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Arrogant prophet or quintessential Canadian? Could Michael Ignatieff be both?

Ignatieff 's World: A Liberal Leader for the 21st Century? Denis Smith James Lorimer & Company 168 pages, softcover ISBN-10: 1550289624 ISBN-13: 9781550289626

You can't judge a book by its cover, but its title should tell you something about what is inside, and the title of Denis Smith's latest work--his sixth--is problematic. To my eye, it is ungrammatical. How could someone's "world" lead a political party, in this century, or any other? The two parts of the title simply don't mesh. This may be more appropriate than meets the eye, however, because the core of the book--a sober, critical essay on how Michael Ignatieff came, in Smith's view, to embrace a new American imperialism--seems out of whack with the stinging polemical conclusion foreshadowed in the subtitle.

Denis Smith is a retired Canadian professor of Canadian politics with five other books to his credit: an analysis of the October crisis (Bleeding Hearts ... Bleeding Country), a biography of Walter Gordon (The Gentle Patriot), a study of Canada and the early Cold War period (Diplomacy of Fear), a portrait of John Diefenbaker (Rogue Tory) and The Prisoners of Cabrera: Napoleon's Forgotten Soldiers, 1809-1814. There's not a bum title in the lot.

He begins this book on Ignatieff by setting up an odd and almost disdainful distance between himself and his subject. He had long had "concerns" about Ignatieff 's views, he says, but had kept them to himself, presumably because he believed they were "of no public significance." Until this April, that is, when Ignatieff, having first won a seat in Parliament in January's general election, announced he was running for the Liberal leadership. Suddenly, Smith writes, "his face, his voice, and his articulate views were ... thrust upon the nation." His ideas were now relevant to the Canadian electorate, and it was time for Smith to go public with his concerns.

By all accounts, Smith's included, Michael Ignatieff 's entree into Canadian politics was carefully engineered. The broad outlines will be familiar to most readers: his arrival was heralded in a breathless article in Maclean's by Peter C. Newman in April 2004. Then, when Prime Minister Paul Martin called the election in November 2005, Ignatieff, backed by major players in the Liberal party, was parachuted into the safe Liberal riding of Etobicoke-Lakeshore over the objections of the predominantly Ukrainian Canadian riding association executive. It was a noisy but well-orchestrated inauguration, one in which an easily resolvable dispute (many Ukrainian Canadians on the riding executive claimed to be upset at what they said were Ignatieff 's anti-Ukrainian sentiments in his 1993 book, Blood and Belonging) got most of the press and drowned out more serious concerns about how the nomination had been conducted.

Throughout the campaign, Ignatieff frequently faced hostile audiences, some of whom challenged him in the same way Smith does in this book--on his support for the war in Iraq, and his endorsement of "coercive interrogation" and targeted political assassination. (The hecklers may have been helped by a brochure of uncertain origin circulating around the riding, containing several of Ignatieff 's most controversial statements, for handy reference.) But the 59-year-old "rookie candidate," as the press took to calling him, stood up well to this blooding ritual and emerged victorious. By late August, he had a war chest second only to his closest rival for the leadership, Bob Rae, and today looks to remain one of the front runners until the poll in December.

Rather than taking a closer look at the way Ignatieff launched his political career, however, Smith begins his inquiry by looking at the "anti-Ukrainian" quote in Blood and Belonging that had so upset the riding committee, and then moving from there to examine Ignatieff 's later books--and especially his two most recent ones, Empire Lite: Nation-Building in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan and The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in the Age of Terror. It is a deliberately limited objective, not a survey of all of Ignatieff 's prolific output (twelve non-fiction books and three novels) but one that focuses on "his decade-long inquiry into the sources of ethnic strife, the breakdown of states, and the means of bringing peace and order to their unfortunate victims."

The early part of Smith's study is at times tinged with sympathy and even admiration for the young Ignatieff as he sets off from Canada, imbued with the values of "liberal internationalism," which, at the time, Smith says, was the dominant Canadian world view. He bypasses Ignatieff 's early career--his years as a student at Harvard, his stint teaching at the University of British Columbia and then his move to England at the end of 1970s, where he wrote his first book, on penitentiaries during the industrial revolution (A Just Measure of Pain), and his moving study of human sympathy and politics, The Needs of Strangers, from 1984. These early works reveal a young man fascinated by the political organization of human societies and struggling to reconcile public policy and the human heart, and there is a direct link between this and Ignatieff 's later work. "Is there a form of society," he asks in The Needs of Strangers, "which could reconcile freedom and solidarity? Is there a society which would allow each of us to choose our needs as we see fit, while providing us with the necessary means to make these choices?"

Smith picks up Ignatieff 's story as he sets off in the early 1990s on a BBC project to revisit six different places where nationalism played a powerful role: to a Yugoslavia rapidly descending into war; to a Germany rapidly reunifying; to Ukraine, Quebec, the Kurdish region of northern Iraq and, finally, to Northern Ireland. Trying to make sense of it all, Ignatieff concluded that in the "wastelands of the new world order ... you feel stunned into silence by a deficit of moral explanation." The experience taught him that "liberal civilization--the rule of laws not men, of argument in place of force, of compromise in place of violence--runs deeply against the human grain and is only achieved and sustained by the most unremitting struggle against human nature. The liberal virtues--tolerance, compromise, reason--remain as valuable as ever, but they cannot be preached to those who are mad with fear or mad with vengeance. In any case, preaching always rings hollow. We must be prepared to defend them by force." Already, you can see the outlines of Ignatieff 's more hawkish future positions.

From there, Smith follows him as he moves through more "wastelands," reporting on what he sees, continually refining his ideas. After a trip in 1998 to Eastern and Central Africa, Ignatieff saw it as "the moment when liberal internationalism reached the end of its tether. The twin catastrophes of Srebrenica and Rwanda brought to a close a brief period of hope that had opened up in 1989."

Smith deals at some length with the crisis in Kosovo in 1999 and what he considers Ignatieff 's wrong-headed support for the bombing of Serbia, which was intended to force the Serb dictator, Slobodan Milosevic, to withdraw. It eventually worked, but afterward, Ignatieff reflected on the "unintended effects of moralizing the use of violence." There is a danger, he wrote, that "moral abstractions" such as human rights can lead us to treat violators as "barbarians" and thus can be used to legitimize any kind of response, even a barbaric one.

A pattern is emerging here in Ignatieff 's thinking, an obsession with balancing acts and hard decisions, with weighing the willingness to dirty one's hands by using lethal force in defence of liberal values, against the essential "goodness" of one's motivations and the virtue of one's goals: to bring democracy and the rule of law to dysfunctional states. Ignatieff 's thinking is a kind of moral high-wire act, one that makes Smith increasingly uneasy and skeptical.

In 2000, Ignatieff moved to the United States to take up a position at Harvard, becoming director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy the following year. And in early 2003, as the United States was preparing to invade Iraq, he published Empire Lite, a collection of essays that argues for the return of "empire" as a temporary means of ensuring the stability of failed states until they find their feet. "Those who imagine a world beyond empire imagine rightly," he wrote, "but they have not seen how prostrate societies actually are when nation-building fails, when civil war has torn them apart. Then and only then is there a case for temporary imperial rule, to provide the force and will necessary to bring order out of chaos."

Writing about Empire Lite finally provokes Smith into issuing his first extended critique: he calls Ignatieff 's vision "utopian," one that rivals Marxism or Christianity in the grandness of its scope. He accuses him of "prophetic arrogance" and of failing to see (with hindsight, of course) that the Americans were preparing to move against Iraq for reasons that were anything but humanitarian. Lost in all this, Smith says, "will be many more modest goals that are achievable, if they are not caught up in the train of such majestic and destructive fantasy." Here we have the first outlines of a real argument: that Ignatieff 's grand vision destroys more "achievable" goals. But Smith never tells us what those goals are.

Ignatieff 's biggest single gaffe--and the one that has caused the greatest concern among his critics (Smith is only the most recent)--has been his support for the Iraq war. What led him to it? Smith's explanation, that Ignatieff 's thinking was by now bordering on the ideological, is probably as good as any. Ideological thinking is a bit like a runaway train: you decide that force is a legitimate instrument of change and that the United States is the only entity capable of delivering it; you believe that regime change in Iraq is vital to your security interests, and to the welfare of Iraqis; and, finally, you argue that force worked in Kosovo. But you forget, conveniently, that Iraq was not by any sober definition a failed state, except in the sense that all long-standing tyrannies are failed states in waiting, their people utterly unprepared for self-government, especially when it rains down upon them from above.

Even by his own lights, Ignatieff was wrong about Iraq, but he has been backtracking, by degrees. Two years ago, when he was on the Charlie Rose show talking about The Lesser Evil, he told Rose: "If ... we collapse into civil war [in Iraq] ... then someone like me ought to have the guts to say, I was wrong. And I will say I was wrong ... Clearly those like me who supported it for human rights reasons will have made, let's be honest, the most serious political mistake of our adult lives." At the time, Ignatieff told Rose he didn't think there was a civil war in Iraq, yet. What would he say now? Is it time for the big mea culpa?

And if he did plead guilty, would that exonerate him in Smith's eyes? I don't know. Smith did not set out to engage Ignatieff in an argument, but to present him to the world as an unsuitable future prime minister. His intellectual portrait of Ignatieff is impressively detailed, if partisan, but as a book that would have us weigh the man's suitability to lead the Liberals, and possibly the country, it falls short. The Liberal party needs a leader who has more than just intellectual credentials, experience of the world, personal courage and ambition; it needs someone who can also reunite the party, rebuild it and turn it into an effective and aggressive parliamentary opposition, one that is ready to make a serious bid for government. Does Ignatieff have the skills and the experience and the leadership qualities to be able to do this? I would like to have had Smith weigh in on that aspect of the man, too.

In the final pages of Ignatieff 's World, Smith abruptly switches from a tone of even-handed academic criticism to a polemical and almost angry summation of Ignatieff 's alleged sins. Ignatieff 's views on British and American policy are "confused and accommodating." Ignatieff "writes as a courtier in the antechambers of power," tailoring his pronouncements to keep the ear of Blair and Bush. Ignatieff has swallowed the notion of an everlasting "war on terror" without making much effort to understand Islamic terrorism. Ignatieff sees Canada as a "handmaiden to the American military" and has "embraced the American monolith as a benefactor" even as Bush "demolishes the rule of law at home and abroad." Ignatieff sees the world from "within the cocoon of American power." He demonstrates "no comprehension that Canada's history and character could possibly lead us in different directions from the United States or even that there can be any direction to take in the modern world apart from those America has divined."

It is almost impossible to argue against such a barrage, which amounts to an accusation that Ignatieff is "un-Canadian" and the likely architect of an unacceptably pro-American foreign policy, except to mention two remarkable things about Ignatieff 's thinking, obvious in his articles and books, but also in Smith's extended essay. The first is how rapidly Ignatieff 's ideas evolve, how subtle his thinking is and how willing he is to change his mind in the face of new evidence. And the second is how quintessentially Canadian his ideas are. Ignatieff 's notion of "civic nationalism" echoes the notion first put forward, I believe, by Sir Wilfrid Laurier--that Canada is a "political nation," one based on allegiance to political institutions rather than to ethnic nationality or religion. Ignatieff has said that he believes strongly in the values of "peace, order and good government," which most Canadians endorse, and he also believes that they are worthy exports, which fewer may support, although it is by no means the same thing as exporting American democracy. His reports on the plight of the weary and heavy-laden in the failed states of the new world order carry with them a whiff of the missionary zeal common in this country as late as half a century ago. Ignatieff is an interventionist--yes--but unlike so many Canadians who tolerate, and sometimes even advocate, conditions and policies abroad they would never tolerate or advocate at home, he appears to believe that the values we espouse at home ought to be the ones we advocate for others.

Denis Smith's book ends rather abruptly, with a plea to the Liberal convention "for the sake of the party, for the sake of the country," not to choose Ignatieff as leader. But who, then, would be a better choice? On that matter, as with so much else on this subject, Smith is silent.

Paul Wilson is a freelance writer, editor and translator. His most recent book is 57 Hours: A Survivor's Account of the Moscow Hostage Drama (Viking, 2003). He is currently translating Vaclav Havel's memoirs.
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Title Annotation:Ignatieff 's World: A Liberal Leader for the 21st Century?
Author:Wilson, Paul
Publication:Literary Review of Canada
Article Type:Book review
Date:Oct 1, 2006
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