Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Who's Sorry Now?

The Nation: By Katha Pollitt
In the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq, there was no more effective intellectual spokesperson for war than then-Harvard professor Michael Ignatieff. Not for him the contemptuous brawling of Christopher Hitchens or the smooth triumphalism of William Kristol. Pained, sensitive, with the star professor's gift of seeming to wrestle with his thoughts right there in front of you, Ignatieff made the case for war as a humanitarian and human-rights mission: We had to save the Iraqis from Saddam. For supporters of democracy and idealists of all stripes, this was a very persuasive argument. Four years, four months and seventeen days after bombs began falling on Baghdad, Ignatieff, who left Harvard to become deputy leader of Canada's Liberal Party, has finally joined the long parade of prowar commentators who've publicly acknowledged their mistake. On August 5 The New York Times Magazine carried his long, woolly, pompous pseudo-confession 'Getting Iraq Wrong: What the War Has Taught Me About Political Judgment.' Wandering among references to Isaiah Berlin, Churchill, Roosevelt, de Gaulle, Beckett, Burke and Kant, Ignatieff distinguishes between the experimental, enthusiastic mindset natural to academics (himself then) and the "good judgment" and "prudence" required of political leaders (himself now). He thought politics was about all that high-minded stuff he taught at Harvard and let himself get carried away by his sympathy for Iraqi exiles. In other words, Michael Ignatieff supported the war because he was just too smart and too good for this fallen world.

And then Katha really says what's on her mind...

Ignatieff was, without question, the proponent of taking down Saddam's regime that I found most persuasive in the months leading up to the war. His reasons were not Bush's--he was more of a humanitarian interventionist, who advocated selective use of military power to curb genocidal tyrants. I doubt his concept of what the intervention should be, or of what the aftermath should look like, bore much relationship to what actually ensued. But the war was not carried on subject to his direction, and the results have been catastrophic. His recent mea culpa was called for, and probably overdue. That said, I think Katha herself overdoes her critique (especially in parts of the article not reproduced here). Calls for intervention in cases of humanitarian disaster are typically not easy to make, and we have gotten them wrong in both directions (Rwanda? Darfur? vs. Somalia? Iraq?) Ignatieff has tried, more than most, to find a sensible path through, and stumbled badly on Iraq. But not, I think, for the same reasons as the neocons, and not with the same culpability.

Ignatieff's NYT confessional struck me as "off," probably in some of the ways identified by Pollitt, but there is room for a re-telling more probingly critical than Ignatieff's own, but more empathetic than Pollitt's. I haven't quite figured it out--let me know if you find it.

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