Saturday, March 13, 2004

Michael Ignatieff has a rueful article in the NY Times about why he supported the Iraq war, why he still finds the anti-war case unsatisfying -- and why he also now has second thoughts.
It's a typically thoughtful, balanced, lucid piece, which, as often with Ignatieff, manages to articulate well, if perhaps a trifle over-solemnly, the sort of liberal, humanitarian, yet realistic position I tend to share or identify with. Yet some parts of it do bother me. For instance, this:
'So I supported an administration whose intentions I didn't trust, believing that the consequences would repay the gamble. Now I realize that intentions do shape consequences.'
This nicely captures my own attitude at the start of the war -- the attitude which made it impossible for me to either support or oppose the war with any confidence. To decide to support the war despite these doubts was a respectable decision. But Ignatieff only NOW realises that 'intentions do shape consequences'? A decade he spent talking to Isaiah Berlin, and he's just learnt this? That the Bush administration's plans for the invasion and occupation of Iraq were wildly over-optimistic and under-worked-out, and that their commitment to the long hard slog of nation-building was less than clear-sighted and reliable, is not something that was impossible to know a year ago. We could have known it; many of us chose not to. We should have looked closely, not only at the Bush administration's intentions, but at their plans and planning process -- the unedifying spectacle of which has since been so expertly and alarmingly revealed by George Packer (another liberal supporter of the war) in his articles for the New Yorker. But many of us chose to listen, not to the warnings bells sounded by our knowledge of the Bush administration and the evidence of poor and often cavalier thinking on its part at the time, but to the Siren voices of hope -- hope that the time had come when our dream of a free Iraq might actually be realised. We willed the ends so ardently, we believed that the means might be at hand.
Ignatieff recognises all this now, and is admirable in declaring it. Still, I think that he lets us liberal hawks off a bit too easily: the case that we should have known better is, I think, stronger than he makes out.
But the past is past. When it comes to the more pressing and meaningful question of the present, I think Ignatieff is largely right, and puts it about as well as anyone could:

'...If freedom is the only goal that redeems all the dying, there is more real freedom in Iraq than at any time in its history. And why should we suppose that freedom will be anything other than messy, chaotic, even frightening? Why should we be surprised that Iraqis are using their freedom to tell us to go home? Wouldn't we do just the same?

Freedom alone, of course, is not enough. Whether freedom turns into long-term constitutional order depends on whether a vicious resistance that does not hesitate to pit Muslim against Muslim, Iraqi against Iraqi, can drive an administration, fearful about its re-election, into drawing down U.S. forces. If the United States falters now, civil war is entirely possible. If it falters, it will betray everyone who has died for something better.

Interventions amount to a promise: we promise that we will leave the country better than we found it; we promise that those who died to get there did not die in vain. Never have these promises been harder to keep than in Iraq. The liberal internationalism I supported throughout the 1990's -- interventions in Bosnia, Kosovo and East Timor -- seems like child's play in comparison. Those actions were a gamble, but the gamble came with a guarantee of impunity: if we didn't succeed, the costs of failure were not punitive. Now in Iraq the game is in earnest. There is no impunity anymore. Good people are dying, and no president, Democrat or Republican, can afford to betray that sacrifice.'

I agree with all of this. But that first sentence I've quoted reminds me of another passage, which Ignatieff certainly knows and of which he was perhaps thinking: 'The one thing that we may be sure of is the reality of the sacrifice, the dying and the dead.' Isaiah Berlin concluded that moral risk cannot be avoided; he also concluded that this fact did not excuse a cavalier approach to making hard decisions. Now we can only do what we can to extract order and democracy from the chaos and suffering we have, even if with good intentions and in good faith, unleashed. There is still a chance to do so, however unlikely, and however difficult the task; defeatism, and consequent disengagement, is not justified, or tolerable. But failure is a real, and it often seems, likely possibility. If we do fail, all of us who supported, or even failed to oppose, the war in the name of a free Iraq will have to accept that we share some guilt for arrogantly perpetrating an avoidable and irredeemable disaster. And even if a free and peaceful Iraq emerges from all of this, by some miracle of sagacity and toil, we should I think realise that the achievement of noble ends does not wholly expunge the reality of sacrifice and loss along the way. I hope that the US and those who supported its war against Saddam will be able to pat itself -- ourselves -- on the back one day. But we'll be doing so with bloody hands. We may as well admit that.

Thursday, March 11, 2004

NEXT: SPRINGTIME FOR LEO AND -- UCHICAGO? Tim Robbins has written a play depicting a sinister cabal that worships none other than Leo Strauss. Lawrence Kaplan at TNR is not happy about it.
I think the correct response to this, though, isn't annoyance, but amusement. And, if one's actually somewhat sympathetic to progressive causes, sadness that Tim Robbins has made himself appear such a buffoon to intelligent, well-informed, and fair-minded people by buying so fully into the Big Lie about Strauss (a lie I think Kaplan goes a little too far in disputing -- Strauss may not have been the apologist for authoritarian government by deception that he's been made out to be, but he wasn't exactly a cosy liberal either -- or, at any rate, his version of liberalism, being deeply sceptical of many of liberalism's assumptions and moral foundations, and fundamentally pessimistic about modernity as a whole and, in my view, basically inegalitarian,* is a peculiar one. )
Not only am I rather amused -- as well as somewhat bemused -- at Robbins' elevation of Strauss to on-stage iconic presence; I'm also excited by the possibility it opens up: political theorists as the new hot off-Broadway thing. Just imagine -- we could soon be seeing a seering depiction of Thatcherism that features a hilarious double-act by Michael Oakeshott and F.A. von Hayek (and I thought that I'd only be able to experience that spectacle in my strangest dreams), or a three-stage spectacular depicting the picaresque life and dramatic struggles of J-J Rousseau, or the seering romantic drama and world-historical spectacle of Hannah and Martin: A Love Story (which Simon Blackburn has already taken a stab [and I do mean stab] at), or -- naturally -- the life of Isaiah Berlin (which I imagine as a sort of Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, for some reason), or Hegel: the Musical -- or, of course, the ultimate: Derrida. On. Ice.
Ok, maybe this is a really bad idea for a cultural trend.

*Though to be fair, few would argue that certain other modern thinkers who were in some respects suspicious of democratic equality, and even deeply elitist in at least some moods -- such as Mill and Tocqueville -- were liberals.

AN EVENING DOWN THE PUB: The other night I found myself standing at the bar in Oxford's Turf Tavern. Looking around me, I realised that everyone standing at the bar was a blogger -- there were Josh and Patrick of OxBlog, Jamie Kirchick, and Annie Rosenzweig (all, appropriately, on my right), and Chris Brooke of Virtual Stoa fame (who I'd not met before, but recognized by his glorious mane) -- who was, of course, to my left (no, really; sometimes these things do work out perfectly like that). It was good to finally meet Chris (who is, incidentally, quite right about Bob Dylan) after e-mailing with him a bit and passing him repeatedly on the street, and to finally meet Jamie after hearing so much about him from common friends.
At the same time, it was all really, really disturbing.

STILL NO LAPTOP: The Dell people are being very long about getting the necessary parts to the Oxford Computer Services people; so I'm still dependent on public computers. Once I do get my laptop back (hopefully), I'll be traveling for quite a while. So blog drought to continue, with only very brief interruptions, for the forseeable future.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?