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Contentions

Time and Our Side

contentions would like to welcome our latest blogger, Peter Wehner. Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, formerly served as the deputy assistant to the President and as the Director of the Office of Strategic Initiatives.

Michael Ignatieff, formerly of Harvard and now deputy leader of Canada’s Liberal Party, has written a piece in the New York Times Magazine that is both a reflection on political leadership and an honest, self-condemning explanation of why he supported the war in Iraq. Ignatieff’s essay, “Getting Iraq Wrong: What The War Has Taught Me About Political Judgment,” places him in a long list of commentators who have bared their souls and asked for forgiveness—or at least understanding—for supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom.

A few points about the essay. It appears just six days after the climate-changing column by Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution (“A War We Might Just Win”). Ignatieff is penning his confessional at precisely the moment when the security situation is improving, at a faster rate than almost anyone could have imagined just seven months ago.

This does not mean the war is on the verge of being won; General Petraeus has said it’s the most challenging environment he’s witnessed in more than 30 years in uniform. What we do know is that when it comes to security and “bottom up” reconciliation, the arc of events is now favorable. (A decent outcome in Iraq is still possible, and Ignatieff may one day have to write a mea culpa about his mea culpa.)

Ignatieff also explains his support for the war on fairly narrow grounds: his (admirable) emotional attachment to Iraqi exiles who believed the war was the only chance that members of their generation would have to live in freedom in their own country. The humanitarian case against Saddam was overwhelming, but it was not anything like the sole reason to go to war. The United States believed, with the rest of the world, that Saddam had WMD stockpiles. (We know now that he wanted to end sanctions while preserving his capability to reconstitute his WMD program when the sanctions regime ended.) Hussein was also the most destabilizing figure in the Middle East, having invaded two countries and committed genocide in his own. He was responsible for the death of more than a million people. Recklessness and hyper-aggression were in his DNA.

A third point: Ignatieff seems to be arguing for an American withdrawal, though he doesn’t say it outright. This would consign Iraqis to cruelty and slaughter on a scale that is almost beyond our capacity to absorb. In the words of the New York Times reporter John Burns, “cataclysmic violence” would follow in the wake of an early American withdrawal. Ignatieff, who supported the war for humanitarian reasons, is already being cited by those who want to accelerate an American withdrawal, despite the ethnic cleansing and genocide that would follow. This would be a difficult thing for a man like Ignatieff, of impressive moral concerns and commitments, to defend.

We may now be at a hinge moment in Iraq, when—after years of costly mistakes and misjudgments—we are on the right path. General David Petraeus says he needs one thing more than any other: time. Anyone who purports to care about the future of Iraq, and of the Iraqis, owes him at least that much.



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