Bombs were already falling over Baghdad as Michael G. Ignatieff and Kanan Makiya sat having drinks in a Cambridge restaurant. It was March 19, 2003. The ultimatum President George W. Bush had given Saddam Hussein—leave Iraq or we invade—had just expired. The mood of the two friends was somber.
Both men were humanitarians who had become prominent advocates of war in Iraq. That evening, they had participated in a panel discussion at Harvard’s Institute of Politics on “War in Iraq: An Advance or Setback to Middle East Peace?”
Both had argued for the invasion on idealistic grounds. After the panel, at the Brattle Street restaurant Casablanca, the human cost of the war was very much on their minds, Ignatieff said.
But Ignatieff remembers Makiya, an Iraqi expatriate, saying, “Look, this is the first and only chance in my lifetime for my people to create a decent society.”
“At the time,” Ignatieff said in a recent interview, “I thought the price was worth it.”
Ignatieff has described this conversation with Makiya, who appears only as a nameless Iraqi expatriate, in two separate New York Times Magazine articles about his own position on the war.
It is a memory he keeps returning to, as if by describing his impression of Makiya’s idealism he can finally explain his own.
Ignatieff made a splash in early 2003 by coming out as a liberal supporter of the war. He wasn’t the only prominent pro-war intellectual at Harvard, but he stood out among those like Harvard Kennedy School professor Ashton B. Carter and neo-conservative Government professor Stephen P. Rosen ’74, who pushed for war on the basis of American interests abroad.
Ignatieff began to reevaluate his stance on Iraq soon after the invasion, he said in a phone interview from Toronto, where he now serves as a member of the Canadian parliament.
At the same time as his opinion on Iraq was shifting, he was also moving from academia—where he had served as the director of Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy—to politics. He returned to his native country in 2005 and rose to prominence in the opposition Liberal Party.
This August, Ignatieff wrote an article, “Getting Iraq Wrong,” in which he recanted his support for the war.
It was one of the first times an intellectual had publicly held himself accountable for his stance on the Iraq war.
But the article, a lengthy rumination on the nature of judgment, rubbed many people the wrong way.
“As a former denizen of Harvard, I’ve had to learn that a sense of reality doesn’t always flourish in elite institutions,” Ignatieff wrote, concluding, “Bus drivers can display a shrewder grasp of what’s what than Nobel Prize winners.”
Ignatieff’s old Harvard colleagues said the article perplexed and disappointed them.
In an article billed as an apology, Ignatieff seemed to spend a lot of time attributing responsibility to those other than himself.
“What I found strange was that the article seemed to be suggesting that Harvard and the academic world were somehow responsible for his pro-war views,” said Kennedy School professor Alexander Keyssar ’69, who has known Ignatieff since they were graduate students. “Yet most of the faculty I know here opposed the war.”
Kennedy School professor Stephen M. Walt, who opposed the war from the beginning, said Ignatieff’s article “got it backwards.”
“The problem was not that he listened to idealists in the academy,” he said. “It’s rather that he didn’t listen to the voices in the academy who were explaining why it [war] was a foolish idea.”
“I think I phrased it in a manner that could have been improved,” Ignatieff said. “You can have a very shrewd sense of reality in any environment. Harvard doesn’t give you a privileged view of the world. You can get it wrong at Harvard. You an also get it right at Harvard.”
He named colleagues—including Walt, former Barack Obama adviser Samantha Power, Rev. J. Bryan Hehir, and Stanley Hoffmann—whose concerns about the war in Iraq had proved prescient.
“I wouldn’t want my remarks to imply or suggest that I’m criticizing my colleagues and friends for a lack of realism,” he said. “That sounds pretty weird, doesn’t it? I got it wrong.”
MOVING ON—TOO FAST?
In his article, Ignatieff criticized not only the atmosphere of the Ivory Tower, but the very nature of the academic project.
Ignatieff’s article attempted to draw distinctions between the judgment of academics—his past profession—and politicians, what he is today.
“In academic life, false ideas are merely false, and useless ones can be fun to play with,” he wrote. “In political life, false ideas can ruin the lives of millions, and useless ones can waste precious resources.”
Coming from a man who recently moved from academia to politics, it’s an argument that can seem uncomfortably self-serving.
It’s also one that makes little sense when applied to the United States’ march to war in 2002 and 2003, Walt said.
“Voices challenging the decision for war were much more frequent, were much more common in the academy than they were in the American political system,” Walt said. “Inside the beltway in Washington, almost everybody seemed to be in favor of it.”
Ignatieff’s account of the particular factors that led to his own failure of judgment comes in a single paragraph near the end of the article.
A 1992 visit to the sites of the Kurdish genocide carried out on the orders of Saddam in Northern Iraq gave Ignatieff vivid, personal reasons for opposing Saddam’s regime.
“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,” Ignatieff wrote.
This unresolved tension between the initial argument Ignatieff makes about the dangers of academic judgment and the final reasons he provides for his own mistake is part of what has made his apology controversial.
Ignatieff criticized academics for being too theoretical and too detached.
But his misjudgment on Iraq was fueled by a lack of detachment—valuing emotion before ideas.
“I just think he misdiagnosed the source of his error,” Walt said.
“You start to think the emotions themselves are reasons, and they’re not reasons,” Ignatieff said in a recent interview.
His decision finally to disavow his support for the war came down to the body count.
“I simply did not estimate the horrendous, inexcusable cost,” he said.
“I didn’t think it would be this hard.”
—Staff writer Lois E. Beckett can be reached at email@example.com.