On Political Judgment

Getting Iraq Wrong by Michael Ignatieff in the NY Times

“Michael Ignatieff, a former professor at Harvard and contributing writer for the magazine, is a member of Canada’s Parliament and deputy leader of the Liberal Party.”

  • “The unfolding catastrophe in Iraq
    … has condemned the judgment of many others, myself included, who as
    commentators supported the invasion…I keep revisiting the Iraq debacle, trying to understand exactly how
    the judgments I now have to make in the political arena need to improve
    on the ones I used to offer from the sidelines.”
  • “The attribute that underpins good judgment in politicians is a sense of
    cannot afford to cocoon themselves in the inner world of their own
    imaginings. They must not confuse the world as it is with the world as
    they wish it to be.”
  • “The only way any of us can improve our grasp of reality is to confront
    the world every day and learn, mostly from our mistakes, what works and
    what doesn’t. Yet even lengthy experience can fail us in life and in
    politics. Experience can imprison decision-makers in worn-out solutions
    while blinding them to the untried remedy that does the trick.”
  • “In practical politics, there is no science of decision-making. “
  • “A sense of reality is not just a sense of the world as it is, but as it
    might be. Like great artists, great politicians see possibilities
    others cannot and then seek to turn them into realities. To bring the
    new into being, a politician needs a sense of timing, of when to leap
    and when to remain still. Bismarck famously remarked that political
    judgment was the ability to hear, before anyone else, the distant
    hoofbeats of the horse of history.”
  • “Fixed principle matters. There are some goods that cannot be traded,
    some lines that cannot be crossed, some people who must never be
    betrayed. But fixed ideas of a dogmatic kind are usually the enemy of
    good judgment. It is an obstacle to clear thinking to believe that
    America’s foreign policy serves God’s plan to expand human freedom.
    Ideological thinking of this sort bends what Kant called “the crooked
    timber of humanity” to fit an abstract illusion.”
  • “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.”
  • “emotions in politics, as in life, tend to be self-justifying and in
    matters of ultimate political judgment, nothing, not even your own
    feelings, should be held immune from the burden of justification
    through cross-examination and argument.”

These observations seem to be just as true as business as they are of politics.

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