The Takeaway

The Limits of American Power

Peter Beinart and Ben Schwarz at Zócalo at The Actors' Gang


After transforming from an advocate of the Iraq war to an opponent, Peter Beinart knew he had to make sense of the ideas “that led me to this pretty massive mistake.”

“I couldn’t really write about myself,” he said to the full house at The Actors’ Gang, “because as my wife told me, I’m not that interesting a character.”

Instead, Beinart, a New America Foundation fellow and journalist, wrote The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris – a study of how Americans have been seduced by success when it comes to foreign policy. In an event cosponsored by the UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations, Beinart sat down with The Atlantic literary and national editor Benjamin Schwarz to explore why the U.S. goes to war, why we do it wrong, and the future of American power.

Guy with a hammer

Reception for Peter Beinart As Schwarz noted, the U.S. doesn’t necessarily use its power as other countries might. Beinart agreed. While the U.S.’s overestimation of strength is part of the “very old story of what Paul Kennedy has called ‘imperial overstretch,’” Beinart said, the U.S. also has a “missionary impulse,” an urge to export our style of government and economy to the rest of the world. But, he added, borrowing Francis Fukuyama’s formulation, when it comes to the question of spreading the American way, neoconservatives are something like Leninists, and Beinart is more of a Marxist. “Whether America can speed up the gears of history is something I’ve become more skeptical about,” Beinart said. “I do think that’s a terrific goal.”

Hubris happens when we get too good at using power, and start to think we have too much of it. Our long string of military successes makes us too confident, certain we can answer threats at low cost, and even with humanitarian benefit, as we did in Bosnia and Kosovo. Beinart cited those conflicts as essential to forming his initial pro-war position on Iraq, more so than the Gulf War. The Bosnia and Kosovo efforts also benefited from being primarily air wars fought with support from the region and from European allies.

With too much success, Beinart said, “You become like a guy with a hammer looking around for nails.” A failure, like Vietnam, will, on the other hand, bring back some inhibitions. “We didn’t go jaunting off into another Vietnam for a long period after Vietnam, even under Ronald Reagan, the great hawk, who was very, very cautious.”

War against what we call war

Iraq turned out to be quite unlike Bosnia and Kosovo. The U.S. faced a massive commitment of ground troops and money and few allies. “We don’t need European countries to win the war,” Beinart said, “but we need their wisdom to know whether its winnable or not. You may not need multiple doctors, but you may want second or third opinions to tell you whether the first doctor can do the job at all.” And in Afghanistan, he said,  the ground shifted beneath the Obama administration, as the war became more and more difficult to win. Beinart noted that “there’s clearly a struggle going on between Obama and Biden and people in the military” when it comes to war policy.

Guests at the reception for Peter BeinartToday, Beinart said, American policy suffers because “our conversation about the terrorist threat is still stuck in September 11, 2001.” Our assumption then, he recalled, was that there would be many more 9/11s, and worse, requiring a “whatever it takes” response. But, Beinart said, such attacks haven’t repeated in the U.S., though our discussion about terrorism remains the same. Al Qaeda has failed to pull off the multiple simultaneous attacks it was known for, he said, and they rely more and more for their attacks on “one very poorly trained guy.”

What we call “wars” may be part of the problem as well, Beinart said in Q&A. “We’ve started to use the word ‘war’ as a national mobilization against something we don’t like,” he said. “In a country that had been bombed a lot, it’s unlikely anyone would talk about war in that kind of gung-ho and antiseptic a way.”

New analogies

Terrorism is also not an ideological threat in the way of fascism and communism, as the Bush administration seemed to believe. As Beinart noted, those were powerful political movements supported by governments and “many smart people” as being able to offer more for the world. “No one has ever really believed that about Taliban Afghanistan,” Beinart said. Those who do, he added, “hate America and they hate Israel and they hate their local governments.” The Bush administration also seemed to believe, Beinart said, in the lasting power and relevance of states vis-à-vis nonstate actors. Confronted with Al Qaeda and 9/11, Bush tried “cramming it into the crusty embed of a conventional war vision, in which you invaded some countries.” Beinart added, “For a lot of people in the Bush administration, they remembered the Cold War as a real war. The whole point of the Cold war is it didn’t get hot.”

In fact, poor analogies are a problem in general, Beinart noted in Q&A. U.S. policymakers operate on the Munich analogy – “give em an inch, they’ll take an arm,” Beinart said – or Vietnam, with nothing in between. Americans also won’t look to the experience of other powers, like the French, whose history might have warned us off both Vietnam and Iraq. Regional understanding helps too – our policy of deterrence in the Cold War, Beinart noted, came from a longtime student of Russia and a resident of its border regions, George Kennan.

No elephant in the room?

Peter Beinart chats with guests at the reception.One way to get over hubris, of course, is not simply to fail, but to decline. “Will America recover as it did after World War I and Vietnam, or are we in a potential situation where we’re not going to have this problem again?” Beinart asked. But as Schwarz and Beinart both noted, American decline is predicted quite often. In the 1980s, many believed that Germany and Japan would surpass American power. In the 1930s, Beinart said, many thought the Soviet Union, fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany would beat us. “Panics about American decline, which we’ve had a lot of, are not a bad thing,” Beinart said. “Sometimes they force us to try to solve some of our problems.” Measuring decline also depends on “when you’re starting the history meter,” Beinart said. “If you compare everything to 1945, when pretty much everywhere else was on its knees, then it’s inevitable that America is in decline.” The same goes for the 1990s, Beinart said, when oil prices were low and China was only starting its rise.

But one thing that might need to recede is our military footprint, which, Beinart noted, has expanded dramatically since the end of the Cold War, when it would have been unimaginable for the U.S. to have a military presence on the ground in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, or to have such costly wars in the Middle East. A shrinking military presence doesn’t require the decline of American economic power, Beinart said. It could, in fact, help the economy. “We can start to rebuild the American economic model,” he said.

Such a retrenchment makes particular sense in an era of “quite remarkable” peace among powers, including between China and the U.S. Though China remains a threat, Beinart said – “human beings have shown a great willingness to do things that seem economically irriational because of considerations of pride, power, honor and nationalism” – this could be looked back on as an era when Americans could afford to focus on the second or third-rate powers. “Iran, Iraq, North Korea – the elephant in the room that’s not there,” Beinart said. “To screw up the metaphor.

Watch the video here.
Watch a highlight clip here.
See more photos here.
Buy the book here.
Read an excerpt here.
Read four other foreign policy experts’ thoughts on hubris here.
Read In The Green Room Q&As with Peter Beinart and Benjamin Schwarz.

*Photos by Aaron Salcido.

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