The unfolding catastrophe in Iraq has condemned the political judgment of a president. But it has also condemned the judgment of many others, myself included, who as commentators supported the invasion. Many of us believed, as an Iraqi exile friend told me the night the war started, that it was the only chance the members of his generation would have to live in freedom in their own country. How distant a dream that now seems.
NAH. That just seems like the decision to get a particularly regrettable tattoo in the throes of a bad romance a couple of seasons back. What seems like a distant dream is Roosevelt's Four Freedoms, or the dewey promise of the United Nations after the most horrific conflict in human history. Strangely enough, their being co-opted by liberals who intended to "spread freedom" to all the countries they hated is still fresh in the mind, even though I wasn't yet born when the process took off.
Having left an academic post at Harvard
Did you say Harvard?
in 2005 and returned home to Canada to enter political life, I keep revisiting the Iraq debacle, trying to understand exactly how the judgments I now have to make in the political arena need to improve on the ones I used to offer from the sidelines. I’ve learned that acquiring good judgment in politics starts with knowing when to admit your mistakes.
Uncounted thousands of deaths, but Professor Ignatieff picked up a homily. So I guess it wasn't all bad.
In academic life, false ideas are merely false and useless ones can be fun to play with. In political life, false ideas can ruin the lives of millions and useless ones can waste precious resources. An intellectual’s responsibility for his ideas is to follow their consequences wherever they may lead. A politician’s responsibility is to master those consequences and prevent them from doing harm.
Well, that's Harvard for ya...you can feel the quality of the nonsense.
I’ve learned that good judgment in politics looks different from good judgment in intellectual life. Among intellectuals, judgment is about generalizing and interpreting particular facts as instances of some big idea. In politics, everything is what it is and not another thing. Specifics matter more than generalities. Theory gets in the way.
Michael Grant Ignatieff. Born May 12, 1947. Awakened from profound coma, early 21st Century.
The attribute that underpins good judgment in politicians is a sense of reality. “What is called wisdom in statesmen,” Berlin wrote, referring to figures like Roosevelt and Churchill, “is understanding rather than knowledge — some kind of acquaintance with relevant facts of such a kind that it enables those who have it to tell what fits with what; what can be done in given circumstances and what cannot, what means will work in what situations and how far, without necessarily being able to explain how they know this or even what they know.” Politicians cannot afford to cocoon themselves in the inner world of their own imaginings.
Y'know, simple mathematics suggests there's a battalion of lesser politicians for whom that description is an even worse fit that it is for Churchill, but I don't know why you'd bother compiling it. I guess Churchill the theoretical construct is a lot more valuable than Churchill, the sainted war leader who was wrong about practically everything else in his political life, and usually at the service of his own imaginings.
Did you say Harvard?
As a former denizen of Harvard,
I’ve had to learn that a sense of reality doesn’t always flourish in elite institutions. It is the street virtue par excellence. Bus drivers can display a shrewder grasp of what’s what than Nobel Prize winners.
Good Lord. Talk about your ivory towers. It's cab drivers, Doc. That way they can write your column for you. You're not allowed to talk to the bus driver.
The only way any of us can improve our grasp of reality is to confront the world every day and learn, mostly from our mistakes, what works and what doesn’t.
What're you, climbing back down the academic ladder now, Doc? Let us know when you make it to kindergarten. I understand that's where the real learning takes place. In the meantime, there's something somewhere about learning from history. I'll look it up and get back to ya.
Yet even lengthy experience can fail us in life and in politics. Experience can imprison decision-makers in worn-out solutions while blinding them to the untried remedy that does the trick.
No. Please. You've done enough already. Do not encourage the search for untried remedies that miraculously solve the disasters we've created listening to your earlier suggestions.
Having taught political science myself,Really? Where?
I have to say the discipline promises more than it can deliver.
As I recall it, I picked up this little tidbit about twenty minutes into my first Poly Sci 101 lecture. Maybe it's time to take the world out of the hands of the terminally credulous and let the spitball-throwers in the back--the ones who felt that smokin' a doob and layin' a little pipe was at least equally important in the grand scheme of things--take over. They can't do much worse. And then you could, y'know, go find yourself somewhere. Somewhere farther away than Canada.
A sense of reality is not just a sense of the world as it is, but as it might be. Like great artists, great politicians see possibilities others cannot and then seek to turn them into realities.
Well, for one thing, yuck, and for another, we continue to learn from the work of great artists while we continue to view them as flawed human beings, a goodly number of whom we would not allow to babysit, let alone start wars. We seek to understand not just the work but how it came into being. There's not a whole lot of time in the Arts for knob-polishing some dead guys in order to turn your present inventory over a little faster. That is left to the political scientists. In politics it is permissible, even encouraged, to say something like, "George Bush is standing up to terrorists," or to compare him with that gold-painted bust of Churchill you admire so. In the Arts one lets out with a "Patricia Cornwall is the new Tolstoy" at peril of one's career. Unless one is happy to remain in public relations or has a Salon column.
To bring the new into being, a politician needs a sense of timing, of when to leap and when to remain still. Bismarck famously remarked that political judgment was the ability to hear, before anyone else, the distant hoofbeats of the horse of history.
We have now roared past the 800 word mark, and we're discussing cavalry tactics. I could swear the title said something about Iraq. Will all of this be on the quiz? Is this going on much longer? Some of us would like to experience a little more of life while we're still able.
Improvisation may not stave off failure.
The game usually ends in tears. Political careers often end badly because politicians live the human situation: making choices among competing goods with only ordinary instincts and fallible information to go by. Of course, better information and factual criteria for decision-making can reduce the margin of uncertainty. 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.
Nine-hundred and fourteen.
Okay, I apologize. I'd read all the way to the end before I did that, and it was cruel to subject you to such a chunk of--I'm not kidding--the first third. I suspect that you might be treated elsewhere to a couple of pull quotes about Iraq, namely:
[M]any 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 the oil or because they believed America is always and in every situation wrong.
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.
without a full appreciation that the payoff of Dr. Ignatieff's 2500 words, a stunning professorial version of "sure they were right and I was wrong, but I saw one of them compare Bush to Hitler", was preceded by four pages of gibberish, but not one word explaining why he put his Liberal Academic imprimatur on torture in 2004, long after the worst America-hating Leftist could back his knee-jerk opposition with plain evidence. We've suggested before that it was time for a new version of Godwin's law for this, but the difficulty is that anyone playing the You Lefties Made A Lucky Guess card already lost the game four years ago and still doesn't realize someone turned out the lights.
So again, Professor, since you appear to be the last man in the Americas to hear the response: there were plenty of voices cautioning against the rashness and the insane presumptions and the interminal commitment of the Iraq Adventure who did manage to observe the proper rites while addressing their superiors in the Bush administration and its academic enablers. They were ignored, too. And even granting you pardon for your emotional attachment to the pre-post-Sadam Iraqis and its horrific results--and we don't--we have to ask how a political science specialist, a professor of international stature, could, to chose just one example, have slept through 150 years of US-Latin American relations. Or how the editors of the Times Magazine could imagine the rest of us had slept through the last four years.