THE BLOG
08/06/2007 11:05 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Michael Ignatieff "Getting Iraq Wrong"

In yesterday's New York Times Magazine, Michael Ignatieff, the former Harvard professor and Canadian politician, offers his long-awaited assessment of the invasion of Iraq, which he had previously heralded as the glorious beginning of a new American imperial order. After fluttering around for eight paragraphs with intellectual ornaments to obfuscate the fact that he is not going to admit he was wrong, Ignatieff finally gets around to mentioning Iraq: "Benchmarks for progress in Iraq can help to decide how long America should stay there. But in the end, no one knows -- because no one can know -- what exactly America can still do to create stability in Iraq." Here Ignatieff sounds a lot like Donald Rumsfeld's "known unknowns," and, like Rumsfeld, he obscures the only realistic option left for the United States, which is to get out of Iraq now and end the occupation. "In the case of Iraq," Ignatieff writes, "deciding what course of action to pursue next requires first admitting that all courses of action thus far have failed." But he is careful to exclude the invasion of Iraq itself as a course that has "failed," purposely leaving that crucial point ambiguous. Ignatieff continues: "The costs of staying will be borne by Americans, while the cost of leaving will be mostly borne by Iraqis." Here he is dead wrong: the Iraqi people have borne and will continue to bear the catastrophic human costs of both the American invasion and the occupation of their country. The United States military assault unleashed a sectarian bloodbath, and crippled the society it will leave in its wake. Bush never asked the American people to sacrifice a thing for this war. This notion is just another argument for staying the course in Iraq, and Ignatieff knows this. Pathetically, Ignatieff tries to play on the human sympathies of his readers: "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." But he doesn't explain why he didn't bother to read about the Reagan Administration's support for Saddam throughout the 1980s. He must know that the U.S. lavished on the Iraqi dictator generous agricultural credits, precursors for chemical weapons, and even satellite intelligence data, as well as vetoed U.N. resolutions condemning Iraq's September 1980 invasion of Iran. Who can ever forget the grainy video image of the young and virile Rumsfeld warmly shaking hands with the Butcher of Baghdad? Why did Ignatieff willfully choose to ignore this sordid history that calls into question the pristine motives of the United States? Or is it acceptable practice for an Empire to prop up and then dispose of brutal dictators as fiat or self-interest demands? But the assertion in this article that made me the angriest is this: "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 oil or because they believed America is always and in every situation wrong." This statement is a political attack on those who, unlike Ignatieff, got it right from the start. He's the one who waxed eloquent about the glories of American imperialism and American power; he's the one who ignored international law and world opinion to further abstract notions of American hegemony and preventive war; he's the one who was a cheerleader for "shock and awe" knowing that innocent people were going to die; and he's the one who promulgated an exaggerated sense of American innocence as he still does in this wretched piece. Ignatieff is unrepentant. On January 5, 2003, Ignatieff wrote an extremely influential piece for The New York Times Magazine, entitled "The Burden." Like the "journalistic" work of Judith Miller and Michael Gordon, Ignatieff's piece was perfectly timed to have the maximum effect on public opinion in the weeks prior to the invasion of Iraq. It provided yet another voice in the chorus calling for the military attack when the Bush Administration was in full swing ginning up the case for war. In January 2003, Ignatieff wrote:

Regime change is an imperial task par excellence, since it assumes that the empire's interest has a right to trump the sovereignty of a state. . . . The question, then, is not whether America is too powerful but whether it is powerful enough. . . . The case for empire is that it has become, in a place like Iraq, the last hope for democracy and stability alike.

Ignatieff went on:

America's empire is not like empires of times past, built on colonies, conquest and the white man's burden. We are no longer in the era of the United Fruit Company, when American corporations needed the Marines to secure their investments overseas. The twenty-first century imperium is a new invention in the annals of political science, an empire lite, a global hegemony whose grace notes are free markets, human rights, and democracy.

The historian Howard Zinn correctly pointed out that "only someone blind to the history of the United States . . . could make that statement." In yesterday's piece, Ignatieff's blindness to history continues when he writes that those who opposed the war "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." This assertion is patently untrue. Hans Blix, Mohammed ElBaradai, Scott Ritter, Ray McGovern, David Albright, Robert Baer, Joseph Wilson, and many others all knew the Bush Administration was cooking the intelligence and rushing the country to war; dozens of people resigned from the CIA and the State Department in protest prior to the invasion; over 14 million peace protesters demonstrated worldwide on February 15, 2003; the U.N. rejected a resolution authorizing the use of force; and the Arab League, the Islamic Conference, Germany, Russia, France, China, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the Organization of American States, and the Organization of African Unity, all opposed the invasion. Ignatieff here is repeating the Bush-Cheney lie; the mantra that "we all got it wrong," therefore "we" are all blameless. It is just a device to deflect accountability for the disaster. A person with Ignatieff's intellectual gifts knows he is deliberately making a bogus argument to shield himself from responsibility. That doesn't sound like a mea culpa to me.