Ignatieff on torture

The Liberal leader talks with Maclean’s Editor-in-Chief Kenneth Whyte


Ignatieff on torture

Q: On the use of torture, an issue you’ve written about, you said that to defeat evil sometimes we have to traffic in evil, and you did advocate indefinite detention of subjects and coercive interrogation. Do you still feel the same way about those matters?

A: I think if you read the entirety of The Lesser Evil—and I think I can ask that it be read and judged in its entirety—I have a very personal horror of torture.

Q: That’s clear in the piece.

A: I believe that we are faced with people who are a danger to Canadian national security and a danger to our way of life, and we’re part of a global effort, not a war on terror but a global effort, to defeat extremism, and the message in The Lesser Evil, the metaphor that was key to me in The Lesser Evil, was democratic states have to fight this battle with one hand tied behind their back, and it’s because they tie one hand behind their back that they win. So getting to the issue of interrogation, interrogation has to be consistent with Canadian law, consistent with international conventions—like the Convention on Torture—consistent with our international obligations. It has to be rigorous and thorough, because we’re up against some threats to our security, but it must be within the traditions of the Canadian Charter and the applicable laws, and it must be subject to democratic scrutiny.

ALSO AT MACLEANS.CA: Ignatieff on the budget

Q: Does Canadian law allow for coercive interrogation?

A: I don’t believe we should engage in those forms of coercive interrogations. Rigorous interrogation can take place without actions that would disgrace us morally or legally.

Q: What’s the difference between coercive and rigorous interrogation?

A: Rigorous interrogation is consistent with Canadian law and international standards.

Q: So it’s not coercive.

A: Not coercive.

Q: So you no longer believe that coercive interrogation is advisable.

A: When I talked about coercive interrogation, people then made the allusion right away to torture. That was never, ever, ever intended/desired/stated. There is a clear line between tough interrogations that stay on the right side of the law and stuff that gets into the area of moral disgrace, and I’ve always been clear what that line is.

For the complete interview, pick up the Feb. 16 issue of Maclean’s, on newsstands now.


Ignatieff on torture

  1. Well that taste was just not enough to coerce me into rigorously reaching into my pocket to buy the print edition. Sorry!

  2. Did anyone think to ask Ignatieff how he could once write that he was ‘quite close’ to the position of Jean Bethke Elshtain on ‘torture lite’ or ‘torture 2’ , and then later say that he, as a human rights professor, would never come within ‘a million miles of endorsing torture’ ?


    Or was this just one more printed, published contradiction out of which Slippery Mike was permitted to squirm?

    • In the Lesser Evil, Ignatieff quite correctly observed that interrogations, by definition, are ‘coercive’ in that they aren’t friendly conversations. Since then – and the book was published only a while before Abu Ghraib – the term coercive interrogation has come to be the official United States euphemism for torture light, opposition to which was essentially the entire point of Ignatieff’s having written on the subject.

      His contention is that for prohibitions against torture to stand up to the pressures they’ll experience in the event of some public threat or trauma, they have to be explained and argued not merely to the third of us who intuitively ‘get’ the self-defeating nature of torture, but also to the two thirds of the public which, quite frankly, doesn’t, who will overrule us, along with coercive institutions, in the event of such a trauma.

      A detailed, nitty-gritty explanation of the pros and cons of torture is part of the exercise of drawing bright, uncrossable lines of moral and legal unacceptability; to say what is unacceptable, you also, in effect, talk about what is, just barely. That entire exercise was in fact as necessary as Ignatieff argued; it did not take place in the early 2000s, and the results were catastrophic. Obviously for the US most of all, but also quite probably for other countries complicit in human rights abuses.

      However; these are precisely the sorts of things which someone going into politics does not want to commit to writing. All well and good to have Kenneth Roth vouch for you; it won’t stop political opponents from copy-pasting all of the “just barely alowed” ruminations into a pamphlet, leaving the rest of the conversation to academic oblivion, and enraging (admittedly few) NDP/Lib voters. So, when Macleans asks Mr. Ignatieff if he supports coercive interrogation, he says no, because quite frankly, do you think it’d be smart for him to answer what I just wrote? Dear god no.

      And as a result, Kenneth Whyte gets to ask the Tim Russert style follow up, “Oh, so now you don’t.” Of course he never did. Quite frankly, the point Ignatieff made – that we’re not really safe from a return of torture unless we think and talk about the borderline between the permissible and the impermissible – is as correct as it ever was. A third of us feel vindicated and superior; the two-thirds who will overrule us in a time of crisis have gone back to not thinking about it.

    • Here’s what scholar Hugh Donald Forbes wrote in a footnote at p. 245 on his book on George Grant, Iggy’s uncle:

      “Michael Ignatieff nicely exemplifies what is meant by neo-conservatism in the strict American sense. His practical utilitarian defence of a moderate amount of torture when ncecessary to achieve important objecitves is in the spirit of neo-conservatism. See Ignatieff, The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Unitversity Press 2004), 7-10, 18-21,140-1. Note that the currently controversial forms of ‘torture’, such as waterboarding, would seem to fall between Ignatieff’s ‘permissible’ and ‘impermissible’ categories, where the statesman’s guide must be prudence (that god of the lower world, as Burke said).”

      I guess if a new edition of Iggy’s book comes out, he’ll delete the word “Terror” from the title and replace it with the word “Extremism” if this interview’s any indication.

      • I’ve got the book on my shelf and that is some serious falsehood. You might do better to read it than to rely on the scholarly Mr. Forbes’ hearsay.

        There isn’t much to say about the substance of the accusation other than it’s false; I did find the preable interesting. “Neoconervatism in the strict sense?” Did we miss Ignatieff and the Contras? His position with the Reagan administration? Mr. Forbes may think the term “strictly” applied means “A so-called liberal with hawkish foreign policy who I don’t like,” but needless to say it’s a we bit “stricter.” If the point is to use the word as a meaningless bludgeon, he might want to stick to the broad, goopy usage of the word. At least then it’s irrefutable.

        And incidentally, Ignatieff’s used the term as an imprecation, I believe; narrow or goopy definition left to the reader’s imagination.

  3. Man! He looks tired.

    • Wow, I’m surprised it took Jason Townsend as long as it did to rush to Ignatieff’s defence in this case.

      Tomorrow, a detailed analysis of the relevant sections of _A Lesser Evil_ will turn out–pace Jason–to show that the writings of Michael Ignatieff have nothing at all to do with drawing bright, uncrossable lines against torture. Quite the opposite, in fact.

      For now, I’ll leave aside the flaccid, straw-man accusations about “political opponents” and “copy-pasting,” as I say just this: as a progressive, I oppose and have opposed Michael Ignatieff BECAUSE I have read what he’s written.

      Carefully, Jason.

      Many times more than you have, obviously.

      Therefore, having familiarized myself with Ignatieff’s sad and disingenuous record, I have no problem exposing him–methodically–for what he really is:

      A person whose confused and compromised musings have repeatedly called into question our national commitment to article 5 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

      Ignatieff fans may wish to know that John Peters Humphrey committed in the relevant article to the following:

      “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

      Uncontroversially, self-declared public intellectual Michael Ignatieff has understood his task as an effort to place one or more asterisks after that Canadian-drafted article.

      More tomorrow.

      • Well-based on the well-read Stephen, I guess we are in a tough spot. Either we go with someone who articulated the need to carefully consider interogation methods and even called into question whether terrorists once caught should be subjected to degrading treatment or punishment OR we go with someone who was eager to get started in wholesale torture of a civilian population in Iraq and would still support the torture of a (suspected) Canadian terrorist by the US (even though he was a child at the time of his capture). …kinda theory versus practice
        I guess Jack and Liz are my only two ethical choices. (Sorry Gilles; you don’t run anyone where I live)

        • Funny, I never saw it that way before. And I still don’t. And I don’t expect to see it that way in the future, either. I guess you live in a world where you see torture happening everywhere (except where it is really happening, like, say, in Saddam’s bona-fide torture chambers where he removed people’s fingers and he made people very familiar with electrical cables).

        • It’s true.

          My tone was inappropriate above and I apologize for it.

      • Is this No BMD Steven? Because, if so, I’d quite frankly thought you’d given up on the wilder Ignatieff-torturing.

        Believe me, Steven, I’m letter and verse on everything Michael Ignatieff’s ever written on the subject, because these miserable circular conversations – with an audience, no doubt, of 10-20 already firmly decided voters – consumed a few months of my life in 2006. In fact I think I probably have some of my rebuttals sitting in my email box ready to go, so have at it.

        • No, Jason, I won’t waste your time.

          “Circular” is probably the right adjective: you think he’s drawing lines and I think he’s blurring them.

          Your estimate of the audience may be correct as well. In any case, I apologize again for the un-called for tone in my response to you above. I oughtn’t to have written in that way, though I stand by my low opinion of Ignatieff.

          • For what it’s worth, I replied re: circularity etc. without seeing your second post regarding tone.

            I feel really strongly about torture; I’m galled by the pernicious and ubiquitious pop-cultural aestheticization of it, be it on 24 or the recent movie “Taken,” and just about ever pessimistic thing anyone ever said about torture came true in the last couple of years, before our eyes. Now I think everyone’s living in a false paradise assuming that the current revulsion against it by chatterers (and indifference to it by everyone else) represents some permanent accomplishment. I’m still very disconcerted by how the war we’re participating doesn’t have a proper POW regime, even without new reports of particular abuses.

            So, even if isn’t particularly politically salient, and even if it isn’t something we agree on, a discussion isn’t pointless, if you want one. I’m glad people care about torture.

  4. Fair enough, Stephen, but is any of this relevant to the decision at hand in the next election: should SH or MI be the next PM? Clearly musing about torture or “coercive interrogation” is stupid for a politician, but it’s presumably inevitable for a human rights academic. Now that MI has morphed into a politician, he’s doubtless regretting ever having so mused. But consider: Will his past academic musings, and the political blowback he has received from them, make him likely to order Canadian police or soldiers to get out there with blowtorches and car batteries and start grabbing people off the street for “coercive interrogations”, or will it rather make him bend over backwards to make sure they do no such thing? Ignatieff is a pretty smart guy; I’d say the latter. Moreover, if you’re intellectually honest, you’ll admit that Ignatieff’s musings never amounted to advocacy of torture, but rather were a discussion of the limited circumstances under which a limited degree of harsh interrogation may be deemed necessary for the “greater good” – not quite the same thing. (I personally oppose legal use of such tactics under any circumstances, by the way, so don’t mistake this for my agreeing with him.) At the end of the day, I am not worried that Ignatieff will rob me of my civil or human rights: on the contrary, I think his background makes him very thoughtful about rights, and I would move on to considering whether he would likely perform well (or at least, better than SH) as PM in other policy areas. At this point, my judgment is that he very likely would.

  5. Linda McQuack is against the use of torture in every single circumstance. She would rather allow for a conspiracy to nuke a large city to occur than to expose a single human being to something such as water boarding. And most Canadians agree with her noble value. After all it’s better to see Toronto vaporized than to prostitute our moral superiority.

    • There’s also that pesky little fact that torture rarely gets useful information.

      • The “ticking time bomb” is generally a pro-torture talking point, a hypothetical situation that never comes up. There’s a lot to be sad for rejecting it on those grounds. Rhetorically it functions a bit like the famous question asked of Dukakis during the 1988 presidential debates; whether he’d favour the death penalty for someone who’d raped and murdered his wife. The point of the exercise is to pose a question where the idealistic – and indeed very much correct – answer is broadly seen as inhuman and unsympathetic.

        The problem with merely rejecting the scenario is threefold. First of all, it always comes up: any time you have a torture debate, the damn superbowl gets blown up. Secondly, it works quite well on a large number of people who might otherwise support a wholehearted repudiation of torture. Thirdly – while the superbowl situation is somewhat laughable – the terrorist dramatically gives you a disarm code with 30 seconds left, ala Jack Bauer? – the idea of lives being on the line in an interrogation is not.

        Rarely, police or soldiers might confront the possibility that not mistreating someone in their custody may lead to deaths: it’s only fair to state in advance that they don’t get some sort of get out of jail free card just because the “situation that never happens” happened to them.

        The answer – if you don’t reject the question – is that torture is so heinous and so irrevocable that the law and policy must never bend in the direction of tolerating it. If there is a soldier or policeman in some small superbowl situation, it’s quite possible that they’ll do it anyway and that everyone will look away. But the point of failure there is the frailty of a human being in an impossible situation.

        That frailty must not extend to the law, and to policy. So long as it doesn’t – so long as we punish all torture and all toleration of it, the impossibility of individual abstinence from crime (torture) in certain circumstances can be reconciled with a complete repudiation of torture under all circumstances by the state.

        And -merciful god in heaven- help anyone in politics who ever tries to explain -that- to someone who just wants to make them look bad.

        • Re: Ticking Time Bombs, I like to think that if an intelligence officer or a police officer had firm grounds for thinking that the Super Bowl was about to be blown up, he would take it upon himself to torture the bad guy and take the consequences. If you need to check the statues, the time bomb is probably not ticking.

          • In a sense, yes: this is why a complete prohibition of torture does not equal a hypothetical smoking crater, and it is why the right-wing guy sneering at you is not correct with his supposed killer argument.

            The problem is if you simply say “Well, of course it’d happen,” without all of the sort of context I wrote above, it sounds too close to tacit endorsement rather than just rational expectation. It has to be clear that that’s an example of the system breaking, not the system operating; and not “breaking in a safety valve way,” breaking in a bad way.

            This is, as someone noted, the tack Ignatieff took in the Lesser Evil.

            I think it’s meaningful to note that the smaller scale military/police incident model is one that might actually be relevant to how we have to enforce the prohibition against torture – soldiers in a bad situation mistreat a prisoner for information, police mistreat a suspect when they think a victim is in danger, etc – wheras in practice, a large scale terrorist event like the proverbial exploding superbowl isn’t going to involve “suspects” and a “ticking bomb.”

          • I think there’s all the difference in the world between torture by a private individual and torture by the State. Both are evil, to be sure, the the latter threatens the very foundations of a free society.

            As we speak, probably the Russian mafia is torturing some poor wretch. One’s heart goes out to the victim as much as to the victim of State torture, and presumably we’re doing whatever we can to restrain the Russian mafia’s power, but in the end the evil of the Russian mafia is not a threat to the very nature of Western civilisation.

            The issue here is State torture / coercive interrogation / pick your neologism.

  6. Actually, I thought Ignatieff’s writings on torture made it clear that the ban on torture should hold even in cases were a city was about to be wiped out. He discussed “conscientious offenders” in this case.

  7. Q: What’s the difference between coercive and rigorous interrogation?
    A: Rigorous interrogation is consistent with Canadian law and international standards.

    Q: So it’s not coercive.
    A: Not coercive.


    There is a clear line between tough interrogations that stay on the right side of the law and stuff that gets into the area of moral disgrace, and I’ve always been clear what that line is.

    Umm…not in this interview fragment you didn’t. Examples please.

    I have to say this…Ignatieff can straddle a fence better than any politician I’ve seen in recent memory.

  8. This piece seems to be objective and written in order to clear up the question – since the “torture” label is going to be repeatedly attached to him by those who don’t care to find out what he actually does say in the book.
    Surely to God people can understand that with his record in human rights, and being director of a human rights center at Harvard — he’s not going to condone torture?

    It’s tiresome. I’m fed up with politics in Canada. Ignatieff is the first real leader to come along who I believe has a calling, and who is more concerned about the welfare of Canada than he is in making a comfy nest for himself and cronies. He was courageous to leave what he knew in the academic world, and venture into the horrible world of Canadian politics. Hopefully he can help Canada develop into the great country that it should be — should have become long before now.

    Not only do we have short-sighted, parasitical politicians littering the landscape, they’re accompanied by parasitical journalists; who have even less interest in making Canada into a great country. Journalism and politics seem to have slid downhill badly in the past decade.

    Maybe it just looks that way when someone of real consequence appears on the scene – the rest of them look pretty shabby by comparison.

    • hear hear!

  9. “Q: What’s the difference between coercive and rigorous interrogation?

    A: Rigorous interrogation is consistent with Canadian law and international standards.”

    As far as I am concerned, Iggy didn’t answer the question and reporter let him get away with it. Aren’t interrogations inherently “rigorous” to begin with? Does Iggy actually think that he can make people believe that he didn’t intend/desire/state torture to be applied in those interrogations?

  10. Catherine,

    You are correct he gets at that concept. It is an admission to practicality, clealry the person who engages in jack bauer tactics to find out where the ticking time bomb is gets to attempt to absolve himself by the results of his work…or not.

    What bothers me about Ignatieff’s writing here is the nudge nudge wink wink aspect. Essentially saying that official policy is to never torture but you know if you think your going to get lucky….this has the bebenifit of absolving those who need to be most responsible for approving or never approving these tactics, those at the top.

    Allwing the wiggle room, or “interrogation entrenprenuerism” is a cop out. The guys in the middle and the bottom need clear rules and direction. If there isa “ticking time bomb” scenario, then it should always be granted from the top….this is the squishy middl that Ignatieff occupies.

    I think his omment is usually, “negotiating the slippery slope is what moral reasoning is all about”. While fine in a philosphy class, it really isnt practical advice. So the what Whyte should have poked at him on is the slippery slope and where responsiblity lay. Ignatieff implies that it is moral to be Jack Bauer if you think the bomb is about to go off, this may be true when you answer to a court but you can hardly make judge policy that is meant to be forward looking judgung it only by results, Jack was moral because he found the bomb, send him to Tahiti, or Jack goes to jail because he didnt find the bomb or there was no bomb.

    At the end of the day, Iggy needs to answer what practical policy he would put in place. Would he ever give the order to waterboard if he thought toronto or Ottawa or Montreal was in a ticking time bomb scenario? Harper should be asked the same thing.

  11. I suppose this is the method he will be using in his new position as Chief Probation Officer.
    Is this how they got info on the now too late Conservative gifts to Conservative rideings.?

  12. So, let me get this straight. There’s clearly a hierarchy of interrogation techniques, even if it’s not quite clear in the interview how Ignatieff defines them.

    1. Torture. In the modern world this means primarily electrocution, but most people would also include waterboarding.

    2. Coercive interrogation techniques. Sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, deliberate humiliation of the subject’s core beliefs. This was standard totalitarian stuff, usually combined with torture; few of our American comrades seem willing to question its use. Essentially the subject is “processed” in order to achieve a mental breakdown.

    3. “Rigorous” interrogation. According to Ignatieff this is consistent with Canadian law, so it shouldn’t include the above. I don’t quite know what it means but it’s presumably a no-holds-barred form of questioning. I think this is what the police routinely use on suspects.

    4. Questioning. “If an election were held today . . . ”

    So the problem is that 1, 2, and 3 all tend to shade into each other. It would be helpful if Ignatieff declared exactly how he defines the line between “coercive” and “rigorous” interrogation. (Perhaps he’s done so in his book . . . ah, so much to read . . .) I presume all decent people think torture (both electrocution and waterboarding) is off the table, but as I understand it Iggy also thinks sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, and deliberate humiliation are off the table too (at least in Canada, if not in the Sweet Land of Liberty). I hope someone will correct me if I’m wrong; and I hope Ignatieff will be definitive about where he stands on “coercive” vs. “rigorous” interrogation and how he defines them. After all, if sleep deprivation and sensory deprivation are merely “rigorous” and thus consistent with Canadian law, why not apply them to ordinary criminals?

    • Please, Jack: “electrocution” is a blend word composed from “electric” and “execution”, and should only be used for electric shock causing death. Use “electric shock” for the meaning you have in mind.

      • Oh, that’s interesting, right.

  13. different Stephen, not everything can be spelled out in black and white. Just as justifiable homocide is a gray area and when you kill another person you subject yourself to criminal charges and possible conviction even though you think you are acting in self-defense, the ticking time bomb conditions are a gray area. How certain? How short a time? What coercion is considered necessary?

    I think politicians’ values and stand on human rights are very important, but I don’t think the ticking time bomb is the right test.

  14. Catherine,

    Ticking Time Bomb is the hought experiement that gets dragged out all of the time and it the place where IGGY stats to navigate the slippery slope. This is why I bring it up, not because I like it.

    My point is his “elegant solution” isnt really a solution since it doesnt provide th guidance that is required. He wants senior leaders to be clear of this…BUT says that if this was the case that nothing stops an nterrogator from taking things into his own hands and then being washed clean by the result.

    So i am saying Iggy is sucking and blowing at the same time and that practically his solution sends a dangerous mixed message. The ONLY people who should go on the hook for authorized torture are the leaders. Jack Bauer should not have license to waterboard if he gets the answer.

    This is the criticism of Iggy that is legit. He wresteles with these issues from an academic perspective and they will continue to haunt him, no different than his approval of the Iraq War, and of wars of Liberation in general. The idea that American Hard Power can be used in a proactive but benign manner. This differs from the normal Canadian Consevative point of view, which falls into line behind American hard Power once the choice has been made, the old deference to “empire and authority” thing. Difference between neo conservative and conservative, which you see played out better in the UK where much of the Conservative party didnt support or like the Iraq War.

    Now do I think he will be pinned by the Harper Cons on these positions, no….the points are subtle and they tend to like blunter objects, easier to use.

  15. Wait, he’s STILL maintaining that torture (‘lite’ or otherwise) is useful and handy but the west shouldn’t do it because it’s not nice?

    After everybody and his dog has trotted out FBI interrogators and WWII interrogators and experienced CIA men saying “no, it doesn’t work worth a damn, you’ll get a flood of useless admissions and no real intelligence”?

    Incredible. It’s like he’s trying to alienate progressives.

    (And there’s no such thing as a ticking time bomb scenario. It doesn’t happen. 24 is not a documentary.)

    • Oh, god, it’s a reunion. We’re getting the band back together!

  16. In addition to his ambigous comments on torture, I am very concerned about Ignatieff’s 2003 support for the Iraq war and the pre-emptive strike doctrine. If it helps, here is what Wikipedia has to say about Ignatieff’s views. “Ignatieff has argued that Western democracies may have to resort to “lesser evils” like indefinite detention of suspects, coercive interrogations,[26] targeted assassinations, and pre-emptive wars in order to combat the greater evil of terrorism.[27] He states that as a result, societies should strengthen their democratic institutions to keep these necessary evils from becoming as offensive to freedom and democracy as the threats they are meant to prevent.[28] The ‘Lesser Evil’ approach has been criticized by some prominent human rights advocates, like Conor Gearty, for incorporating a problematic form of moral language that can be used to legitimize forms of torture.[29] But other human rights advocates, like Human Rights Watch’s Kenneth Roth, have defended Ignatieff, saying his work attempts a difficult balance between competing values.[30] In the context of this “lesser evil” analysis, Ignatieff has discussed whether or not liberal democracies should employ coercive interrogation and torture. Ignatieff has adamantly maintained that he supports a complete ban on torture[31], which according to his 2004 Op-ed in the New York Times, did not include certain “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).”

    It doesn’t sound that complicated. He doesn’t support waterboarding, but he does support sleep deprivation, disinformation and disorientation. Why didn’t he just say that in the first place? While I agree I much prefer him to Harper, I don’t want our Canadian soldiers put in the postion of navigating his slippery slopes.

  17. What’s the deal with Iggy being just a guest lecturer at Harvard, not the professor he has purported himself to be?

    • Huh? Ignatieff was the Carr Professor of Human Rights Policy and Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. At least that is what Harvard says.

      • That’s hardly an academic position.

        • I don’t know why you’d say that. It’s an academic position, certainly.

          What’s troubling about Ignatieff’s account of his time at Harvard isn’t that he’s misrepresented his rank, but that he’s created a caricature of academic life and a misleading impression of his own field and record to explain away his faulty judgment on Iraq.

          In “Getting Iraq Wrong,” Ignatieff argued that academics and politicians think differently. Enlisting the support of Isaiah Berlin, he said that academics pursue interesting–if sometimes wrong–ideas without regard to the real-world consequences that politicians have to think about.

          I call this a caricature, because I know of no academics who are as intellectually irresponsible as Ignatieff suggests they frequently are. The standards for “good judgment” for academics are not nearly so different as they are for politicians, when it comes to ideas, and it was wrong for Ignatieff to imply that they area.

          Furthermore, even if we were to grant that some academics pursue lines of intellectual inquiry without obvious and immediate real-world consequences, Ignatieff was never that sort of academic. He wasn’t working on challenging traditional notions of Merovingian coinage, or reclassifying some extinct species of dinosaur: he was publicly and repeatedly advocating for actions that had real-world consequences.

          It was after he had called for the bombing of Serbia in 1999 that Ignatieff took his place at Harvard (in 2000, I believe), and he had written more than once on how military force should be used even before he came out in favour of the invasion of Iraq in early 2003.

          Could just over two years at Harvard actually turn Ignatieff into some kind of head-in-the-clouds academic who didn’t understand that positions publicly taken in the pages of the New York Times could have disastrous real-world consequences?

          Unlikely. In fact, when he first ran for leader of the Liberal party, he liked to remind people that he had been part of the international panel on intervention and state sovereignty, calling it a report that dealt with how military force should be used by states.

          How, having taken credit for advising states on when to use military force, could he also argue that, as an academic, he was following a habit of mind to pursue lines of inquiry without concern for real-world consequences?

          There are many troubling things about Michael Ignatieff’s positions: his claim to have been a Harvard academic isn’t one of them, because he was one.

          More troubling is his willingness to re-cast that role in rather incredible terms in order to explain away his support for an illegal war of aggression.

          • It’s not an academic position because he didn’t rise through the academic hierarchy. He’s not a scholar, he’s a man of letters and a journalist. He was awarded the position based on his contributions to public discourse, not to scholarship; and he spent his time at Harvard contributing to public discourse, not in pursuing scholarship.

          • Stephen: I think, in practice, Ignatieff got Iraq wrong because of the Kurds. I know that might come off as the pathos-inducing emotional excuse, when, really, the bad man just wanted in on his liberal hawk war, but the fact is most of the liberal hawks in the world had time to get off that particular bandwagon in advance.

            2003-2008 saw a lot of honest and idealistic liberal hawks – people horrified by the Yugoslav wars, Rwanda and the Congo wars, and the blithe apathy of the world – turn back into liberal doves, because, however right or wrong liberal hawks may have been in the late 1990s, noone wants any more “humanitarian war.” I suspect the reaction against all military interventions will eventually seem mistaken: but for now, in the political context, the point is, liberal hawks aren’t likely to get a very fair reappraisal in the current climate. Especially so for those who were on the wrong side of Iraq.

          • But surely there was also a human side to the liberal hawks’ endorsement of the war? After years of watching the West do nothing — in Yugoslavia but especially in Rwanda — here was finally a chance to step in and topple exactly the kind of Super Milosevic they most abhorred. So if it worked it would be a vindication not only of their ideas but of their whole careers.

            But what does it say about their judgment that they backed the Iraq war in spite of who was leading it? It didn’t take a genius or a saint to notice that Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Bush were not in it for humanitarian reasons. Yet the liberal hawks evidently thought they could ride the dragon; moreover, they were willing to accept the proto-fascist mental atmosphere of 2002-2003 if it meant vindicating their own ideals. I guess that’s what I find it so hard to forgive. A war of choice is one thing, even with the best motives; but a war of choice undertaken primarily to secure US power for a generation internationally and to suppress dissent domestically? The liberal hawks seem to have spent too much time studying the second half of the 20th century.

          • J@ck: There was an interesting panel before the war, still floating around on video – I believe it was Ignatieff, Hitchens and Mark Danner, and I think I found it on Danner’s webpage – in which he gave his point of view. As uncomfortable as watching the old Iraq advocacy is for someone backing Ignatieff as I do, it did make it pretty clear that he was no Chris Hitchens, still less someone rooting for Three Days of the Condor style war aims.

            What I meant was I think Ignatieff didn’t veer off when I did (along with a lot of ex liberal hawks circa ’02-’03) is because he’d adopted the cause of the Kurds. It isn’t something you can prove, but it fits him a lot better than what might call the “Hitchens model” that people who dislike him ascribe.

          • Ignatieeff’s difficulty along with just about every armchair critic or academic is that they are nearly always arguing in the abstract or without relevant context. The Kurdish situation removed some of that distance for him, it personalized it. That old saw about walking a mile in another man’s shoes begins to apply now. It’s the great fallacy of judging one another when we only have abstract concepts to go on. However, i’m not making any argument for less than concrete standards of behaviour. It’s just that it’s so much easier to see where the limits of those standards are when you are standing off to one side.

          • Jason,

            I agree his major motivation was the Kurds. And this is the piece that critics of the war fail to address. Turning back the clock means putting the kurds back under a dictatorship that was out to get them, as it was with the Marsh Arabs.

            I shed no tears that saddam is gone, I applaud the positive consequences that have happened. Although I think that the process that led us there and the questions it raises about pre emptive war are legitimate. Also left unquestioned are what would the consequences of letting the sanctions regime collapse and saddam to continue. Now who knows, the guy could have choked on a date pit at any moment but these are the things to be considered that arent.

            As for Iggy, yes it was the Kurds. however the questions about pre emptive wars, wars of liberation or intervention remain tricky tricky things. Rawanda….well I think gen McKenzies criticism of Dallaire is legit, and the criticism of the security council is legit. The serbs and kosovars…..we arent done with that yet. I still think the issue there was more a european issue…their continent…I was trobled by the lack of direction within Europe.

            Iggy’s education continues, he can speak well on these things but i dont know if really thinks through the practicality of some of these positions.

          • Well, Jason, I guess I would need to see a fuller explanation of the claim that Ignatieff got Iraq wrong because of the Kurds before agreeing to it, because I don’t see that the 2003 essay “The Burden” makes the Iraqi Kurds the hinge of his pro-war argument in favour of American Imperialism as “the last hope for democracy and stability alike.”

            Furthermore, I say ‘Iraqi Kurds’ in the sentence above, because I am not aware that Ignatieff or any other ‘Liberal Hawks’ lost much sleep over what was happening to Turkish Kurds in the late 1990s, as our NATO ally carried out a massive campaign of state terror against its Kurdish population, with the full support of the US administration.

            So I have some difficulty believing that concern for the welfare of Kurds has lead Michael Ignatieff to make the wrong judgments on whether those leading powerful states like the US and the UK have the right to violate international law in pursuit of their interests.

          • Stephen (most recent),

            His advocacy of the Iraq war didn’t centre on the Kurdish issue, which is why I said it was my belief rather than something which could be clearly demonstrated; I think, though, that it was the moving spirit behind it, the reason he stuck to the wrong barricades, which were inevitably much more elaborate than simply the liberation of (an) ethnic group(s).

            As for his undisturbed sleep: Blood and Belonging, film and book, were made in the early 90s with the Kurdish part involving Kurds in Turkey, Iran and Iraq. I really, really doubt he was indifferent to what happened. So he didn’t advocate for the 1997 war against Turkey? Is this the argument? Or that he didn’t do enough, didn’t do as much as, say, you? It’s a fascinating stance of moral righteousness, which I saw good old SB taking when I did a cursory googling and discovered that this “but what about the Turkish attacks on the Kurds” argument is in fact a standard talking point of the Ignatieff hatred hobbyists.

            I think we can forgo the reciprocal apologies about tone this time, since you’re simply vilifying a fellow I like.

          • It’s true. I am vilifying him.

            I inveigh against Ignatieff because I consider him worthy of invective.

            As Jerome did Jovinian:

            “However often I read him, even till my heart sinks within me, I am still in uncertainty of his meaning.”

            Ignatieff himself works hard to add to that uncertainty, not least by creatively glossing earlier public statements on Iraq, American imperialism, missile defence, ‘coercive interrogation,’ Lebanon, etc.

            I have nothing like the saint’s piety, intelligence or learning, of course, but I confess to sharing his occasional tendency towards harsh language aimed at what seem like appropriate targets.

            And in Ignatieff’s case, I think the Emperor Lite is not wearing any clothes.

          • I meant vilify essentially in the sense of a non-legal synonym of ‘slander.’ I put this little cottage industry on more or less the same level as the “Taliban Jack” analysis of Layton’s Afghan positions; not hatred animated by a critique, but a critique animated by hatred.

            I don’t really worry about it from a pragmatically political point of view but I find it hideously depressing if I think of the merits of interparty political discourse. I left blogging in 2006 ostensibly because of school but really because I was sick of people reducing politicians – or me, or each other – to stereotypes and then lavishly hating them, and with such relish.

          • You lament the ‘Taliban Jack’ level of analysis, and yet you support the utterer of its more euphemistic expressions in parliament:

            “I ask the hon. member in all seriousness how he can stand in the House and maintain that he wants to keep faith with the Afghan people and the people who want us to stay by withdrawing the security component on which their very lives depend?”

            Hansard, March 13, 2008.

            Examples of Ignatieff’s fatuity could be multiplied, of course, but I’ll forbear.

            Finally, I share your sense there’s little more to be gained from continuing this exchange.

            For my own part, having looked not only at his writings, but also at his record on Kosovo/Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and Gaza, I’ve basically come to share Herman and Chomsky’s evaluations of Ignatieff.

            You think differently, as is your right.

            Obviously, though, we’ve come to different conclusions.

            I’ll leave it there.

          • Sorry to engage in last-wordism, but that’s a very false equivalency. The main avenue with which to properly and effectively disagree with the NDP’s policy on Afghanistan, particularly before the current 2011 consensus emerged, was to speak of the immediate and real moral hazards of the NDP’s program of immediate withdrawal, just as one could argue against the mission on the grounds that it risked much death and destruction without any hope of a positive outcome.

            That’s a difference of opinion, in which I can respect both sides: the moment the mission is believed hopeless, one argument becomes right and the other wrong. If it isn’t hopeless, the situation is reversed. And the situation was so murky and dispiriting as to make it a real quandry for conscientious Canadians.

            “Taliban Jack” rhetoric, which I’d assumed you’d experienced, is the instrument of those in no quandry whatsover, but rather in the thick of a good fight. Great fun. It’s being willing to sling around phrases like Taliban Jack, to imply sympathy for and feckless weakness in the face of the Taliban, to play loyalty and patriotism politics, in short, to hammer a likeness of “political truth” into something jagged and nasty and then use it to hurt and hate. I doubt that’s what you see yourself doing and your posts here are the most informed of the Ignatieff critics, but it’s a disagreement and you’re on their side. “Providing a veneer of intellectual respectability” was the phrase, I believe.

          • The NDP did their typical thing by voting against a motion which would have brought our troops home earlier than anyone imagined they would get home but still given the international community notice – so they both get to cause our troops to stay longer and keep repeating that they want they them home immediately. Everyone knew the NDP vote would ensure our troops would not be home in 2009.

  18. Well I must say Michael is very good at the ‘two step”…and , like most politicians very adept at the ‘slip and slide’

    Here’s a man who would rather see us fight extremists face to face and kill them if need be, but when trying to get information which might save the lives of thousands from them, we shouldn’t cause them any discomfort… Wake up pal! We’re at war.: the world is at war against terrorism. We need all the tools at our disposal if we are to make any headway at all

    • Then get out there and do a little coersive interrogation yrself. No, thought not.You’d rather someone else does it for you.

  19. Ignatieff looks even more like a dinosaur than Harper does.

  20. Boy if that is the best question that Kenneth Whyte can come up with given what is going on in the world and what people might be interested in learning about Michael Ignatieff as the new leader of the Liberal party, well welcome to Mclean’s gutter journalism.

    Congratulations on a new low Ken

    • Mr. Ignatieff is a neo-conservative Dan Lang.

      Depending on your perspective that might be a good thing or a bad thing. Personally I’m heartened by the fact that the Liberals have anointed such a man as leader.

      • Don’t be silly Jarrid, if he is he wont last long even if he should be successful.

  21. In response to Stephen 3:22 PM -Now who knows – the Guy (Saddam Hussein) could have choked on a date pit at any moment. The problem (in specific terms) is that the sons were worse than the father and the problem (in general terms) is that Monarchies whether simple tyrannies like Iraq or constitutional Monarchies like the Bhuttos in Pakistan are still being established by the same methods as 600 years ago.
    Populations submit themselves to governments in order to be protected from wicked men.
    One of the reasons populations – notably in terms of voter participation – are losing interest is that the real enemy is technology.

  22. This is completely off-topic. And also senseless.

    • It’s Danny!

  23. Perhaps if this conversation was limited to those who have been tortured, as well as those who have committed torture, it would cut out the chatter, and offer dear readers a clearer choice.
    Just for a second, let’s forget the mental meanderings of a politico and ex-human rights academic and begin by asking the following individuals what they think about torture: Nelson Mandela, Eli Wiesel, John McCain, Michelle Bachalet. They come from four different continents, have sharply different political beliefs, but are unequivocally united on the subject of torture.
    By the way, I’d add Christopher Hitchens to the above list. Long an advocate of coercive interrogation techniques, he changed his opinion pretty sharply after voluntarily submitting himself to a session of waterboarding (which is different from having been subjected to it unwillingly). See: http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2008/08/hitchens200808
    This isn’t a subject that needs a lot of debate, people. The fact that during the height of the Iraq war Ignatieff seemed to think it did, deserves to be remembered by prospective voters, if nothing else.

  24. I do not see why anyone has a problem with Iggy’s tortured response. It is consistent with all his other responses to questions of national interest: torture but not necessarily torture; ‘coalition but not necessarily a coalition’; a Liberal styled budget but not necessarily a Liberal budget; we support the budget but we do not like it; we do not want an election but we will force one in April or any time this year if we feel we can win. Stay tuned, there will be more.

  25. I want Bob Rae back. I think we really blew it by letting him get pushed aside!! We thought Ignatieff was a leftist intellectual. He is not, he is a conservative. He has clearly been co-opted by the Bush era.

    • When in doubt, just repeat the lies, eh? Also, coopted by an era? I know it’s a popular verb, but no.

  26. it's obvious from the look on his face and answers that he is stressed out. They should not put pressure on him. As you mentioned, he is tortured.

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