Monday, August 06, 2007

A Mesopotamian Conversion

Like Paul, two thousand years ago, Michael Ignatieff -- former Harvard professor and presently the Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada -- has had his own experience on the road to Damascus -- or, more precisely, on the road to Baghdad.

In an article in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine, Ignatieff writes about visiting northern Iraq in 1992. "I saw what Saddam Hussein had done to the Kurds," he writes. "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 the Kurds, Sunnis and Shites hold together in peace what Saddam Hussein held together in 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 self justification through cross examination and argument."

The people who understood what would happen in Iraq, says Ignatieff, asked the hard questions; and they did not "take wishes for reality." They were not foolish enough to assume that "because they believed in the integrity of their own motives, everyone else in the region would believe it too. They didn't suppose that a free state could arrive 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."

In the end, writes Ignatieff, "Good judgment in politics, it turns out, depends on being a critical judge of yourself. It was not merely that the president did not take the care to understand Iraq. He also did not take care to understand himself. The sense of reality which might have saved him from catastrophe would have taken the form of some warning bell sounding inside, alerting him that he did not know what he was doing. But then it is doubtful that warning bells have sounded in him before. He has led a charmed life, and in charmed lives, warning bells do not sound."

Mr. Ignatieff is something of an expert on the subject of leading a charmed life. Descended from Russian nobility on his father's side, and a descendant of the Grants -- part of Canada's old line aristocracy on his mother's side -- he is no stranger to privilege. He knows how privilege can help one develop a tin ear. Like Mr. Bush, the warning bell did not sound inside Mr. Ignatieff.

The warning bell did not sound inside another scion of privilege, John Kennedy, when he launched his failed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. But he was soon forced to confront the fiasco which his lack of judgment had spawned. Allowing that "success has a thousand fathers, but failure is an orphan," Kennedy acknowledged his failure and accepted responsibility for it. Naturally, the man who had been elected by the thinnest of margins, was the target of fierce and bitter criticism. But his response to the Bay of Pigs was, in Kennedy's own phrase, a profile in courage. More importantly, the lessons he learned from that acknowledged failure shaped his response to the Cuban Missile Crisis a year and a half later; and it motivated his work to achieve the first nuclear test ban treaty between the United States and Russia.

Mr. Ignatieff's recent admission and analysis of how and why he got the preemptive strike against Iraq wrong is a similar act of courage. That kind of self criticism is the first step in setting things right.


Dirk Hanson said...

Thanks for the nice piece on Michael Ignatieff, a very accomplished writer of fiction and non-fiction. I didn't know he was the Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. Shows how well we Americans manage not to follow Canadian politics, I am embarrassed to say.

Gaianicity said...

Kennedy learned from the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Ignatieff learned. Unfortunately learning, or perhaps a lack of consistency,is often interpreted as weakness by people who have stopped learning, have denied the very need to continue learning, and politically, find learning unacceptable and subversive.

Our politics is often based on simplified messages, repeated endlessly--'staying on message'.

The media is often quick to label individual changes in position and beliefs as hypocrisy and opportunism or, at the very least, weakness. At heart, the media rarely acknowledges individual growth and distrusts it.
The odd result is that true intellectual pygmies--Stephen Harper and Mike Harris come to mind--are often portrayed as 'intelligent' when, in fact, they are merely clever and facile.