This morning we conclude our preview of the new issue of the Claremont Review of Books (subscribe here. On Wednesday we introduced CRB editor Charles Kesler’s “The stakes of Obamacare.” Yesterday we featured William Voegeli’s review of “Paul Ryan’s Roadmap.” These are important essays that highlight the stakes of the elections on November 2.
Today we turn to Steve Hayward’s review of Peter Beinart’s new book on American foreign policy. Beinart is the author of two books on American foreign policy. Andrew Ferguson briefly discusses Beinart’s The Good Fight, the first of Beinart’s two books, in his Commentary essay “Pundit (declined).” Beinart’s new book — The Icarus Syndrome — addresses the role of hubris in American foreign policy.
From the left, David Rieff took a critical look at Beinart’s two books in the review/essay “Punditry at the drive-thru.” Rieff is a principled man of the left who finds Beinart’s books wanting. He also observes that Beinart himself has treated his first book unkindly. In his current book, Rieff writes, Beinart’s first book 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 It has been replaced by a new explanatory key, radically different from but no less simplistic than the one Beinart put forward in The Good Fight, which, reading his latest offering,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.”
From the right, Steve Hayward takes a critical look at Beinart’s two books in “Flights of fancy.” Hayward does not find the thesis of Beinart’s current book to be worthless. Rather, he thinks it can be applied to the Progressive/liberal project as a whole:
Beinart’s narrative provides the perfect set-up for serious reflection on the difficulty of matching up a hierarchy of ends to a hierarchy of means.
[Beinart’s] criticisms of pure reason and of naïve faith in human nature’s goodness and plasticity questions, implicitly, modern liberalism’s central pillar. The eclipse of prudence by scientific, idealistic politics was a defining feature of Progressive statecraft, and it remains so for modern liberalism today–at least on the domestic scene. In making an elegant call for greater circumspection about government’s mastery over all things, Beinart’s skepticism stops at the water’s edge. Why not apply the lessons of hubris–of overreaching and presuming a greater command of flawed human nature than is realistically possible–to, say, health care reform, or social policy generally?
“The hubris of dominance,” Beinart writes, “like the hubris of reason and the hubris of toughness before it, had relied on faith in political authority.” But isn’t faith in political authority the central premise of domestic liberalism? Beinart doesn’t contemplate that the same conceit that leads to foreign debacles is at work in domestic affairs, with similar results. At one point late in the book he offers up the throwaway line, “As our welfare state has withered….” This is a worthy nominee for one of those “sentences-we-didn’t-finish” contests, because there is no way the conclusion to this sentence can be sensible. What can Beinart be thinking, even if this was written before Congress passed Obamacare? The U.S. spends more per capita on social programs than honest-to-God Scandinavian welfare states.
Hayward concludes that Beinart’s book does not go deep enough into the modern liberal soul. Rieff’s review raises a serious question about Beinart’s intellectual integrity. By contrast, Hayward takes Beinart at face value. He credits his thesis while questioning the limits of his analysis.