Journalist Peter Beinart

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Journalist and author of The Icarus Syndrome weighs in on the administration’s relationship with Gen. McChrystal.

Peter Beinart is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and senior political writer for The Daily Beast. He's a contributor to Time and has written for numerous periodicals and newspapers. He's also the author of two books: The Good Fight and, his latest, The Icarus Syndrome. Beinart was formerly editor of The New Republic and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He completed his undergrad studies at Yale and is a Rhodes Scholar.


Tavis: Peter Beinart is the senior political writer for “The Daily Beast” and a regular contributor for “Time” magazine. His new book is called “The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris.” Peter, good to have you on the program.
Peter Beinart: Nice to be here.
Tavis: I want to get right to the book in a second, after I ask you about some of the big news of the day. We know that tomorrow there is going to be a come-to-Jesus meeting of sorts, as we say in my neighborhood; a come-to-Jesus meeting in the White House.
So General Stanley McChrystal, our top military official in Afghanistan, the man in charge of the policy there, has been called back to Washington to meet the president tomorrow and the president’s staff, I suspect, about these comments that he has apparently made coming out in a story soon in “Rolling Stone” magazine.
We’re told that he, and I’m paraphrasing here, has some words that aren’t too kind about the administration, about high-ranking members of the administration, people like Richard Holbrook, people like Ambassador Eikenberry, people like Richard Holbrook, maybe even the president himself.
I want to quote the editor of “Rolling Stone,” who says, very quickly here, “They knew what they were doing,” talking about McChrystal and his team, “They knew what they were doing when they granted the access. The story shows a deep division and war within the administration over strategy in Afghanistan,” the editor, Eric Bates, said in this particular piece.
Your thoughts about this showdown in Washington tomorrow, about the personalities involved in moving forward our Afghanistan policy?
Beinart: This war within the administration really goes back to last year when Obama was trying to make his Afghanistan policy. It’s between a military top brass that wants to go all in on a counterinsurgency policy in Afghanistan and says if you give us a blank check and an unlimited number of years, we can win this thing and an Obama administration in which vice president and I think perhaps the president himself who believe that we can’t afford to go all-in given the deficit that we’re in, that we’re facing today, that we have to basically put some kind of limits on this Afghanistan mission. I think that’s the crux of the conflict.
Tavis: This is not the first time, though, that McChrystal has been called on the carpet, as it were, for saying or doing things that were, shall we say, contrarian. Why is he still in charge and how is it that we can find a way forward, whatever that’s going to be, if there is this division between the people on the ground managing the policy and the folk in Washington dictating the policy?
Beinart: Well, Obama’s in an awful position right now, because if he doesn’t fire McChrystal then he potential could look weak, but the reason –
Tavis: Again, he could have fired McChrystal before.
Beinart: He could have fired, but now, remember, the idea in Afghanistan was we were going to have this surge for 18 months and then we were going to accomplish a lot in those 18 months; then we were going to start to withdraw some of the troops. Now we only have a year left, so Obama doesn’t have very much time to switch his commanders and accomplish what he said he thought we could accomplish by next summer. So he’s really between a rock and a hard place.
Tavis: Do you think he’s going to have to fire McChrystal?
Beinart: I think he’s going to have to fire McChrystal, but I think it’s going to create an even greater sense of despondency about what we can really accomplish in Afghanistan.
Tavis: So if he fires McChrystal, then there’s got to be a plan B. What do you do next? Once you fire this guy, what happens next?
Beinart: Well, I think at least what I think the Obama people will show is that they have shown people in the military that they can stand up to them. There is a history of military-civilian conflict in wartime, particularly for Democrats, particularly for Democrats without national security experience, and I think it is important that Obama shows that he’s not insecure, that he’s not going to be pushed around, but it still leaves us with this huge mess in Afghanistan.
Tavis: Beyond the huge mess in Afghanistan, back at home this is going to set off a political frenzy. All those folk on the right who support the war, whether you’re on the right or left, those who support the war and see the president sort of smacking down this general who’s in charge of the war. I can imagine now that conservative talk radio is going to go crazy with this.
Beinart: Yeah. We faced a lot of this with the Clinton administration, if you remember. There was a lot of insubordination when Bill Clinton – this is part of a larger cultural divide between the officer corps and the Democratic Party, frankly. The officer corps has become – not the military itself, entirely, but the officer corps has become increasingly Republican. You go into military circles, officer corps, it’s “Fox News” all the time.
What we have is this larger cultural divide that particularly expresses itself when Democrats are in office. Obama has been sensitive to it. It’s part of the reason that he put in General Jones as his national security adviser, to try to heal this historic rift which makes it difficult to make policy, but unfortunately this has blown it wide open again.
Tavis: From that to the book, “The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris,” is there American hubris on display in Afghanistan as we speak?
Beinart: I think the problem is that the military was given a job – to win these wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s what their job is to do. You can’t blame them for trying to do that as well. The military is pretty remarkable in actually how they’ve adapted in terms of their tactics.
But the problem is it’s Barack Obama’s job to step back and say, “We have a larger agenda here than simply the war in Afghanistan. We’re a country that’s going deeper and deeper into debt, more and more dependent on our very economic competitors to fund our way of life, and we can’t simply continue to pay unlimited amounts of money in these wars if we’re going to rebuild the foundation of American economic power.
I think that’s the context that he’s trying to put in. If you don’t have that context then I think you get sucked deeper and deeper into a hubristic intervention.
Tavis: But if we recall the way that President Obama campaigned and the way he’s tried to govern, his modus operandi politically, if you will, around the world is to tone down American hubris, yes?
Beinart: Absolutely. I think the tragedy of Barack Obama’s presidency is that although a lot of people around the world really admire Barack Obama a lot, they don’t admire the American political and economic model as much as they used to. The soft power that we’ve gotten from electing Barack Obama has been outweighed by the decline in soft power by the financial crisis and people saying, “You know what? You were telling us to deregulate your financial markets year after year and after year? Look how well it’s worked out for you.”
I think ultimately Obama’s ability to rebuild America’s image in the world will depend less on his personal good will and more his ability to rebuild an American economic model that seems stable and humane and dynamic.
Tavis: You’ve got a dense text here about the history of American hubris. Give me the back story, the top line.
Beinart: The top line is that hubris is a disease that comes from success. Foreign policy is a little bit like a guy who goes to Las Vegas. If you win too much, then you eventually bet the mortgage. You start to think you are infallible.
That’s what happens in America. Our sense of optimism, our can-do spirit, that’s a source of great strength in America. But when there are no limits at all and we’ve gone through whole periods where we think everything has gone right, that’s when disaster tends to strike.
Tavis: Make the connection to how we have found ourselves in this hubristic moment that we speak of. How did we get into this particular period?
Beinart: It starts really with the war in Panama. It’s not a war too many Americans – it’s funny; Ronald Reagan was considered this really hawkish guy. Ronald Reagan would not invade Panama. His final year in office, some of his advisers said, “We should get rid of this Noriega out in Panama.” Reagan said, “Are you crazy? We just had this Vietnam disaster not too long ago. I’m not going to do anything like that.”
But what happened was we did invade Panama and it worked. Then we had the Gulf War in 1991 and then Bosnia in ’95, Kosovo in 1999. Again, we were like the person at Las Vegas who keeps doubling, doubling down, and by the time we got to Iraq in 2000, 2003, there were a lot of people who thought you know what? The American military can solve any problem.
We have so much money in the bank that we can afford to do this. I think it was that sense of escalation, the declining sense of humility of American power, that got us into so much trouble.
Tavis: The critics might say, Peter, that it’s not about American hubris, that Peter Beinart has it all wrong; it’s about America trying to make the world safe for Americans and for our allies and that we live in a world with more rogue dictators, with weapons run amok, with terrorists who can take down the towers in New York, hit the Pentagon.
So it’s not that we’re trying to be hubristic or arrogant, it’s that we live in a different world now that requires a different kind of use of our power.
Beinart: Well, there are real threats but there’s a difference between recognizing real threats and an irrational kind of apocalyptic threat. We spent the whole Cold War under the shadow of some pretty nasty Soviet dictators and some Chinese dictators having nuclear weapons often pointed at us, and yet we decided on the eve of the Iraq war that Saddam Hussein having biological and chemical weapons was such a massive threat that we couldn’t live with it.
When you talk about the security and safety of average Americans it doesn’t do average Americans a lot of good to expand America’s military footprint if the daily lives of average Americans are being undermined by the fact that we’re no longer able to compete in a global economy. I think that’s the kind of human security we have to pay more attention to.
Tavis: For those who recall our Greek mythology, we know why you call the book “The Icarus Syndrome.” You don’t want to fly too close to the sun. Who’s most responsible for flying us, the country, too close to the sun, Republicans, Democrats, or is this hubris or the engagement of it equally distributed amongst the parties?
Beinart: It’s distributed amongst both. The theme of my book is that any idea, even a really, really good idea, liberal, conservative, whatever, if taken beyond its limits, if flown too close to the sun, becomes dangerous, and that’s really the story of this book. Good ideas, ideas that worked in limited form, being taken too far.
Tavis: So how do we – we were critiquing earlier in this conversation, you were critiquing earlier in this conversation the challenge that President Obama has now, to tone down this notion of hubris and arrogance. How do we do that? Is it possible at this point?
Beinart: It’s very politically treacherous because there’s no question that people are going to say Barack Obama is presiding over America’s decline, weakness, it’s this humiliation; he’s the next Jimmy Carter.
I think what Obama has to try to tell is a different story about America came to be a powerful country. That fundamentally, we rose because our economy was strong. Out military was strong because our economy was strong. We won World War II because we out-produced the Germans on the factory floor. We won the Cold War because our economy was more dynamic and more decent than was the Soviet economy.
That’s the fundamental challenge. Wars that we can’t pay for, military power that is not undergirded by American economic power, is actually not a source of strength, it’s a source of weakness. I think that’s the story he has to try to tell.
Tavis: But it’s more than telling the story, it’s how you right that ship. It’s how you get the economy back on track.
Beinart: That’s right.
Tavis: If it’s all connected to our economy, that’s more than just a challenge. That’s almost an impossibility right now.
Beinart: Well, it’s going to take a long time, but I think part of it is we’re going to have to do some very difficult things. We’re going to have to get the government deficit, we’re going to have to get the deficit on a sustainable path, we’re going to have to get Americans to save more.
Because right now, basically, people in China save money and then it’s the fact that they put money in their piggy banks that allows us to spend money we don’t have. That’s probably not going to be sustainable over the long term and we can’t fight endless wars and get the defense budget under control and get the deficit under control.
So it’s a very difficult set of circumstance President Obama has, but I think ultimately we’re in a rendezvous with reality. We’re going to have no choice.
Tavis: Let me offer this, Peter, as the exit question. I wonder whether or not you believe, the fine book notwithstanding, whether you believe that most Americans believe that we are hubristic, that we are arrogant, that we have tried to do too much with too little, or whether or not you think that we have moved way beyond that and have a country now full of not just patriots but even nationalist addicts about America.
Beinart: Look, we have some of that, and there’s nothing wrong with being proud of America, believing that America can do great things. America can do great things, it has done great things. I think we have to have the self-awareness to recognize that the world is a very, very big place, that we could be a force for good things in the world, but we have to have the humility to recognize that sometimes even when we think we’re acting from the best of motives our own idealism can be infected by self-interest. Other people in other countries can see it sometimes better than we can.
Tavis: Is American idealism or patriotism about America and humility oxymoronic?
Beinart: No, I don’t think so. I think the most inspiring thing that Americans can do for the rest of the world is struggle against the evils in our own society. I’ve heard people in the Middle East tell me that the most inspiring thing for them as people struggling against dictatorship in the Middle East is the memory of the civil rights movement.
The memory that even in the most powerful country in the world Americans did not just rest on their laurels but they recognized the evil in our own society. That’s the way you create real solidarity with people, not just telling them that they have problems but in fact confronting your own problems.
Tavis: But that playbook got thrown out, it seems to me, long ago. We’d much rather lecture the world about how to get it right in other places than to deal with that kind of stuff here at home.
Beinart: But I think at its best the Obama administration has the chance to recapture some of that. People around the world can see that in the richest country on Earth, we don’t provide everyone with healthcare. If we actually start to do that, I think that does allow some people to take another look at the United States.
Tavis: The book is called “The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris,” written by Peter Beinart. Peter, nice to have you on the program.
Beinart: Thank you.

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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm