Telling true lies about Michael Ignatieff

The left-wing intellectual icon is reconciled to the fact that there will always be those who consider him controversial

Michael Ignatieff, the dashing, 59-year-old former director of Harvard University's Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, is the fastest-rising star in Canadian politics. He's the front-runner for the leadership of the Liberal party of Canada, but he confesses to an understanding of politics as tragedy, as a matter of always having to choose the lesser evil.

During a wide-ranging interview with the Georgia Straight, Ignatieff described one of those lesser evils this way: Canadians should abandon their innocence about the world. What that will mean, partly, is abandoning anti-Americanism, which is a “patriotism of fools”. He said these things, and then he said it was also true that Canada should reduce its reliance on American markets.

Ignatieff situates himself solidly on the centre-left and calls himself a “progressive liberal”, but he is also a champion of free trade. If you go looking for the greatest single human-rights advance in recent history, Ignatieff will find it for you in the elevation of 500 million people from absolute poverty in China and India, all due to the expansion of global capitalism.

If he were prime minister, Ignatieff said, he would press for broadened Canadian trade with China, and he would still like to put this question to the Chinese government: “Do you really want to build your prosperity on slavery?”

It went on like this for an hour. Not a single easy sound bite. Not one glib rejoinder. Nothing that was not nuanced and at least the tiniest bit complicated.

Like the real world.

And that is the way Michael Ignatieff, a Booker-shortlisted novelist and a scion of Russian aristocracy, has come home after being away for nearly 30 years, most of that spent in the U.K. He returned only last year, and he arrived as fearlessly as an honoured son who enters his father's house. Already, he's quite possibly Canada's next prime minister.

The gall of the man.

It would be so much easier to just be done with it and report that, really, Ignatieff is Mephistopheles, that during the hour we sat alone in conversation, in a restaurant booth in a dark corner of the cavernous tropical atrium of the Rainbow Country Inn in Chilliwack, he caused a candle on the table to burst into flames merely by staring at it intently with his famously blue eyes.

But that would be an obvious lie. So a less obvious one, then.

Ignatieff may very well appear to be a charming left-wing intellectual in an impeccably tailored blue-linen suit with a white shirt and pink silk tie. But he's really just a right-wing thug who wants the laws changed to allow the police to force confessions out of people by pulling their fingernails out.

That's the problem with Ignatieff. It's just so damn easy to lie about him. And people do.

The thing is, Ignatieff has never been confined to the cloistered world that politicians inhabit. He's always lived in the spotlight as a public intellectual, an author, a journalist, and a public-affairs broadcaster. Among his 16 books is a family memoir, The Russian Album, which won the Governor General's Award. The Booker-shortlisted one is Scar Tissue, a novel based on his mother's descent into dementia.

So there's a lot of material to work with, you could say, and his works of philosophy, biography, and public policy touch on some of the most hotly contested questions of our age—not the least of which is the tension between public security and individual liberty, between order and disorder.

His major works include the Orwell Prize–winner Virtual War: Kosovo and Beyond, as well as The Warrior's Honour, The Rights Revolution, and Blood and Belonging. Ignatieff's bio?graphy of the great liberal philo?sopher Isaiah Berlin was shortlisted for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and his most recent and perhaps most controversial books are Empire Lite, a book about “nation-building” in an age of failed states, and The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror.

These last two books established Ignatieff as an ardent advocate of western military intervention for humanitarian purposes, at precisely the moment that the main liberal-left currents had become obsessively “anti-imperialist” and reflexively anti-American.

That would account for at least some of the enmity Ignatieff provokes on the left. But his audacity might also have something to do with it.

His charmed career as a left-wing intellectual has taken in everything from seven honorary doctoral degrees to his picture on the cover of GQ magazine. And Ignatieff's initial support for the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq was the gravest possible transgression from liberal-left orthodoxy, especially in Canada.

If you are a person whose idea of Canada reads like the script of a Michael Moore documentary, it is enough to make you want to open a vein.

But that's just my own speculation about why some people seem to hate Ignatieff so much. I thought I'd ask him what he thought.

It started this way.

“I'm sure it has something to do with me and my obnoxious personal characteristics. I'm sure,” Ignatieff said. His answer then turned into a kind of soliloquy on the history of arguments between liberals and certain sections of the left, going back to the end of the Second World War. When he got back to the point, Igna?tieff betrayed more than a hint of sadness about the way certain quarters of the left have obsessed over him and twisted his ideas.

Like the bit about him being in favour of torture. It arises mainly from a purposeful misreading of a 2004 Financial Times article he wrote about the “lesser-evil” dilemma in the case of torture, along with sections of a chapter in his book The Lesser Evil. In April this year, Ignatieff wrote a lengthy essay in Britain's Prospect magazine to set matters straight, declaring his opposition to torture “under any circumstances”, even if a zero-tolerance approach proves “an unpopular policy that may make us more vulnerable to terrorism”.

The Prospect essay should have blunted the pain of any pro-torture indictment, but it was obvious when we spoke that Ignatieff is still bruised.

“I have a really deep and abiding horror of torture,” Ignatieff said. “The idea that I advocate for torture is anathema to me. The idea that I would be an apologist for brutality and violence.…All I can do is patiently work away, interview by interview and encounter by encounter, with people's hostility and misapprehensions, and try to correct them. But I'm entirely reconciled to the fact that there will always be people who find me a controversial character.”

A controversial character he most certainly is.

When we met in Chilliwack, Ignatieff had just come from the Liberals' three-day retreat in Vancouver, where his campaign staff filed a complaint with senior party officials after an anonymous “Stop Iggy” group apparently obtained confidential party-membership lists. The “Stop Iggy” people have paid particular attention to Ignatieff's early public support for the Anglo-American enterprise in Iraq.

Nothing about Ignatieff is quite so controversial as his position on the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

During our conversation, Ignatieff disclosed that he actually has had some second thoughts about his position on the Iraq war. Not regrets, but definitely second thoughts. Only they're not the sort of second thoughts you might expect.

“What I have second thoughts about is, how far should intense personal experience, in this case the suffering of the Kurds and the Shia, impact your personal judgment?” And in his case, “It's possible that it did,” he said.

Ignatieff said he came to the question of the Iraq invasion from a conviction that no boundaries exist between domestic and international commitments to human rights. But also, after working on a documentary film in Iraq, “I was so scorched by what I saw, in what had been done to the Kurds, that I just thought, then and there, I was going to stand with these people.”

And so stand he did, and, in retrospect, the “sheer passion” he felt for the human-rights case for regime change was a factor in his judgment, he said.

It's true that Saddam Hussein had waged two wars, one against Iran and the other against Kuwait, at a cost of more than a million lives. He also had a dangerous weapons program, and it was logical to consider him a threat to his own people and to international security, Ignatieff said.

But Ignatieff conceded that he miscalculated a couple of things. The first involved the “unintended consequences” of the use of force. The second was that “the Americans made every single mistake you could think of, and then some.”

It would have been necessary to remove the Iraqi regime one way or another, anyway: the sanctions were breaking down, and Saddam was secretly skimming off billions in oil revenues. Clearly, something had to be done, Ignatieff said. And that's what the “antiwar” position doesn't address.

“There is a kind of anti-Americanism that I understand, but it renders people so enraged that they cease to see some of the moral consequences of their own position, namely that they're going to leave millions of people inside a jail with Saddam Hussein. To which they then would reply, ‘Well, isn't this worse?' And I won't even deny that. But the thing that I felt so strongly, about the decision to go, was that the left, particularly in America, only talk about the costs of the military operation. And in some senses they got that right. But they have no sense of the cost of doing nothing.”

None of this means that Canada was wrong for refusing to join the Anglo-American invasion, though: “I think Chrétien acted in the interest of the Canadian people at the time.”

In this way, the question led to a discussion about what “liberalism” is, and how a recognition of the lesser evil in decision-making makes liberalism, in Ignatieff's formulation, different from other currents on the left.

“The utopian left has a view that you can engage in a kind of angelic social choice, where there's no cost, no penalties, no losses. Well, my sense is that politics is always about choosing the lesser evil, in metaphoric terms, and sometimes the lesser evil in a very real sense…it is basically driven by a quite tragic sense of what politics is about.”

But when Ignatieff talks about distinctly Canadian politics, what he describes is not immediately distinguishable from the values one might just as easily associate with American liberals. We're for public health care, against the death penalty, and for equality rights, including same-sex marriage rights, he said.

Well, so are American liberals.

This touches on another canard that Ignatieff has to contend with, the point of which is that when all is said and done, he's just a Yank. All you have to do is read those speeches Ignatieff made to American audiences in which he used the pronouns we and ours. And remember that of his nearly 30-year absence from Canada, all but a few of those years were spent in the U.K.

What's more directly relevant among all these distinctions about centre-left political culture is the specific division between the Liberals and the New Democrats.

By the 1990s, most British Columbians who identified themselves to pollsters as being “left wing” were voting Liberal, not NDP. But in the voters' choice between the Liberals and New Democrats, Ignatieff faces an uphill battle in casting himself as the lesser evil among the Liberal candidates.

Ignatieff's closest rivals are Bob Rae—the former NDP premier of Ontario, who was Ignatieff's roommate during their student days at the University of Toronto—and Stéphane Dion, the seasoned Ottawa politician and former environment minister much beloved by Canada's environmentalists.

With Ignatieff's recently unveiled Kyoto-compliance strategy, which embraces a variety of remedies ranging from carbon sequestration and renewable-energy investment to revenue-neutral tax reforms and emissions-trading, he has managed to match Dion as an “environmental” champion.

But on the matter of Canada's mission in Afghanistan, Ignatieff is as strong a supporter of the mission as any of the Liberal leadership contenders. Rae has distinguished himself by taking a deeply skeptical position on the entire project, which is far closer to the stance of most Canadians, whose enthusiasm has been waning ever since Stephen Harper's Conservatives took office.

Why are Canadians becoming so disillusioned?

For one thing, Ignatieff said, Canadian soldiers are dying there. But there is a “deeper obstacle”, and it's the idea that Canadian soldiers have become “auxiliaries of the American empire, fighting a counterterrorism war that has nothing to do with us”.

On this question, Ignatieff has no second thoughts.

Canada is in Afghanistan at the invitation of the country's democratically elected government, with the approval of the United Nations, as part of a NATO engagement, Ignatieff said. If we pull out now, Afghanistan could fall prey to a terrorist militia, leading to a civil war, and “the last war cost a million lives,” as he points out.

And this is where we have to leave our innocence behind.

“The things that Canadians have understood is they've understood globalization. They've understood that the future of the British Columbia economy is somehow tied up to China and India. And Vancouver is the great epitome of Canada waking up to globalization and profiting and benefiting from it,” he said.

“But the other side of globalization is that security threats, very long and very far away, are our business, in a way that I think we didn't, we don't, understand. And that's the innocence here. And that innocence has to end because our security really is involved in these things.”