Trahisons des clercs

by Henry Farrell on August 6, 2007

Matt Yglesias “takes issue”: with Michael Ignatieff’s _New York Times Magazine_ “article”: about why he screwed up on Iraq.

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.

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roger 08.06.07 at 7:50 pm

Actually, this is way too easy on the Igantieff article and his Beinhart honed excuse that the Iraqi exile community made me do it – a vile, disgusting and immoral projection of guilt that should get Ignatieff cast out of good company, but will no doubt have no effect at all.

If, in fact, the “left” interveners were moved by motives different than the ‘neo-con’ interveners, we should surely have seen a lot more worrying about the project of occupying Iraq from a leftist point of view. For instance, the ‘left’ should surely have protested putting Chalabi’s face on the democratic intervention, for the same reason one would not want to put, say, John Gotti’s face on a Red Cross blood drive. The “left” should also have been up in arms, seriously up in arms, about logistics, which is sweetly forgotten by Ignatieff. He supported the invasion in the face of Shinseki’s common sense calculation that occupying a country the size of California with a population of 27 million would take at least 400,000 troops – and in the face of Glenn Hubbard’s calculation of a 200 billion dollar cost. Of course, Hubbard was figuring on a Rumsfeld sized force, so the calculation should have shot Hubbard’s figure up times four – about 800 billion dollars.

But they didn’t even notice these questions. And that lack of notice goes to the heart of their odd notion of mercenary driven democratic interventions. What they saw in Kosovo and Afghanistan that they really, really liked is that these operations were cheap enough, and manned by a volunteer army socially isolated enough, that the bulk of the American population just wouldn’t notice. Sweet! No feedback responsibility to the population – miserable ‘politics’ – and the intellectual high of being close to centers of power. How could such a druggy combination fail to flatter the leftys? What is really comic, in a hey it is comic that I ran over your grandmother kind of way, about the Ignatieff article is that he claims, now, to be practical – and then blames a bunch of Iraqi exiles – a little tacky given the two million Iraqi exiles flooding into humanitarian Syria and Jordan, and not into democratic, freedom lovin’ Canada and the U.S., but hey – these guys are gross on every level.

The decent left – or, Satan’s Cheerleaders. One can only hope for failure on every level to dog Ignatieff’s life.


james 08.06.07 at 8:03 pm

But aren’t you missing the bottom line of Yglesias’ take – that if we had paid some attention to what the those who actually know something about Iraq were saying, this adventure might have had taken a very different turn? The whole tenor of Igantieff’s mea culpa is, “heck, yep, you got me, we wolly-headed academics can get it badly wrong all up in our ivory towers and all.” Yglesias point is that, “well, actually, the *real* academics (i.e., outside the kennedy school/think tank/punditocracy world) didn’t get it wrong.”


Matt 08.06.07 at 8:07 pm

I’d tend to be pretty dubious of anyone as well who would consider Kosovo anything more than a limited success. We stopped expected ethnic cleansing by Serbia but made possible ethnic cleansing of Serbs by Kosovars. We killed a significant number of Serb civilians. We set up a dubiously viable statelet run by a mafia group that sets a precedent that Russia seems eager to exploit in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Trans-Dniester. Obviously there were some good results, even some very good ones. But there were also enough dubious to bad results that anyone with a brain should have been very, very worried about even getting the mix of good and bad in a much harder place like Iraq. I’ve never seen any evidence that Ignatieff ever even considered this. When you add in his (tepid but real) support for torture I don’t think he ought to get off the hook very easily.


Daniel Nexon 08.06.07 at 8:40 pm

“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.”


3. It is quite possible that the bombing campaign also triggered a last-ditch ethnic cleansing campaign worse than the “slow moving genocide” feared by the Clinton administration. But, regardless, the problems of Kosovo–we still can’t really leave–should have given pause to those who thought Iraq would be easy.


Backword Dave 08.06.07 at 8:45 pm

I learned two very important things from Prog Ignatieff. One, boy oh boy, he sure can jazz up a dull essay just by dipping into the bumper book of quotations. Harold Macmillan, Edmund Burke, Macchiavelli. Golly gee, what an egghead! Two, Samuel Beckett was writing about about politics in the trilogy, and I thought it was all about depression.


Russell L. Carter 08.06.07 at 8:54 pm

I think Matt provides a good template for the sort of analysis that wasn’t provided in the runup to the war. Every pro-war argument I read (not listened to, read) was heavy on the for and light-to-empty on the against and that’s not how you analyze a war of choice. At the very least you can run a cost-benefit analysis–are the expected outcomes worth the amount of resources we’re going to invest? Suppose everything turns out passably well. When dispassionately judged against the opportunities lost to invest in other techniques of accomplishing our goals, is it still a good idea? No analysis of this sort was visible in the public debate. And people who failed to notice the lack of these basic analysis techniques are not to be trusted. It seems to me that the analysts who got it right, weren’t doing anything magical, or just lucky, they were applying these basic analysis techniques.
Ultimately, I think that the anti-intellectual tendencies of the modern Republican Party are in part to blame, it’s easy to come up with morning in america abstractions that appeal to the gut and seem sensible enough… spreading democracy taking out tyrants, who’s against that? “Leftists” who applied the easy techniques as taught to them by the Republicans got burned by reality.

Can we stop calling them intellectuals now?

Finally, I think d^2’s classic post about trusting known liars completely handles the “politics is about judgement, not analysis” crap that’s floating around now.


Kieran Healy 08.06.07 at 8:55 pm

even after the latter have been shown to be deeply, badly, and arguably irreparably flawed.

Yeah, Dan’s defense on this point was extremely weak:

[But they were right about Iraq!!–ed. Kudos to them, but I’m afraid that this merely deepens my skepticism. Beware of foreign policy hedgehogs — particularly those seeking ideological conformity within their ranks.]

Presumably if the outsiders had been wrong on Iraq this would have deepened Dan’s skepticism as well. But the guys who were wrong are still inside the tent, and this doesn’t seem to be a problem for him.


engels 08.06.07 at 9:12 pm

How many pathetic Decent canards can you fit into a mini? “I was wrong, but so were some of the ‘No Blood for Oil’ people – nyah!”, “The Iraqis made me do it!”…

And the kernel of Ignatieff’s supposed mea culpa

The lesson I draw for the future is to be less influenced by the passions of people I admire — Iraqi exiles, for example — and to be less swayed by my emotions.

is surely the kind of pseudo-self-criticism which would make any job interviewer squirm.

I think Ignatieff’s article provides pretty damning evidence that he is incapable of learning from his mistakes.


ejh 08.06.07 at 9:18 pm

Wouldn’t the actual lesson be that people who reckon they’re Great Thinkers usually aren’t that Great at Thinking?


engels 08.06.07 at 9:29 pm

The actual lesson is: don’t model your writing style on Isaiah Berlin, you will just come off sounding like a pompous ass.


Barry 08.06.07 at 9:42 pm

Kieran: “Yeah, Dan’s defense on this point was extremely weak:”

Dan: “[But they were right about Iraq!!—ed. Kudos to them, but I’m afraid that this merely deepens my skepticism. Beware of foreign policy hedgehogs—particularly those seeking ideological conformity within their ranks.]”

Kieran: “Presumably if the outsiders had been wrong on Iraq this would have deepened Dan’s skepticism as well. But the guys who were wrong are still inside the tent, and this doesn’t seem to be a problem for him.”

You can take the boy out of Chicago, but you can’t take Chicago out of the boy.

Dan’s giving an excellent data point, himself, about the conformity and cowardice of these people. Even after things broke down so hideously that his last shreds of honesty forced him to acknowledge it, he’s still doesn’t want to acknowledge the sources, if blaming the wrong people will help politically.

He’s also a data point in favor of the hypothesis that a large chunk of Poli. Sci. consists of academics who really should have been something else, but who weren’t good enough. Dan obviously wants to be a Chicago-school economist, in all of the ways that that implies (i.e., superficially in favor of freedom, but rather comfortable with Empire).


David 08.06.07 at 10:03 pm

I hate to see the NYRB tarred, even by association, with the stupidities of Berman and Ignatieff, et al. It is one of the few true venues for the public intellectual to carry on a discourse outside of academia. And face it, a lot of academic discourse within the confines of academia is just so much obfuscating hot air. I seem to recall the NYRB was and is pretty much opposed to the dreary debacle that is the Bush administration and its splendid little war.


James 08.06.07 at 10:19 pm

How are you defining correct? Pro-invasion advocates where correct about the ability to take over the country, while anti-invasion advocates where correct about the chaos trying to maintain control afterwards. The academic left was completely wrong about the initial stages of the war up through the period of conquering the country. They have become more accurate concerning the present state of things. It is hard to believe that either side had any reasonable knowledge concerning the outcome. The more likely answer is each side claimed events that supported their individual views on going to war.


Kieran Healy 08.06.07 at 10:44 pm

The academic left was completely wrong about the initial stages of the war up through the period of conquering the country.

I don’t accept this characterization at all, but anyone who did would still say that the pro-invasion side was right for about fifty days, and the anti-side has been right for the subsequent five years.


Bill Phillips 08.06.07 at 10:46 pm

Ignatieff says: “Fixed principle matters. There are some goods that cannot be traded, some lines that cannot be crossed, some people who must never be betrayed.”

But then he says, a few lines further down:

“Knowing the difference between a good and a bad compromise is more important in politics than holding onto pure principle at any price.”


engels 08.06.07 at 11:00 pm

James’ line of argument seems entirely wrong-headed to me because this issue wasn’t about making “correct” predictions, it was about making the right moral decision.

There is a general rule here, which influenced most people on the left: “don’t start aggressive wars”. Now I think that if someone wishes to break this rule, he has to have knowledge that the consequences will justify doing so. So the anti-war side did not have to have “reasonable knowledge concerning the outcome”, they just had to be sufficiently sceptical of the claims of the war’s advocates–to have knowledge that the outcome would be good–to feel that breaking the general rule could not be justified.

It is not true that in the absence of reliable knowledge about the outcome of breaking a moral rule we ought to be agnostic about the decision of whether or not to break it. In such circumstances, we ought not to break the rule. So the point that the opposition may have known as little about the consequences of the war as its supporters seems to me to be rather irrelevant.


engels 08.06.07 at 11:15 pm

James, suppose you are right and you couldn’t have known the outcome of the war beforehand, then you should have opposed the war, shouldn’t you?


anon (black) philosopher 08.06.07 at 11:27 pm

#16 states most simply and elegantly the best anti-war argument regarding this case. The point seems so obvious that the war’s original critics might reasonably attribute plain foolishness or bad faith to the war’s original, “intellectual” supporters–not much room for excuses on this one.


bjk 08.06.07 at 11:41 pm

The other thing to remember is that they understood Iraq and the Middle East as the next wave of democracy after eastern Europe. It was supposed to be the “Fourth Wave of Democracy” after, I think, 1776, 1945, and the third wave of democracy, beginning in Portugal and Greece and culminating in 1989. So people like Anne Applebaum and Kristol and Shaha Riza and Wolfowitz were all applying the eastern European model to the Middle East.


engels 08.06.07 at 11:44 pm

Also, this argument (which has been repeated often enough) is an attempt to brush off issues of moral responsibility by pretending this was a question about making a correct prediction, when it was really about making the right moral decision. Those who advocated the war are complicit in the moral wrong of the invasion; pointing to the fact that some of those who opposed the war may have done so for invalid reasons does not make them guilty and it certainly does not absolve the war’s advocates of their guilt.


Scott McLemee 08.06.07 at 11:46 pm

It’s true that Ignatieff has published a fair bit in the New York Review, but not Berman (and certainly not on politics). More to the point, NYRB was never part of the pro-war camp:

In stark contrast to The New Yorker, whose editor, David Remnick, endorsed the Iraq war in a signed essay in February 2003, asserting that “a return to a hollow pursuit of containment will be the most dangerous option of all”; or The New York Times Magazine, which gave ample space to Michael Ignatieff, Bill Keller, Paul Berman, George Packer and other prowar liberal hawks, the Review opposed the Iraq war in a voice that was remarkably consistent and unified.

This from Scott Sherman’s Nation article of three years ago.


David Bracewell 08.07.07 at 12:21 am

Matt: “We stopped expected ethnic cleansing by Serbia but made possible ethnic cleansing of Serbs by Kosovars.”

My understanding has been that the NATO bombing of Serbia triggered massive ethnic cleansing and that it wasn’t a response to it.


snuh 08.07.07 at 12:29 am

from a search of their (complete) archives, it appears that berman has been published twice in the new york review (both times before the war), and that george packer never has.


roger 08.07.07 at 1:35 am

James, what a hilarious thing to write:
“Pro-invasion advocates where correct about the ability to take over the country, while anti-invasion advocates where correct about the chaos trying to maintain control afterwards.”

Paul Krugman, antiwar as you can get, on the eve of the war pointed out that the struggle between a country that spends 300 billion dollars on the military vs. one that spends a billion is pretty much what it seems like – a 300 to one shot. Myself, as active an antiwar blogger as I could be, wrote this before the wae (February 11, 2003), emphasizing the difference between fighting a nation state war and the conditions of the occupation:

“The best argument against the imperial design of the Wolfiwitzes is to appeal to the reality of this American pattern, in which the cost of an enterprise is judged rigidly against the benefit it brings. The benefit brought by regime change in Iraq is obvious — but the benefit wrought by invading and occupying Iraq is not. The landscape, as it appears to D.C. foreign policy honchos, is one of overwhelming American power. But the landscape since 9/11 has changed. Guerillas may not possess nuclear missiles, but they can forge the weapons of mass destruction out of boxcutters and American airliners. in treating Iraq as though it were merely a problem amenable to a Grant-like solution, we are putting ourselves into a situation in which all alternatives are impalatable. Assuming that 9/11, and the suicide bombers in Israel, are omens of things to come, the occupying U.S. forces in Iraq will be subject to the constant low attrition of guerilla warfare, with its morale breaking concomitants: a desire to strike blows against a dispersed enemy driving general dispersed acts of mayhem against the native population, which in turn creates mutual distrust between American forces and the native population, which in turn creates a gap between the ostensible reasons for the American presence (that they somehow ‘represent’ the aspirations of the native people) and the reality of it. Bush is edging into a situation in which the choices will be an unacceptable withdrawal from Iraq, and an unacceptable occupation of Iraq.”

I think that pretty much summed up the occupation to come. It was easy to see. The 300 to 1 odds against Iraq’s regular army would obviously reverse against an irregular army, and that has proven true to this day. In the war on “terror”, al qaeda and al quada in Iraq are spending about a buck for every 300 spent by the Americans – but this time, the odds are against the Americans. Because you can’t keep pouring away those resources and not have that noticed by the nation that is paying for it.


vivian 08.07.07 at 1:40 am

If you read anything Ignatieff wrote before he came out in favor of the war, and I did, his support for it came out of the blue. Completely took me by surprise, everything he argued in Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry, or Blood and Belonging and even in his biography of Berlin, says explicitly that (1)post-dictatorial power vacuums are almost always worse for people than the nasty dictators, (2) fixing governments from outside almost always fails for reasons we can’t fix, (3) exiles and civil war leaders are passionate, often hypocritical, often ineffective but charming – except that it’s easy enough to see through the charm when you look carefully.

I still have no idea how this guy managed to ignore all his past experience and writing around invading Iraq. How did he imagine that the status quo ante would be worse than a failed nation-building exercise? He wouldn’t need to predict just how badly the war was run, even if it were run well it would have failed – based on all Ignatieff’s experience. “Charmed by exiles” my puckered posterior.


Matt 08.07.07 at 1:46 am

David- I may well be remembering incorrectly. (I suppose I should just look it up but I won’t.) My memory is that the time-line goes something like this: 1) Serbia causes lots of trouble in Kosovo, does nasty things to Kosovars, and generally threatens another bloody ethnic battle, but doesn’t yet make decisive moves. 2) NATO threatens Serbia, who doesn’t back down. 3) NATO starts bombing Serbia and Serbian military positions. 4) During the bombing, Serbia actually starts pushing Kosovars out of Kosovo, making them refugees on a large scale in Albania, Montenegro, and Greece. 5) Serbia capitulates to NATO and pulls out its military. 6) Kosovars return to Kosovo and proceed, under the eye of NATO, to drive out the larger part of the significant Serbian population of Kosovo so as to better justify an independent Kosovo, thereby engaging in another round of ethnic cleansing, this time without our doing anything to stop it or even caring.

So, our actions did (perhaps) prevent the long-term ethnic cleansing of Kosovars by Serbs, but brought about the ethnic cleansing of Serbs by Kosovars. It’s this sort of pattern that should have really worried people who were enthusiastic about Kosovo since it should have been clear that something like this or even worse was likely in Iraq. The “decent” crowed, however, often gives the impression that Kosovo was an unmitigated success, thereby revealing the superficiality of their thinking on such things.


Henry 08.07.07 at 2:13 am

various people (including Scott) – I am not trying to suggest that the _NYRB_ was ever pro-war. Rather, I’m trying to say that Ignatieff, Berman, Packer etc weren’t cardcarrying members of the Washington establishment. Instead, their world is the world of intellectual debate that is carried on, as I describe it, in the “_New York Review of Books_ and similar publications” (nb also the similar publications bit). The point here is that they saw themselves as primarily engaged in a debate on the left, that had been carried out in various publications including most particularly the _NYRB_ over the last several years, about whether war to prevent human rights catastrophes and to spread liberal ideals of democracy etc was justified. They looked at the Iraq question through this lens, and most particularly in light of various squabbles and feuds that they had with other parts of the left. This is where I think the betrayal comes in – that they looked at the real world through the lens of these ideological battles without stopping to think about whether the real world and the real issues fit into the little intellectual universe of argument that they had constructed. It’s this that Ignatieff (however circuitously) appears to be acknowledging, and however bad the essay is in other ways, he has gone further in stating this openly than Packer, or certainly Paul Berman have been prepared to. Like Packer, he can’t resist getting in a blow at the Milosevic-fanciers, but unlike Packer, he acknowledges that there were serious critics too, and that they were right.


Joel Turnipseed 08.07.07 at 2:41 am

“Like Packer, he can’t resist getting in a blow at the Milosevic-fanciers, but unlike Packer, he acknowledges that there were serious critics too, and that they were right.”

But Henry, have you read Assassin’s Gate–or any of the many interviews Packer has done since, as, for instance, this one:

Packer is pretty clear that he was wrong, and hasn’t shied away from it.


Henry 08.07.07 at 3:05 am

Hi Joel, I have read both book and interview – see “here”: for why I didn’t find them satisfactory on this issue.


Henry 08.07.07 at 3:10 am

See also “David Glenn”: on how Packer ducks engaging with anti-war people.


Joel Turnipseed 08.07.07 at 3:32 am

Ah yes, I remember those threads–and am especially fond of the chats I had with the mysterious dr. ngo in their aftermath: a wonderful man.

Well, and I think this stands as a comment on Ignatieff and Packer: I didn’t ever buy into WMD, Saddam as a regional danger, or any other rationale for the war but one, albeit in a form so weak one would never have used it to support a pre-emptive war: that Saddam was going to go sooner or later and that when he did, it was likely to be a humanitarian disaster that dwarved anything in Lebanon or Kosovo–possibly even Rwanda and the Congo and the Sudan–and that getting our heads and hands around it early were the most likely manner to bring about a good outcome.

Now, there were obvious and early signs that this war wasn’t going to go well, even before the first shot was fired in this war (unless, like me, you believe that the NFZ amounted, in effect, to a small-scale ongoing war going all the way back to August of 1990): including Rumsfeld’s speech at Aviano AFB in Feb. 2003, the July 2002 war games in which our insurgent forces (led by Marine Gen. Paul Van Riper) beat our invading forces, the completely disgraceful performance of Colin Powell at the UN, etcetera. Hell, it wasn’t even hard to call the insurgency–six months before it began:

So, the only decent (or is it, Decent?) reason for going to war was a very weak one–and there was every reason to believe we should never have started (or escalated) this one. But… I still feel a certain amount of sympathy for Ignatieff and Packer–and certainly more sympathy than anyone here seems to be giving them. They made a very bad call, but one which, after9/11, Rwanda, Kosovo, & Afghanistan and afterIris Chang’s Rape of Nanking, Samantha Powers’ Problem from Hell, Berman’s less-authoritative, but still suggestive Terror and Liberalism and a host of other cultural and historical reasons (and I do find Packer’s narrative in Assassin’s Gate persuasive on this point) if find it a little dishonest to say more than: “You guys fucked up. You know this now, right?”


roger 08.07.07 at 3:45 am

Joel, why does what you say create any sympathy for the Packer-Ignatieff crowd? Surely from a left perspective – and I have a lot of contempt for the ‘left’, a pack of narcissistic hasbeens, but I’ll try to be civil – war is still not the best option. The best option, really, was pretty damn obvious in 2002 – for one thing, getting rid of the double sanction regime, which hamstrung American policy by pretending that Iran didn’t exist; for another thing, strengthening northern iraq, which would mean trying to develop it as something more than a warlord’s smuggler zone, with the aim of making it an attractor; and three, of course, would be seriously doing something in Afghanistan – which would take time and money – while keeping up intense pressure on Pakistan to collapse al qaeda’s core. The idea that Saddam’s death would lead to the same mess is preposterous – it sort of subtracts the American policy, the takedown of security forces, the takedown of the state run economy (which, given the amount of unemployment in Iraq, should certainly have been expanded). I suspect the arriere pensee here is that the Iraqis are savages who need to be divided into three states by the new Roman empire, the Americans. But there are few better illustrations of the real contempt many of the humanitarian NGOS have for their supposed clients than the vocabulary, the policy suggestions, and the disgusting articles launched by the decent left in 2002. I don’t think this thread has begun to plumb the depths of their moral and intellectual worthlessness.


Jim Johnson 08.07.07 at 3:47 am

The Ignatieff essay simply mis-reports the more or less total consensus among foreign poicy/security studies types in political science on the war – namely that it was a disasterous idea. It is wholly disingenuous of him to say ‘no one knew’ and ‘only ideologues oppsed the war.’ I’ve posted on this elsewhere:

On top of all that, I wouldn’t have given this essay a B had one of my undergrads turned it in. With all the name dropping and cliches I felt like I was llistening to a sports talk show on ESPN.


David 08.07.07 at 4:13 am

I don’t think that very many, if any, of those who opposed the war from the first doubted the ability of American forces to “win” the war. Hell, any poster here could have directed American forces to “win” the war (war and win being pulling off an invasion with absolutely overwhelming resources). Probably would have taken a few more weeks is all. Although few of us could have fucked up the follow-through nearly as well.


Joel Turnipseed 08.07.07 at 4:25 am

roger, I’m sure this is going to be disappointingly short, but, a few points as I head off to bed:

1) I developed quick sketch to show that, yes: these guys should have known better.

2) … but my reading before and since (as well as conversations with, eg., embedded journalists, Iraqis, and U.S. Armed Forces personnel) has tempered what used to be exceptionally strong feelings against anyone who supported this war: I can now see why someone might have lent conflicted support for it w/o being a Quisling, fraud, what have you. They may have been wrong, but they are neither worthless nor evil for having been so.


Joel Turnipseed 08.07.07 at 4:30 am

Also: please note that I didn’t think the “Saddam’s going to go sooner or later” was a strong argument–just the only plausible one.


David Bracewell 08.07.07 at 4:31 am

Matt, that accords with my understanding.


Bruce Baugh 08.07.07 at 5:50 am

Reviewing old threads is interesting. There’s this, for instance, from Soru at the end of 2005:

I’d turn that question round. As far as I can see, the future could easily hold (as a bare minimum):

1. elected Iraqi government.

2. total or near-total US troop withdrawl.

3. free-market sale of oil.

4. humanitarian situation demonstrably better then under saddam.

5. Al Qaeda regarded as having tried and failed to prevent the above.

Either say what extra goals you think would need be met to qualify as a victory, or say which of the above you regard as impossible or improbable.

Prophecy is tricky, apparently. in a technical sense we have the first. The second is explicitly off the table. The third is both impractical and illegal. The fourth recedes every day. (Even if Iraq had been responsible for the 9/11 attack, it’s hard to make a moral argument that the death of a hundred Iraqis and the displacement of three or five hundred for every World Trade Center victim is justice.) The fifth is nowhere near happening, of course.

Typical for the course, and a useful reminder.


Bruce Baugh 08.07.07 at 5:56 am

Whoops, the italics didn’t work. Everything down to “impossible or improbable.” is a quote; my comments resume with “Prophecy is tricky”.


magistra 08.07.07 at 8:18 am

Leaving aside the clear moral argument against the Iraq war, there’s also a blatantly obvious point about the timing, in the larger context of the Great War of Terror (or whatever today’s designation is). If your opponent (Al Qaida) is trying to provoke a clash of civilisations between the Muslim world and the West, is it going to help your cause to attack a country (Iraq) that has nothing to do with the terror attacks but whose inhabitants are overwhelmingly Muslims? How much of a political strategist do you need to be to see that this does not make sense? The only reason to attack Iraq as part of GWOT is that you want to attack Iraq anyhow and this gives a flimsy smokescreen.


novakant 08.07.07 at 11:35 am

There’s another group that hasn’t been mentioned, namely those on the left who have been supporting the Kurds for ages (long before anybody on the right gave a damn about them) and saw the Iraq war as the big break the Kurds have been waiting for. Some of those saw their support for the war as a one-off deal with the devil, some of them have gone over to the dark side and become neocons.


Barry 08.07.07 at 12:08 pm

Jole Turnipseed:

“Also: please note that I didn’t think the “Saddam’s going to go sooner or later” was a strong argument—just the only plausible one.”

I read this as your only plausible argument not being strong, which means that there were two categories of pro-war arguments: plausible but not strong, or strong but not plausible. Which, for going to war, is not good.


rea 08.07.07 at 2:30 pm

The academic left was completely wrong about the initial stages of the war up through the period of conquering the country.

I can’t remember a single person on the left thinking that the Iraqi army had a reasonable chance of resisting an initial American attack. The problem with the war was always going to be with what happened after American won the initial round of fighting–see Spain, 1808.


James 08.07.07 at 3:04 pm

I merely provided a fifth postulation for the reason behind various pundits’ public statements. Namely that each individual had built in and possibly complex presuppositions that defined their initial view on the correct action to take in Iraq. That these presuppositions where the defining points and not any interpretation of likely outcomes for themselves or the war. To give evidence for this position it was necessary to demonstrate how all pundits where inaccurate in large and important areas. Given that the audience on this site, it was necessary to provide a more specific area for left leaning academia.


James 08.07.07 at 3:08 pm

rea – You are correct that everyone thought the US could successfully invade Iraq. The error was in predicting that the invasion would be take a significant amount of time, huge amounts of door to door city fighting, and large amounts of US casualties. This is completely opposite to a 3 week war where the majority of US and ally causalities was due to friendly fire.


hugh 08.07.07 at 3:39 pm

I was surprised that the article was published in the New York Times. Although, the article is ostensibly about Iraq, it seems to be more of a reflection on his own transition into Canadian politics. A sign to Canadians that he is growing up and understands the political arena better. Reading it this way, makes a lot of the otiose bits make more sense. The stuff about Iraq is really just a side-show, the details are unimportant, he’s saying sorry about something that cost him the leadership of his party in the last elections. Having this essay published where it was, shows that perhaps he really hasn’t taken all the lessons he should about politics.


Bruce Baugh 08.07.07 at 3:59 pm

46: If Hussein had had the weapons, conventional and WMD, that the Bush advertising for the war said he had, then it would have been a longer invasion with much higher US casualties. It was a three-week march precisely because the administration was lying about the threat.


ed_finnerty 08.07.07 at 4:40 pm

re: number 47

Bingo – he is trying to rehabilitate his reputation in Canada. Choosing the NYRB as the location to do so is as idiotic as his support for the invasion.

Saying ‘Oops’ doesn’t really cut it when the result is a million dead Iraqi’s and a shattered country.

His reasons for supporting the invasion indicate that he is a Clevinger like figure – lot’s of brains but no intelligence.

P.S. It was a near run thing in the leadership contest for the Liberal Party in Canada. In a fit of pique Bob Rae refused to endorse Ignatief which killed his chances.


soru 08.07.07 at 8:07 pm

bruce: I think that list of 5 stands up reasonably well of things still possible as a best-case future. While the humanitarian situation looks grim, progress towards the other four shouldn’t be dismissed.

The important thing about that list is it needs to be paired with the list of things _not_ possible:

1. liberal democratic Iraqi government

2. permanent US bases usable for operations elsewhere in region.

3. favourable oil trading arrangements.

4. the discovery of some fact or statistic that would plausibly justify a claim that the number of lives lost in the war was ‘worth it’, in the aggregate.

5. all members of Al Qaeda dead or in custody.

There do seem to be a worrying number of US politicians who have decided their interests lie with failing to achieve the latter set of goals, and then using that failure as a weapon in domestic politics.


Bruce Baugh 08.08.07 at 1:17 am

Of course, permanent US bases and favorable oil trading arrangements are themselves casi belli as far as Al Qaeda and other violent Islamist movements are concerned, and grounds for wider-ranging sympathy if not support from less violently inclined Muslims.


c.l. ball 08.08.07 at 5:36 am

The Ignatieff NYT Mag piece was one of the worst he has written. As #5 said, the string of oft-quoted quotes made it seem like an undergrad of I.’s wrote the piece for him. In seemed less of a mea culpa than a self-apologia.

What I found interesting was how Hitchens and Ignatieff have a similar sympathy for the Kurds. Unlike the Washington neo-cons who were swayed by Chalabi and other Iraqi exiles, the pro-war left were captivated by the Kurdish nationalists. They seemed to have ignored rather than mis-estimated the depth of animosity between the Sunni and Shi’ite factional leadership.

A key reason why many security specialist academics (e.g., Art, Betts etc.) was not a principled opposition to the use of force but a more pragmatic belief that the problems created by an invasion would not be worth the gains. For example, “Even if we win easily, we have no plausible exit strategy. Iraq is a deeply divided society that the United States would have to occupy and police for many years to create a viable state.”

What Ignatieff fails to address in his essay is how the Iraq debacle has undermined democracy promotion writ large.


Barry 08.08.07 at 1:53 pm

“…but my reading before and since (as well as conversations with, eg., embedded journalists, Iraqis, and U.S. Armed Forces personnel) has tempered what used to be exceptionally strong feelings against anyone who supported this war: I can now see why someone might have lent conflicted support for it w/o being a Quisling, fraud, what have you. They may have been wrong, but they are neither worthless nor evil for having been so.”

Posted by Joel Turnipseed

Jole, the specifics of this article are that it’s a pack of lies and dishonesty from start to finish. He inverts the position of academics on the war almost 180 degrees. He blames academics for being not practical, etc., when this whole mess has been characterized by the administration and its supporters clinging to thinking along the lines of ‘step 2 – a miracle occurs’.

As for the general set of war supporters, we see excuses like administration incompetancy – something that was both apparently considered only years after it mattered, and only admitted years after it was laughable to pretend otherwise.

Joel, you probably know these people, which hinders your judgement about them. It’s hard to admit that people you know blew important questions, and are still not honest about them.

We are under no such contraints, and should not be.

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