"I was wrong." That might be the least-common sentence in politics, but it can also sometimes be the most useful. At least we can be sure it is usually said honestly.
Michael Ignatieff, an academic and "public intellectual" who is now deputy leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, subjected himself last weekend to a public self-flagellation that is rare enough in the scholarly world and even rarer in the political arena. In an article published in the New York Times Magazine, Ignatieff says his support of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a mistake.
But that, and the whole Iraq issue, is just part of what's interesting about what Ignatieff is now saying. His Iraq admission is merely one element in a wide-ranging self-examination, in the Times piece and in an interview with the Globe and Mail after CanWest News Service first reported on the Times article.
Ignatieff's self-criticism deserves to be remembered much longer than his volte-face on Iraq, because it is the sort of intelligent candour that is so painfully rare in public life. It's a refreshing and thought-provoking glimpse at how an intelligent person copes with the challenges of policy decision-making.
Ignatieff, formerly a political science professor at Harvard University, told the Globe life in the political trenches is not what he expected when he became a Toronto MP and Liberal leadership candidate. "I spent five years ... teaching political science to bright people," he said, "and ... I would teach it totally differently now." There is a lot, he said, that's "different about the judgments you make in the safety of academic life from the judgments you make in politics.
"Good judgment in politics, it turns out, depends on being a critical judge of yourself," he wrote in the Times. That statement appears in the context of criticism of those, led by President George W. Bush, who propelled the United States into Iraq. But he's also referring to himself.
He wrote he is "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. ... I've learned that acquiring good judgment in politics starts with knowing when to admit your mistakes. ... The lesson I draw for the future (from what has happened in Iraq) is to be less influenced by the passions of people I admire - Iraqi exiles, for example - and to be less swayed by my emotions."
Many people in Canada and the United States have abandoned their support for the Iraq adventure in recent years, but few have brought such open intellectual honesty to the process.
It remains to be seen what political price Ignatieff will pay, if any, for questioning his own decision-making skills in such a public way. Some in this country are disturbed that the deputy leader of Canada's main opposition party chose to speak out this way via a U.S. newspaper. His explanation is that it was in the Times that he published several pro-invasion articles in 2003 and 2004. His political opponents will scoff at his honest admission that decision-making, in the heat and dust of political conflict, is so difficult. He has opened himself up, to a degree, to the very kind of "gotcha" politics he decries when he says the political realm is a world of "lunatic literalism."
People want, he notes in the article, self-confident leadership. But the eternally adversarial nature of party politics drives out candour about uncertainty, and can reward rigidity even when flexibility is needed. And when "false ideas can ruin the lives of millions," then self-confidence can quickly become a weakness, not a strength. Just ask George W. Bush.
To dwell on these issues of leadership, in public, with candour, is a laudable and valuable thing for Ignatieff to have done.