Monday, September 04, 2006

That Interview With Michael Ignatieff: The Unabridged, Annotated Version

It had been a long day.

Michael Ignatieff, frontrunner for the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada, had just left a three day Liberal Caucus get-together in Vancouver. He’d headed east on Highway 1, with a small entourage, to make his way to Chilliwack, to meet with aboriginal leaders and a small group of Fraser Valley party members. On the way, he’d stopped in for a coffee at a Tim Horton’s and had been impressed by “four of the biggest Harley-Davidson hogs you’ve ever seen.”

His handlers had been trying to schedule our interview all summer, but whenever the candidate was on the West coast, I was somewhere else. So it was to be Chilliwack, and an hour in a booth of an empty restaurant in the cavernous tropical atrium of the Rainbow Country Inn. Some kids were splashing around in a swimming pool somewhere.

The article that resulted is
here. What follows is the transcript of our conversation.

I wanted to get straight into the controversial matter of his “muscular” liberalism. He didn’t flinch.

On Iraq:

“I’m very struck by the difficulty Canadians have in associating a progressive social agenda with a robust internationalism that does involve the use of force. The minute you say that you’re in favour of holding steady in Afghanistan and seeing it through, it’s automatically assumed that you’re on the far right, or `Harper lite’, when really, nothing could be further from the truth.

“I’ve always seen my international commitments as being sustained by a belief in human rights, and my domestic commitments being sustained by a belief in equal rights, and there doesn’t see to be any conflict to me. It’s part of the same project.

“But you’ve got to be careful with this stuff. Let’s be honest – I may be an object lesson in some of the perils of this, that is to say, let’s go right to the issue of Iraq. I went to Iraq in 1992, making a film for the CBC and the BBC, and 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 then everybody, ever since, has asked me, `Well, do you have second thoughts?’ And the thing I have second thoughts about is not what people might think I have second thoughts about. 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 it’s possible that it did.

“The point though is the sheer passion with which I felt the human rights case, coupled with my belief that Saddam did pose a strategic danger. I mean he had waged two wars, once against Kuwait and once against Iran, at the cost of more than a million lives. He had a seriously dangerous weapons program through the eighties and the early nineties. There were some logical assumptions that you could make here about what kind of a danger he posed to his own people as well as to international peace and security. I do think what I underestimated – and this is the object lesson here – is the unintended consequences of the use of force. The military instrument is blunt and bloody. And the Americans made every single mistake you could think of, and then some.

“But the one thing that I haven’t lost faith in is the Iraqi people. There are people who get up every day and put on bullet proof vests and get into bullet proof cars go and try to do politics. I’m a politician, and I have tremendous respect for those people. They’re the only chance we’ve got, and they’re the only chance the Iraqi people have got. And I think of all those women who came out of those polling stations with their purple fingers. . .”

On the peace movement:

“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. The sanctions were leaking. [Saddam] was getting $10 billion in illegal revenues every year. The idea that you could simply contain him, with all this, was just breaking down. So sooner or later, he was going to get out of his box, and my judgment was that something had to be done. And I still think, my judgment is still, that something had to be done. But I think I did not correctly estimate the incompetence of the American military operation.

“But it’s important not to. . . I take full responsibility for my judgments in 2003. The only thing I’d say, in the Canadian context, is that I was not in the House of Commons. I was not an elected official. I was not responsible to the Canadian people. I think [former Prime Minister Jean] Chretien acted in the interest of the Canadian people at the time.”

But isn’t that all a bit academic? Once the bombs start to fall and the deed is done, for those of us who opposed the war in Iraq, would it not have been more useful to commit our energies to building a peaceful and democratic Iraq?

“Well, indeed. And a lot of people have invested a lot of their energies. . . I went to Iraq after, and some of what I hoped would happen has come true, The Kurds are living the best hours of their historic existence. But it has been a tragic and difficult story.”

Why do people hate you so much? No other candidacy for the Liberal Party leadership has provoked such a visceral reaction. What’s that about?

[He laughs.]

“Well, that’s a good question. But I don’t know. I’d like to reduce the hatred. But I’ve been accused of a lot of things that simply aren’t true. I have a really deep and abiding horror of torture. The idea that I advocate for torture is anathema to me. The idea that I would be an apologist for brutality and violence. . . I don’t know why the hatred is there. There is some. But I take full responsibility for that as well. I’m an adult. I’m a responsible human being, I m responsible for everything I’ve said and for everything I’ve done, and for the emotions that I arouse. 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.”

But why you?

And mostly from the left. And yet you situate yourself quite unambiguously on the left.

“As for the left, I’ve always been a progressive liberal. I’m a fierce believer in publicly funded health care. I’m a fierce believer in aboriginal self-government. I’m a fierce believer in bilingualism, and I have a fierce attachment to the multicultural achievement in Canada. But you also have to remember that the most bitter fights in modern politics are actually between liberals and anybody to the left. I don’t take it personally.

“Liberals are the people that the left has always hated. If you go back into the 1960s, there was nothing more sneering or damning in the 1960s, when the Georgia Straight began to come out, than calling someone a Liberal. We now associate, `Oh, he’s a Liberal,’ with the right. But when I grew up, in college, all the best and the brightest were slightly to the left of me. . . But run the tape back even further, you know I wrote a biography of Isaiah Berlin, and you listen to Berlin in the 1950s and the 1960s, this anti-war, Cold War liberal, getting pounded by the left for being an apologist for the Americans, for being an apologist for the Cold War, for being an apologist for containment.

“But when you ask the question, `Why are you hated?’ I’m sure it has something to do with me and my obnoxious personal characteristics. I’m sure. But it’s part of a long historical argument that goes back really to the end of the Second World War, to the fracture between liberalism and the social democratic left to straight communists, and that divide was sharp as a knife on the edge. And a liberal believes in a market economy and personal freedom, and these guys, no. Liberals I think also have this, and this is a key thing, a strongly anti-protectionist view, of political choice. It’s not an accident that I wrote a book called The Lesser Evil. Politics is about the management of lesser evils. 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. You do a small evil to avoid a much greater one. And that’s actually - I don’t want to invest that with any dignity – but it is basically driven by a quite tragic sense of what politics is about. And in my view a more realistic sense. So there we are.”

What is the razor sharp divide between Liberals and New Democrats in this country? Is it really that clear? I’d like to know where those lines are, where you see them.

“There’s a lot of common ground at the level of general principles. The progressive part of Canadian politics, there are no sharp lines, but there are a lot of sharp lines here. I think anti-Americanism has become a kind of . . . I just think anti-Americanism in Canada is the patriotism of fools. We don’t need these negatives, we need to have a much more, and I think we do have a much more secure sense that we’re just different. Everything I’ve ever written about Canada expresses that sense that we have these different traditions, this different history, different social reflexes. I mean we believe in publicly funded health care, we don’t believe in capital punishment, we believe in the equality rights of all people, including gender, and including equality rights to marriage.”

But so do liberal Americans.

“No, no, no.”

Yes they do. They believe in these things. What’s the difference between a Canadian and a liberal American if that’s all it is?

“A liberal American often has a sense of American destiny and an American role in the world, an American redemptive role in the world, as an empire, that we don’t. Here’s one of the enormous virtues of being a Canadian. We are a non-imperial people. We were a colony, the first colony in the British empire to achieve self-government, so we have a completely different sense that than the Americans. What can be intoxicating if you’re an American liberal is that sense that you are the most powerful country in the world and you have a redemptive capacity to shape the external world. Canadians don’t have that sense.”

Yes, but you’ve made that argument.

“I think it’s more nuanced than people hear. I wrote a book called Empire Lite, and Empire Lite says you can’t do redemption on the cheap. The thing about the exercise of American power since 1945 is that it has done some extraordinary things. We have a peaceful Europe, a rebuilt Germany, a rebuilt Japan, basically because of the superb political wisdom of that generation. The great, almost the central dilemma of world politics, since, is that we used to live a world built by Roosevelt and Churchill, the world of the UN, the world of NATO, the world of standing up Europe and standing up Japan.

“Flash forward to the end of the Cold War and we had a moment when the United States, in concert with other countries, could have built the famous new world order, and didn’t. And didn’t do anything. So we live in the ruins of Roosevelt’s world, and what we’ve put in its place is Empire Lite. That is the `go in quick, go in for 18 months, and were out of here.' And people read Empire Lite as if it’s an endorsement of American imperialism, but what it’s saying, ironically, it’s saying, you know, frankly, `Would that the Americans would do these things properly.’ It’s a vary controversial point to make.

“But you know, one of the places where the Americans did it properly was in Bosnia. The Americans went into Bosnia and sat in Bosnia for ten years, and people aren’t dying in Bosnia.

“But don’t get me wrong. Nobody likes empire. I don’t like empire.”

Well, American liberals don’t like empire, either. I know I’m being a real nuisance about this, but. . .

The problem we’ve got is that we’re in a world of collapsing states, a world of explosive disorder, with no set of multilateral institutions, no form of architecture that can keep our world from violence. Take the Middle East. Nobody likes the imperial role of the United States, but if you ask how we’re going to get peace in the Middle East. An American president will go in there and say, `Here’s the way it’s going to be, guys,’ and he’s going to sit there at Camp David the way Bill Clinton did, and he’s going to sit there and sit there and sit there, and then hopefully he’s going to get the Russians to chip in. . .”

Sure. And not long ago you were arguing that the Marines be sent in to support the Palestinian Authority.

“Well, what I said was, and it certainly wasn’t popular, was that I certainly couldn’t see any way that we could get the two-state solution that I think we all want in that region unless we had an American security guarantee for the region. I mean the Marines are a metaphor here for how we get this thing done. And this is where the Canadian role comes in, because what we’re living through, which is hard to even conceptualize, is that American power, I think, is actually waning here. Certainly in the Middle East it’s waning, and this creates a moment, possibly analogous to the 1956 moment in which [former Canadian Prime Minister Lester “Mike”] Pearson won the Nobel peace prize, in which a coalition of other countries has got to get in there and say, ‘If the Americans can’t lead us to wards peace, is there another coalition of states that could get involved, and say let’s create an international security force.”

I was curious to know whether Ignatieff agreed with the kind of internationalism articulated by Britain’s Tony Blair in his recent speech to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council:

[“What are the values that govern the future of the world? Are they those of tolerance, freedom, respect for difference and diversity or those of reaction, division and hatred? My point is that this war can't be won in a conventional way. It can only be won by showing that our values are stronger, better and more just, more fair than the alternative. Doing this, however, requires us to change dramatically the focus of our policy. Unless we re-appraise our strategy, unless we revitalise the broader global agenda on poverty, climate change, trade, and in respect of the Middle East, bend every sinew of our will to making peace between Israel and Palestine, we will not win.”]

“Broadly, yes. To his credit, Blair has said from the beginning that the Iraq operation, if you’re going to do it, required as a geopolitical necessity an equivalent attempt to get peace in Palestine. That was the part that Bush didn’t buy. I think Blair had a better understanding of the geo-strategic imperative of the Palestinian state than Bush ever had.

“The one thing that I think is a danger here is to set up false polarities between a world of freedom and Islamic extremism out there because the thing that complicates everything, and Canadians know this better than anyone, is that Islam is here, it’s here in Canadian society.”

Well, hold on. Islam is one thing, but Blair was talking about radical Islam, or Islamism.

“Yes but that’s exactly where the danger lies. We are now working in an experience of Western liberalism in which for the first time in history we’re trying to create communities of equality among radical forms of difference – religious difference, and racial – it’s our great achievement and it’s going pretty well, actually. But there is within .0001 per cent of our populations for whom this is a challenge to everything they believe. What’s a little indiscriminate about Blair’s stuff is the idea that global justice and this and that will fix it. We’ve got work to do here at home in convincing .0001 per cent of our own fellow citizens, our on fellow citizens, that we practice what we preach, that there are limits to what is acceptable in multicultural society, that inclusion is not a kind of warm bath of a kind of mutual indifference.

“You’re committed to something if you’re in Canada. You’re committed to the rule of law. You’re committed to free speech, you’re committed to liberty, including the liberty of women. We’re not all things to all people. There are some limits and frames here. We welcome you here, but if you wish to live in the Middle Ages, of course you can, but there are going to be problems here. And that’s the drama.

“I see this as a practicing politician almost every week. I go to mosques, I go to gurudwaras, and it leaves me very confident, actually, not alarmed. There is a certain alarmism in Blair that I don’t want. I feel actually very confident. We re so lucky at the extent to which our multicultural communities actually buy the Canadian dream. We should worry when they don’t, but we are so lucky that they do. And they often buy it in defiance of the evidence. I just feel passionately that we have to deliver. We can’t just do this bla bla bla about how nice we are. We’ve got to be what we say we are. That’s our part of the bargain. And they, their young people particularly, have to understand that we are what we say we are, and that’s where the battle for the heart and soul of liberal democracy is really being fought. It’s being fought in these new communities who are adjusting, and really moving between very ancient and great faith to a very radical modernity, a terrifying modernity in their terms. We have to be respectful of what that’s doing to the heads of young Muslim believers. Be respectful of it, not fearful of it, but respectful of what they’re going through. And then we’ve got to say, look, here are the rules. There aren’t too many rules, but you’ve got to live by them.”

You’ve talked about how we don’t take ourselves seriously enough as a country, and that we haven’t really demanded enough of ourselves, and you’ve used language like that in the context of Afghanistan. Support for the Canadian mission is probably at an all time low. Why? What’s the problem? Is it simply a matter of selling it properly, or describing it properly?

“I think support is low because it’s horrible to see those kids coming back in boxes.”

You really think that’s what’s doing it?

“Suddenly we realize that there’s a real price to pay here. For some Canadian families, time stops. And I’ve talked with these families. But what I’ve learned from these families, and this is very important - these families to an extraordinarily heroic degree remain committed to the mission of their children - but my view here is the deeper obstacle, it’s that Canadians somehow think that we’re in Afghanistan as sort of auxiliaries of the American empire, fighting a counter-terrorism war that has nothing to do with us. I see the mission completely differently. We’re here at the invitation of the Karzai government, with the approval of the United Nations, as part of a NATO engagement, to make sure that a democratically elected government does not fall prey to a terrorist militia. If a terrorist militia succeeds in overthrowing the Karzai government, there will be civil war in Afghanistan - the last war cost a million lives. That’s what has to be said to the Canadian people. This is worth doing.

“The other problem here, and here I get into more controversial territory, is that there is a kind of innocence about our country, which I love, because we are a lucky country, and a fortunate country, and out here a staggeringly beautiful country. But it is innocent to believe that we can sit here in Canada in our security and believe that Afghanistan is a far away country about which we need know little. The attacks on the World Trade Centre began in Afghan training camps, in southern Afghanistan.

“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. 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.

“We let [Afghanistan] go to hell. And every Pakistani immigrant in this country knows that the Taliban take Afghanistan and they’re within a hand’s reach of Pakistani nuclear weapons. You don’t even want to think about what that looks like, right? This is the global village, darn it.

“The third element of our innocence is we think there was this happy world called peacekeeping, and all we have to do is show up as Canadians with our little Canadian patches and our blue berets and the world would greet us with open arms. We left that world in Rwanda. We left it Rwanda. The country has to understand that. We sent a brave Canadian, a good personal friend of mine, into Rwanda, and he still has nightmares about what happened. We can’t ever let Canadians go into that kind of place again. That’s why we have to have a combat-capable military. . .

“Canadians everywhere I go want us to be leaders. If you’re going to be a leader, you’ve got to be able to do the difficult things. And again, our historical memories are short. We are the country that liberated Northern Holland. We are the country where 60,000 brave Canadians died in the First World War, otherwise we’d all be speaking German. We’ve forgotten that military valor and military sacrifice have been an enormous and very often a very positive part of Canada’s best traditions.

“Don’t misunderstand me. I’m the last person on earth to want to exalt death by battle, the last one who wants to glorify war. But the thing that is an illusion is to believe that the peacekeeping tradition of Canada is basically a pacifist tradition. Mike Pearson was many things but he was not a pacifist. He was a Cold War liberal who knew that you had to fight for things.

“I know that because my dad and Mike Pearson did fire watch from the roof of Canada House in 1940. And Pearson said to my father, looking out at the bombs falling over London in June, July, August and September of 1940, `We can’t go on like this. It will destroy our civilization.’ That empowered Pearson, but it wasn’t a pacifist view. It was revealing that we have to draw back from the abyss. That’s been a tremendous strength to the Canadian understanding of the world. And it’s still my view. But we can’t be innocent about this world. We can’t afford to be. It’s too dangerous out there.”

This brings me to my last question, which involves globalization and the consequences of a progressive liberal managing trade in conditions that move perilously close to taking advantage of slave conditions, slave labour conditions. Not so much in India, but certainly in China. How does a progressive liberal address the consequences of globalization in that light?

“We want to benefit from the exponential growth of the Chinese economy but we do not want to be complicit in the sustained, serial, structural abuse of labour. There’s no question, since I’m a human rights teacher. I teach the human rights of international trade all the time. That’s one issue that bothers me.

“But that’s not the only one. The other one that bothers me is you’ve got the collapse of the Doha round, and you’ve got farmers not too far from where we’re talking facing competition from ludicrously oversubsidized American and European agriculture, while they’re going to the wall. The same thing that’s driving Canadian farmers to the wall would be driving West African cotton farmers to the wall, right?

“This is the world we’re in. Canada has to speak for a fairer global trading order. It’s much more important than any overseas development assistance. If we could get a Doha round that really did count agricultural subsidies and really did get us into fairer markets, I think this would be better for the Canadian farmer, but it would also be better for West African producers.
“What can we do, to get back to your original question, about Chinese labour conditions, in the short term, to be blunt, is not much. I always like to tell the truth; I wish we could do more. We have to put our faith in the courage of Chinese trade unionists, Chinese activists, international human rights activists who are raising the cost to western business of depending on slave labour, but we have to ultimately put our faith in what I’m sure is slowly happening, which is that China will move out of low wage slave labour up the international division of labour, and higher, because that’s what happens. It doesn’t go on forever because the comparative advantage disappears.

“So, as you know, as the prime minister of Canada, I would want to promote trade with China, partly because I don’t want to be as dependent on the American markets as we have been. And I want to work particularly with this unused potential we have, which is that we have a million people who speak the Chinese language - all these incredibly successful and dynamic entrepreneurs. They’re Canada’s ace in the hole. Not our natural resources. They’re the unused ace in the hole in relation to China.

“But as a prime minister who believes in human rights, I want to sit down with the Chinese and say, `Do you really want to build your prosperity on slavery? I don’t think so.’ I don’t want to mince my words with the Chinese, but you know, let’s remember that this is also a great civilization and a proud civilization, and you don’t give them little western lectures about human rights.

“The other thing you have to remember is that the biggest single human rights advance of the last 15 years has been the rising real income of the Chinese people. If you look at the numbers - 500 million human beings are out of poverty, are out of absolute poverty, over the last 15 years, and that’s because of free trade and economic growth in India and China. So if you’re going to have a conversation with the Chinese, you’ve got to understand that this is a complicated issue. Capitalism has done miraculously good things in China, as well as bad things.

“The other issue is religious freedom. I feel very uncomfortable going to China and talking about an economic agenda that neglects to say that we don’t think it’s right that people shouldn’t be able to pray in peace. Any group - Falun Fong, Baptists, Muslims, anybody. And the Chinese have every right to bring up the human rights deficiencies in this country, which are obvious and glaring, and too many to mention.”

3 Comments:

Blogger Stephen said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

7:46 PM  
Blogger Blitzen said...

Thank you, I think I get it now. It may have been a long post, but very clear and comprehensive.
I for one feel a glimmer of hope for Canadian politics.

5:34 PM  
Blogger Scout said...

He's so sorely confused it was almost painful to read. As a Harvard "Kennedy School of Thought' man, he comes across as Canada's John Kerry. Glad you held him to your questions and made good points (to which he just talked in circles).

9:00 PM  

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