The 1990s were not a good time for the many policy wonks who make their living by pronouncing on the proper strategies and place of the United States in the world. Once the constitutive polarity with Moscow had been dissolved, what remained except more and better globalization? It was a dreary prospect because it was mainly reliant on the semi-autonomous mechanisms of financialized capitalism and offered scant opportunities for the kind of expertise that these organic intellectuals of power liked to claim, not to mention that it was distinctly unheroic. Its cultural feature, the postmodern jumble of instantaneous, deterritorialized signs, was equally disturbing and disorientating. Francis Fukuyama had put a Kojèvian name on this already in 1989: the famous or infamous end of history, good in a way (from his viewpoint) but also boring. One could not deny that geopolitics reduced to a set of mopping-up operations was a historic achievement of us power; but ipso facto, there was no glory involved and very little strategic thought. The pages of history are empty when the negation is missing.

The Clinton Administration was perfectly expressive here, dominated as it was at home and abroad by the Treasury Department and Robert Rubin. The orchestration of international finance under us supremacy was thus inversely mirrored in a sequence of fitful, hesitant and often amateurish moves in the now uncertain world of geopolitics. One way or another, the political issue throughout was ‘intervention’ in the name not of the United States as such but of humanity as a whole: Bosnia, Somalia, Haiti, Rwanda, Kosovo. While stakes in the Gulf War of 1991 had been obvious, there was nothing really obvious, crassly speaking, about the us interest in confronting the ensuing crises. The effect over time, still in a minor key, was however a full-fledged assertiveness and willingness to use military power by unilateral fiat (in practice), far removed in spirit and execution from the incompetent display, say, in Somalia. Clinton’s ferocious bombing of Iraq in 1998 was unequivocal testimony to this novel condition. What the liberal interventionists learned during the decade was, in a word, that the ‘quagmires’ of yesteryear had been replaced by precision-bombing and ‘surgical’ operations, which, if done right, would be quick, efficient, economical and, above all, popular. Everything was in place, then, for the far more aggressive interventionism staged by the neo-cons of the following Administration.

A goodish number of liberal interventionists actually signed up on that project, once the ‘opportunity’ had presented itself (which is how George W. Bush immediately chose to describe the attack on the World Trade Centre). Peter Beinart was one of them. With an impeccable vitae in the field (Yale, Rhodes Scholar, editor of the New Republic, house organ of liberal interventionism, and staff member subsequently of the arch-establishment Council on Foreign Relations), in the 1990s Beinart had embraced with enthusiasm the erasure of the Vietnam analogy and the obverse rise in do-good militancy. The mobilizing model, an obvious one, was the anti-Communism of Cold War liberalism during the Truman era: idealism and vigour presumably in judicious balance. Initially, then, the Bush version appeared more of the same. As Afghanistan went swimmingly according to script, the follow-up in Iraq, however shaky the official justification, seemed irresistible: a chance to get rid of Saddam Hussein, a very terrible man if not an aider and abetter of terrorism (Beinart has forgotten that the original ‘War on Terrorism’ was shortened to the more nebulous and convenient ‘Terror’). This is the moment when panegyrics to ‘American empire’ were much in vogue. This is the moment when Christopher Hitchens took on the role of cheerleader extraordinary for Donald Rumsfeld.

The charm and romance of this whole exercise proved, as we know, remarkably brief. ‘Quagmire’ came back with a vengeance both in Afghanistan and Iraq, the military machine, invincible in open battle, proved markedly less so in ‘asymmetric warfare’; there was occupation rather than ‘liberation’ proper, Bush Jr left the White House with the lowest approval ratings ever, the United States was geopolitically damaged and, to boot, Wall Street was in total shambles. Beinart, by then, had long since realized the error of his ways. Repairing to his study (more precisely, the Council on Foreign Relations), he began to investigate the historical reasons for the debacle. The Icarus Syndrome is the result and his mea culpa. His timing was bad. Written in the twilight of Bush and before Barack Obama had fully emerged, it says nothing about the surprising continuities between the two. The interest of his work is chiefly symptomatic: the limits of what Beinart could imagine in the transition period between the one and the other, the kinds of answers he could provide—as opposed to what has actually happened.

The source of inspiration is (yes) Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Beinart turns Schlesinger’s ‘cycles’ of pragmatism and idealism into a cycle of the continuous rise and fall and rise of ‘hubris’ from Woodrow Wilson onwards. ‘Hubris’ is also (in effect) an idea taken from Schlesinger, namely, ‘the tragedy of the catastrophic over-extension and misapplication of valid principles’. Schlesinger’s reference is to Vietnam in 1967, but Beinart generalizes it into three large periods where good ideas and values become indiscriminate policy, which eventually undermines them and even serves opposite ends. Wilson’s peace project and his Progressive camp is thus taken to task for being rationalist in the extreme and falling into the idealist trap of projecting domestic norms and institutions onto the necessarily different international outside. This ‘Hubris of Reason’ issues during the interwar period in the twin errors of pacifism and isolationism, represented, respectively, by John Dewey and Charles Beard. A true and transcending answer only appears through Franklin D. Roosevelt’s realistic intervention and great-power alliance in World War II, honey-coated as solid American one-worldism; and then, in modified form, by Truman’s early Cold War policy of containment, seen as a particularistic and prudent constraining of Soviet universalism.

Very quickly, partly because of the need for exaggerations for domestic consumption, partly because of the emergent obsession with global credibility and an unhealthy fixation on the Munich analogy, this becomes the ‘Hubris of Toughness’: the notion that one would have to be tough everywhere at all given times, a posture obviously lacking any sense of realistic limits. Eisenhower manages to keep this relatively under wraps but the concept itself stays in place, and so he paves the way for the excesses of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Vietnam puts a political end to this, but no real transcendence occurs in the 1970s. Nixon and Kissinger play geopolitics in a new key (detente and the opening to the prc) but leave in place the credibility problem. Carter tries; but his attempt comes to a screeching halt in the troubles of 1978–80, most saliently because of the Iranian hostage crisis and Soviet intervention in Afghanistan.

So it was left to none other than Ronald Reagan to provide the prudent answer. Despite his early reinvocation of Cold War shibboleths, Reagan was in truth always a dove, refusing all large-scale interventions and then eagerly seizing on the opportunity to embrace Gorbachev, all against the serried force of his own neo-con supporters. Grenada was his kind of win. Reagan’s transcendence of Toughness, alas, proved too successful. The Soviet Union collapsed, paving the way once again, after the uncertain interregnum and learning process during the 1990s, for what would become the ‘Hubris of Dominance’, the moment of George W. Bush. We know the rest.