Friday, February 20, 2009

Ignatieff and Iraq Part I, The Burden or The Blunder

A major blot on Ignatieff's copybook is his support for the Iraq Invasion.  This was subsequently recanted approximately a year after the event and frequently therafter.  In this post, I will review the arguments he made for the invasion in a New York Time Magazine article: THE AMERICAN EMPIRE; The Burden. 

Thematic Qualities
I began this series with the sincere intention of giving Ignatieff a fair evaluation.  And up until I read this piece I felt comfortable saying that he had the best of intentions.  But the article got off to a bad start with the title.  "The Burden" is a reference to an 1899 Rudyard Kipling poem; "The White Man's Burden".  I can see the connection to his theme; the call for Americans to take up the responsibilities of their empire.  But I can't imagine what someone claiming to be a human rights champion was thinking linking to this artifact of European imperialism to an event in the 21st Century.  Consider the first stanza (My emphasis in bold):
Take up the White Man's burden--
Send forth the best ye breed--
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild--
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.
I hope that made you cringe as much as I did when I read that.  Think about how this looks to Iraqi's facing an invasion: "your captive's needs."  Sometimes literature is best used as an illustration of what to leave behind.

Another aspect of this article that wears poorly with the passage of time is Michael Ignatieff's (MI) use of 9/11 as a pre-text for invasion.  I counted 10 instances where MI cited those events.
But Sept. 11 was an awakening,  ... But Sept. 11 changed everyone, including a laconic and anti-rhetorical president. ... Since Sept. 11, it has been about whether the republic can survive in safety at home without imperial policing abroad. ... Sept. 11 rubbed in the lesson that global power is still measured by military capability ... Into the resulting vacuum of chaos and massacre a new imperialism has reluctantly stepped -- reluctantly because these places are dangerous and because they seemed, at least until Sept. 11, to be marginal to the interests of the powers concerned. ... Nowhere, after all, could have been more distant than Afghanistan, yet that remote and desperate place was where the attacks of Sept. 11 were prepared. ... On Sept. 11, the American empire discovered that in the Middle East its local pillars were literally built on sand. ... Until Sept. 11, successive United States administrations treated their Middle Eastern clients like gas stations. ... Both nationalism and narcissism have threatened the American reassertion of global power since Sept. 11.  ... Sept. 11 pitched the Islamic world into the beginning of a long and bloody struggle to determine how it will be ruled and by whom: the authoritarians, the Islamists or perhaps the democrats.
All I can say is that it is a good thing I wasn't playing the Bush speech drinking game in which you took a shot every time Bush mentioned 9/11.  The point with regards the references to 9/11 is that when discussing an event that overturns decades of precedent and breaks numerous international laws a long view of history should be taken.  9/11 was a tragic event but it did not change the world.  And no one single event can be used as a pretext for The Bush Doctrine.  MI's reputation as a deep independent thinker takes a hit when he provides insight I could get from People magazine.  The key point of being the director of the Carr Center at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University is that you are able to provide a long term independent view of the issue.  Not repeat what I could read in the Calgary Sun.

As with disco, some things can sound pretty embarrassing when you look back at them.  Such as this simile, in which MI now seems to be channeling Donald Rumsfeld's "Old Europe" tripe:
The United Nations lay dozing like a dog before the fire, happy to ignore Saddam, until an American president seized it by the scruff of the neck and made it bark.
Rationale for war Humanitarian or Imperial?
Hendrik Hertzberg wrote in The New Yorker last year of a diplomatic soiree that Powell attended on the eve of war, at which a foreign diplomat recited a news account that Bush was sleeping like a baby. Powell reportedly replied, "I'm sleeping like a baby, too. Every two hours, I wake up, screaming."

The Tragedy of Colin PowellHow the Bush presidency destroyed him.

Going to war is one of the most terrifying decisions a leader will ever make.  MI's support for the Iraq War provides an insight to the decision making process he would employ if in charge of Canada's forces.

When it comes to the actual reasons for invading Iraq, protection of Kurds and other minorities is not given significant airing.  It is essentially addressed by the following lukewarm reasoning:
The moral evaluation of empire gets complicated when one of its benefits might be freedom for the oppressed. Iraqi exiles are adamant: even  if the Iraqi people might be the immediate victims of an American attack, they would also be its ultimate beneficiaries.  It would make the case for military intervention easier, of course, if the Iraqi exiles cut a more impressive figure. They feud and squabble and hate one another nearly as much as they hate Saddam. But what else is to be expected from a political culture pulverized by 40 years of state terror?
Certainly the British and the American governments maintained a complicit and dishonorable silence when Saddam gassed the Kurds in 1988. Yet now that the two governments are taking decisive action, human rights groups seem more outraged by the prospect of action than they are by the abuses they once denounced. The fact that states are both late and hypocritical in their adoption of human rights does not deprive them of the right to use force to defend them.
Hardly a fervent humanitarian basis for intervention.  When it comes to conventional imperialistic reasons for war, MI is much more thorough:
Being an imperial power, however, is more than being the most powerful nation or just the most hated one. It means enforcing such order as there is in the world and doing so in the American interest. It means laying down the rules America wants (on everything from markets to weapons of mass destruction) while exempting itself from other rules (the Kyoto Protocol on climate change and the International Criminal Court) that go against its interest.
Regime change is an imperial task par excellence, since it assumes that the empire's interest has a right to trump the sovereignty of a state.
This essay does not provide a basis for any subsequent attempts by MI to portray support for the invasion of Iraq as a manifestation of concern for the plight of Iraq's oppressed minorities.  It is a puff piece for imperial ambitions.

With support like this who needs critics
What I found most striking about this article is that manner in which it could be used as a source for reasons not to invade Iraq.  Consider the following:
What empires lavish abroad, they cannot spend on good republican government at home: on hospitals or roads or schools. A distended military budget only aggravates America's continuing failure to keep its egalitarian promise to itself.
Why should a republic take on the risks of empire? Won't it run a chance of endangering its identity as a free people?
If only invasion, and not containment, can build democracy in Iraq, then the question becomes whether the Bush administration actually has any real intention of doing so.
If America takes on Iraq, it takes on the reordering of the whole region. It will have to stick at it through many successive administrations. The burden of empire is of long duration, and democracies are impatient with long-lasting burdens -- none more so than America
If an invasion of Iraq is delinked from Middle East peace, then all America will gain for victory in Iraq is more terror cells in the Muslim world.
Again, the paradox of the Iraq operation is that half measures are more dangerous than whole measures. Imperial powers do not have the luxury of timidity, for timidity is not prudence; it is a confession of weakness.
The question, then, is not whether America is too powerful but whether it is powerful enough. Does it have what it takes to be grandmaster of what Colin Powell has called the chessboard of the world's most inflammable region?
At the beginning of the first volume of ''The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,'' published in 1776, Edward Gibbon remarked that empires endure only so long as their rulers take care not to overextend their borders. ... This characteristic delusion of imperial power is to confuse global power with global domination. The Americans may have the former, but they do not have the latter.
Some of these statements are a style issue.  MI likes to state the possible objections and lay out the reasons the objections do not, even in the aggregate, out-weigh the imperative for war.  But his reasons are generally un-convincing and raise the point that there is enough danger in the event of even one of the objections becoming operative that the entire enterprise will fail.  As an example:
Unseating an Arab government in Iraq while leaving the Palestinians to face Israeli tanks and helicopter gunships is a virtual guarantee of unending Islamic wrath against the United States. 
In other words the success of this illegal war hinges on the ability to solve the Palestinian-Israeli question.  There are better odds of Stephen Harper actually finishing a book on the history of hockey than this happening.

With this article MI severly damaged his credentials as an international public "intellectual"and human rights defender.  As with his discussions on torture, he continues a trend of reaching conclusions based on specious reasoning.  As a prominent member of the international community he had a responsibility to bring a long view of history, current facts and international law to this issue.  He fails this test.  These failures form obvious questions as to his suitability to serve as Prime Minister.

A much better take on whether or not to invade Iraq was provided by fellow Liberals such as Irwin Cotler.  MI has published several retractions of this blunder.  The next post in this series will examine whether or not these efforts to absolve this mistake were sufficent and met the standard set by Mr. Cotler and many others.
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Beijing York said...

Some interesting reading, for your Ignatieff files:

The NYT article is from November 2003 and may be behind a subscription wall. I posted relevant excerpts in the comments at Disaffected Lib:

Constant Vigilance said...

Thanks a ton BY. This project necessitates a lot of reading between posts!