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Michael Ignatieff’s mea culpa

Noted human-rights-professor-turned-politician Michael Ignatieff’s article about why he was wrong to think invading Iraq was a good idea — summary: I was wrong because I am too warm-hearted; and “many of” the people who were right were right for the wrong reasons, so nyer — is already receiving well-deserved kickings elsewhere. I thought I would merely add my drop of contumely by citing the following passage:

The people who truly showed good judgment on Iraq predicted the consequences that actually ensued but also rightly evaluated the motives that led to the action. 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.

Evidently Ignatieff is appealing to some hitherto unsuspected value of “everyone”. Everyone, he claims, lacked knowledge of “Iraq’s fissured sectarian history”. That’s an “everyone” that excludes, for a start, the British Foreign Office and the US Department of State (who did not exactly lack knowledge of Iraq’s fissured sectarian history but laboured to point it out their masters), as well as academic or even casual students of Middle Eastern history. Everyone, it seems, also believed the “faulty intelligence”, though there were in fact plenty who were sceptical of it when it was first presented. (That the intelligence as a whole, rather than the cherry-picking and false presentation of it by leaders, was “faulty”, that there was an “intelligence failure”, is itself a convenient Unspeak meme.) Once you have removed all those people from your accounting of “everyone”, who is left? Apparently, a bunch of credulous ignoramuses. Is it really Ignatieff’s intention to plead that he is a credulous ignoramus? Perhaps he has calculated that such a pose will better appeal to his constituents. Let us wish him luck with such a subtle political strategy.

  1. 1  Alex Higgins  August 7, 2007, 11:20 pm 


    This is the first time that I have been personally unspoken. At least I’m very far from being alone… Actually, all of us “not everyones” make pretty good company.

  2. 2  Steven  August 7, 2007, 11:45 pm 

    This is the first time that I have been personally unspoken.

    I hadn’t thought of it like that, but you’re right. The bastard!

    There’s another facet of this “everyone”, too, which is its childish quality. As when a small boy who wants the latest antigravity trainers or whatever pleads: “But mum, everyone’s wearing them!” Or, maybe a closer analogy, when caught out in some mischief by the headmaster: “But sir, everyone was doing it!”

  3. 3  Workshy Fop  August 8, 2007, 9:14 am 

    So, the people who opposed the war were wrong, because they didn’t have the right intellegence, and the people who were in favour of the war were wrong because the right intellegence turned out to be the wrong intellegence? Nurse!

  4. 4  guano  August 8, 2007, 11:31 am 

    Even if it were true that “everyone laboured with the same faulty intelligence and lack of knowledge” at least some of use realised that there were things that we didn’t know. When we were bombarded with dubious assertions and dodgy logic in late 2002, we asked questions; and when we didn’t get straight answers we opposed the Iraq adventure because it was morally dubious and risky in practice. Ignatieff seems to forget that an intellectual is supposed to ask questions and to be sceptical until he/she gets clear answers.

    Comment no. 16 on the Crooked Timber thread (by someone called Engels) makes a very good point: ignorance is no excuse when you are breaking the moral rule of not being the aggressor.

  5. 5  judith weingarten  August 8, 2007, 1:46 pm 

    I was in the Middle East at the time and, believe me, everyone was telling the Americans not to do it.


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  6. 6  richard  August 8, 2007, 3:31 pm 

    But wasn’t the nation state of Iraq deliberately put together (by the F.O.) out of mutually hostile elements as a bit of Furnivallian Empire-craft (under the working title of British Mandate of Mesopotamia)? I thought everyone knew that.

    As for wishing to appear a credulous ignoramus; well, it’s worked so well for so many politicians over the years. Somehow it wins elections, and it’s the most popular defence used by Bush cabinet folks when the get caught breaking the law. Sometimes I allow myself to hope that it’s been overused these past 7 years and will eventually pass out of fashion, in which case Ignatieff may just be late to the party. Eventually we must hit diminishing returns on dimness: the US political space is now so dumbed down that it’s becoming easier to appear more informed and competent than the other guy than to outdo him in idiocy.

  7. 7  ozma  August 8, 2007, 5:58 pm 

    But he IS a credulous ignoramus. Perhaps on some level, he realizes this.

    Or maybe it is is not credulousness that led him astray but interestedness.

    He has a systematic view that’s been blown to bits. The people who opposed the war are critics of this systematic view–will he give it up now, I wonder? Will any of them?

    I think MI also shows how scared prominent American academics are of embracing views on the left. Disassociating themselves from the left is how they got where they are, even when they always knew better. A critique of the war in 2003 required one to go there (just a little bit–of course, there was a realist critique available but it also has suspect overtones). Hard to overcome a lifetime of career-defending instinct.

    Of course, NEWSWEEK MAGAZINE had it right on the war. So you didn’t have to be on the left. I think it was more an unconscious fear some of them have of being tarred with that brush.

  8. 8  Steven  August 9, 2007, 12:11 am 

    David Rees’s response to Ignatieff is completely glorious.

  9. 9  Andrew Kenneally  August 17, 2007, 11:27 am 

    The sickening inclusive sweep of “everyone”. For example- “Deep art is of course all well & good but everyone enjoys sinking down & watching Friends, etc.” Or “We all are fascinated with the goings on of celebrities”, etc… How disappointing to in the manner of Catch 22 to be not part of this everyone & thus sent into the oblivion of non-existence.

  10. 10  ejh  August 18, 2007, 10:43 pm 

    Or, maybe a closer analogy, when caught out in some mischief by the headmaster: “But sir, everyone was doing it!”

    Well, this is always the defence when some extremely rich crook is finally exposed: the associates, accountants and gofers (who, one might have thought, are paid a great deal of money precisely because they’re supposed to know what’s going on) all plead that “sir, everybody else said they were all right and I just too their word for it”.

    See for instance “Maxwell, Robert” or “Archer, Jeffrey” or any number of others.

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