Sunday, April 09, 2006

Ignatieff, Iraq, and me

Now, about those horns...

I've been thinking a lot about Michael Ignatieff’s recent announcement, and I am genuinely torn between two different responses.

On the one hand, I am almost giddy at the prospect that, for the first time in memory, I may have the opportunity to vote for a mainstream political figure who is not a lawyer, a businessman, or an international shipping magnate by trade, but a scholar, and, even better, a historian. I am, I admit, slightly desperate for a politics that has some point of reference other than the strictly economic, and for a politician who is bold enough to express his or her ideas in full sentences rather than sound bites.

Seriously, if I hear another fucking sound bite come out of any politician’s mouth I will scream.

I am also impressed by Ignatieff’s stated desire to move the Liberal Party back to the centre-left of the political spectrum, after years of rightward creep, and by the emphasis he places on the term left. It has been a very long time since I have heard a federal politician say that particular word out loud, and even longer since one has said it with anything resembling pride or conviction. That Ignatieff gives a damn about education and the arts, and knows a little something about both, is also a significant plus.

On the other hand, I strongly disagree with Ignatieff’s position on the Iraq war, which he has modified recently, but which is nevertheless steeped in a doctrine of humanitarian intervention that I simply cannot support. In this sense, I concur with the anonymous commenter who wrote in yesterday, but I suspect that I may have arrived at my position via a somewhat different route.

The commenter asserted that Ignatieff’s support for the invasion of Iraq puts him “on the side of power,” which is, to my mind, too coarse an accusation. To begin with, I believe that Ignatieff, like others who have devoted many years of their lives to human rights issues, is well-intentioned, as this Maclean’s article suggests:

[Ignatieff] supported the NATO air war in Kosovo after he personally saw refugees pouring across the Serbian province's borders into Macedonia and Albania in 1999, fearing for their lives in the face of ethnic cleansing by Serbian forces. "I remember the switch going in my head: this has to be stopped." When what to do about Iraq became an unavoidable question last fall, Ignatieff's mind turned to his experiences a decade earlier in the country's northern Kurdish region. The independence-seeking Kurds were brutally repressed by Saddam Hussein's army. Those memories may be what pushed Ignatieff into the regime-change camp. "I was there in late 1992, talked to victims, talked to survivors," Ignatieff says. "We know that hundreds of thousands of Kurds either died, disappeared or were driven from their homes. So that is when the iron went into my soul on this one."

More importantly, I don’t think that there is a “right” and a “wrong” side of power. Power, and the struggle for it, is everywhere, in every individual and institution; it does not respect political classifications or geographical boundaries, and it certainly does not conform to liberal notions of “the powerful” and “the powerless.” Power works in myriad and microcosmic ways, sometimes without our knowing it, and it can turn on a dime, as it so often has since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Yes, Vila, but what about Iraq?

As I said, I don’t support the doctrine of humanitarian intervention, which Ignatieff is a leading proponent of. War is, by definition, not a humanitarian endeavour, and to describe it as such is either disingenuous or dangerously naive. War may be, in certain cases and always, always, as a last resort, a means of altering political configurations that lead to humanitarian abuses, which certainly have occurred in both the former Yugoslavia and in Iraq. It remains, however, a thoroughly brutal business, as Human Rights Watch noted in an excellent report published in January 2004:

To state the obvious, war is dangerous. In theory it can be surgical, but the reality is often highly destructive, with a risk of enormous bloodshed. Only large-scale murder, we believe, can justify the death, destruction, and disorder that so often are inherent in war and its aftermath. Other forms of tyranny are deplorable and worth working intensively to end, but they do not in our view rise to the level that would justify the extraordinary response of military force. Only mass slaughter might permit the deliberate taking of life involved in using military force for humanitarian purposes. [Emphasis mine.]

To take the argument one step further, I also cannot accept the implication that intent is the sole criterion that distinguishes death from murder. Let me try to explain what I mean. It is commonly held that Saddam Hussein’s regime was responsible for the deaths of as many as 300,000 people during the 1980s and early 1990s, a figure that does not include casualties inflicted during the Iran-Iraq war and which clearly meets the standard of genocide. However, it is estimated that more than 100,000 Iraqis have been killed since the US launched its invasion in 2003, a number that continues to rise. These deaths do not constitute genocide, but they are, to my mind, no less a humanitarian crisis than any other form of mass killing. Again, from the Human Rights Watch report:

Another factor for assessing the humanitarian nature of an intervention is whether it is reasonably calculated to make things better rather than worse in the country invaded. One is tempted to say that anything is better than living under the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, but unfortunately, it is possible to imagine scenarios that are even worse. Vicious as his rule was, chaos or abusive civil war might well become even deadlier, and it is too early to say whether such violence might still emerge in Iraq. [Emphasis mine.]

And this is the key: it is possible to imagine scenarios that are even worse, and these possibilities are now coming to pass in Iraq.

The thing is, Canada supported and, as a member of NATO, participated in the recent wars in the former Yugoslavia, and it did so with the support of all of its major political parties, including the NDP. As in Iraq, tens of thousands of people died in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo, and, as with Iraq, then NATO-commander Javier Solana described the intervention as a humanitarian war. Was it? If so, why was it acceptable for Canada to go to war against Slobodan Milosevic and not Saddam Hussein? How are their genocides different?

Despite appearances, this is not a theoretical debate for me. I visited Yugoslavia during the 1992-95 war, and for the first time in my sheltered, Canadian life, I saw tanks that had actually killed people up close. Some of them were people I knew. Like Ignatieff, I felt a visceral horror at what was happening—at the wretched, stinking inhumanity of it, and the needlessness as well. I felt a similar sense of horror, though, as I watched NATO planes, my planes, bomb Belgrade, a city of one and a half million civilians. Some of them were also people I knew, and a few were people I loved. It is my opinion that the wars in the former Yugoslavia could have been prevented well before the killing began, at which point it was and is always too late. But that is another story for another time.

If Michael Ignatieff does become the leader of the Liberal Party, and if I choose not to vote for him, it will be because of this issue. However, as I mark my X for the same marginal party I have voted for in every single election since I turned eighteen, I will do so with a real sense of regret. Then again, some other asshole will probably become Prime Minister anyway, and it won’t really matter in the end, will it?

PS. For Bob’s considerably briefer take on this matter, click here.


bob said...

Are you calling me lazy?

Vila H. said...

I was thinking more concise, but hey, lazy works too.

Anonymous said...

I feel compelled to respond to your (quite eloquent) criticism of my statement about power. As a retort to my "coarse" comment, you offer the old foucaultian chestnut about how power is dispersed and "microcosmic". Fair enough (though that definition in itself has become something of a tiresome cliche). But I think it's important, still, to hold on to some "older" and less trendy definitions of power which have world-historical and geopolitical consequences and which should not be diluted by contending that power is everywhere.

Also, good intentions (even a dreamy scholar's) don't make arguments for military intervention less inexcusable. In fact, they render such arguments more insidious because they claim to place them on high ethical grounds.

bob said...

There is no doubt in my mind that Ignatieff was wrong on Iraq, however, it also seems to me that it is equally wrong to assert that military intervention is by definition and in every case "inexcusable." At times, the decision to not intervene can be the inexusable one. Rwanda springs to mind.

Of course, with wise leadership, the need to resort to military measures would be rare, but nevertheless, it is sometimes the right choice.

Vila H. said...

I'm curious, Anonymous--who would you have us vote for?

Anonymous said...

I would't have you (or others) vote for anyone in particular - I'm not evangelical about party politics or campaigning politicians. In the past, I myself have voted for the NDP and the UFP with varying degrees of enthusiasm and reluctance, and once even for the Marxist-Leninist Party (but that was in the giddyness and wanna-be/radical-chicness of youth).

Vila H. said...

Right, so we have the same voting record, and, despite our different takes on the nature of power, we share very deep concerns about the use of war as a humanitarian intervention strategy. Which means that we have both voted, likely repeatedly, for a political party that supported Canada's military involvement in the war against Yugoslavia as well as the current war in Afghanistan.

Leaving his dreaminess aside for just a moment, how is voting for the NDP (which has directly contributed to the "world-historical and geopolitical consequences" you wrote about earlier, and which long ago abandoned any "older and less trendy" approaches to power it may once have championed) different than voting for Ignatieff? Is it simply a matter of degrees? If so, how does this square with your assertion that there is a "right" and "wrong" side of power?

Again, just curious.

Anonymous said...

This Anonymous character sounds so much like me that I thought I should write in to assure you that I am not Anonymous. How can you tell? Well, while I too voted for the Marxist-Leninists in my youth, I am by no means embarrassed about it, and therefore would have felt no need to dismiss the decision as "wanna-be/radical-chicness." Neither would I ever misuse a slash in this way.


Anonymous said...

To the previous commenter: thanks for pointing out my mistakes with puntuation, though your disapproval does come off as a little schoolmarmish.

In any case, I think that perhaps I should point out (again) that I am not "married" to any party and that I do not think the NDP's positions are beyond reproach. My criticsm of Ignatieff should not be taken as automatic support for any of his "rivals". Still, I think the fact that Ignatieff advocated the invasion of Iraq speaks to a certain hubris in his political philosophy. Ultimately, being an "intellectual" is not an inherent virtue anymore than being any other kind of professional is when it comes to seeking political power.