Ignatieff's article: rich on mea, slim on culpa

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Selling the American public on the need to invade Iraq was not easy. But George W. Bush got some crucial help from a number of prominent intellectuals. Probably none was more helpful than Michael Ignatieff.

Some four and a half years later Iraq lies in shreds, and Ignatieff, no longer a professor at Harvard, has other things on his plate. Now deputy leader of Canada's Liberal party, he has a good chance of realizing his dream of becoming prime minister of Canada in the not-too-distant future.

Distancing himself from his embarrassing Iraq war endorsement is a necessary step in that direction, and this explains his very public recanting of his support for the war in a much-talked-about article in the New York Times Magazine last month.

But Ignatieff's long and meandering mea culpa—notably rich in mea and slim on culpa—is intriguing for reasons beyond its implications for Ignatieff's own future. His thinking typifies that of many mainstream politicians, academics and media pundits in the U.S. (and Canada), and his recanting of support for the war is a rich exposition of what he and other members of this important elite have refused to learn from the U.S. failure in Iraq.

At one level, Ignatieff's piece is a transparent and almost amusing attempt to remove any blame for the Iraq debacle from his own shoulders—and in the process from the shoulders of all the other public intellectuals who played such a crucial part in the machinery of war.

Ignatieff contrasts politicians, whose ideas have real consequences, to those in academic life where “false ideas are merely false and useless ones can be fun to play with.”

This notion that “useless” ideas—such as voicing support for an upcoming military invasion—can be harmlessly entertained inside the academic world, would be worrisome enough if students were the only ones subjected to the ideas.

But, of course, Ignatieff reached out to a much wider audience, writing in support of the Bush administration's planned invasion in no less prominent a place than the New York Times Magazine.

And while the war-hungry Republican crowd in the White House aroused mistrust in the public, Ignatieff undoubtedly had the opposite effect—with his impressive credentials as a liberal thinker and writer, even a human rights activist who served as director of Harvard's Carr Center for Human Rights Policy.

Given his position, reputation and deft turn of phrase, Ignatieff made the case for war—and indeed for U.S. global hegemony—more compellingly than anyone in the White House possibly could. “The 21st imperium,” Ignatieff wrote in the New York Times Magazine in January 2003, “is a new invention in the annals of political science, an empire lite, a global hegemony whose grace notes are money, free markets, human rights and democracy enforced by the most awesome military power the world has ever known.”

If anyone was an enabler for the Bush administration, it was this smooth, savvy, erudite intellectual in whose skillful hands an increasingly aggressive U.S. military empire was repackaged as a vehicle for human advancement.

But in addition to finding no real blame to be shared among himself and other like-minded intellectuals, Ignatieff also doesn't find much fault with the Bush administration and its war planners—other than they didn't seem to plan very well.

So while he now retracts his support for the war, Ignatieff still fails to raise any objections to the notion of Washington waging an aggressive war in defiance of international law. He just seems to regret that the venture turned out so badly.

Ignatieff criticizes himself for failing to ask the hard questions. “I let emotions carry me past the hard questions, like: Can Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites hold together in peace what Saddam Hussein held together by terror?”

This is the only “hard” question Ignatieff mentions, and it is one that conveniently shifts the burden of the Iraq disaster to the Iraqis themselves—for failing to get along.

A more basic question apparently doesn't even occur to Ignatieff: What right does the United States have to invade and occupy another country?

Ignatieff's failure to address this more important question is typical of other prominent intellectuals, media commentators and politicians—both Democrats and Republicans—who now oppose the war, but only because the Bush administration made a mess of it.

One suspects that, had Washington succeeded in subduing Iraq and installing a pro-U.S. government to run it, there would be little criticism of this lawless exercise of U.S. military power.

Ignatieff muses now about the naivety of thinking that “a free state could arise [in Iraq] on the foundations of 35 years of police terror.”

But this suggests Ignatieff believes that creating a free state was the Bush administration's goal in going into Iraq. (In fact, there's no evidence that the administration cared about establishing a “free” state there, although it clearly wanted an Iraqi government that was pro-Washington.)

Ignatieff goes out of his way to disparage those who were skeptical about Bush's stated motives: “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.”

With this swat, Ignatieff reduces war critics to cartoon characters, incapable of seeing nuance. He chooses to ignore that many war critics in fact argued that oil was one of a number of motivating factors, and that, while America isn't “always and in every situation wrong,” it is very wrong in this situation.

Given the horror of what has unfolded in Iraq—hundreds of thousands of deaths with no end in sight—anyone who played any role in facilitating this immense tragedy has a great deal to account for. Rather than stepping forward, taking some responsibility and expressing genuine remorse, the cowardly Ignatieff swivels and ducks, hoping the responsibility can be fobbed off elsewhere.

Ignatieff's mea culpa isn't a mea culpa at all. Neither he, nor his fellow intellectuals, nor the war planners inside the White House are held responsible for anything beyond lack of foresight—failure to see in advance that the invasion might not work as well as hoped.

The lesson Ignatieff has learned is really no lesson (beyond perhaps that next time Washington should invade a country where the people are less prone to sectarian strife). The invasion of Iraq may be an overwhelming catastrophe, but the imperial assumptions that lie behind it—at least as far as Ignatieff is concerned—remain intact and unchallenged.

Having gotten this messy business out of the way, Ignatieff can now move on to more pressing matters like becoming prime minister of Canada.

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