Monday, August 13, 2007

Michael Ignatieff: Putting Iraq Behind Him


Canadian politicians are very mulish when it comes to admitting that they have ever been wrong about anything. That’s why when Michael Ignatieff proclaimed that he had been wrong about the invasion of Iraq, in an article in the New York Times Magazine, it mattered.

In his article, while Ignatieff says much and leaves much unsaid, he is clear in stating that his judgment had been wrong about the Iraq invasion.

Ignatieff attributes US failure in Iraq to the fact that it was a country “of which most Americans knew little”, and that those supporting the invasion were wrong in supposing that “a free state could arise on the foundations of 35 years of police terror.” He adds that those such as himself who championed the US mission were wrong in believing that “because America defended human rights and freedom in Bosnia and Kosovo it had to be doing so in Iraq.” He says that people such as himself did not grapple sufficiently with the hard questions like: “Can Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites hold together in peace what Saddam Hussein held together by terror?” On the subject of leadership, he says this of George W. Bush: “It was not merely that the president did not take the care to understand Iraq. He also did not take the care to understand himself. The sense of reality that might have saved him from catastrophe would have taken the form of some warning bell sounding inside, alerting him that he did not know what he was doing.”

Ignatieff dismisses the warnings of those he says predicted catastrophe in Iraq in advance for ideological reasons, those he says are always disposed to think the Americans are in the wrong. It is not surprising that Ignatieff has little time for those who opposed him from the beginning on Iraq. He sees them as having been right, but for the wrong reasons.

What Ignatieff does not tell us in the article is whether he has re-thought his position on the American Empire in light of Iraq. This is no small matter. Ignatieff framed his support for the invasion of Iraq as a telling case in which the American Empire was needed to act on behalf of those who had nowhere else to turn if they desired human rights and the rule of law. “The case for empire is that it has become, in a place like Iraq, the last hope for democracy and stability alike,” Ignatieff wrote in the New York Times Magazine in January 2003 two months before the invasion, noting that critics “have not factored in what tyranny or chaos can do to vital American interests.”

Has Ignatieff now changed his mind about the utility of empire, empire lite, the American Empire? He doesn’t tell us.

Perhaps we should not make too much of this. At length in the article, Ignatieff discusses the differences between a theorist on the one hand and a practicing politician on the other. He is at pains to tell us that while he was the former in the past, he is now the latter.

Throughout the course of Canadian history, ambiguity on the question of empire has been a hallmark of our most distinguished Liberal prime ministers.

Liberal prime ministers have always been well-disposed to the United States when they have come to office. But they have learned on the job how difficult the Canadian relationship with the empire can be.

Wilfrid Laurier received his education in office in the days when it was the British, not the Americans, who dominated our lives. Leading a country torn between pro-imperialists (mostly Anglo-Canadians) and anti-imperialists (mostly French Canadians), he once proclaimed: “I am neither imperialist, nor anti-imperialist. I am Canadian.”

When Lester Pearson came to office in 1963, he was regarded as a great friend of America, and was welcomed on board by President John F. Kennedy, who had detested Pearson’s Tory predecessor, John Diefenbaker. Pearson learned how short the leash for a Canadian prime minister can be when he was summoned to Camp David by JFK’s successor, Lyndon Johnson. Johnson was furious because Pearson had called on the White House, in a speech delivered in the US, to order a pause in the bombing of North Vietnam. At their meeting, Johnson seized Pearson by the lapels and pulled him to his feet. After leaving office, Pearson described his meeting with LBJ as “my trip to Berchdesgaden” (a reference to Hitler’s Bavarian retreat).

Today people forget that when Pierre Trudeau came to power, he was notably pro-American, once proclaiming that after he retired he might choose to live in New York. Trudeau abominated nationalism, not just Quebec nationalism, but Canadian nationalism as well. During his days at 24 Sussex Drive, Trudeau dealt with five US presidents, but his views of America were mostly shaped by Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. When Nixon proclaimed his New Economic Policy in the summer of 1971, he delivered a severe blow to Canada. Trudeau learned the lesson that Canada ought to care about Canadian ownership of major economic sectors, particularly the energy sector. Nixon helped push Trudeau down the road to the creation of Petro-Canada as a publicly owned corporation, and later to launch the National Energy Program, whose central goal was fifty per cent Canadian ownership of the petroleum industry.

The members of the Reagan administration detested Trudeau, regarding him as an untrustworthy ally, who could not be brought into the loop on matters such as the US occupation of Grenada in 1983. The Reagan White House joined forces with the oil companies and the multinationals in their assault on Trudeau’s economic nationalism. By the time he left office, Trudeau was seen in Washington as an anti-American pinko.

If ambiguity on empire and learning on the job have turned up on the CVs of former Liberal prime ministers, including Jean Chretien and Paul Martin, what are we to make of Michael Ignatieff, who while not the leader is one of his party’s brightest lights?

Ignatieff returned to Canada to pursue the leadership of the Liberal Party with two strikes against him. The first, his decades-long absence from the country, is quickly fading with the passage of time. Ignatieff got himself elected to parliament, made a strong run for the leadership of his party and has performed effectively as the Liberals’ deputy leader. Those who thought he was just a Harvard intello have been proven wrong by Ignatieff’s stellar performance during Question Period. By far the most effective opposition politician in the House, Ignatieff has savaged the Tory front bench, regularly getting the better of Stephen Harper.

The second strike against Ignatieff was that he returned to Canada as an apologist for George W. Bush, and an advocate of empire and the invasion of Iraq. He appeared in the guise of a would-be Tony Blair. While Canadians have bred their own poodles for Reagan, Bush I and Bush II---their names are Brian Mulroney and Stephen Harper---Liberal voters are not looking for a poodle.

For Ignatieff to realize his full potential in Canadian politics, he had to put his support for the invasion of Iraq behind him. He has now done that.

And although he voted in the House of Commons to extend the Canadian mission in Afghanistan to February 2009, he has become one of the most effective critics of the shortcomings of the mission.

Ignatieff’s major impact on our politics to date has been to force federal politicians to recognize Quebec as a nation within Canada---a step long overdue.

He has now cleared the debris aside so he can demonstrate just how much political talent he has.

1 comment:

John FitzGerald said...

The chief political talent Michael Ignatieff has is an ability to shed his skin quickly as soon as the old one becomes unattractive.