I doubt that Ignatieff's essay is worth all this spilled ink but both articles point out the obvious flaws and ludicrous aspects to Ignatieff's sort of taking back his support for the Iraq war, while retaining all the assumptions that led to his "mistake" in the first place.
How Michael Ignatieff put the 'I' in Iraq
On Michael Ignatieff's Times essay
>by Heather Mallick
August 13, 2007
My heart aches, and a nizzy dumbness—um, make that drowsy numbness—pains my sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk ...
What? Sorry, I just read Michael Ignatieff's “Getting Iraq Wrong” thingy that ran in last week's New York Times Magazine, and my brain's as dizzy as Alberto Gonzales' fuzzy thinker in that ball thing on top of his neck. Gonzalez enters a fugue state whenever he testifies before a Senate committee, failing to recollect every meeting he ever attended if in fact he was there. The Onion has suggested that Gonzalez is not in fact the Attorney-General. He is a pool salesman from Tucson, Ariz., and he's got to get back there before the in-ground pool season ends, because that's where you get the big commissions. It's plausible.
That's how disoriented I am. I'm Cabana Al. Ignatieff's essay is so full of egotistical self-regard that I can practically see the buttons coming off his dress shirt as he typed it.
Writing a wrong
It starts with the headline, which I do understand is written not by him but by an editor (same thing happens here), but still. The headline should read “I was wrong about Iraq.” Instead, it is written in a tense almost as passive as the classic “Mistakes were made,” which is the one the Republicans use.
The headline begins with a gerund, “Getting Iraq Wrong,” as in “Leaving Las Vegas.” At least Nicolas Cage did in fact leave Las Vegas, by dying there. But Ignatieff does not really admit that he “got” Iraq wrong. Instead he attacks academics who predicted that the Iraqi invasion would be a disaster. They were right, Ignatieff says, but their rightness was based on ideology. Which is worse that rightness based on nobility, like Ignatieff's.
The really correct people were those who predicted a disaster but realized that George W. Bush had pure motives. “They labored, as everyone did, with the same faulty intelligence and lack of knowledge of Iraq's fissured sectarian history.”
Mike? Everyone I respect thought Bush's famously “sexed-up” case for war was as packed with lies as the Tonkin Gulf Incident that led to an overwhelming vote for a full-out American war in Vietnam.
Not a cakewalk
When Colin Powell started talking about “yellowcake” in Iraq, I laughed out loud. Britain had already had a Cake hoax. In 1997, a terrible new drug called Cake was killing Britain's young people. You could make it in your own kitchen! The deaths of these deluded kids looking for a high were tragic and hideous. One poor girl threw up her own pelvis bone, a roped-in celebrity said on TV as he begged British youngsters to say no to Cake. If people give you Cake, “chuck it back in their face and tell them to F@#K OFF!” brayed comedian Bernard Manning.
As it turned out, satirist Chris Morris had made up the whole thing for his show Brass Eye. There was no such drug. No more bandwagons, please, he was saying. But Ignatieff joined the neocon bandwagon. And he had lived in Britain during the Cake campaign. Then again, he does seem to be entirely without humour.
Now he wants off, but only while mocking liberals for being smart and right from the start. He says their motives were practical, while his motive was admiration for the Iraqi Kurds who had been decimated by Saddam Hussein.
So Mike's a Kurdite. But I'm a Marshist. I yield to no one in my admiration for the Marsh Arabs. This noble isolated people lived in the original Garden of Eden, the marshes between the Tigris and the Euphrates drained and burned by Saddam. (Read Gavin Young's Return to the Marshes, for their history). That said, I still thought the invasion was wrong.
A matter of mistakes
Ignatieff says mistakes only matter to politicians, not academics. But if you backed a disastrously inept politician like Bush, you're still partly responsible for the destruction of the Iraqi nation, the hot new torture wave, a trillion dollars wasted and a massive rotting pile of severed limbs and eyeballs that cartoonishly sums up the grotesquerie of human wishes.
Ignatieff is claiming pure motives. Sure, if naivete is pure, he's pure as hand-churned butter. But I can't figure out how such an intellectual squirmer, pretending to confess to error while defending same, came close to winning the Liberal leadership.
As for the matter of Ignatieff baring his shallow soul in the New York Times rather than a Canadian publication, it is strange how much he still clearly grovels for respect from American power. But all this makes him is Brian Mulroney reborn, a stage struck politician for whom Canada is not really the desired audience.
But my sympathy then disappears. For Ignatieff actually wrote this. “As a former denizen of Harvard, I've had to learn that a sense of reality doesn't always flourish in elite institutions. Bus drivers can display a shrewder grasp of what's what than Nobel Prize winners.”
What a patronizing yet groveling Uriah Heep-ish remark. It translates as, “Not everyone at Harvard is as smart as me. Even a prole can figure things out better than my dumb rivals.” The prole and his offspring, of course, are the ones most likely to be sent to fight in Iraq.
He goes on. “The only way any of us can improve our grasp of reality is to confront the world every day and learn.” I think this means he is going to take the bus from now on and learn from the homespun wisdom of the yokel at the wheel. He's going to have to if he ever wants to run Canada. Which is why it won't happen. There was a time when Ignatieff was deeply interested in his fellow humans. You can read it in his earlier, admirable books, which remain in my living room, not exiled to the basement with Amis the Younger and the other mediocre stuff.
But there aren't even many humans quoted in his essay, and no Iraqi place names beyond Abu Ghraib. His nouns are all of the statesmen/wisdom/politician/paradigmatic/benchmarks kind. I can't claim to speak for eyeless orphans in Fallujah or even a criminally undereducated American soldier who now realizes he was sent over as bomb fodder to protect Big Oil. I can't even boast of being right about Iraq from the beginning. It actually depressed the hell out of me. And no opinionated person ever changed a reader's mind.
But I know smug when I see it. Ignatieff's piece is not a retraction. It's a theoretical, hedged amplification of a justification.
And the second article:
Feeling icky about Iggy
>by Rick Salutin
August 10, 2007
For a moment last Sunday, as I opened Michael Ignatieff's alleged mea culpa—Getting Iraq Wrong—in The New York Times Magazine (heralded in advance by The Globe and Mail and lauded by the Times's resident war critic, Frank Rich), I thought he might have learned something. Then I read his piece.
“One thing is clear: The costs of staying will be borne by Americans, while the cost of leaving will be mostly borne by Iraqis.” How obscene. It is Iraq that was shattered. There are two million internal and two million external refugees. Everyone has weapons. No one has dependable power and thus clean water except the occupiers in the increasingly targeted Green Zone. The people of Iraq bore the cost of the U.S. going in and staying, and they will bear the cost when and if it leaves. All U.S. losses are collateral damage.
Or this: The war's opponents “opposed the invasion because they believed ... America is always and in every situation wrong.” Exactly who said that, Michael? Could we have a name? It's a cheap straw man, that's all, to go along with platitudes such as, “Not all good things, after all, can be had together, whether in life or in politics.”
What was the error of the war's backers? That they took “wishes for reality” and supposed, “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.” What motives? To build “a free state” in Iraq, defend “human rights and freedom,” etc.
In other words, he accepts at face value all the rhetoric and propaganda used to justify the invasion. In other other words, there were no lies told. That's the stunning moment in his article. We are to believe that governments do not routinely lie about their motives, yet he himself writes in this very piece: “In public life, language is a weapon of war ... All that matters is what you said, not what you meant.” So we're supposed to believe George Bush did say what he meant? Let me catch my breath.
(There.) I admit I feel a bit icky attacking someone while he's trying to apologize, but I'm forcing myself because I think there's a larger issue here. I consider this article part of an effort to salvage a carefully constructed policy of Western interventionism in much of the world that has recently been sullied by the Iraq fiasco.
The policy itself remains. Tony Blair retires as British PM and morphs into a Mideast peace envoy, as if what that wretched region needs is yet more Western meddling. Gordon Brown takes over from him and prepares to depart Iraq but move even more heavily into Afghanistan, which gets typed as the good war, as opposed to the bad one in Iraq. The U.S. Democratic presidential candidates are all interventionists on this model. Yves Engler has presciently noted Canada's modest role in the pattern by policing Haiti, a tragic land that has suffered two centuries of near constant intervention.
The arguments for this course of action were built up by, among others, Michael Ignatieff, during the 1990s, when anti-communism was no longer available to justify Western foreign policy. The new rationales were human rights, failed states, right to protect, etc.
The showcases were Bosnia and Kosovo (though ethnic cleansing in Kosovo occurred after, and due to, the NATO bombing there), which led to Iraq and Afghanistan. It amounts to the same old world order of power politics, in a new dress. The only nations that claim the right to protect are those with the might to protect. The issue not addressed is whether foreign interventionism itself is a problem, complicit in many problems that “we” must then intervene in order to contain.
These policies have helped bring us to a point where almost everyone in the world is irate, terrified or both. It's time for a big rethink. That involves more than saying Oops about the isolated case of Iraq.
Originally published in The Globe and Mail, Rick Salutin's column appears every Friday