, to wisdom.” …. Wilson and the Progressives came to power during a long and prosperous peace, passed legislation that brought a moral order to the brute forces of industrialism and machine politics, believed that international relations could be similarly rationalized, plunged into the European inferno of the First World War, and saw their dream of a League of Nations crushed by the more hardheaded Georges Clemenceau, in Paris, and Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, in Washington. The bitter peace of Versailles shaped the experience of the next generation—Franklin Roosevelt’s and Dwight Eisenhower’s. Having attained a more tragic and clear-sighted view of world affairs than the Progressives, these leaders established a more durable postwar order. But the years of ozio following the Second World War led the next generation—John F. Kennedy’s—to fear softness, crave challenges, and see every Cold War flareup as an ultimate test of will. The result was Vietnam. The wheel turned again; the limits of American power became all too evident, and none other than Ronald Reagan learned to live within them—getting a low-cost, morale-boosting win in Grenada that became a Clint Eastwood movie (“When looking tough was risk-free, Reagan played the part for all it was worth,” Beinart writes), then helping to negotiate the peaceful end of the Soviet Union. The fall of Communism led to more prosperity, renewed self-confidence, rising impatience among the sons to try out their wings—until George W. Bush, like Wilson, began to believe that American arms could usher in world freedom.

And here is a deftly executed illustrative contrast involving Kennan:

Kennan once set out to write a biography of Chekhov; as Beinart dryly observes, “Bush sent a man to run Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, who had never before been posted to the Arab world. To grasp the intellectual chasm between American foreign policy toward the U.S.S.R. in 1946 and American foreign policy toward Iraq in 2003, one need only try to envision Bremer writing a biography of an Iraqi writer, or, for that matter, being able to name one.”

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