Michael Ignatieff Is a Moron

Former Iraq War supporter Michael Ignatieff wrote a mea culpa of sorts in the NY Times magazine this Sunday. Since that’s more than most former war supporters have done, he should get some credit for that. But two things were really troubling about the article.

First, Ignatieff viewed Iraq as another policy debate:

The philosopher Isaiah Berlin once said that the trouble with academics and commentators is that they care more about whether ideas are interesting than whether they are true. Politicians live by ideas just as much as professional thinkers do, but they can’t afford the luxury of entertaining ideas that are merely interesting. They have to work with the small number of ideas that happen to be true and the even smaller number that happen to be applicable to real life. In academic life, false ideas are merely false and useless ones can be fun to play with. In political life, false ideas can ruin the lives of millions and useless ones can waste precious resources. An intellectual’s responsibility for his ideas is to follow their consequences wherever they may lead. A politician’s responsibility is to master those consequences and prevent them from doing harm.
I’ve learned that good judgment in politics looks different from good judgment in intellectual life. Among intellectuals, judgment is about generalizing and interpreting particular facts as instances of some big idea. In politics, everything is what it is and not another thing. Specifics matter more than generalities. Theory gets in the way.

War is not just another policy. War is an awful, horrible thing. It divides people from one another. It costs valuable resources. It distracts us from all of the other things we need to do. It always results in ‘blowback.’ It always ratchets up societal paranoia. And, worst of all, there are the dreadful human costs, the dead, the maimed, the psychologically shattered. Because of these costs, the moral burden of proof, the onus, the need to justify should always be placed on those who would take us to war.
Ignatieff also does not understand that the political is always personal:

Nothing is personal in politics, because politics is theater. It is part of the job to pretend to have emotions that you do not actually feel. It is a common spectacle in legislatures for representatives to insult one another in the chamber and then retreat for a drink in the bar afterward. This saving hypocrisy of public life is not available in private life. There we play for keeps….
In private life, we pay the price of our own mistakes. In public life, a politician’s mistakes are first paid by others. Good judgment means understanding how to be responsible to those who pay the price of your decisions.

For those who have friends or family at war, the political is personal. While political compromise does require a certain sense of politeness and collegiality, when those who were right were continuously demonized as weaklings and traitors, to argue that politics is not personal is foolish. If one loves one’s country and countrymen–in other words, is truly patriotic–the political and the personal are inseparable. Yes, demonizing someone over minor differences in the marginal tax rate is foolish, but many decisions taken by our government affect individuals profoundly. These decisions also define who we are as a nation. Our support or opposition to these decisions as citizens defines who were are as individuals–that is profoundly personal.
I wonder in what moral defunct personal universe Ignatieff lives such that he does not view his politics as personal.
Ignatieff writes that he has returned to Canada. Good riddance.

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4 Responses to Michael Ignatieff Is a Moron

  1. Ethan says:

    Hey! Some of us live there, or will in a couple of weeks.

  2. natural cynic says:

    From the article: The people who truly showed good judgment on Iraq predicted the consequences that actually ensued but also rightly evaluated the motives that led to the action. They did not necessarily possess more knowledge than the rest of us. They labored, as everyone did, with the same faulty intelligence and lack of knowledge of Iraq’s fissured sectarian history.
    The intelligence was there. Blix was on the ground, finding nothing. History was there, waiting to be understood by more than the few who bothered to look for it. That Ignatieff was blind to these certainly necessitates a mea culpa stronger than this.
    What they didn’t do was take wishes for reality.
    Got that right.
    But many of those who correctly anticipated catastrophe 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.
    Nice strawman. Those who tend to oppose much of what is done in the world by America do so out of clearer understanding and respect for our ideals and the recognition that the government commonly fails those ideals. And an understanding of the political and economic motives behind this [mis]administration.

  3. Ignatieff is also the deputy leader of Canada’s Liberal party (Dion is leader), for what that’s worth. Because of Ignatieff’s high position in Canada’s chief opposition party (and likely position when the Liberals regain the gov’t), yesterday’s mea culpa was regarded throughout Canada as significant.
    I also think you were a bit harsh on him, as he appears to concede your point, acknowledging that others pay for a politician’s mistakes. Political science necessarily deals with war in abstract terms, and for Ignatieff to acknowledge that a distinction lies between the personal and political is merely an acknowledgment of reality, not the ivory tower condescension you seem to imply. It’s not as if he’s denying there’s a cause and effect link between the two. But politics and policymaking are inherently impersonal because politicians will rarely ever pay an actual price for being wrong. Your rage would be better directed at the system that codifies this reality than at Ignatieff for acknowledging its existence.
    And as far as mea culpa’s go, Ignatieff’s doesn’t take the same tired tact that so many others have–namely justifying his initial errancy with platitudes about seriousness and how only those who supported the war initially were ‘right at the time’. He not only admits to being wrong, but concedes that those who were right at the time deserve to be acknowledged as such.
    And there’s also this insight, which I thought was particularly dead-on:

    Good judgment in politics, it turns out, depends on being a critical judge of yourself. It was not merely that the president did not take the care to understand Iraq. He also did not take the care to understand himself. The sense of reality that might have saved him from catastrophe would have taken the form of some warning bell sounding inside, alerting him that he did not know what he was doing. But then, it is doubtful that warning bells had ever sounded in him before. He had led a charmed life, and in charmed lives warning bells do not sound.

  4. Matt says:

    Scott Pilutik seems to have the better handle on what Ignatieff was saying.

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