New Internationalist

Michael Ignatieff

Issue 385

Michael Ignatieff, who calls himself a liberal and a human rights campaigner, is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

This past January, in an article for Britain’s Observer, he deplored Western indifference to the Iraqi election. Ignatieff, who supported the invasion of Iraq, lamented: ‘The Bush Administration has managed the nearly impossible: to turn democracy into a disreputable slogan.’

Ignatieff, meanwhile, has helped turn human rights into a ‘disreputable slogan’, posing as their standard-bearer while condoning imperialism and equivocating on torture. His politics amount to a slippery slope, with nuanced arguments at the top and the horror chambers of Abu Ghraib below. Ignatieff, born and raised in Canada, has an impressive CV. The Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University, he has also been a professor at Oxford, a prize-winning author of fiction and non-fiction, a prolific print journalist and a BBC broadcaster – a well-established pop intellectual.

Like many of his kind, he was transformed by 9/11. He started advocating a more muscular protection of human rights and ended in the embrace of US imperialism. While criticizing various outcomes of Bush’s policies, he endorses their essential parts – scraping off the icing before eating the cake.

His clever wordplay doesn’t disguise a poor grasp of the facts. Reading Ignatieff’s feature articles in the New York Times Magazine over the past four years, one discovers that the pompous professor is a bad student who doesn’t actually learn from his own mistakes. In ‘Nation Building Lite’ (July 2002), Ignatieff calls for heavy-handed nation-building in Afghanistan: ‘The [Afghans] understand the difficult truth that their best hope of freedom lies in a temporary experience of imperial rule.’ And to work, ‘imperial power requires controlling the subject people’s sense of time, convincing them that they will be ruled forever.’

Six months later, in ‘The Burden’, he brushes off imperialism’s racist past and transfers his Afghanistan theory to Iraq, where he claims empire is ‘the last hope for democracy and stability alike’.

But the US-led occupation got bogged down in blood. The advocate of long-term, authoritarian American nation-building quickly switches arguments, reverting to the latest US propaganda line: blame the natives. In June 2004: ‘America cannot defend Iraq from its demons of division: it can only help Iraqis do so… In Iraq, America is not the maker of history but its plaything.’ This past summer, another twist in the wind. Ignatieff, an imperialist once more, now claims that the US must spread liberty around the world because… it is the legacy of founding father Thomas Jefferson.

Ethnocentric and naïve as they may be, Ignatieff’s delusional dreams of US nation-building aren’t the worst he has to offer. There’s also his fudging the question of torture. In early May 2004, the same week as the photos of American soldiers torturing hooded Iraqis in the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad were first made public, he wrote: ‘Defeating terror requires violence… indefinite detention of subjects, coercive interrogations, targeted assassinations, even pre-emptive war.’ He suggests a grey zone of acceptable torture: ‘Permissible forms of duress might include forms of sleep deprivation that do not result in lasting harm to mental or physical health, together with disinformation and disorientation (like keeping prisoners in hoods) that would produce stress.’

But such ‘lesser evils’ have a schoolboy gullibility about them, assuming ‘evil’ is something easily and safely controlled. Given that Ignatieff’s breakout in the 1970s was an historical study of Britain’s prisons, could he really believe that repressive violence can be split into tidy, airtight categories?

When a genuine defender of human rights, Conor Gearty, wrote in Index on Censorship this year that Ignatieff’s arguments provide Donald Rumsfeld with ‘the intellectual tools with which to justify his Government’s expansionism’, Ignatieff went ballistic.

Resigning from Index’s editorial board, he claimed to have always opposed torture and that his reputation had been maligned. Ignatieff is stunned to discover that his liberal, human-rights colleagues are abandoning him. The only glue that holds his disconnected arguments together these days seems to be an admiration of fearless power.

His growing isolation couldn’t come at a worse time. In January 2006, he is coming home to Canada to take up a position at the University of Toronto. According to rumour, he’s plotting a run for the leadership of Canada’s ruling Liberal party, hoping to become Prime Minister.

Canada’s newsweekly Macleans claims Ignatieff as the country’s ‘Sexiest Cerebral Man’ with ‘made-for-TV looks and effortless eloquence’. His supporters see him as a kind of philosopher-king who can restore good manners and intellectual rigour to Canadian federal politics. But his reputation as a social justice campaigner is dissolving under his feet.

Ignatieff’s support for the global projection of US power may endanger his political ambitions in Canada, where people overwhelmingly oppose the Iraq war and continue to distrust Bush’s imperial policies. When Canadians demand an explanation from Ignatieff, and tire of his longwinded and convoluted answers, someone may have to whisper to him: ‘We’re not at Harvard any more.’

Michael Ignatieff Fact File
Name
Michael Ignatieff
Job
Human rights campaigner, Harvard professor and Canadian political wannabe.
Reputation
Tough-minded liberal. Intellectual defender of the national security state. Apologist for empire.
Sense of humour
‘A liberal society cannot be defended by herbivores. We need carnivores to save us, but we had better make sure our meat-eaters hunt only on our orders.’
Low cunning
‘I supported an administration [invading Iraq] whose intentions I didn’t trust, believing the consequences would repay the gamble. Now I realize that intentions do shape consequences.’
Sources
Sources: ‘No more Mr Nice Guy’, Laurie Taylor, Toronto Star, 28 Aug 2005; Wikipedia.org; ‘Mirage in the Desert’, New York Times Magazine, 27 June 2004; ‘The Burden’, NYT Magazine, 5 Jan 2003; ‘Lesser Evils’, NYT Magazine, 2 May 2004; ‘Iraqis fight a lonely battle for democracy’, Observer, 30 Jan 2005; ‘Michael Ignatieff: Apostle of He-manitarianism’, Michael Neumann, Counterpunch, 8 Dec 2003.

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