Whatever else we can say about Michael Ignatieff, he piques emotions, spurs debates and creates headlines with a fervor that is unrivaled in Canada.
True to form, his essay in last week’s NYT magazine has received the column inches usually reserved for the Health Act and the Stanley Cup. So just what did he say that caused such a stir?
I will get to what I think about his essay in a moment, but first, what of the commentary? Having gone through the two dozen or so pieces on his essay, I must say, there actually aren’t that many serious criticisms. Most fall into the category of hit job critiques. People who have never, and likely will never think very highly of the man. These should not discount what are some real concerns though. There are two in particular.
The first is a line of critique that has been around for a while, and has been best outlined by Potter, Wells, and Ygelsias:
First, Andrew Potter:
Now he is claiming that, had he been a politician at the time, his decision might have been different. Why? Because as an intellectual, you are accountable only to yourself, while a politician is accountable to citizens, soldiers, allies, international institutions, and so on. So, the decision would have been different, because his constituency would have been different.I am not buying this.
To begin with, it is dangerous for an academic to claim that he is accountable only to himself. Given the subject matter, if he is right, this would be a good argument for shutting the universities down. Does anyone imagine that an engineer is accountable only to himself, a surgeon only to herself? The entire rationale for professional self-regulation (and its academic equivalent, the peer-review process) is precisely to ensure that standards are maintained and the public good is served.
Paul Wells continues, with a little more vigor:
It’s nutty-nutbar to perceive some culture of practical politics whose dictates would have led a Minister Ignatieff to conclude something different in 2003 from what Professor Ignatieff decided. In 2003, most practical politicians also thought the war was swell. It’s hard to know where to stop counting them: Bill Clinton for sure, Hillary Clinton probably, Brian Mulroney, and never even mind Stephen Harper — the pro-war camp also included rank-and-file Liberal MPs like Albina Guarnieri and David Pratt, Harperphobic Tories like Joe Clark, and those advisers around Paul Martin who voiced an opinion at the time. Along with quite literally every prominent English-language newspaper editorial board in Canada except the Toronto Star’s.
And Ygelsias brings it home:
But then someone pointed out to me that the whole thing is founded on the absurd premise that his errors in judgment have something to do with the mindset of academia versus the mindset of practical politics.
This is, when you think about it, totally wrong. Academics in the field of Middle East studies were overwhelmingly opposed to the war. Similarly, international relations scholars opposed the war by a very large margin. The war’s foci of intellectual support were in the institutions of the conservative movement, and in the DC think tanks and the punditocracy where the war had a lot of non-conservative support. People with relevant academic expertise — notably people who weren’t really on the left politically — were massively opposed to the war. To imply the reverse is to substantially obscure one of the main lessons of the war, namely that we should pay more attention to what regional experts think and give substantially less credence to the idea that think tankers are really “independent” of political machinations.
So what of this critique? A couple of comments.
First, let’s be clear about what Ignatieff has said about this. During the election campaign he said that had he been a Canadian politician at the time, the views of the Canadian electorate would have influenced his decision of whether to send Canadian troops into Iraq. This seems correct to me, and is something quite different to the argument that he would not have advocated US invasion, being in the US, and participating in the US policy debate.
In the latest piece, he does go a step further, and perhaps gets in some trouble, but this is not necessarily in relation to the specific Canadian position. Here he is more concerned with pointing out that there is a lot of academic and journalistic nonsense to which no accountability is held. Academics say a whole lot of stupid things that they are rarely held accountable for. He recognizes this, and is pointing it out. Academics can deal in the theoretical and play with ideas in a way that politicians simply can’t. Because they are held accountable to everything they say and do. This, at least in some fashion, changes the calculus of decision making.
Here though, he seems to underplay the extent to which certain academics, and they are admittedly rare, do influence policy. More importantly, in the case of the US position on Iraq, he was one of them. Therefore, I would say his position is correct with respect to the Canadian politics example, but does not hold in the American case.
In the end I think it is fair to say that his position as to whether to send Canadian troops into Iraq would have been based on a slightly different set of variables than his decision to advocate for US intervention. But, as Wells points out, let’s not pretend that Chrétien’s position was either obvious, or without risk. There was a lot of debate in this country, as in others, about if, and how Iraq should be dealt with. Had there been a UN Security Council resolution, for example, then Chrétien would almost certainly have supported it. The debate was and remains nuanced, as I think Ignatieff struggles with in his public pronouncements. People want red meat, and he wants to remain introspective.
The second line of critique is summed up by Siddiqui:
Ignatieff invokes Bismarck’s observation that political judgment is “the ability to hear, before anyone else, the distant hoofbeats of the horse of history,” and adds: “Few of us hear the horses coming.”
But millions around the world, including Canadians, did on Iraq. Jean Chrétien did. Stephen Harper and Ignatieff didn’t.
Yes, but this retrospectively makes the debate seem black and white when it simply wasn’t. People opposed and supported the war for a wide range of reasons. Siddiqui would not have supported it, for example, even had the Security Council been on board. All sides have to be honest about their positions in the lead-up. As Well’s has noted, pretty much everyone thought Chretien would support it. He wisely decided not to, but this was neither overwhelmingly obvious, nor without risks.
What’s more, not everyone who was against it was so for the same reasons. The French had been doing wide business with Saddam and had a serious grudge to pick with Bush. Much of the left is against the principle of humanitarian interventions writ large. Many American conservatives want an isolationist and protectionist US foreign policy. These varied positions are often in conflict with one another, and the attribution of virtue, particularly, humanitarianism, to all who opposed the war, misses much of the context of the debate, and blurs the policy challenges that are sure to arise a futur
e interventions are considered.
As Potter says: “There were plenty of good arguments, both morally and under international law, for the invasion. There were good arguments against it as well, but reasonable people could and did disagree.”
So what to make of the article? For what it’s worth, a few comments:
1. While saying that the Iraq war has condemned his judgment is certainly a mea culpa of sorts, this article is not really a reneging of his past positions, or how he came to them. Rather, it is more of a stream of consciousness accounting of his evolution from US public intellectual to Canadian politician. While I am not as pessimistic as Potter as to feasibility of this transition, there is no doubt that the two are very different.
2. I generally agree with his distinctions between academic and political judgment. Again though, he gets into the problem of being not just a typical academic during the Iraq lead-up. He aspired to, and attained, policy impact.
3. “I’ve learned that acquiring good judgment in politics starts with knowing when to admit your mistakes.” Refreshing. Wish more politicians would say this while wrestling publicly with their mistakes.
4. Way too many historical references. While I like to think that our leaders are well read, citing a dozen ‘great men’ in a 2500 word essay is a bit much. And there is no way to make the words “former denizen of Harvard” unpretentious.
5. “Having taught political science myself, I have to say the discipline promises more than it can deliver” = understatement of the year.
6. I don’t agree with this para:
The decision facing the United States over Iraq is paradigmatic of political judgment at its most difficult. Staying and leaving each have huge costs. One thing is clear: The costs of staying will be borne by Americans, while the cost of leaving will be mostly borne by Iraqis. That in itself suggests how American leaders are likely to decide the question.
A few problems here. First, it doesn’t account for the fact that US presence is the catalyst for a good percentage of the violence. Second, at present, more Iraqi’s are being killed than Americans. Third, the humanitarian costs of leaving versus staying, depending on how both are done, are a matter of serious debate.
7. I really enjoyed his reflections on public life. I have witnessed these costs in a range of capacities over the past few years, and he hits the nail on the head with a few, one in particular:
In public life, language is a weapon of war and is deployed in conditions of radical distrust. All that matters is what you said, not what you meant. The political realm is a world of lunatic literalism. The slightest crack in your armor — between what you meant and what you said — can be pried open and the knife driven home.
In some ways this is obvious, and Ignatieff got himself in some real political trouble during the leadership race for thinking out loud a bit more than he probably should have, but it’s certainly true that in an area where what people mean should be what we care most about, as these people will be running the country, we insist on hyper-critiques of every word uttered. “Lunatic Literalism,” great line.
8. I liked the idea of fixed principles versus fixed ideas in politics. The former are the values with which one governs, the latter “of a dogmatic kind are usually the enemy of good judgment.”
9. “In private life, we pay the price of our own mistakes. In public life, a politician’s mistakes are first paid by others.” Again, this is true, but he was a public figure before he entered politics.
10. I don’t fully agree with this para:
“My convictions had all the authority of personal experience, but for that very reason, I let emotion carry me past the hard questions, like: Can Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites hold together in peace what Saddam Hussein held together by terror?”
I’m not sure that this is the right question. More important was whether the mechanisms used to intervene and nation-build, (or not, as the case may be), would create a situation on which radical elements of these communities could capitalize.
On balance, this essay is an honest public accounting from a public figure working his way through the biggest policy challenge of our time. But it is also filled with interesting reflections on politics that are rare from someone still active in public life.
And in the end, I would echo the conclusion of the Montreal Gazette:
“Ignatieff’s self-criticism deserves to be remembered much longer than his volte-face on Iraq, because it is the sort of intelligent candour that is so painfully rare in public life. It’s a refreshing and thought-provoking glimpse at how an intelligent person copes with the challenges of policy decision-making.”
There are, and were before Iraq, no easy answers for what to do in the Middle East. Anyone who pretended or pretends otherwise, as many did and do on either side, are disingenuous, and frankly don’t deserve to be leading us through this challenge. We need more people who struggle with problems in public and that absolve themselves of the cocksure that has become the partisan norm. For this, Ignatieff’s honesty should be valued. Does this make him a great leader? Frankly, I don’t know yet. He is certainly daring, as he nudges us to conclude in his final paragraph. I do know that I am glad he is part of the political debate, as there is no doubt he does politics differently. Here’s hoping he keeps thinking, and struggling – in public.