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.
Never mind that most academics opposed the war, especially if they actually knew something about the Middle East and were foreign policy “realists,” like Ignatieff’s peers Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer. Once, just once, I’d like to see a repentant war proponent acknowledge in a straightforward, non-weaselly way that Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Scott Ritter, Code Pink and, yes, The Nation–to say nothing of the millions around the world who demonstrated so ardently against the war–got it right. But no: “Many of those who correctly anticipated catastrophe did so not by exercising judgment but by indulging in ideology,” Ignatieff writes. “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.”
Excuse me while I set myself on fire. I remember the run-up to the invasion very well, and “It’s all about oil” and “America is always wrong” were hardly the major arguments on the table. Since Ignatieff must know this–surely he listened to Mark Danner and Robert Scheer when he teamed with Hitchens to debate them at UCLA–his calumny is not only self-serving, it’s disingenuous.
Let’s review. You wouldn’t know it from Ignatieff’s piece, but Bush’s stated reason for war was not the liberation of the Iraqi people; it was that Saddam Hussein promoted terrorism, colluded with Al Qaeda, possessed WMDs and presented an immediate threat to the United States. Long before the war there was quite a bit of evidence that none of this was true. Were Hans Blix and Mohammed ElBaradei ideologues who hated America? Remember the yellowcake, the aluminum tubes, the Niger documents the International Atomic Energy Agency determined were forgeries? It was possible to say, and many did, that Saddam was a murderous tyrant but that unilateral pre-emptive war against a country that presented no threat was a dangerous upending of settled international law.