Lies, Damned Lies and The Apprenticeship of Michael Ignatieff:

His Mistake, Our Fault

(Originally published August 24, 2007.)

Michael Ignatieff

Nobody likes to be held in contempt; nobody wants to be lied to. When an ambitious sitting politician does both, especially in the guise of self-criticism and self-reflection, the contempt must be noted, even by those who are not members of Canada's "natural ruling party".

In the August 5th, 2007, issue of The New York Times Magazine, Micheal Ignatieff has revealed what I have suspected since his odious speech at last December's Liberal Party leadership convention: that he holds the general public in contempt and that he is a liar, if only by omission.

Writer, historian, broadcaster and "professor of human rights", Ignatieff had a long-standing reputation as a liberal thinker among the American (and Canadian) chattering classes. That reputation was damaged, if not destroyed in 2003, when he loudly supported the American (and British, et al), invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq.

His brief article, "Getting Iraq Wrong: What the War Has Taught Me About Political Judgment", does nothing to restore that reputation. Quite the contrary. Promising much, Ignatieff delivers almost nothing at all, except between the proverbial lines.

Still, Ignatieff starts off strong.

The unfolding catastrophe in Iraq has condemned the political judgment of a president. But it has also condemned the judgment of many others, myself included, who as commentators supported the invasion. Many of us believed, as an Iraqi exile friend told me the night the war started, that it was the only chance the members of his generation would have to live in freedom in their own country. How distant a dream that now seems.

Note that the second pair of sentences already hints at the duplicity and irrelevance to come. "Most of us believed ...", like the un-named "Iraqi exile friend", the war was "the only chance" for freedom for an un-specified generation.

Reading closer, note the use of the passive tense in the very first clause: "The unfolding catastrophe in Iraq has condemned ..." Already delivering less than the title promises, Ignatieff characterizes the disastrous (and, arguably, criminal) invasion the way most of us talk about the weather, as one of those things that "just happen", that "unfold". Those with a religious bent might refer to "acts of God" - in any case, Ignatieff implies the war in Iraq was something that "just happened", not something that was done.

Nevertheless, the generous reader will note that Ignatieff has admitted that, himself included, this catastrophe has condemned "the political judgment of a president" and "many others." The generous reader - or even a cynical reader such as myself - can still hope for some kind of accountability and perhaps even the hard-won wisdom promised in the sub-title.

In the second paragraph, Ignatieff tells us he keeps "revisiting the Iraq debacle" (note again the passive image, suggesting a natural disaster) and is "trying to understand" how "the judgments [he] now has to make in the political arena need to improve on the ones he used to offer from the sidelines. I've learned that acquiring good judgment in politics starts with knowing when to admit your mistakes." [The italics are mine.]

Well, what are the mistakes to which Ignatieff admits? The article is slippery and they are hard to discern; forgive me if I seem to go over it in too much detail.

He begins by paraphrasing the philosopher Isaiah Berlin and uses four paragraphs to explain his remarkable discovery that theory and practice do not always coincide. "Politicians [...] can't afford the luxury of entertaining ideas that are merely interesting." Then, he condescends to the proletariat: "Bus drivers can display a shrewder grasp of what’s what than Nobel Prize winners."

Now about one third of the way through the article, this reader still doesn't know just what mistake or mistakes Ignatieff believes he made by supporting the war.

Reading on, we do learn Ignatieff now believes practical political judgment is about people: "whom to trust, whom to believe and whom to avoid."

He further reveals the secret that "great politicians" "see possibilities others cannot and then seek to turn them into realities." Leaders lead, in other words. And followers follow. "People do want leadership, and even when a leader is nonplussed by events, he must still remember to give the people the reassurance they deserve. Part of good judgment consists of knowing when to keep up appearances."

In short, politicians must find good advisors and know when to lie to the public. Somehow, at the same time, they must also see possibilities that others cannot.

All of this strange alchemy of the obvious and the devious finally wends its way back to Iraq - sort of.

The decision facing the United States over Iraq is paradigmatic of political judgment at its most difficult. Staying and leaving each have huge costs. One thing is clear: The costs of staying will be borne by Americans, while the cost of leaving will be mostly borne by Iraqis. That in itself suggests how American leaders are likely to decide the questions. [Again, the italics are mine.]

Just think about the implications of that penultimate sentence. No one seems to have an accurate estimate of the number of Iraqi casualties of the Iraq war and occupation, but even a conservative estimate, such as that provided by Iraqbodycount.org puts the number of civilian casualties at 70,359. Moreover, most reports suggest more than 2,000,000 refugees.

That these deaths and "displaced persons" are a direct result of the attack on a sovereign nation does not seem to enter into Ignatieff's head - certainly, the causes of the "unfolding catastrophe" are nowhere to be found in Ignatieff's essay, unless they reside with the Iraqi people themselves..

After implicitly associating himself with Samuel Beckett, as well as both Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle as politicians who carried on when "smart opinion" was against them, Ignatieff refers to Machiavelli in order to explain that effective political judgment "must follow principles more ruthless than those acceptable in ordinary life," and quotes him as saying that, "'it is necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong, and to make use of it or not according to necessity." He then alludes to Churchill and then Roosevelt, claiming they "knew how to do wrong", without offering any specifics, so the reader is left to wonder why Ignatieff brings them into the argument (such as it it, now halfway done) in the first place.

Next, our wannabe philosopher-king ponders the nature of politics as theater [sic] and compares it to everyday life. Apparently, "the political realm is a world of lunatic literalism" and one in which "[p]oliticians with good judgment bend the policy to fit the human timber" - i.e., his short-sighted constituents.

And more, "[i]n my political-science classes, I used to teach that exercising good judgment meant making good public policy. In the real world, bad public policy can often turn out to be very popular indeed." [The emphasis is once again mine.]

And here at last we come to Ignatieff's subtle point, that bad public policy is not the fault of bad politicians, but of a bad public. Similarly, as we'll see, the "unfolding catastrophe" in Iraq is the fault - not of western imperialism; not of George Bush's stupidity or duplicity; and certainly not of former liberals turned neo-conservative cheer-leaders! Heavens, no! No, the "unfolding catastrophe" is the fault of the Iraqi people!

Before we get to that remarkable conclusion, Ignatieff does finally address the question of why we should listen to him now, if others did a better job than he at anticipating "how events turned out."

Apparently, most of those who "got Iraq right", did so not "by exercising judgment but by indulging in ideology. They opposed the invasion because they believed the president was only after the oil or because they believed America is always and in every situation wrong."

Leaving aside the presumption that such people (whoever they are)absolutely cannot be correct, Ignatieff once again indulges in generalizations when specifics are called for. In any event, the above does not address the judgment of those who "got Iraq right," for the right reasons.

According to Ignatieff, those people got it right because ... well, that's actually pretty unclear. Ignatieff tells us a great deal about what they didn't think, but little or nothing of what they did. Those who got Iraq right,

didn't suppose, as President Bush did, that because they believed in the integrity of their own motives everyone else in the region would believe in it, too [...] that a free state could arise on the foundations of 35 years of police terror [...] that America had the power to shape political outcomes in a faraway country of which most Americans knew little [...] that because America defended human rights and freedom in Bosnia and Kosovo it had to be doing so in Iraq.

Ignatieff admits he made "some" of those mistakes and - finally - explains what he has learned.

The lesson I draw for the future is to be less influenced by the passions of people I admire - Iraqi exiles, for example - and to be less swayed by my emotions. I went to northern Iraq in 1992. I saw what Saddam Hussein did to the Kurds. From that moment forward, I believed he had to go [...] I let emotion carry me past the hard questions, like: Can Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites hold together in peace what Saddam Hussein held together by terror?

In other words, what Ignatieff "got wrong" about Iraq was that he had too much confidence in the Iraqi people! Next time, he'll know better than to expect a long-suffering people to know what to do with freedom when it is handed to them at bayonette-point by the United States Marine Corps.

George W. Bush himself does not escape quite scott-free, though Ignatieff at no time even entertains the possibility that his invasion was anything but well-intended. The possibility that the war was "about oil" or anything other than freedom for the Iraqi people is not one Ignatieff addresses except to dismiss as the ravings of those who indulge "in ideology.

And nowhere, despite his continuing faith in Bush's noble intentions, does he even mention - let alone address - the fact that the war was not "bad policy" stemming from an ignorant public, but was sold to that public on the basis of the false claim that that country, which had seen American and British warplanes bomb it at will for over a decade, possessed "weapons of mass destruction" and was preparing to use them against the west.

And so, what have I learned about Michael Ignatieff? That he is either too stupid or too dishonest to remember that an illegal war he supported was sold to the American and British publics as being a war of self-defence, not as one fought for the freedom of the Iraqi people (let alone as a war of conquest); that those same Iraqi people are not capable of living together in peace; and that western politicians must pander to the basest instincts of their publics in order to win elections.

In the world according to Michael Ignatieff, his errors all flow from the purity of his heart, only to be besmirched by the childish stupidity of the masses, be they Iraqi or Canadian.

Spread the word!

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