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August 17, 2007

In Defense of Being Wrong . . .
Posted by Michael Cohen

There's been a great deal of debate on this site and others over the past week about the responsibility of those in the Foreign Policy Community for the war in Iraq. I'm not about to re-fight those battles, but I think a little perspective is important.

Michael Ignatieff is one of my favorite public intellectuals. The article he did a few years ago in the NYT Magazine about Lesser Evils in fighting terrorism was thought-provoking and brilliant. I only regret that I haven't had time to read his book on the same subject.

A week or so ago he wrote what I can best describe as a soul-wrenching mea culpa regarding his support for the war in Iraq. It's never easy for people to admit a mistake, especially when it's a several thousand word article in the New York Times magazine, and I think Ignatieff deserves enormous credit for coming clean and admitting he was wrong. I wish others (like the President for example) would do the same. His article provides fascinating insight into how such decisions, which look so incorrect in retrospect, could have been made at the time. One graf in particular really jumped out at me:

I went to northern Iraq in 1992. I saw what Saddam Hussein did to the Kurds. From that moment forward, I believed he had to go. 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 should have known that emotions in politics, as in life, tend to be self-justifying and in matters of ultimate political judgment, nothing, not even your own feelings, should be held immune from the burden of justification through cross-examination and argument.

Ignatieff like many Americans was wrong about Iraq, but while his judgment was wrong, his intentions were pure. He believed that advocacy for the war in Iraq was in the best interests of the Iraqi people and furthered important national interests. Clearly these views clouded him from seeing reality. He was not alone.

Tom Friedman is another public figure who has taken significant abuse for his support of the war. I would argue deservedly so. His judgment that invasion and occupation would spur democracy in the Middle East was misguided and fanciful. His later assertion that he didn't know the Bush Administration would screw up the war so badly, is frankly stunning. Should his future statements be taken with a grain of salt because of his mistakes? That certainly seems fair to me. But does that make him a bad person? Of course not. Does it mean he loves his country any less then someone like me who passionately opposed the war? Most certainly not. Same goes for Hillary Clinton. But forgive me if I have more faith in Barack Obama's foreign policy judgment.

To go further back in history, Lyndon Johnson probably did more than any other American President to ensure the full application of basic civil rights to all Americans. At the same time, he prosecuted a terrible and misguided war in Vietnam that took the lives of tens of thousands of American soldiers and millions of more Vietnamese. How could a President be so right about the former and yet so wrong about the latter? I don't have an easy answer to that question, but certainly the former makes it very difficult to judge him in the harshest possible terms for the latter. Unlike those who would follow him in the Oval Office, I'm quite sure that Johnson believed what he was doing was best for America. He was wrong.

In the run-up to the war in Iraq many on the left were rightfully exorcised about attacks on their patriotism by the Bush Administration and others. That those attacks continue today is a sad statement on our coarsened political discourse. But, yet it would be a terrible irony indeed if those who opposed the war then, were to attack those who supported it with similar blanket statements.   

We must remember that more than half of all Americans ended up supporting the war in Iraq. Certainly, many of them were manipulated by Administration propoganda about WMD and mythical Al Qaeda connections, but millions of other assessed this pertinent information and drew their own conclusions. I, for one, am willing to give the American people a bit more credit than to assert they were merely sheep being led to the slaughter.

The fact is, many well-intentioned Americans supported the war in Iraq - some were friends of mine, some were even related to me. Surely some did so for nefarious reasons, but I would imagine that most did so because they believed it was best for either America or the Iraqi people.  Moreover, there are certainly those Americans who supported getting rid of Saddam, but they didn't necessarily suppport this war or the manner in which it has been incompently conducted. Being pro-war or anti-war is not a cut and dry proposition.

There were some anti-war folks who simply don't believe that war is ever appropriate. There were some like me who have supported the use of military force, such as the first Gulf War or our intervention in Afghanistan, but thought this particular conflict was misguided, wrong and not justified.

There were some on the pro-war side who completely believed the President's reasoning, there were others like Friedman and Ignatieff who had their own political agenda for war in Iraq. And there are those who were broadly sympathetic with the notion of toppling Saddam, but felt that the Administration went about it in the wrong manner. Indeed, I'm quite sure that there are many in the Very Serious Foreign Policy Community who are being attacked today for supporting this war even though if they had their way, they would have gone about in an altogether different manner. To paraphrase Rummy sometimes people go to war with the war we have, not the war we want.

In short, pro-war and anti-war are terms that don't necessarily do real justice to the true measure of intellectual ferment around this conflict.

In the end, those who opposed the war in Iraq have been proven correct. Four and a half years later it is difficult to draw any other rational conclusion. Certainly, those who supported it merit some criticism, particularly if they continue to support it today. We should not hesitiate to remind them of the error of their ways.

But let's also remember that to err is indeed human - and that well-meaning people, like Michael Ignatieff, Thomas Friedman and Hillary Clinton can be wrong about something as terrible as war and still not be morally invalidated for their mistakes. 


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Ignatieff, a Canadian, writes (dishonestly) as if he were an American. Everything is in the first person plural: we felt, our, etc. What does he know about American culture? I don't need to learn how Americans feel about terrorism by reading a Canadian. Now Friedman will be writing about how Canadians feel, I suppose.

These soul-searching mea culpas are standard fare from intellectuals. We're seeing a lot of them. Crocodile tears.

War, elective war, is now a hot topic in America. Like a girl on her first date, should we or shouldn't we. It gives the intellectuals something to debate, and many of them will be in support of war, some for personal financial reasons. Where you stand depends on wher you sit, for some.

The Gulf War was a good war because it saved the Kuwait dynastic kingdom, and everyone loves Afghanistan. Except the ones affected by these wars, of course. All that collateral damage. Pity.

This isn't rocket science. Elective war is legally and morally wrong, and impacts negatively on little children and other living beings. War proponents ought to be "morally invalidated". Advocating a crime isn't an error, it's a crime of conspiracy. But there's a lot of money in war, and so the input of the intellectuals like Ignatieff in justifying them is invaluable.

Personally, I have no reason to question Michael Ignatieff's intentions and their purity. But I have a very, very hard time understanding why we should take seriously someone whose two main reasons for his mistake, by his own account, were: (a) a failure to realize that in life, unlike academia, ideas have consequences, and (b) the fact that emotion prevented him from asking the tough questions about Iraq.

These are not minor errors. They are intellectually disqualifying, all the more so if they were made in perfectly good faith.

I found nothing heart-wrenching in Ignatieff’s cloying dramatic performance. I do not find myself moved by Ignatieff's ostentatious declamations and self-pitying, lachrymose pose. Even the self-pity is inauthentic and reeks of greasepaint. One almost expects to hear him cry out “I’m ready for my close-up now Mr. DeMille!”

It’s still all about Ignatieff, and the drama – the “mythic narrative” I suppose we say now - of his own life. With his unconquerable vanity, this prima donna imagines that even in failure his readers will be captivated by the tedious and unoriginal twists and turns of the Ignatieff intellectual pathways. “What lessons has Michael I. learned? Inquiring New York Times readers want to know!”

These lessons turn out to be a lumpy, inarticulate mass of resentful blame shifting, weakly concealed under the designer sackcloth of insincere, ritualistic shame. And yet even before getting to those supposed lessons, we are treated to a repetitive, tedious and inappropriately prolix essay on the nature of political judgment. Time for one more turn upon the intellectual stage before St. Michael takes his bow. The surface tone is sorrowful and wistful. But we can see his ambition sweating through the pages: “Ah yes, a classic mea culpa! This will be anthologized down through the ages. I can see it now: “On the Nature of Political Judgment” … by Michael Ignatieff! It will be fitted into those immortal volumes of essays, perhaps somewhere between “Concerning Fate” by Plutarch, and Montaigne’s “Apology for Raymond Sebond”.

Yet this purported mea culpa seems distinctly lacking in culpa. Ultimately, Ignatieff still hopes to impress us with the tragic grandness of his lost illusions. The message one continues to hear from Ignatieff and many of the other liberal interventionists goes something like this: We were wrong. But we were nobly, tragically, romantically wrong. We succumbed to error, but only because we were blinded by the radiant brilliance of our beautiful ideals. The war's opponents were right, but they were coldly, pragmatically and cynically right. They were saved from our noble errors only on account of the sluggish darkness of their cowardly and selfish hearts.

Then what are the Great Lessons of the Ignatieff semi-apology – the mea not so culpa? With a quick verbal back of the hand, he dismisses one group of critics:

We might test judgment by asking, on the issue of Iraq, who best anticipated how events turned out. But many of those who correctly anticipated catastrophe did so not by exercising judgment but by indulging in ideology. 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.

Ah yes, those monotonous Blame America Firsters. No need even to consider their critique of American imperialism and their contentions about the convenient consilience of economic, military and moral-political motives working on the Middle Eastern ruminations of America’s strategic class. These critics are just so gosh-darn unpatriotic that they don’t even merit a refutation.

Then Ignatieff goes on to dismiss many of the rest of his critics:

They did not necessarily possess more knowledge than the rest of us. They labored, as everyone did, with the same faulty intelligence and lack of knowledge of Iraq’s fissured sectarian history.

So it is still intellectually intolerable to Ignatieff that many of the war’s critics simply knew more than he did. After all, how could they have more actual knowledge than great philosophical wizards like Ignatieff! It might seem that these critics had simply read more; it might seem that they were better able to see through government cant and misinformation and disinformation because they had a surer foundation of background knowledge. It might seem that instead of wasting valuable time writing pompous war poetry and clarion calls to arms, they were actually reading a variety of reports and estimates about Iraqi capabilities and intentions, about the history and current politics of Iraq and its region, about the vast differences and animosities between modernist, secularizing dictators like Saddam Hussein, and the anti-modernist, reactionary religious fanatics populating the ranks of the Salafist jihadists. It might seem that they knew more from the study of history and human society about the nature and causal impact of human violence, and were less in the grip of adolescent literary illusions about war. In short, it might seem that they more accurately predicted the results of the invasion because they knew more about the actual circumstances in Iraq, and the likely causal consequences of an invasion.

No, affirms Ignatieff, they didn’t know more than he did. How could they?

Or did they? Because he then seems to take part of that assertion back:

What they didn’t do was take wishes for reality. They didn’t 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 didn’t suppose that a free state could arise on the foundations of 35 years of police terror. They didn’t suppose that America had the power to shape political outcomes in a faraway country of which most Americans knew little. They didn’t 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

And so here’s what it all comes down to for Ignatieff: The lesson Iraq teaches is the lesson of a tragically naïve failure of the morally beautiful and clean of heart to account for the turpitude, corruption, sickness and incompetence of others.

“Our motives were pure!” he says, “But those damn cynical Iraqi savages didn’t know it!”

“And we didn’t account for the incompetence of the American government and the ignorance of the American people, and anticipate how they would bungle our spectacularly lovely plans for moral transformation.”

“And we didn’t account for the social trauma inflicted by Saddam, and how that would leave Iraqis too degenerate and morally impaired to receive the sacred Liberal sacraments.”

So for Ignatieff and his school the error of the Party of Virtue was only an error of miscalculation. There was nothing at all wrong with their motives. Not a thing. It's a mere case of political misjudgment by people whose hearts were pure and holy, and “in the right place”.

Perhaps this is a memorable mea culpa after all. Because rarely has a writer so shrewdly combined the outer semblances of a confession of fault with such towering moral arrogance and self-ascribed purity.

I do not believe that Ignatieff’s heart was “in the right place”. I do not accept that this Iraq was all just a case of a tragic human failure by well-meaning people. I believe Ignatieff is a moral fraud and egotistical villain whose heart was quite definitely in the wrong place. And I believe Iraq is no mere error of misjudgment by a basically good country, but rather a symptom of a deep sickness at the heart of our culture; a sign of a fanatical megalomania and lust for domination that manifests itself in economic, military and moral forms. Iraq was simply the latest example of savagery from a society with a long track record of unfathomably absurd violence.

Ignatieff represents the corrupt and noxious tradition of moral imperialism. There is nothing either noble or tragic about it. Throughout the course of American empire, just as with the empires that preceded it and will probably succeed it, these moral imperialists have been the enablers and helpmates of the more crass and materialistic type of imperialist. Wherever there was a sugar industry to be cornered, a fruit plantation to be annexed, a native population to be moved out, an oil field to be accessed and exploited, a strategically placed peninsula to be militarized, a community of local women to be made into a brothel to serve sailors, a popular local leader who won’t play ball with the imperial commercial interests, these fine moral fellows have floated in on the same warships with their plans to convert the heathens to Christianity or Democracy or Liberalism. They were there in South America, dishing out last rights to converted Inca souls, as the latter were exterminated. They were there in the old west, civilizing the Red Man as he was pushed into the ground or off the edge of the continent. They were in Hawaii and the Philippines and Cuba and Puerto Rico and Nicaragua, saving red socialist souls for the god of capitalism. And they were in Iraq, writing western Liberal constitutions and intellectually underwriting the butchery that got their reforming feet in the door.

I don't want to hear about how much these fellows love their country. That doesn't do it for me. The United States is drowning in an absolute flood of "country-love", and gagging on the junk food of patriotism. Before I am willing to give these Liberal moralists the time of day, I want an indication that they have some clue about the many things that are wrong with this country, and that they have some disposition to change those things. I want to see some signs that they are capable of emerging from the mass stupidity that witnesses one barbarous episode after another, only to throw them all down the memory hole and put manufactured memories, movie images and preposterous political speeches in their place. But the moral imperialists never get around to that kind of honest critique of their own societies. Their dreamy moralistic visages are always and only pointed in one direction: outward.

The moral imperialists are in love with the American Way, and want to spread it. Well I am not in love with the American Way. I reject much of that Way. I reject empire. I reject the cult of the nation. I reject the brutality of the American economic system. I reject the savagery of the westward expansion, and the genocide of the Native Americans. I reject the culture of guns, gouging and brawling and rumbling. I reject the record of continual, aggressive, warlike conquest. I reject the shallow kinetic culture of greed, acquisition and ceaseless interpersonal competition. I reject the fatalistic acceptance of a grotesquely imbalanced and undemocratic world of economic winners and losers. I reject the revolting commodification of sexuality. I reject the ongoing rape of the environment, and the prevalent love of replacing sublime natural beauty with shoddy human ugliness. But I do believe a better world is possible.

I’m done. Ignatieff? Heart-wrenching? The man is an ass.

At dusk on Saturday, December 21, 2002, I and about a hundred others, maybe less, gathered in Balboa Park, San Diego, lit the candles we each carried, and marched less than a mile to an open field. Many of us spoke briefly against the oncoming war, the war we knew was coming. Finally our leader had us form into a peace symbol, with our lighted candles, in an open field so that we might be seen by the jetliners passing overhead in a landing pattern. What a weak, pathetic exhibition that was. But what else could we do? We saw no basis for "intellectual ferment". We ordinary people knew that a great wrong was going to be committed. We knew that there were people, really smart people, like Ignatieff, who were going to get a lot of people killed. And we knew that there were less reputable people who have risen from the American slime regularly to do their evil deeds. People like George Bush, and Paul Wolfowitz, and Michael Ledeen: "Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business." And we knew that the Congress, both sides, had recently voted for war.

Well we were right and they were wrong. It's as simple as that, some say. Next question?

I see that you are defending yet another Julius Streicher who, in a more just world, would be hanging at the end of a noose, or in jail, with the other Iraq War propagandists.

Let me put it this way: Stalin was a worse monster than Saddam. Yet anti-communism was never a justification to collaborate with the Nazis. Stalin's crimes did not justify Hitler's crimes.

Everyone complicit with the genocidal campaign launched by the US against Iraq is, to various degrees, a war criminal.

I would take Ignatieff's repentance more seriously if he actually DID something, like donate his wealth to the Red Cross or something.

Michael Cohen, I'm struck by the absence of the words "defensible" and "reasonable" in your post. Choosing your words more carefully?

Don Bacon, I haven't been hearing a lot of these soul-searching mea culpas from war supporters. I wish I was. The more standard "mea culpa," if you can even call it that, is "I supported the war, and it still seems like a good idea, but who could have known that Bush would screw it up so badly?" Which I find rather pathetic. Ignatieff said that he was wrong to support the war, and wrong in his reasoning behind it. That's a significant admission, and I think, praiseworthy.

So was the premise of the war, that the US had the right to attack a country that had not attacked first and to do so without UN approval, still justified? Not should we attack, but do we have the right to do so? The reason so many people are pissed off is that Mr. Ignatieff and Mr. Cohen himself, still seem to answer yes. People like them then choose to qualify and try to add "we do have the right, but Iraq was the wrong war," or "Bush screwed it up and for that I'm sorry," or "yes it was completely justified to attack Iraq, the intelligence about WMD just accidentally turned out to be wrong; it's no ones fault about that," or dozens of other excuses.
These are the reasons the anti-war left was seen as unreasonable and anti-American: we claimed that the US did not have the right to attack Iraq; we claimed the WMD evidence was thin at best and if it didn't convince the nations of the world it wasn't good enough; we claimed that Iraq was going to be a quagmire and that Bush had no plan; we even claimed that it would divert attention away from Afghanistan; in addition to many other obvious points made by the anti-war movement.
"But many of those who correctly anticipated catastrophe did so not by exercising judgment but by indulging in ideology. 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."
I'll easily concede that a small chunk of anti-war activists made stupid arguments, like that if the US wants to do something we should do the opposite. Just like a small chunk of war supporters said we had to invade Iraq in order to hasten the Second Coming. I'd submit that the anti-war activists had far better arguments than he would like to admit, and that originally his intention to remove Saddam blocked his hearing of those arguments, and now foolish pride similarly limits his ability to admit that the arguments on the other side of the debate, at the time of the debate, were right, and he was wrong.
Mr. Ignatieff likes to imagine a kind of parity whereby no matter what judgments one reached, it is only by the process of one's reasoning that we can evaluate if you acted well. Yeah, he's an academic alright. Reason and logic > Empirical results ?
We were right, Mr. Ignatieff was wrong. He, and people like him, need to admit that before they should ever be taken seriously again. He got halfway there with this piece. Mr Cohen has been wrong to ignore the first question of the debate: do we (the USA) even have the right?

Very nice comment by Dan Kervick, who presents my view perfectly. There is,however, no evidence whatever that an empire generated by any other culture might behave otherwise.

You mention that the administration called anti-war people traitors and cowards. What you are missing is the unwillingness of non-administration war-supporters, those who hold themselves out as serious foreign policy experts, even to engage the arguments of those of us who recognized that it would be a disaster. The huge numbers who took to the streets were ignored. The arguments of dissenters had no play in the press. Instead, all of the people who were right were simply dismissed with sneering hand-waving by the Friedmans of the world.

If you hold yourself out as an intellectual, a person who has studied an issue and purports to know enough to lead, you have to be willing to engage those who disagree with you in public and with argument. Friedman and Ignatieff were so sure of themselves that they didn't even bother to deal honestly with contra argument. They may not be bad people, but they are bad public intellectuals, worthy of being ignored, along with Wolfowitz, Feith, and the rest of the warmongers.

The problem you still fail to understand is that they weren't wrong because the NBC weapons weren't there.

This was simply an intellectual exercise for them. They thought up a theory and thought it would be ok to use real peoples' lives to test it.

And they did so while self-righteously denigrating their critics without listening to their counsel at all.

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