OTTAWA -If any of Michael Ignatieff 's former Harvard students read his lengthy mea culpa over his support for the Iraq war they might think about demanding a refund on their $40,000 tuition fees. In an article to be published in the New York Times Magazine tomorrow, Mr. Ignatieff is frank in his assessment that academics, particularly political scientists, are as useless as pulled teeth.
Doubtless it doesn't appear in Harvard's marketing literature but in Mr. Ignatieff 's opinion, "a sense of reality doesn't always flourish in elite institutions."
Since leaving Harvard in 2005 for a life in politics, the Liberal Party's deputy leader claims that exposure to political reality has convinced him that decisions he made as an intellectual, such as support for the Iraq war, were taken because they were "interesting", rather than because they were right.
"In academic life, false ideas are merely false and useless ones can be fun to play with. In political life, false ideas can ruin the lives of millions and useless ones can waste precious resources," he says.
As such, he now says he made a mistake when he supported the 2003 invasion, thus proving George Bernard Shaw's contention that a promising political career beckons for those who know nothing but think they know everything.
Mr. Ignatieff was not the only left-leaning intellectual to support George Bush's war. Yet, while others in the "pro-liberation left" such as Christopher Hitchens still believe that peaceful co-existence with aggressive regimes and ideologies is neither possible nor desirable, Mr. Ignatieff now claims to see the benefits of realpolitik -- the world as it is, rather than how he wishes it would be.
Not that coming out against the war in Iraq should necessarily be cause for censure. I've long agreed with former U.S counter-terrorism advisor Richard Clarke, who argued in his book Against All Enemies that the invasion of Iraq hampered the war on terror and, for millions of Muslims, validated Osama bin Laden's claim that America wanted to invade oil-rich Middle Eastern countries.
But Mr. Ignatieff 's explanation for his conversion sounds thin and he comes across as someone who doesn't choose an opinion but just wears whatever happens to be in style, to borrow from Tolstoy.
Mr. Ignatieff 's stance on Iraq has been a millstone for him personally and the party. The Liberals are already campaigning against the "U.S. Republican tactics" of the Conservatives, so having their deputy leader on record as supporting his greatest misadventure has been a major crimp on their attacks on the government.
There may also be more selfish reasons for Mr. Ignatieff 's dramatic change of heart. While he has reined in his supporters from actively campaigning for their man to replace Liberal leader Stephane Dion, he must still harbour ambitions to take over the top job should Mr. Dion falter.
His support for the Iraq war proved to be a major obstacle for his leadership ambitions last time -- and probably would be so again.
In this circumstance, a carefully planted mea culpa in a U.S. publication in the middle of summer should help enable Mr. Ignatieff to refute any future claims that he is just Stephen Harper-lite.
Why anyone would rush to back a man who, by his own admission, is in the process of learning the craft of good judgment in politics, is quite another matter.
"Bismarck famously remarked that political judgment was the ability to hear, before anyone else, the distant hoofbeats of the horse of history. Few of us hear the horses coming," he wrote, with admirable but perhaps ill-advised frankness.
For Conservatives, tired of wheeling out the old "we didn't get it done" line, Mr. Ignatieff is the gift that keeps on giving.
Ignatieff 's about-face on Iraq