Punditry at the Drive-Thru

Punditry at the Drive-Thru

Mini Teaser: Peter Beinart's books represent the intellectual equivalent of what nutritionists call the empty-calorie principle.

by Author(s): David Rieff

Peter Beinart, The Good Fight: Why Liberals—and Only Liberals—Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again (2006; repr., New York: Harper Perennial, 2008), 320 pp., $14.95.

Peter Beinart, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), 496 pp., $27.99.

IT IS a safe bet that most readers of this magazine don’t much care for fast food, or that the minority that does views it as anything else but a guilty pleasure for themselves or a necessary concession to their advertisement-saturated, merchandise-craving children or grandchildren. The intellectual equivalent of this sensible preference for slow food should be for nuance and complexity. And yet in this age of the sound bite, the twenty-four-hour news cycle, multitasking and new media, the books that commercial publishers seem to want to publish, and that ambitious policy intellectuals aspire to write—which came first is probably best viewed as a chicken-and-egg question—are for the most part the intellectual equivalent of a meal at Burger King or Taco Bell. At first bite, tasty, appealing and seemingly complete; in the end, bloating, cloying and empty of genuine intellectual fortification.

In all fairness, punditry has always been the intellectual equivalent of fast food; given the reality of deadlines, it could hardly be otherwise. But a figure like Walter Lippmann was not dishing out “fast thought” in his books, which, to the contrary, tended to be reflective and deliberate. The ability to distinguish between the skills and necessities of the op-ed and work meant to last still marks the efforts of some policy intellectuals who are also pundits—Robert Kagan being an admirable example of what, regrettably, too often seems like a dying breed. What is more and more common are works of historical synthesis that are not even really open-minded, let alone written in the spirit of scholarly investigation, but rather in order to illustrate a thesis. Again, on the intellectual equivalent of what nutritionists call the empty-calorie principle.

[amazon 0060841613 full] After two books, it is clear that Peter Beinart is one of the abler practitioners of this hybrid form. The editor of The New Republic while still in his twenties and an enthusiastic early supporter of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Beinart in 2006 published The Good Fight—a history of the decline of liberalism from the 1960s into the administration of George W. Bush. It was a call for a liberal revival based on Beinart’s belief that Democrats needed to once again uphold what he viewed as the submerged tradition of liberalism’s commitment to U.S. national greatness. Beinart argued that not only was the liberal iteration of America’s duty to “defend freedom” the world over very different from the triumphalist messianism of George W. Bush and the neoconservatives—with its rejection of any constraint on American power—it was also far more likely to be successful in the contemporary context of global jihadism. The book’s subtitle, “Why Liberals—and Only Liberals—Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again,” left no room for misunderstanding (or ambiguity either, unfortunately). To the contrary, Beinart’s history of the past half century was meant to demonstrate that, as he put it in the book’s introduction, “antitotalitarianism should sit at the heart of the liberal project.” In Beinart’s telling, the conclusion should have been obvious: since jihadism is totalitarian, and antitotalitarianism is at liberalism’s core, liberals who are not prepared to passionately fight such a movement “have strayed far from liberalism’s best traditions.” And he went so far as to insist that the prospects for a true liberal revival in America depended as much on a full-bore commitment to this fight as it did to the promise of social reforms at home.

THE GOOD Fight was widely praised by a certain subset of reviewers—above all, the great and good of the Democratic foreign-policy establishment from Arthur Schlesinger Jr. through Richard Holbrooke to Samantha Power. They saw it as a needed call to arms at a time when the majority of the American liberals to whom Beinart was proselytizing had lost any appetite for this muscular version of the liberal-internationalist creed. But the book was not exactly taken to heart by American progressives. To the contrary, persisting in what Beinart seems to view as the secular equivalent of Roman Catholicism’s invincible error, they voted for Barack Obama not because they hoped he would champion liberal internationalism but rather in the hope that, if elected, he would instead make the United States great again (to use Beinart’s strangely mystical formulation) by bringing the troops home from Iraq and repairing America’s frayed infrastructure—both physical and moral.

Indeed, those of the thumbs-down-for-Beinart’s-message school attacked The Good Fight for its hawkishness, reproaching Beinart for his full-throated support of the U.S. decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein—as well as for his subsequent lack of self-criticism for having done so. This vein of argument was unfair. Beinart was hardly alone in believing that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Many unyielding opponents of regime change in Baghdad, and not just, as the current conventional wisdom now would have it, supporters of the invasion, thought so as well. And it is not as if, in reproving him for having supported regime change, the majority of Beinart’s critics were also repudiating the broader idea of liberal internationalism—as the majorities among those who opposed the Iraq War but were for intervention in Darfur should demonstrate. That wasn’t what made The Good Fight a bad book. What did was that Beinart had written a party tract in the guise of a work of history, one in which the internationalism of liberals and Democrats was presented as having been responsible for almost all the good things America had done in the world since 1945. From Franklin Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms,” to the Marshall Plan, to the conduct of the early Cold War (as opposed, in Beinart’s partisan and misleading telling, to Republicans in the late Cold War), to President Bill Clinton’s marrying of “force to international legitimacy,” as Beinart put it, liberals had done America proud. And they did so without the moral hubris of the Republicans—from John Foster Dulles, James Burnham and William Buckley, through Jeane Kirkpatrick to George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and the bulk of that administration’s foreign-policy team.

Welcome to McDonald’s. This was pure fast thought. For Beinart, on the one hand, there was the bad American exceptionalism of the Right, which could not see beyond its unshakable first principle that America’s heart is pure. And, on the other, there was the good American exceptionalism—here Beinart follows one common if, to my mind, simplistic interpretation of Reinhold Niebuhr—in which the country is constantly struggling “to make itself worthy” of its belief in itself. This is an America that rejects imperial temptation (tell that to a Latin American!). And this is an America in which liberals see their country as “engaged in our own democratic struggle, which parallels the one we support abroad.” In business, an attempt to monopolize virtue to this extent would surely fall under the purview of the antitrust laws.

[amazon 0061456462 full] BUT AS Philip Katz put it in a seminal 2007 article in the magazine Food Product Design, “The drivers that influence innovative fast-food products are multifaceted and constantly changing as trends and consumer attitudes shift.” And Beinart has done nothing if not follow the times. In his new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, Cold War liberalism as the key to victory over totalitarianism abroad and a fairer and more humane society at home, has gone the way of Bukharin in a Stalin-era Soviet encyclopedia. It has been replaced by a new explanatory key, radically different from but no less simplistic than the one Beinart put forward in The Good Fight, which, reading his latest offering, one would barely know he had ever written.

In Beinart 2.0, a principal lesson of twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century American history is hubris, which he describes as “cycles of success leading to hubris leading to tragedy leading to wisdom, and then leading to more success,” etc., etc. Beinart is quick to qualify this. “History is not physics,” he writes. And, in a more moralistic vein, following Niebuhr once again, Beinart argues that in foreign policy as in life, evil often grows from unchecked good. But when all is said and done, Beinart’s argument is just that formulaic.

He offers three case studies. The first is what he dubs Woodrow Wilson’s “hubris of reason.” For him, this version of American hubris can, in large measure, be explained by Wilson and the American progressives’ inability to “meet the world on its own terms, to accept that politics between nations would never resemble politics between Americans, yet must be embraced [sic] nonetheless.”

Beinart’s second example is Kennedy and Johnson’s prosecution of the war in Vietnam, which he calls “hubris of toughness.” Part of this Beinart chalks up, questionably, to “generational envy.” President Kennedy and those of his age that he brought into his administration “had found the 50s boring and vaguely effeminate, [and they] wanted epic challenges.” This “toughness politics” would divide the country and, in Beinart’s view disastrously, deliver the Democratic Party and liberalism itself into the hands of people who did not just oppose the war—Beinart shares that opposition—but opposed what, citing Arthur Schlesinger Jr., he calls the “valid principles” of liberal internationalism.

Beinart’s final case study, unsurprisingly, is of George W. Bush’s “hubris of dominance.” Here, of course, Beinart, as a supporter of the war in Iraq, is an interested party. Perhaps this is why, in contrast to his quite sympathetic account of Wilson (so sympathetic in fact that he pays far less attention than he should either to Wilson’s support for the expansion of institutionalized racism—“politics between Americans,” indeed!—or his imperial adventures in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean) and his subtle rendering of policy intellectuals in the Kennedy era and its aftermath, Beinart’s history of the Bush era is intensely bitter and monochromatic. It is tempting to sympathize with him. Beinart sees quite clearly that, unlike the rising America of Wilson’s time, and the preponderant one of Kennedy’s, George W. Bush engaged the United States in two wars and committed the country to democracy promotion the world over at precisely the time when the country’s “resources—economic, military, and ideological—[were] not what they once appeared.” Moreover, in Walter Lippmann’s words, American foreign policy is “insolvent.”

There is not much that is new here, as the reference to Lippmann should illustrate. Indeed, one is hard-pressed to read The Icarus Syndrome without conjuring up the old Oxbridge judgment “what’s true isn’t new, and what’s new isn’t true.” Again, the problem is not, as some of his critics have charged, that Beinart’s mea culpas about his own hubris are grudging rather than full-throated. They will do, barely, though if there is not something self-exculpatory there is something awfully self-loving about Beinart placing himself in the company of Lippmann, Arthur Schlesinger Sr. and Jr., and other historical giants of American political writing in having been “children of victory” (World War I for Lippmann; the early Cold War until Vietnam went south for Schlesinger Jr.; Bosnia and Kosovo for Beinart). In Beinart’s telling, each was representative of a generation that had “seen so much go right that we had difficulty imagining anything going wrong, and so . . . grew more and more emboldened until a war did go hideously wrong.” Still, in the age of Facebook, perhaps such self-promotion is now par for the course.

THE REAL problem is that Beinart’s hubris template obscures far more than it clarifies. This is not simply because, as he himself puts it, “there’s nothing intrinsically American about hubris” (department of “No Duh”). Rather, instead of writing sentences as appallingly banal as that (not so much thought as prophylactics against thought, really) in a book that, after all, is to a large extent a work of narrative history (and a perfectly creditable one at that; Beinart is at his best when he is at his least intellectual), Beinart might have spent more time comparing the hubris of U.S. power to that of other historic global hegemons. For if all great powers are hubristic, or, more precisely, hubris is as inevitable a corollary of power as Lord Acton famously claimed corruption to have been, then hubris is not the cause of the problem but instead an effect.

And if this is right, Beinart’s sound bite masquerading as a thesis . . . oh dear, here comes an Icarus metaphor; I can’t help myself . . . melts in the sun and crashes to the ground.

More seriously, and returning to the “barren heights of cleverness” from the “green valleys of silliness,” as Wittgenstein put it, metaphors like “The Icarus Syndrome” are almost always false good ideas, offering simulacra of understanding rather than the genuine article. In Beinart’s case, putting the follies of American foreign policy down to hubris permits him to offer criticisms that are, in effect, mythical and psychological rather than structural and systematic. As a result, Beinart is almost obliged to rely on the insights of a poetic outsider like Randolph Bourne, or theologians like Niebuhr, whose understanding of history and policy were essentially moralistic. In contrast, if America is fundamentally an empire, rather than a hegemon whose ambition is to be the vindicator of liberty throughout the world (however flawed as a nation we are, as Beinart, following Niebuhr, emphasizes, and however reduced our means and freedom of action), then hubris is not only an insufficient but also an unsatisfactory explanation for this intermittent hubris in its actions abroad. And this holds whether it is Wilson’s failure to remake the world according to his ideals, or the failure of FDR’s United Nations, or Kennedy’s involvement in Vietnam—let alone the Second Gulf War.

Nor is the image of hubris quite right, even on its own terms. Only if we are talking about the old American conception of itself as fundamentally well intended (even at its most arrogant and foolish) can the hubris model serve as an explanation of all that much. To put it another way, Beinart’s hubris template amounts to the so-called “Twinkie defense” that Dan White’s attorney used at his trial for murdering the gay San Francisco City supervisor, Harvey Milk. But in this case, American policy makers have not been high on sugar but on their country’s global successes and, time and time again, at the high-water mark of any such success, the seemingly limitless scope of what they could achieve.

TO SEE Beinart’s classical metaphor and raise him, he really should have been thinking less about Icarus and more about Alcibiades, a student of Socrates and the Athenian general who led his city to ruin with his disastrous expedition to Sicily that Thucydides describes with such clarity in his History of the Peloponnesian War. The difference between relying on the myth of Icarus to explain the intermittent follies and radical overreach of twentieth- and twenty-first-century America and an understanding of the historical events Thucydides describes, is that while the former remains largely miasmic—a kind of visitation, though, at least in Beinart’s description of its unfolding, a fever might be a more apposite image—the latter chronicles with grim impartiality the bad decisions empires so often make. Beinart goes to great lengths to connect American self-conceptions about the role it sees itself playing (or, at least, has wanted to play) in the world with the country’s particular vulnerability to hubris. But there is really no need and, more to the point, no justification for this kind of Geistesgeschichte. In reality, if American hubris has been a feature of recent global politics, and despite Afghanistan, still remains so today, it is because of U.S. power—its place in the world—not its character. Much of Beinart’s synthesis of a hundred years of American foreign policy is more than adequate. But because of the fundamental narrowness of its frame, the whole is far less than the sum of its parts.

By conflating a therapeutic and a historical understanding, The Icarus Syndrome offers up the worst of both worlds. While Beinart writes as a historian, and makes no claims to being a psychologist, the almost-total focus in his book on ideas and their effects on personalities, and the lack of suitable attention paid to the question of whether economic motives and pressures were the principle drivers in the hubristic policy decisions he chronicles, make it hard to take Beinart’s conclusions seriously. The most obvious example of this is his discussion of whether the United States is an empire. It is so superficial that one wonders why Beinart even bothered. To cite only one example, his account of FDR’s war aims is strikingly non-imperial—and there were times when I actually wondered if he had somehow conflated Eleanor and Franklin. (I wish, as the kids say.)

Beinart has no obligation to accept the darker view of U.S. motives; he does, however, have an obligation to treat it seriously in a book (a column is something else), just as someone whose prejudice is to see America’s motives as fundamentally imperial must entertain seriously the question of the role of American idealism. But while Beinart has changed his position about what role the United States can and should play in the world, from antitotalitarian liberal colossus to chastened great power that has at long last turned its back on its adventures in imperial idealism, he is still beguiled by American optimism. The last words of his book, baffling in their hyperbole and simplemindedness, are predictive. “And tempered by wisdom,” he writes, “American optimism is—and always will be [sic]—one of the great wonders of the world.” Hubris with a human face?

David Rieff is the author of eight books, including A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis (Simon & Schuster, 2003) and At the Point Of a Gun: Democratic Dreams and Armed Intervention (Simon & Schuster, 2005). He is currently completing a book on the global food crisis.

Pullquote: The books that commercial publishers seem to want to publish, and that ambitious policy intellectuals aspire to write . . . are for the most part the intellectual equivalent of a meal at Burger King or Taco Bell.Image: Essay Types: Book Review