February 26, 2009


Ignatieff: an intellectual in politics: Michael Ignatieff, the telegenic intellectual and writer, has had three separate careers in three different countries. Now the former presenter of the Late Show is tipped to become the next prime minister of Canada (David Herman, March 2009, Prospect)

Ignatieff’s second career was in America, as director of the Carr Centre for Human Rights Policy at Harvard. Here he played a leading part in debates on contemporary war, terrorism and human rights. He was one of the most quoted liberal supporters of the Iraq war and defended “the American empire” in a series of long articles in the New York Times. Then in 2005 he left the US for Canada, and his third career, this time as a politician, first as a Liberal MP, then within three years as leader of the Liberal opposition party. [...]

[A]mid the breaks—changing country, changing career, moving on to new subjects—there have been important continuities too.

There is the importance of anti-communism and liberal anti-leftism, which led to two sharp breaks with the mainstream left, first in Britain over Thatcherism and the miners’ strike, then in America over 9/11, Iraq and the war on terror. His intellectual fathers, Berlin and Milosz among them, were famous anti-communists.

There is another continuity: the importance of service and public duty. His paternal grandfather, Pavel Ignatiev, a Russian count, was Nicholas II’s last education minister. His great-grandfather, Count Nikolay Ignatyev, was the Russian minister of the interior under Tsar Alexander III. “My grandfather’s favourite phrase,” he writes in The Russian Album, was “Life is not a game, life is not a joke. It is only by putting on the chains of service that man is able to accomplish his destiny on earth.” Ignatieff’s father, too, put on “the chains of service” as a lifelong Canadian diplomat. [...]

[B]osnia, and then Kosovo, changed everything. In 1993, Ignatieff wrote and presented Blood and Belonging, a six-part television series on “the new nationalism.” From then on, through the 1990s, he was increasingly drawn to a new agenda: post-1989 nationalism, new kinds of war and the challenge both present to liberalism. In a later interview in the New York Times, Ignatieff told Kate Zernike, “being anti-war and anti-use-of-force was a kind of defining signature of being a liberal, but that was 30 years ago. In the 90s, being a liberal meant being in favour of military intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo. Human rights has come into this and complicated the picture.”

Two things were going on in the mid and late 1990s, side by side. On the one hand, Ignatieff was going to Oxford regularly to interview Isaiah Berlin for the authorised biography. Many of these conversations were about liberalism and its enemies, including nationalism. At the same time, he was writing about the war in former Yugoslavia and then Kosovo which put these issues to the test.

There was something else which may explain the impact that the war in former Yugoslavia had on Ignatieff. In an essay in 2002, on the bridge at Mostar, in Bosnia, he writes: “[I] saw the bridge once in my childhood. In 1959, my family and I drove through Bosnia in a heavy black Buick.” His father had been Canadian ambassador to Yugoslavia and later to the UN. He was the embodiment of UN ideals, which have such a powerful resonance in liberal Canada. For Ignatieff, Bosnia was not just about liberalism, it was about the values his father stood for. [...]

Then came 9/11. America was fighting terrorism and then in Iraq. How does a liberal intellectual face up to the choices and dilemmas of liberalism during a war on terror? He ended up siding with Hitchens, Amis and Paul Berman against most of his former friends on the left. “September 11th was not politics by other means,” he wrote in the Guardian. “There were no demands and there never will be… Since the politics of reason cannot defeat apocalyptic nihilism, we must fight.” But, and here came the voice of liberalism, “a war against terror must be discriminate, proportional and restrained.”

And what if it isn’t? This was the question he faced as 9/11 gave way to the war on terror and then the war against Saddam. In January 2003, he wrote a piece called, “The American Empire: The Burden” for the New York Times magazine. He declared his support for the invasion of Iraq. Sanctions weren’t working. “The disagreeable reality for those who believe in human rights is that there are some occasions—and Iraq may be one of them—when war is the only real remedy for regimes that live by terror… The choice is between two evils, between containing and leaving a tyrant in place and the targeted use of force, which will kill people but free a nation from the tyrant’s grip.”

Two experiences influenced Ignatieff’s support for Iraq. In 1999 he was filming in Belgrade. He was struck by the precision of the bombing raids on Belgrade. Particular buildings had been destroyed, leaving adjoining ones standing. This was a new kind of war. His next television project was Future War, a three-part series for BBC2, the basis for his book, Virtual War (2000). New technology was changing war. This was not Guernica or Dresden, or even Gaza.

Secondly, like Hitchens, Ignatieff was hugely influenced by Iraqi exiles. He saw this as a humanitarian war against one of the most despicable tyrants in the world, not just the region. He was part of a generation haunted by Rwanda and Bosnia. Like Tony Blair, he was a humanitarian interventionist.

One of the linchpins of BDS is the bizarre notion that W drove away our previously uber-friendly allies. The canard is nicely illustrated by Canada, where not only was an anti-American prime minister replaced by a Bush-like conservative but even the party of the Left chose a Blair-like leader.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at February 26, 2009 7:54 AM
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