I found Michael Ignatieff’s reflective essay on getting things wrong about Iraq to be somehow pleasantly soothing. 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.
This is all true, more or less, but I think that there’s still something important to Ignatieff’s argument (which if it were properly articulated, would be more about public intellectuals than about academics as such). There was a section section of the left intelligentsia that supported the invasion of Iraq, which included people like Ignatieff himself, Paul Berman and George Packer. Their support for the war isn’t explained either by the institutional structures of the DC think tank world (which they weren’t members of), or by the incentive system governing the DC punditocracy (which they had only a tenuous relationship to – their own sphere of operations being the New York Review of Books and similar publications). I think that this small group’s support for the war is explained by two linked factors. First – a tendency to view the debate over invading Iraq in the light of previous debates over Afghanistan and Kosovo, where they felt they had been on the right side. Second – a willingness to pronounce on the merits of specific policies on the basis of very broad and abstract ideas about the virtues of promoting democracy, by force or otherwise. Both involve a willingness to treat the implementation of ideas in the real world as a subsidiary artifact of debates among intellectuals. This is what Ignatieff is pointing towards, and even if his article is both otiose and weird on some of the specifics, I think that his self-diagnosis is broadly correct.
When the intellectual history of the lead-up to the Iraq war is written, I suspect it will have to disentangle at least four different causal chains to understand why so many public commentators supported it (or, if they failed to support it, expressed their disagreement sotto voce ). First – the use of the Iraq war and the spread of democracy by force by a particularly unscrupulous crowd of conservative public intellectuals to, as they hoped, establish Republican hegemony. This was never a secret – read Kristol and Kagan’s 1996 Towards a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy for the blueprint – an argument in which the good of the oppressed of the world and the good of the USA inevitably redound to the dominance of the Republican party.
Second – an incentive structure among political commentators which meant that it was less important to commentators’ careers to be right than to be “serious” (i.e. to fit somewhere within the limited spectrum of views that is considered acceptable by the community, not to challenge treasured shibboleths etc etc). This is where I think Dan Drezner is wrong, and Duncan Black is right. The netroots’ critique of the “foreign policy community” isn’t that foreign policy experts walk in lockstep on the wrong side of the aisle, and they should instead be walking in lockstep on the right one; it’s that there is something structural that is rotten in how this ‘community’ systematically excludes certain points of view while privileging others, even after the latter have been shown to be deeply, badly, and arguably irreparably flawed.
Third, the submission of various foreign policy experts on the liberal side to what they perceived to be the consensus, for reasons that had to do with a mixture of incentives (people who played this badly weren’t likely to get hired as advisors to future Presidential campaigns) and groupthink. Finally, the willingness of a small but influential group of left commenters to support the Iraq war, perceiving it as one more iteration of the internecine battles over intervention on the left, without ever really thinking seriously about whether or not any actually-existing war was likely to work. Matt, I think, is concentrating on the first, second and third of these, which are probably the most important ones – but the fourth had some consequences too.