Ignatieff’s mea culpa
Even in apologizing for backing the war, Ignatieff defends “imperialism lite”
By Stephen Gowans
Former Harvard professor and now Canadian politician Michael Ignatieff is admitting he made a mistake in backing the 2003 US invasion of Iraq (1). But not because the invasion was based on a fraud, but because the humanitarian goals he and others attributed to the invasion have not been achieved.
Ignatieff’s mea culpa comes on the heels of an Oxfam report that paints a grim and disturbing picture of an Iraq that has become a shocking charnel house, where four million are displaced, infrastructure remains in a shambles, and poverty is rampant. More than Darfur, Iraq is a humanitarian disaster; it is an acute embarrassment for those who plumbed for war on humanitarian grounds, promising the ouster of Saddam Hussein would usher in an era of peace, prosperity and the flowering of human rights between the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates.
That doesn’t mean that Igantieff is backing away from the doctrine of humanitarian intervention he and others championed to justify the “imperialism lite” that has wrought such misery in Iraq. On the contrary, his mea culpa is a defense of the thinly disguised justification for military imperialism left-liberal public intellectuals have promoted since Yugoslavia to elevate wars of conquest waged on behalf of the corporate elite to human rights crusades.
Ignatieff says his support for the war grew from the moment he “saw what Saddam Hussein did to the Kurds (2).” It was at that point he became convinced that Saddam Hussein had to go, and that a war to remove him could be justified on those grounds alone. Others, including Noam Chomsky, also believed the Iraqi leader was a menace whose forced removal from power would constitute a major gain for humanity, though, to be sure, not all of those who shared this view backed the war. With hundreds of thousands dead as a result of the invasion, and a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since WWII, one wonders how many of those who invested the war with moral gravitas by demonizing the Iraqi leader, regret their craven pandering to Washington’s propaganda requirements. I suspect few do.
That doesn’t mean, however, that a few soft-left public intellectuals are not squirming in embarrassment. Ignatieff, for one, can no longer leave unaddressed the uncomfortable gulf between the reality of what the invasion has created and the promises of the war’s ameliorative effects the humanitarian interventionists inveigled the public into accepting.
Ignatieff’s error, he says, was in letting his good intentions cloud his judgment. He didn’t realize it would be so difficult to hold Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites together without “Saddam’s terror” or that it would be impossible to build a “free state” on the foundations of “35 years of police terror.” What’s more, his revulsion at Saddam’s repression of the Kurds (apparently one he doesn’t feel for the Turk’s repression of the same people, at least not enough for him to plead for a war on Turkey on humanitarian grounds) left him blinded to the reality that just “because America defended human rights and freedom in Bosnia and Kosovo (didn’t mean) it had to be doing so in Iraq.”
Ignatieff’s mea culpa has enough references to “Saddam’s terror” to make plain he still regards the invasion as justifiable on moral grounds (as in, it’s all right to kill 600,000 to depose one man from power, especially when he keeps giving away all the oil concessions to the wrong countries.) Moreover, his claim that US intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo represented a defense of human rights and freedom genuflects to the myths upon which the doctrine of humanitarian intervention is built. Ignatieff isn’t apologizing for “imperialism lite”; he’s defending it.
The United States no more defended human rights and freedom in Bosnia and Kosovo than it is doing today in Iraq and Afghanistan, except for the rights of those who own income-producing property and the freedom of US corporations, banks and investors to secure profitable investments, i.e., rights that are against the interests of you and me but are dearly held by those who give Ignatieff high-profile academic posts, open the op-ed pages of the New York Times to him, and encourage him with money and advice in his bid to become Canada’s prime minister.
Ignatieff speaks the language of the bamboozler. It is enough, he knows, to invoke the terms human rights and freedom, without in any way indicating whose rights he’s talking about and what referent he’s pairing freedom with (free to achieve what or be free from what?) to get people to at least acquiesce to the idea of war. This, George Bush, Tony Blair, and Gordon Brown also know. And so, in his mea culpa, human rights and freedom get star billing. Ignatieff wants us to believe his intentions, like those of America, were good; it’s just that his zeal to promote human rights and freedom kept him from seeing that Saddam had poisoned the soil in which the US government has so painstakingly tried to plant the seeds of democracy.
It’s impossible to take Ignatieff seriously. His self-appointed role is to justify the US ruling class’s naked pursuit of its class interests by dressing them up in the galvanizing language of humanitarianism to bring the rest of us onboard. His job is to enlist you and me to be the dupes who will sign up to fight in, promote, or acquiesce to, wars Bechtel, Exxon-Mobil, Lockheed-Martin, Chase Manhattan and scores of wealthy investors will profit from.
For this he is amply rewarded with high-profile academic positions, a pulpit in high-circulation establishment newspapers, and financial backing for his dalliances with electoral politics. Were he a German in Hitler’s Germany he would be on Goebbels’s payroll, putting a humanitarian gloss on the Fuehrer’s aggressions; in Mussolini’s Italy he would be demonizing Haile Selassie, pleading for an Abyssinian invasion; and in Tojo’s Japan, he would be calling for the invasion of China to liberate Asia from Western imperialism.
Like the sophists who hired out their forensic skills to the highest bidder, Igantieff is an intellectual whore who trades his credentials and skills of persuasion to shape public opinion in support of his patron’s wars for profits. His mea culpa is no apology; it is simply an attempt to save face now that the humanitarian disaster of Iraq has become an embarrassment that can no longer be ignored.
(1) Michael Ignatieff, “Getting Iraq Wrong”, The New York Times, August 5, 2007.
(2) Ignatieff’s deep feelings of humanitarian solidarity extend only to ethnic minorities whose plights Washington uses as a pretext to intervene in the affairs of other countries. Ignatieff feels sympathy for the Muslim community of Bosnia and ethnic Albanian Kosovars, but not for Palestinians or Lebanese. During the summer, 2006 Israel re-invasion of southern Lebanon, Ignatieff dismissed deaths of Lebanese civilians by Israeli forces as something “he wasn’t losing sleep over.” Globe and Mail, August 31, 2006.