Monday, June 01, 2009

Denis Smith on Michael Ignatieff

Denis Smith kindly had his publisher send me a copy of his recent book Ignatieff's World Updated: Iggy goes to Ottawa (Chindigo link here), and I've been reading it with interest -- not much distracted by the announcement that Peter C. Newman, that connoisseur of power, has started his own book on the new Liberal leader.

Smith wrote the first version of the book, minus the "Updated" in the title, in time for the Liberal leadership race of 2006. He concluded with the verdict:
For the sake of the party, for the sake of the country, the Liberal convention should not choose Michael Ignatieff as leader in December 2006.
Well, it did not, but now he's baaaaaack. And so is Smith: Updated means the original text plus seventy-five new pages up to February 2009 and Ignatieff's installation as Liberal leader.

Ignatieff has always been a writer, and in the original section of this book, essentially a long review essay of the Ignatieffian oeuvre up to 2006, Smith looks into his mind by actually reading what he has written. Smith's theme is how Ignatieff the critic of power and the human rights advocate became such an advocate for the 2003 invasion of Iraq and, in effect, a cat's paw of the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld policies of aggressive war.

Smith's reading of Ignatieff's ideas is hostile; to oversimplify, he finds in Ignatieff an unseemly and anti-democratic weakness for power, sees a member of the international elite coming home to his natural habitat. Ignatieff is just too enamoured of the power of the American empire and Canada's subaltern position in it, argues Smith.

It's a powerful case well argued. I must say I found the story more complicated. Ignatieff, it seems to me from Smith's exigesis of his work (and my own more limited reading in it), concluded in the 1990s that human rights are often unlikely to be advanced by handwringing, that effective defences of international human rights positions frequently do need force behind them. Ignatieff became one of the first advocates of the doctrine of "responsibility to protect" (or "r2p"), which aimed to modify the traditional idea of state sovereignty by asserting that states have a responsibility to protect the peoples under their sovereignty -- and that when they themselves became a threat to their own people, other states could be justified taking up the responsibility.

It is clear now that Ignatieff's interpretation of r2p in the early 2000s did deliver him into the hands of Bush et al. Ignatieff wanted to use their forces for an r2p motive, one might say. But they were still Bush's forces and Bush, having secured the support of Ignatieff the r2p liberal, used force quite differently for quite different ends (and spectacularly ineptly and evilly as well). Smith thinks this was inevitable; that Ignatieff was always in thrall to force and empire, because of his unseemly identification with power and specically American power.

Even through Smith's reading, I find Ignatieff's situation interesting, even moving; we watch Ignatieff trying to figure out where to go from here, his steps via Rwanda and Bosnia into international real-politik having come to such a disaster in Iraq. Muscular liberalism of the kind Ignatieff was groping toward around 2002 is a much derided idea right now, as a result of Iraq. But if the abandonment of r2p means leaving rights unprotected, well, were do we go? Ignatieff doesn't have the answer (Smith dismisses his recent acknowledgments of error and distrusts his retreat from the embrace of American power he espoused in the early 2000s.) But the question remains.

Smith's new section, written with commendable speed, inevitably depends largely on what Smith clipped from newspapers during the fast-changing domestic political situation of last winter. But he still has a theme about Ignatieff, and again the theme is power and its abuse. In the same way that Iraq exposed Ignatieff's identification with power, says Smith, the seizure of the Liberal leadership in December 2008 showed his willingness to abuse due process in pursuit of power. His reading of those events is harsh on Ignatieff, but he concludes with a call for a better process of leadership selection and leadership accountability. His conclusion:
Canada's political parties must concern themselves with constraining the power of the prime minister; and equally they must examine how their own leaders are chosen, assessed, and constrained... Under the leadership of Michael Ignatieff the party is unlikely to get that self-examination. The country will suffer from that failure.
Well, that's been a longstanding theme of mine, too, and Smith is nice enough to footnote me to that effect: "The historian Christopher Moore has been urging [caucus authority to hire and fire leaders] for many years." Smith remains concerned about Ignatieff's weakness for power. But we should look, I think, not for leaders who are diffident about power, but for systems to harness such ambitions. That has to come from MPs, not from leaders.

I'll get back to this.
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