2007 August 05 Sunday
Michael Ignatieff: Getting Iraq Wrong

Michael Ignatieff, a former Harvard political science professor and now deputy leader of the Liberal Party in the Canadian Parliament, discusses why so many members of the elite got it wrong by advocating the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

The unfolding catastrophe in Iraq has condemned the political judgment of a president. But it has also condemned the judgment of many others, myself included, who as commentators supported the invasion. Many of us believed, as an Iraqi exile friend told me the night the war started, that it was the only chance the members of his generation would have to live in freedom in their own country. How distant a dream that now seems.

Bush gets much more criticism for Iraq than a large number of other people who were just as supportive of this on-going debacle. A lot of people would rather direct their criticism at Bush for partisan reasons or because they don't want to admit their own errors. Kudos to Ignatieff for admitting how badly he got it wrong.

I started thinking the invasion was a bad idea when it became clear that the size of the invasion force seemed too small to occupy Iraq. Plus, I couldn't figure out how Saddam could have a substantial nuclear weapons development program more advanced than Iran's when Iran had far more money, engineers, scientists, and room for action. But I thought maybe our leaders knew somethings I didn't know. Among my lessons learned: No, our leaders don't know all that much. No, there's not much to the much vaunted Central Intelligence Agency. Sufficiently talented people do not want to work for the government. Yes, I should listen to my doubts. Also, question motives of people promoting agendas. Think of all the reasons why your interests and their interests differ.

Ignatieff believes you need to admit your mistakes.

Having left an academic post at Harvard in 2005 and returned home to Canada to enter political life, I keep revisiting the Iraq debacle, trying to understand exactly how the judgments I now have to make in the political arena need to improve on the ones I used to offer from the sidelines. Iíve learned that acquiring good judgment in politics starts with knowing when to admit your mistakes.

Ignatieff notes that some people (Greg Cochran comes to mind) predicted what would follow from an invasion. I think we should listen more to the people who make correct predictions. But I doubt any of the cable news channels give more time to the people who got Iraq right than they did before the invasion.

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.

Leave aside the people who are reflexively anti-war. They'll be wrong when the war is necessary and right when it is a dumb idea. Look at the people who tried to evaluate American national interest rationally. What they possessed was a far better understanding of what was knowledge and what wasn't knowledge. They had a better model of human nature (and, importantly, variations in human nature) and therefore a better model of what would take place as a result of an invasion of Iraq.

They labored, as everyone did, with the same faulty intelligence and lack of knowledge of Iraqís fissured sectarian history. What they didnít do was take wishes for reality. They didnít suppose, as President Bush did, that because they believed in the integrity of their own motives everyone else in the region would believe in it, too. They didnít suppose that a free state could arise on the foundations of 35 years of police terror. They didnít suppose that America had the power to shape political outcomes in a faraway country of which most Americans knew little. They didnít believe that because America defended human rights and freedom in Bosnia and Kosovo it had to be doing so in Iraq. They avoided all these mistakes.

He's misrepresenting the events in Bosnia and Kosovo. The US intervened in the Balkans in order to demonstrate to Muslims that we are not reflexively opposed to them in all circumstances. If Muslims produce more babies than an unimportant group like, say, Orthodox Christian Serbs then the US will sacrifice Serbian interests and territory to Muslims in order to try (in vain as it turns out) to win points with Muslims in the Middle East.

As for 35 years of police terror: Democracy isn't working in any Arab Muslim state. To attribute its failure in Iraq to 35 years of police state terror means that Ignatieff either still doesn't get it or doesn't want to say what he's really learned from Iraq. It is hard to tell which is the case. But my guess is he still doesn't understand since to understand the relevant facts in Iraq requires accepting taboo facts about human nature (e.g. group average differences in IQ and personality as well as the incompatibility between Islam and Western freedoms)..

We need a better way to keep track who gets stuff right in politics so that we know who to listen to on future issues.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2007 August 05 12:57 PM  Mideast Iraq Blame Game

John Smith said at August 5, 2007 6:27 PM:

Uh, hello, Harvard? That should say something about his brainwashing. Anyway, I'm still waiting for the lone wolf who's willing to tell the truth. It's so unfortunate that the ones who do also have too many other crazy notions to be taken seriously (the far right).

Bob Badour said at August 6, 2007 6:18 AM:

Ignatieff is a pinko member of a party recently best-known for its widespread corruption. The idea that he is going to catch a real clue is absurd.

Nathan Fujiki said at February 4, 2008 11:13 AM:

I completely agree that we need to keep track of who supported what and when on issues of such importance as the Iraq War. I am also glad to see some supporters flat out admit they were wrong - the ability to change one's opinion in the face of new data is a sign of intelligence. While the invasion can't be undone now and we need to focus on solving the current issues, those who got us into this war need to be held accountable. Not to politicize the issue, but I think both Hillary Clinton and John McCain are in a weak position to campaign for president due to these major blemishes - authorizing force to invade a country for oil (as even the most elementary analysis makes obvious). I'm rather surprised that voters don't seem to care more about these clear failures of judgment and leadership. Anyway, I agree that people such as Greg Cochran deserve credit for taking the right position early on. Strangely, Dick Cheney seemed to have predicted all the problems that could follow from an invasion (no exit-strategy, threatening the structural integrity of Turkey, etc.)long before the invasion itself. Then he changed his mind I guess....

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