Michael Ignatieff’s piece in the NY Times magazine this weekend made for an interesting read. I really agree with a lot of the points made by Henry at Crooked Timber.
It’s an interesting piece in its own right, with some valid observations about the particular ways that certain kinds of intellectuals and scholars (a much narrower group than Ignatieff describes, however) tend to get mugged by reality. This is one reason that I strongly prefer the kind of historical and ethnographic scholarship that is descriptive rather than work that is trying to come up with comprehensive explanations or models. Model-makers and theorists are easily deceived about the messiness of real life. That’s fine when they’re confined to making models, and not so fine when they escape out of their theoretical clean-rooms and try to influence how policies get made.
A lot of Ignatieff’s critics accuse him of inflating the importance of people like himself, or of conflating his own errors with far more serious kinds of malevolence coming from other political and intellectual directions.
When I run down the list of prominent pro-war constituencies both inside and outside the government in the last six years. I would say that Ignatieff’s group of liberal hawks were more important in framing discussions among liberals and leftists than they were in affecting policymakers planning the war. This is where I particularly see it the way Henry does. From the perspective of Dick Cheney, or even of neoconservative intellectuals and policy wonks close to the Administration, people like Berman, Ignatieff and Packer were tools, not peers. This has a lot to do with the phenomenon of the liberal hawk who suddenly discovers that he is also anti-abortion, indifferent to torture and wiretaps if they’re carried out by the United States, strangely convinced by creationism, opposed to strong enforcement of occupational health standards, and so on. A lot of these guys took a position on the Iraq war that seemed to them to be a reasonable extension of a reasonable criticism of left defenses of sovereignty (a criticism that I’ve supported myself) but as long as they were taking that position, they expected their knockings on the door of American executive power to be answered with a friendly howdy-do neighbor and a welcome inside for tea. When the door to power didn’t open that way, some of these folks started adding all the other trappings and bangles of conservatism to try and get inside–maybe in a few cases (like Packer) hoping for that welcome to be extended while there was still time in their view to professionalize or smarten up the occupation.
I think Henry’s run-down of the relation of liberal hawk proponents of the Iraq war to other war proponents is pretty much correct.
There was one opportunist group for whom this was merely an opportunity to further their goals for long-term conservative hegemony over most policy-making feeder-streams and over as much of the public sphere as they could claim for their own. The war was an occasion, not a goal in and of itself. I wonder a bit if history is going to show that the war was actually their fatal overreach, that they’d been cautiously pushing forward through middle-American moral theatrics and small-beer post-Cold War foreign policy questions. I keep thinking that Karl Rove must have had some sleepless nights when true believers in invading Iraq commandeered executive power for their objectives.
There was another group of intellectuals and policy wonks who shared the liberal hawks’ fervent distaste for realpolitik and their belief in the forcible spread of liberalism but who came to that view from a very different intellectual trajectory–Wolfowitz, etcetera. Where the liberal hawks were outside of power looking in, these guys were much more like the New Frontier guys who planned Vietnam, full of themselves, feeling that this was at last their moment to carry out a grand geopolitical experiment and demonstrate that they had been right all along about how the world worked.
Cheney and the people closest to him seem to me to be yet another constituency with a different theory of power. I keep thinking of them as realpolitik types of a different flavor than Kissinger: brutalists whose theory of the Iraq war (and domestic politics) was more or less the same theory that a mobster applies when he sends an enforcer out to theatrically break a few debtor kneecaps. I don’t think many of them really cared much about whether Iraq ended up a liberal democracy. The war was about sending a message to future clients and potential enemies.
There was yet another group of writers, intellectuals and so on out there, many of them younger men for whom the war was a chance to participate vicariously in a particular kind of masculine spectacle, to demonstrate their affection for the professionalized military culture of post-Vietnam War America. I kind of understand what’s going on with this bunch. The post-Vietnam War military is an institution that a lot of American liberal-left elites are very distant from, but there are some genuinely attractive things about its culture. Before the Iraq war, I was really struck in my occasional conversations with military people at their attractive fusion of blunt honesty, egalitarian meritocracy, and aspirations to efficient managerialism. A lot of that turns out to be a kind of bluff when you take even a modestly harder look: how honorable have our generals and officers been in their political behavior within and outside their services in the last six years? How consistently meritocratic have these institutions really been? Efficiency? Uh, no. But there’s some real there, too–as higher education, for example, has drifted from some of its egalitarian commitments, the volunteer military has tried pretty hard to preserve a system where talent and commitment have a consistent payoff. It isn’t just this culture that explains this particular kind of fronting for the war, though: it’s also a kind of boys-own masculine theater, the keyboard commandoes and journalistic tough-guys sniffing around for an invitation into the Sekrit Clubhouse, a vicarious desire to prove their own manhood by prose genuflections to the guys on the battlefield. Some of the people who’ve fallen into this trap don’t seem to me to have the ideological and intellectual histories that led other people to put common sense into their safety deposit box. Any war anywhere would have been good enough, as long as it wasn’t a five-second scrub conflict like Grenada.
Another group who I think is fairly amorphous, distributed across a variety of ideological and intellectual commitments and backgrounds, are Huntington-style clash-of-civilization folks, genuine New Crusaders who aren’t out to prove that liberalism can flourish globally, but are largely instead spoiling for a sustained war with racial or cultural Others out of a neo-Spenglerian fear that the West is weak, hedonistic, self-indulgent, and has to be called to the frontiers to fend off the barbarians.
So what Ignatieff says is of interest, but it’s a narrow kind of interest. Matt Yglesias, quoted by Henry at Crooked Timber, is right that the liberal intellectuals who got caught up in supporting the Iraq war weren’t area specialists (with a smattering of exceptions) but instead generalist theorists. Area specialists have their own kinds of blind spots that are quite different. They tend to have a very hard time imagining or predicting major changes to the status quo in their region or countries of specialization, for example, and also have a tendency to protect access to their investment in area specialization by foregoing certain kinds of critique. Some of the commenters at Crooked Timber are also right that Ignatieff doesn’t exactly make a clean breast of it: he’s quick to blame others for tricking him or to imply that somehow everyone who resembles him intellectually is equally culpable of the same overall errors. Ok, so Kanan Makiya was a good guy and they all liked him, fine. But come on, the intellectual failures here are not his fault: they’re squarely on Ignatieff and Packer and so on. Those are the guys who didn’t trouble to read a bit more about Iraq or to think a bit harder about whether liberalism-by-occupation had any historical plausibility to it at all or to worry a bit about whether the Gang that Couldn’t Shoot Straight in the White House had even the least chance of pulling this all off.
Ignatieff also doesn’t seem to grasp that there’s a (large) group of liberal intellectuals who shared some of the same frustrations with past political experiences, had some of the same theoretical and empirical toolkit, had a generalist sensibility, and yet came to a completely opposite (and totally valid) skeptical conclusion about this war in specific and voluntary wars intended to spread liberalism in general. There were a lot of people with an idealistic commitment to liberalism but a realistic understanding of its historical underpinnings. Ignatieff tries to expand the circle of his specific failures to a larger group than he’s entitled to.
I don’t really think Ignatieff comes clean on the rhetorical and institutional shamelessness of a lot of war supporters in the run-up to the war, something that I still see in a lot of the so-called “decents”, even those who have recanted their specific advocacy of the war (some with the “competency” dodge, believing the war winnable in the abstract but lost on the specific policy failures of the Bush Administration). Ignatieff recognizes that principle matters, but he doesn’t seem to grasp that process matters too, that the process of public debate over going to war, the gravest decision a democratic society can make, was badly malformed by propaganda, chest-thumping, and manipulation. Every single proponent of the war should have forced themselves repeatedly to intellectually rehearse and evaluate the arguments against the war, and every single process of deliberation about war should have been at pains to respectfully include arguments against as well as arguments for. Ignatieff says he was carried away by his emotional desire to believe that things could turn out well in Iraq, but it’s more than that. His specific intellectual peer group was also carried away by their sense of exultant victory over long-time institutional and political adversaries within their own narrow worlds and so misperceived every critical or dissenting voice around them as the equivalent of George Galloway.