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A History of American Hubris

by Peter Beinart

Pub Date: June 1st, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-06-145646-6
Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

A New America Foundation senior fellow traces the numerous instances of hubris that have often swollen American pride to the bursting point.

Daily Beast senior political writer Beinart (Journalism and Political Science/City Univ. of New York; The Good Fight: Why Liberals—and Only Liberals—Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again, 2006) identifies three types of hubris, “Reason,” “Toughness” and “Dominance.” Each led America to great heights of international power and prestige, then shoved the country from its lofty ledge. The author begins with Woodrow Wilson and his contemporaries—Walter Lippmann, Randolph Bourne, John Dewey and others—who believed they could craft “a scientific peace” in a world governed by rationality. It didn’t work out. Franklin Roosevelt modified the theory, keeping the optimism but realizing, as well, the importance of power. Then came George F. Kennan and the theory of containment, which, argues Beinart, many followers both misunderstood and misapplied in Vietnam and elsewhere. This “hubris of toughness” led first to success, then to debacle under Lyndon Johnson. Richard Nixon “considered fear a more powerful force than love,” and thus crafted a political strategy that still has enormous power in America. Jimmy Carter, the national “scold,” gave way to Ronald Reagan (“America’s Mr. Magoo”), whose devotees still believe he destroyed the Soviet Union. Beinart says otherwise, crediting instead the struggle between China and the Soviet Union. Following the first President Bush’s defeat of Saddam Hussein in Kuwait, Bill Clinton, after some wheel-spinning and grotesque failure (Rwanda), found success in 1995 with the Dayton Accords. Then came the neocons, Bush II, Cheney and the missed opportunities and miscalculations of the past decade. Beinart persuasively argues that it is time to accept that America’s power and resources are limited.

Tightly argued and both elevating and profoundly depressing.