Ignatieff’s mea culpa

Even in apologizing for backing the war, Ignatieff defends “imperialism lite”

By Stephen Gowans

Former Harvard professor and now Canadian politician Michael Ignatieff is admitting he made a mistake in backing the 2003 US invasion of Iraq (1). But not because the invasion was based on a fraud, but because the humanitarian goals he and others attributed to the invasion have not been achieved.

Ignatieff’s mea culpa comes on the heels of an Oxfam report that paints a grim and disturbing picture of an Iraq that has become a shocking charnel house, where four million are displaced, infrastructure remains in a shambles, and poverty is rampant. More than Darfur, Iraq is a humanitarian disaster; it is an acute embarrassment for those who plumbed for war on humanitarian grounds, promising the ouster of Saddam Hussein would usher in an era of peace, prosperity and the flowering of human rights between the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates.

That doesn’t mean that Igantieff is backing away from the doctrine of humanitarian intervention he and others championed to justify the “imperialism lite” that has wrought such misery in Iraq. On the contrary, his mea culpa is a defense of the thinly disguised justification for military imperialism left-liberal public intellectuals have promoted since Yugoslavia to elevate wars of conquest waged on behalf of the corporate elite to human rights crusades.

Ignatieff says his support for the war grew from the moment he “saw what Saddam Hussein did to the Kurds (2).” It was at that point he became convinced that Saddam Hussein had to go, and that a war to remove him could be justified on those grounds alone. Others, including Noam Chomsky, also believed the Iraqi leader was a menace whose forced removal from power would constitute a major gain for humanity, though, to be sure, not all of those who shared this view backed the war. With hundreds of thousands dead as a result of the invasion, and a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since WWII, one wonders how many of those who invested the war with moral gravitas by demonizing the Iraqi leader, regret their craven pandering to Washington’s propaganda requirements. I suspect few do.

That doesn’t mean, however, that a few soft-left public intellectuals are not squirming in embarrassment. Ignatieff, for one, can no longer leave unaddressed the uncomfortable gulf between the reality of what the invasion has created and the promises of the war’s ameliorative effects the humanitarian interventionists inveigled the public into accepting.

Ignatieff’s error, he says, was in letting his good intentions cloud his judgment. He didn’t realize it would be so difficult to hold Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites together without “Saddam’s terror” or that it would be impossible to build a “free state” on the foundations of “35 years of police terror.” What’s more, his revulsion at Saddam’s repression of the Kurds (apparently one he doesn’t feel for the Turk’s repression of the same people, at least not enough for him to plead for a war on Turkey on humanitarian grounds) left him blinded to the reality that just “because America defended human rights and freedom in Bosnia and Kosovo (didn’t mean) it had to be doing so in Iraq.”

Ignatieff’s mea culpa has enough references to “Saddam’s terror” to make plain he still regards the invasion as justifiable on moral grounds (as in, it’s all right to kill 600,000 to depose one man from power, especially when he keeps giving away all the oil concessions to the wrong countries.) Moreover, his claim that US intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo represented a defense of human rights and freedom genuflects to the myths upon which the doctrine of humanitarian intervention is built. Ignatieff isn’t apologizing for “imperialism lite”; he’s defending it.

The United States no more defended human rights and freedom in Bosnia and Kosovo than it is doing today in Iraq and Afghanistan, except for the rights of those who own income-producing property and the freedom of US corporations, banks and investors to secure profitable investments, i.e., rights that are against the interests of you and me but are dearly held by those who give Ignatieff high-profile academic posts, open the op-ed pages of the New York Times to him, and encourage him with money and advice in his bid to become Canada’s prime minister.

Ignatieff speaks the language of the bamboozler. It is enough, he knows, to invoke the terms human rights and freedom, without in any way indicating whose rights he’s talking about and what referent he’s pairing freedom with (free to achieve what or be free from what?) to get people to at least acquiesce to the idea of war. This, George Bush, Tony Blair, and Gordon Brown also know. And so, in his mea culpa, human rights and freedom get star billing. Ignatieff wants us to believe his intentions, like those of America, were good; it’s just that his zeal to promote human rights and freedom kept him from seeing that Saddam had poisoned the soil in which the US government has so painstakingly tried to plant the seeds of democracy.

It’s impossible to take Ignatieff seriously. His self-appointed role is to justify the US ruling class’s naked pursuit of its class interests by dressing them up in the galvanizing language of humanitarianism to bring the rest of us onboard. His job is to enlist you and me to be the dupes who will sign up to fight in, promote, or acquiesce to, wars Bechtel, Exxon-Mobil, Lockheed-Martin, Chase Manhattan and scores of wealthy investors will profit from.

For this he is amply rewarded with high-profile academic positions, a pulpit in high-circulation establishment newspapers, and financial backing for his dalliances with electoral politics. Were he a German in Hitler’s Germany he would be on Goebbels’s payroll, putting a humanitarian gloss on the Fuehrer’s aggressions; in Mussolini’s Italy he would be demonizing Haile Selassie, pleading for an Abyssinian invasion; and in Tojo’s Japan, he would be calling for the invasion of China to liberate Asia from Western imperialism.

Like the sophists who hired out their forensic skills to the highest bidder, Igantieff is an intellectual whore who trades his credentials and skills of persuasion to shape public opinion in support of his patron’s wars for profits. His mea culpa is no apology; it is simply an attempt to save face now that the humanitarian disaster of Iraq has become an embarrassment that can no longer be ignored.

(1) Michael Ignatieff, “Getting Iraq Wrong”, The New York Times, August 5, 2007.
(2) Ignatieff’s deep feelings of humanitarian solidarity extend only to ethnic minorities whose plights Washington uses as a pretext to intervene in the affairs of other countries. Ignatieff feels sympathy for the Muslim community of Bosnia and ethnic Albanian Kosovars, but not for Palestinians or Lebanese. During the summer, 2006 Israel re-invasion of southern Lebanon, Ignatieff dismissed deaths of Lebanese civilians by Israeli forces as something “he wasn’t losing sleep over.” Globe and Mail, August 31, 2006.

Sicko

By Stephen Gowans

Michael Moore’s Sicko is an entertaining and emotionally compelling film. It exposes the harshness of profit-based healthcare to the majority of Americans, and does so in the film-maker’s accustomed engaging way. There is no one as deft in connecting on issues of concern to the left and ordinary people with as large an audience as Moore. On this, he has no peer.

While the film has been labelled controversial by the US media, it is anything but. Few Americans would disagree with the thesis of the film – that for them a program of universal healthcare would be far better than the current profit-based system.

What controversy the film has generated has been confined to those in whose interest universal healthcare is inimical: insurance companies whose profits would suffer grievously were universal healthcare adopted; banks, investors and corporations, who have an interest in shrinking the commons, not seeing it expanded; and the media, which – owned by the same class — reliably promotes its interests.

Media pundits accuse Moore of fudging the facts, warn Americans that Canada, France, Britain and Cuba (countries whose healthcare systems are highlighted in the film) are not healthcare paradises, and stress that free healthcare for all is not free, but comes with crushing taxes. (It is not pointed out, however, that the taxes are mainly shouldered by those most able to pay, i.e., the same people sounding the alarm about universal healthcare.)

For a Canadian who knows something about the single-payer health insurance plan Moore idolizes, the US media campaign against Moore’s film is a transparent propaganda offensive whose goal it is to discredit Moore and universal healthcare. It’s true the Canadian system has flaws – fatal ones if you believe the US media spin — but the flaws US scare-mongers cite have nothing whatever to do with the system itself, and everything to do with what Canadian politicians have spent the last two decades doing: under-funding the system to make Canadians increasingly dissatisfied so they’ll demand the wonders of the US for-profit system CNN is always touting and investors privately clamor for.

The fact of the matter is that the US spends considerably more per capita on healthcare than Canada does, and yet healthcare outcomes for ordinary people are better in Canada. The US spends infinitely more than Cuba does, but only manages to place a few notches higher on healthcare rankings. That the richest country in the world only manages to edge out a Third World country – and one it has spent the last four and half decades trying to strangle economically — says (1) much for Cuba’s system, (2) unless your wealthy, the US for-profit system sucks and (3) the Cuban system in an industrialized country would — by comparison to what’s available today — be the “healthcare nirvana” the US media warns doesn’t exist.

While Moore has cogently exposed the deep flaws of the US for-profit healthcare system, his comments to the media on what Americans should do to secure a better system are less compelling.

In a testy exchange with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, Moore suggested that “the people (who) have gone to my movie, the people that are concerned about this issue … write to Mrs. Clinton and say, please, universal healthcare that’s free for everyone who lives in this country.”

In response to the charge that the government is incapable of competently administering healthcare, Moore counters that there’s nothing wrong with the government, only with the people who get elected.

The implied solutions are straight out of Moore’s high school civics class textbook. Vote, write letters, be informed. If we press for universal healthcare, and elect the right people, we’ll get what we ask for.

But a deeper analysis would ask two questions:

Why is it that the “right” people rarely, if ever, get elected?

Why did Hilary Clinton’s proposal for healthcare reform die 14 years ago?

Contrary to what Moore and others learned in their high school civics classes, the US political system is not democratic, but plutocratic. It is minimally responsive to the interests of the majority of people, but maximally responsive to the interests of the slim minority that owns and controls the economy, and is able, by virtue of its ownership and control position, to command the resources that allow it to tilt the playing field decidedly in its own favor. Sure, there are elections, and most everyone is free to vote. But those who have money – and lots of it — can dominate the system. And who has lots of money?

Money power plays an overwhelming role in selecting candidates to stand for election, and not surprisingly, those candidates who are best able to command the considerable financial backing needed to get elected lean towards looking after the interests of the wealthy people and corporations cutting the checks. As a Canadian prime minister once said of politicians elected in capitalist democracies, “You dance with the one who brought you to the dance.”

Moore himself points to the subversive role money plays in politics. Hilary Clinton, who has reconciled herself to the monstrosity of the US healthcare system, is one of the largest recipients of insurance industry backing. Moore’s website calls her a leading “Sicko for Sale.”

So why does the film-maker think that people writing letters to beseech a co-opted Clinton for free healthcare is going to make a difference, especially when, as Moore acknowledges, 14 years ago the insurance industry “went after her” and “stopped her cold”? What has changed in 14 years to deny the insurance industry the power to stop (or co-opt) champions of universal healthcare?

Moore also genuflected to the nonsense he learned in high school civics classes when he scolded Wolf Blitzer and the US media for not doing their job in acting as an unofficial opposition, not safeguarding the public interest, and “not bringing the truth to (Americans) that isn’t sponsored by some major corporation.”

Like other liberals, Moore is aggrieved that the US and its institutions don’t live up to their rhetoric, believing that through pressure and moral suasion, politicians, CEOs, and the media can be forced to hew to civics textbook ideals.

But where, outside of the nonsense kids are force-fed in school, does it say the media have to be an unofficial opposition? And where does it say the media have to behave in a manner that puts the mission of informing the public ahead of their first and only obligation – to make profits for their owners?

CNN, FOX, The New York Times and other major media are under no obligation to ask tough questions of US leaders, to act in the public interest (is there a public interest that reconciles the conflicting interests of class?) or to “tell the truth to Americans that isn’t sponsored by some major corporation.” As businesses, their only obligation is to their owners, and their owners’ interests are decidedly at odds with those of the people who go to Moore’s films.

Call it a class-issue. If you deploy capital to generate profits, you have interests opposed to those of Moore’s audiences: war for oil profits versus not dying as a grunt in Iraq; the profits to be secured from private healthcare versus the security of free healthcare; a media that instils an ideology congenial to your profit-making interests versus one that challenges it.

Notwithstanding Moore’s complaints, Blitzer and other journalists haven’t failed to do their jobs. They’ve performed remarkably well. What Moore hasn’t figured out is that there isn’t a public interest for Blitzer to serve, only class interests. And since it’s not white and blue collar workers who own CNN, but the owners of Time-Warner who do, Blitzer isn’t working for us. He’s working for people who have an interest in private, for-profit healthcare, an aggressive foreign policy that’s good for business, and any other policy that takes money, wealth, labor and sweat from you, me, Iraqis, Venezuelans, Cubans and so on, and gives it to them.

Moore has also shown a certain blindness when it comes to Canada. On Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, Moore pointed favourably to Canada for not invading other countries and for operating a healthcare system Moore believes the US should adopt.

Canada’s healthcare system, while preferable to that of the US, still comes up short against Cuba’s. Moore explored the relative merits of the US, Canadian and Cuban healthcare systems in a “healthcare Olympics” segment of his former TV program TV Nation. While network censors forced Moore to declare Canada the winner, the film-maker admitted that Cuba had really won. If Cuba’s system is better (and it is) why endorse Canada’s?

As to Moore’s lionizing Canada for not invading other countries, he’s under the spell of an illusion.

•Canada took part in the UN “police action” in Korea in the 50s, which saw a US-led coalition invade the Korean peninsula to put down a national liberation movement operating in both the north and south.

•Canada is part of a force that invaded Haiti after its president, Jean Bertrand Aristide, was ousted by US intrigues.

•Canadian troops are occupying Afghanistan. Since US forces kicked down the door, and were never invited in, Canada’s occupation – which frees up US military resources to concentrate on the occupation of Iraq — is in any practical sense an invasion.

It might also be pointed out that Canada doesn’t play in the same league as the US and Britain when it comes to invading other countries, not because Canadians are peace-loving, but because Canada doesn’t have the military heft to mimic its neighbour to the south. Canada is driven by the same profit-making imperatives that impel US and British policy makers to use force, subversion, economic pressure, diplomacy and civil society to secure export and investment opportunities in other countries. Had Canada its neighbor’s military muscle it would just as ardently use bombers, missiles and tanks to kick down foreign doors.

Moore’s film, Sicko, is to be commended for the entertaining and engaging way it addresses an important issue. But the film-maker’s high-school civics class understanding of system, and his naïve illusions about Canada, leave much to be desired.