Who’s Sorry Now?

Who’s Sorry Now?

Michael Ignatieff apologizes for being wrong on Iraq. If only mainstream media acknowledged all the people who were right.


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.

Other excellent reasons for opposing the war:

Fear of humanitarian disaster. True, catastrophe didn’t come entirely or right away in the form anti-war commentators feared–hand-to-hand combat in the streets of Baghdad, displaced millions, famine, civil war, a spreading regional conflict. Still, whose prediction is closer to today’s reality: those like Ignatieff, who saw a brief war followed by democracy and prosperity under the auspices of Ahmad Chalabi, or those, despised at the time as Chicken Littles, who saw invasion unleashing mayhem and ruin and displacement?

Why Saddam? Saddam was an evil dictator, but Iraq was not the world’s only human-rights basket case. What about Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe, Congo, Burma? What about the Russians in Chechnya and the Chinese in Tibet? A lot of people just didn’t believe we were invading Iraq either to bring democracy or to protect ourselves from terrorism. They noted that invading Iraq was on the neocon agenda long before 9/11. They thought the real rationale for war had to be something else–setting up bases in Iraq, or protecting Israel or, yes, controlling the oil. We may never know the real motives for the war, but why is it “ideological” to suspect that securing the world’s most important resource was somewhere in the mix?

Low odds of success. At NYU a few weeks before the war, exiled Iraqi writer Kanan Makiya gave a prowar speech so moving it made die-hard opponents of invasion feel like heartless cowards. But even he admitted that the odds of success were only 5 percent; there were nineteen chances in twenty that the invasion would go horribly wrong. A lot of people who might have supported the war if they believed it would be quick and easy–as, at the time, the occupation of Afghanistan seemed to be–opposed it because it looked too uncertain, too dangerous, too much like Vietnam.

Distrust of Bush, Cheney and the neocons. Ignatieff doesn’t even mention the makers of the war until the end of his article, and then only to note Bush’s simplistic reliance on the rightness of his motives. But lots of people just didn’t believe the Administration’s evidence or trust its stated reasons. As with the 2000 election, they smelled a rat. I remember thinking, Why do we have to do this right now? Because the troops are there and soon it will be too hot didn’t seem like a good answer. The neocons actually fit Ignatieff’s caricature of fantasizing, deluded intellectuals pretty well. This time, he and the ideologues were on the same side.

For good judgment and prudence–to say nothing of realism and intellectual modesty–the opponents of invasion win hands down. It would be nice if the mainstream media acknowledged that.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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