Culpa istorum

**Quick update below I've noticed several mea-culpae about Iraq floating around lately. We talked about one of them (Ignatieff) the other day. Being wrong about such a thing as monumental as war ought probably to carry serious consequences for the credibility of the person who was wrong. In light of that obvious but completely ignored imperative, it's entertaining to watch the ones who were wrong explain themselves:

We might test judgment by asking, on the issue of Iraq, who best anticipated how events turned out. But many of those who correctly anticipated catastrophe did so not by exercising judgment but by indulging in ideology. They opposed the invasion because they believed the president was only after the oil or because they believed America is always and in every situation wrong.

So Ignatieff was wrong, but some of those who were right were right for the wrong reasons (so he claims). We might then say that they're wrong too. Because after all it's just as bad to have a true belief which is unjustified as it is to have a unjustified false belief (like Ignatieff had). Any mature person can see that Ignatieff has picked on the college socialist again–a slogan chanting and capitalistically challenged representative of the anti war left. Everyone ought to know by this point–especially a former Harvard Professor of political science–that such a lefty exists in Rush Limbaugh's mind. Pointing out that someone might have had stupid reasons for being right doesn't have anything to do with your stupid reasons for being wrong. Now to his stupid reasons:

The people who truly showed good judgment on Iraq predicted the consequences that actually ensued but also rightly evaluated the motives that led to the action. They did not necessarily possess more knowledge than the rest of us. They labored, as everyone did, with the same faulty intelligence and lack of knowledge of Iraq's fissured sectarian history. What they didn�t do was take wishes for reality. They didn't suppose, as President Bush did, that because they believed in the integrity of their own motives everyone else in the region would believe in it, too. They didn't suppose that a free state could arise on the foundations of 35 years of police terror. They didn't suppose that America had the power to shape political outcomes in a faraway country of which most Americans knew little. They didn't believe that because America defended human rights and freedom in Bosnia and Kosovo it had to be doing so in Iraq. They avoided all these mistakes.

First off, I think a good number had some knowledge of Iraq's "fissured sectarian history." It was no secret to experts in Middle East history. But the more perplexing thing (aside from its self-serving comparisons) about this mea culpa is that it puts the entire matter in terms of gambling about an uncertain future–where no one could possibly predict the outcome. And this is just the point that Ignatieff and others fail to get. A person with even a casual knowledge of the history of the region (say the recent war between Iraq and Iran) could have predicted the outcome of this war with a good deal of precision. It's not a question, as Ignatieff frames it, of being unduly critical of the motives of the administration (which one always should be in any case), it's rather a more straightforward matter of good judgment. And so this underscores the shallowness of Ignatieff's thinking about matters of life and death (which is what it was to think about invading Iraq in case that wasn't obvious). The experts he trusts don't have any knowledge of the very public and relevant facts about the history of Iraq (and the entire region). So it's not only a case of taking wishes for reality. It's simpler than that.

**Update: Here's Crooked Timber, always a worthwhile read. I'd be interested in seeing more apologiae pro errore meo if anyone knows where to find them.

6 thoughts on “Culpa istorum”

  1. Wow. It’s as Ignatieff is pawning off his obviously flawed support for the war on the supposed ignorance of his opposition. It’s like saying, “If I had been offered an informed alternative, I might’ve chosen that one instead,” which would be a good argument if it wasn’t totally and laughably false! It wasn’t just Cole, but many many others that warned of a civil war springing from the power vacuum left by vacating Sadaam without a plan to replace him. It was apparent the day after the fall of Baghdad that the top had just been ripped of a terrifically volatile social situation, yet Ignatieff and his ilk continued to pound the drums of war and now, when the patent failure of their position is apparent, it’s the fault of the intellectual left, who opposed out of sheer partisianship and failed to adequately mount and informed opposition. This “apology” is sheer intellectual arrogance. Blech.

  2. Thanks–but I’m looking primarily for the mea culpas. I think Packer has one, but I know some other fairly prominent liberals have changed their minds, and I’m interested to hear their explanations–and their justifications for their eventual and continued success despite that.

  3. i don’t know that it is particularly logical to respect people’s opinions if they were correct for the wrong reasons, if their thinking is flawed and their grasp of the facts is flawed there have to be consequences to maintaining the that type of thinking.

    For instance the Lenin was right that the monarchy was destroying the country but he was wrong in believing that a murderous revolution and culling of the intelligentsia would purify his country.

    Or Monetarily, following the investment advice of a lottery winner because they got rich from a ticket.

  4. Dear Tim,

    Thanks for the comment.

    No one disagrees with you:

    “Because after all its just as bad to have a true belief which is unjustified as it is to have a unjustified false belief (like Ignatieff had)”

    I think, however, the Lenin example doesn’t establish your point. Those are two separate issues–the factual question and the practical one.

    Back to Iraq. It was hardly like winning the lottery. Many were right for very good reasons. Ignatieff ought to talk about them, rather than his college socialist straw man.

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