Saturday, March 28, 2009

Reading Michael Ignatieff - the wrap up

At the dawn of the Ignatieff era, in an effort to better understand the man who everyday appears more likely to be our next Prime Minister, I set myself the task of reading some of Michael Ignatieff's writings.  I selected, and posted on
  1.  "The Rights Revolution" (to delve into his views on human rights culture as it pertains to Canada), 
  2. a three part look at: "If Torture Works..." (to sort out in my own mind the claims that he supports torture)
  3. "The American Empire", The Burden" (a look at his infamous NYT article supporting the march to war
  4. And "The Year Of Living Dangerously", the transcript of an Australian Broadcasting Corporation Background Briefing episode "Michael Ignatieff: The Lesser Evil" and "Getting Iraq Wrong" (the evolution of his retreat from the Iraq War)
The Rights Revolution
This book, based on MI's Massey Lectures of the same name is a good platform to see what his reputation is based on.  While there were not any ground breaking thoughts for anyone who has followed the development of Canadian society for the past 40 years, it is an excellent compendium of these events.  It makes a good companion to "
Reflections of a Siamese Twin" by John Ralston Saul.  I would highly recommend this to anyone interested in modern Canadian society.

A frequent question about MI is "Just how Canadian is he?" after having lived outside of Canada for decades.  To be fair, I did notice as much sincere pride as an academic could allow himself in the writing.  One other noticeable trait of this book is the star power.  From the cover through, it is apparent that this is a MICHAEL IGNATIEFF BOOK.  Not really a criticism since we could witness that from a lot of successful people regardless of their field.  Just an observation.
If Torture Works...
The has been significant and severe criticism of MI for what is seen as his support for torture and coercive interrogation.  MI has stated that this Prospect article represents his final stand on the issue.  After reading this, I believe that torture and coercive interrogation is an anathema to MI.

And herein lies the root of the problem I see with MI.  He makes it clear that he is opposed to torture and then throws that away with this:
As Posner and others have tartly pointed out, if torture and coercion are both as useless as critics pretend, why are they used so much? While some abuse and outright torture can be attributed to individual sadism, poor supervision and so on, it must be the case that other acts of torture occur because interrogators believe, in good faith, that torture is the only way to extract information in a timely fashion.
He then follows a logical path to outline the response to situations in which torture is necessary.  But a quick search would find strong backing for the position that torture doesn't work.  It is truly used for the pleasure of sadists.  There is no other reason.  If he had not made this misstep he could have made a much stronger case and an unequivocal case against torture.  This mistake left an indelible stain on his reputation.  To make such an egregious error when writing on such an important subject is telling.

So flaw one is a surprisingly poor understanding of the file at a critical time.

With regards the Iraq invasion articles, the impression is less of a radical war mongering neo-con than that of a weather vane responding to the prevailing storms of the power structure and public opinion..  He fell for the Bush drums by supporting the war.  Then as opinion turned, so did he.  There was not leadership on the subject.

So flaw two is a lack of strength of conviction.

The final question is: "How does lack of originality, poor grasp of issues at a critical time and pandering to power reflect on his ability to be Prime Minister?"

Not well but it does not condemn him.  One of his main challenges is that he deliberately has tried to draw parallels between himself and Trudeau.  Trudeau had his flaws but a lack of conviction wasn't one of them.  A lot of PMs had flaws but still accomplished great things.  MacDonald was supremely partisan but he led the foundation of the best country in the world.  Diefenbaker, while arguably insane, brought in the Human Rights Bill.  King talked to his dead mother while founding the social state.  So, would MI have stood up to the stones at the St. Jean parade?

Perhaps it doesn't matter.  He will have a strong caucus to help him out.  If he does reflect rather than project, having Dion, Rae, Dryden and Hall-Finley among others in his Cabinet will help him find his way.  MI's current "kitchen cabinet" approach to Opposition is promising.

"Trudeau haunts us still".  So does Laurier, Borden and King.  But in the between those four and Meighen, Bennett and their ilk were several good but not great PMs.  MI has the potential to be one of those.   Harper and his Blue Meanies are a boulder on the chest of Canada.  Notwithstanding his flaws, MI will be better than Harper.  If MI can be the fulcrum we use to lever the boulder away so Canada can breath free again, I will get behind him.

With a watchful eye.
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Chrystal Ocean said...

"The final question is: How does lack of originality, poor grasp of issues at a critical time and pandering to power reflect on his ability to be Prime Minister?"

Probably very well. Witness Harper.

Constant Vigilance said...

Perhaps I should have ended that sentence with a better Prime Minister than Harper

Anonymous said...

In my view, and by your description, MI's primary talent has been the ability to analyze and comment on what others have done.

A natural leader is wired to make decisions, it is not in their nature to sit on their hands and analyze. A natural born leader make decisions at the risk of being wrong, at the risk of being criticized and having to defend their decisions because it's in their DNA to do so: if their decisions are right they continue on the same path at an accelerated pace, if wrong they re-adjust their course -- this is what drives them. I see no leadership qualities in MI .. he is a commentator, he has no apparent ideas of his own.

Also, you failed to mention Brian Mulroney in your list of valued PM's. History will prove (and has already started to) that he was one of the most accomplished Prime Ministers of our time. Why was he so despised the Liberals? Case in point. Liberals, are those people wired to analyze and discuss and debate until someone else ultimately makes the decisions, and this group resented the fact that he moved freely, and made policies and big decisions (and they tried to bring him down with the "Tuna gate... how truly pathetic!). Liberals then, and now, resent anyone who dares to accomplish anything. In Ontario we have McGuinty as a classic Liberal leader. I can't tell you a single policy that he has initiated since being elected. Not one. He is invisible, and no one on the left seems to care.

MI would be(the assertion that he will be the next PM is arrogant) the anti-Mulroney. He will make big hullabaloo announcements and accomplish nothing of importance or relevance ... and this would be totally within the Liberal party, and its supporter's comfort zone.


Comrade One said...

FoxtrotBravo, this is Comrade One. How would you compare Iggnatieff to Harper? That is more current than Mulroney. In your deliberations of natural leaders and Brian Mulroney, I noticed you made no mention of his admission concerning cash payment from Mr. Shrieber. I'm curious how that fits in your assessment of natural leaders?


Constant Vigilance said...


Thanks for the comment. Although I did vote for Mulroney twice and primarily due to the GST, I did not include him on my short list of "Greats". Over all, I like Michael Bliss' summation that he would have made a good mayor of Boston around 1900.