Tuesday, August 7, 2007

previous entry | main | next entry | TrackBack (0)

Michael Ignatieff's incredibly long learning curve

I was in Montreal for the weekend (brief side note to the Department of Homeland Security -- loved that two-and-a-half hour wait at the border to drive across; much more friendly than the 15-minute wait to get into Canada).

While chatting with some McGill folk, the topic of Michael Ignatieff came up. Ignatieff was a Harvard political theorist who re-entered Canadian politics with great fanfare a few years ago. For a brief time, he was the frontrunner to be the head of the Liberal Party, before engaging in a series of blunders that have rendered him to backbencher status.

One of Ignatieff's difficulties during the leadership race was his vocal support for the Iraq invasion. He just wrote a sorta mea culpa in the New York Times Magazine, in which he tried to apply what he learned in the world of politics to his prior policy pronouncements as an academic:

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.
Matthew Yglesias, Jim Johnson, and Brad DeLong all take Ignatieff to task for omitting the fact most academics with any expertise in U.S. foreign policy and/or the Middle East opposed the war. DeLong summarizes this point well:
I think what Michael Ignatieff is talking about is not an academic mode of thought but a student mode of thought--a not-too-bright-student mode of thought. A not-too-bright student achieves success by (a) figuring out which book on the syllabus is favored by the instructor, (b) taking that book to be the gospel, and (c) regurgitating large chunks of that book on the exams and in the papers.

It surprises me that Michael Ignatieff thinks that opining about a situation while knowing that one is massively ignorant about it is an academic mode of thought.

What's breathtaking to me about Ignatieff's essay is that it represents the apotheosis of what Ignatieff thinks is academic reasoning: lots of banal generalities and big ideas, very little about the particulars of Iraq (apparently, the exiles got to him). If you're going to write a mea culpa, you have to be more specific about your mistakes.

Also commenting on the essay, the Crooked Timberites have a go at one of my posts.

Henry Farrell challenges a question I made over the weekend: "If there are no virtues to a monolithic, cartelistic 'foreign policy community,' what are the virtues of an ideologically uniform, progressive foreign policy community?":

[I]t was less important to commentators’ careers to be right than to be “serious” (i.e. to fit somewhere within the limited spectrum of views that is considered acceptable by the community, not to challenge treasured shibboleths etc etc). This is where I think Dan Drezner is wrong, and Duncan Black is right. The netroots’ critique of the “foreign policy community” isn’t that foreign policy experts walk in lockstep on the wrong side of the aisle, and they should instead be walking in lockstep on the right one; it’s that there is something structural that is rotten in how this ‘community’ systematically excludes certain points of view while privileging others, even after the latter have been shown to be deeply, badly, and arguably irreparably flawed.
Kieran Healy also jumps in here:
Presumably if the outsiders had been wrong on Iraq this would have deepened Dan’s skepticism as well. But the guys who were wrong are still inside the tent, and this doesn’t seem to be a problem for him.
Kieran has misinterpreted me. I'm not condoning O'Hanlon and Pollack, and I agree that a price should be paid for getting things wrong. My point is that I'm unconvinced that substituting "netrootsy" people for the current foreign policy community will result in better policy or a better marketplace of ideas. The factors that restricted debate about Iraq -- individual desires for influence, a desire to please colleagues, etc. -- will not go away. Nor am I convinced that the netrootsy folks have a better grasp on foreign policy than the current mandarins.

Henry's structural point is well taken, but I see no reason why the structural forces will not apply to any group of individuals that believe themselves to be approaching the levers of power.

UPDATE: Over at Democracy Arsenal, Heather Hurlburt gets to a similar point while traveling down a different road:

Eventually, the people who are elected to office are going to have to work across party lines to fashion new policies for Iraq, anti-terrorism, global warming, etc. (If you've seen polling that suggests Democrats -- the left end of the party at that -- getting veto-proof majorities in both houses in '08, send it along. But I'm not holding my breath.) That means the policy professionals have to retain some minimum levels of respect and listening skills for each other. That doesn't mean we have to like each other. It doesn't mean that what John Negroponte oversaw in Central America in the 1980s is now ok, for example. But it does mean we need to evaluate his policy proposals -- or anyone else's -- on their merits.

Not everybody has to maintain minimum levels of respect and courtesy. That's the joy of the blogosphere. There's a vital place in American political discourse for the unbound truthteller, the glorious rant, the savage, scathing partisan. And there's a place for people who love the grey amid the black and white, the nagging details, who prefer to be up to their elbows in the guts of compromise that actually is policy-making on every issue -- because compromising, like ranting, is human nature.

The openness of new media and the blogosphere -- plus the depth of national anger over this misbegotten war -- is mixing up the two spheres in ways that are sometimees productive and sometimes not. Policy professionals need to grow thick skins fast -- and maybe get used to listening to what the non-experts have to say. Opinionators, for their part, could use a more visceral sense of how much harder making policy is than writing about it.

posted by Dan on 08.07.07 at 02:15 PM


It surprises me that Michael Ignatieff thinks that opining about a situation while knowing that one is massively ignorant about it is an academic mode of thought.

Quite correct. Academics are far more likely to follow the example of Brad "We don't have enough troops to take Baghdad!" DeLong, and opine about situations without knowing that they're massively ignorant about it.

posted by: Paul Zrimsek on 08.07.07 at 02:15 PM [permalink]

By far, the most ignorant and sickening thing about Ignatieff's article is this line:

"The costs of staying will be borne by Americans, while the cost of leaving will be mostly borne by Iraqis."

It is this type of stupidity and arrogance that is exactly why he was so foolish to support the war in the first place, and why people like him should not be garbage men, let along making policy decisions that effect the lives of millions of people. He obviously thought he was being clever by writing this line, but in the process he exposed his total lack of understanding of the situation in Iraq, as well as his deep lack of feeling for the Iraqi people. How someone can be claiming to apologize for his own stupidity, while still displaying that total stupidity is beyond me.

Ignatieff's problem is that he doesn't understand that war is real. that he saw it as just a policy decision, that he believes in the worldview that the USA is the center of the world. In fact, it is the exact opposite, the only good thing to come out of the Iraq war is the "cost" to America (if you can even call it that). At least it shows them that they can't just stomp around the world killing everyone they want without an suffering.

But the fact is that Iraqis, including family members of mine, are the ones who are paying the "cost" of this war before it started, now, and will pay after. The Iraqis are the ones that should be paid attention to, not a bunch of high school drop outs who volunteer to play Rambo/Jesus in some country they can't even find on the map.

It is the most disgusting part of the USA that they don't even recognize that the people they are killing are people, and that other people have every right to hate them for it.

posted by: Joe M. on 08.07.07 at 02:15 PM [permalink]

Oh, and by "Iraqis" i don't mean Ahmed Chalabi. People who take the view of one person and make policy on it are the same type of people who say "i am not racist, i have a black friend..." I am talking about the Iraqi people, the ones without water and electricity in 140 degree weather, the ones who have had loved ones killed, the ones who sit in refugee camps in Syria and Jordan. The only views that matter are those who have to live through (assuming they do live) American stupidity. Not brainless criminal trash like Bush or Olmert or Cheney, or Ignatieff....

posted by: Joe M. on 08.07.07 at 02:15 PM [permalink]

A few years ago, I went to the Balkans to work in the peacekeeping efforts. In preparation for that job, I read alot.
As a former academic, naturally I went to my local university to scan the journals for useful information. There wasn't any. In fact, all the useful information I found came from three sources: journalists, politicians, and soldiers. None of it came from academia.

If you want to learn about the Balkans, don't read academics. If you want to learn about what academics think about the Balkans, read academics.

Short summary: Ignatieff seems spot on.


posted by: Sk on 08.07.07 at 02:15 PM [permalink]

Joe M:

You say:

It is the most disgusting part of the USA that they don't even recognize that the people they are killing are people, and that other people have every right to hate them for it.

Would you agree with this sentiment:

It is the most disgusting part of Hamas that they don't even recognize that the people they are killing are people, and that other people have every right to hate them for it.

If not, why not?

posted by: Appalled Moderate on 08.07.07 at 02:15 PM [permalink]

It seems to me, Ignatieff supported the war for wrong reasons (you go to war to defend yourself, not to do good to another nation), and now he's condemning it for wrong reasons: there's nothing wrong with the academic approach if you know the facts.

"In practical politics, there is no science of decision-making" I believe there is such science: it's called "strategy", and it has existed for thousands of years. It's terrifying to think that our policymakers are unfamiliar with it.

posted by: Ivan Lenin on 08.07.07 at 02:15 PM [permalink]

Appalled Moderate,
You are making a false analogy. Hamas recognizes the Jewish people, and every single member of Hamas knows that individual Jews are people (of course, they don't think the Israeli tanks drive themselves). What Hamas does not recognize is the political structure of the state that the Jewish people created when they stole Palestinian land and started destroying Palestinian society. And my view of Hamas' position on recognizing the "Jewish State" is that it is absolutely correct and it should not be recognized by any moral person. If they recognized it (again, that does not mean they don't know it is there, which no idiot can deny) they would be giving legitimacy to the Jew's right to steal their land and dispossess them and make them refugees in addition to the many other crimes that Israel commits against them. Just ask yourself which society is more violent? which side is under who's gun?

But, just for the sake of answering your question more directly, even though i agree with many of the policies of Hamas, i am worried about how they come to make those policies. Hamas are the Palestinian equivalent of evangelical Christians in the USA. And even though I am on the left, IF I were on the traditional right (as dan probably is), i might agree with some of the American right's policies, even if they leave a bit of worry in me, the same applies to me with Hamas and Palestine. I agree with them a lot now because of the coincidence of the political decisions that are necessary because of the situation, not because i like Hamas very much. (though, of course, I also know them well enough to know when they are actually dangerous. Rather then the empty attacks against them...)

posted by: Joe M. on 08.07.07 at 02:15 PM [permalink]

Ignatieff is deputy leader of Liberal Party, not a back bencher. His essay may be shit but no need to start making up stuff.

posted by: gus on 08.07.07 at 02:15 PM [permalink]

I think DeLong's analogy describes the political mind-set much more than the academic. Politicians do not subscribe to either the hedgehog or fox philosophy, but instead merely pander to whomever is crying the loudest about how unfair the world is to them or which special interest is greasing their palms.

Joe M. - your passion is exceeded only by your ignorance.

posted by: Useless Sam Grant on 08.07.07 at 02:15 PM [permalink]

Post a Comment:


Email Address:



Remember your info?