Michael Ignatieff and Liberal Failure

by Derrick O'Keefe, Ian Sinclair

An established intellectual and key liberal supporter of the Iraq war, when Michael Ignatieff became the leader of the Canadian Liberal Party in 2008 he looked set for political success. What happened?

First published: 09 January, 2012 | Category: International, Politics, Terror/War

An established public intellectual and key liberal supporter of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when Michael Ignatieff became the leader of the Canadian Liberal Party in 2008, it seemed only a matter of time before he would become prime minister.

Derrick O’Keefe, a Vancouver-based social justice activist and the co-author of Malalai Joya’s autobiography, spoke to Ian Sinclair about his new book Michael Ignatieff: The Lesser Evil?  (Verso) and the state of progressive politics in Canada today. 


While Michael Ignatieff was a well-known public intellectual in the UK during the 1980s and 1990s, I suspect, like me, many younger people will not be familiar with him or his work. Who is he and why did you decide to write a book about him?

Well, fortunately I guess for your political generation in the UK, he came back across the pond in 2000 to take a post at Harvard’s Carr Centre for Human Rights. It was while he was there in the United States that Ignatieff first came to my attention, around 2003-2004, when he was writing prolifically in defence of the Iraq War and the larger War on Terror. 

Ignatieff was a key figure in rallying liberal support for that disastrous, immoral war. In fact, on the night that the ‘Shock and Awe’ invasion of Iraq began, Ignatieff was out with his Harvard colleague Kanan Makiya, the Iraqi ex-Trotskyite turned war hawk and key source for the neo-conservatives in Washington, D.C. Each in their own way, Ignatieff and Makiya were – to borrow the late Tony Judt’s description of liberal war boosters – “useful idiots” for the Bush administration. 

This alone would have qualified Ignatieff for inclusion in Verso’s Counterblasts, a series of polemical books aimed at key apologists for Empire and Capital. But I also wanted to examine the full arc of his career as a public intellectual; it seemed to contain lessons about the political retreat of the past 30 years and about the real nature of liberalism today. 

Another factor in wanting to write about him was just good old fashioned indignation that Canada’s establishment liberals would be so foolish as to think that someone with Ignatieff’s record should come back to lead the country. I feel that this reflects the “self-loathing”, as author John Ralston Saul calls it, of this country’s elite and also their low level of intellectual vigour and discussion. The powers-that-be in Canada’s Liberal Party, for the most part, clearly did not bother to read his books – I think they had read about the fact that he had written books, and were overly impressed that his CV included a gig at Harvard.

Early on during his time in the UK he fell in with a group of intellectuals, including Raphael Samuel, who worked on the Marxist-informed History Workshop Journal. However, little over a decade later he had become a keen advocate of aggressive US foreign policy. What happened? Was it simply the age old story of the young radical becoming more conservative as they got older?

His trajectory mirrors that of much of the liberal class and even a section of the nominal ‘Left’ over the past three decades of neo-liberalism – a gradual drift to the right, with sharp bursts of warmongering. 

Even as liberal and in some cases social democratic intellectuals became less convinced of the state's ability to intervene effectively to redistribute wealth at home, they simultaneously become convinced of the state's revolutionary power to spread democracy, women’s rights and apple pie through bombing, invading and military occupying foreign societies. For them, to imagine raising corporate taxes was to flirt with totalitarianism, but to advocate for massive bombing and invasion of others countries was presented as the highest stage of humanitarianism. 

So in some ways I think that Ignatieff’s career is a microcosm of this scoundrel era that – I hope – is finally coming to an end. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, he moved in leftish circles, and did some elegant and important writing and academic work. But from my reading I don’t believe Ignatieff was ever a convinced person of the left. The massive class battle of 1984 between the Thatcher government and the coal miners’ union clarified things for Ignatieff. He recalled it as the moment he realized he was a liberal, not a socialist. So, not for the last time, he upset his colleagues and threw the left under the bus, writing a long essay essentially disavowing the miners’ struggle. 

Taking his distance from the left so publicly and over such a crucial issue in the UK certainly did not harm his career prospects. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, he published widely and produced television programmes on a range of subjects. 

His was not a steady progression from left to right politically; rather, his key intellectual output followed the geography of imperialism. In the 1990s, for example, Ignatieff followed NATO into Yugoslavia, making arguments very similar to Tony Blair’s for a new “humanitarian intervention”. This set both men up quite nicely to make the case for the Iraq War, and for the War on Terror more generally. 

Ignatieff is perhaps most notorious for his fervent support of the 2003 US/UK invasion of Iraq. What reasons did he give for supporting the invasion and has his position changed over the course of the occupation?

In January 2003, two months before the war, Ignatieff wrote the cover story for the New York Times Magazine: “The American Empire (Get used to it)”. The arguments in this long, unwieldy ode to empire were summarized in his book Empire Lite, published later that year. In fact Ignatieff argued quite clearly for policies of heavy, committed empire-building. 

During the first years of the Iraq War Ignatieff’s arguments and justifications for the war bounced all over the place; finally, in 2007, he delivered a pseudo-apology that was in some ways forced upon him by the exigencies of Canadian electoral politics (it came after his first failed bid to become Liberal Party leader, in 2006). I go into some detail critiquing Ignatieff’s essays on Iraq – it’s the worst quality writing of his career, by far, at times even unintentionally funny.  

He was, alas, not particularly humbled by his monumental errors on Iraq. He simply moved on, pushing empire by becoming Canadian Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s best ally in extending the unpopular war in Afghanistan. 

You write that you have “seen first hand the role that the Liberal Party in particular plays in defusing radical critiques of Canadian society”. Could you expand on this?

As everywhere, the victors have written Canadian history, and so a mythology has been built up in which all the best remaining features of the welfare state were the gift of benevolent Liberal politicians. The truth is that things like universal health care and old age pensions were policies introduced into the discussion by social democrats and the Left, and fought for and won by determined social movements. 

The Liberal Party, federally, have always ‘campaigned to the left, governed to the right’ in order to marginalize the New Democratic Party (NDP). Levels of political literacy in Canada are now so low that the Liberals have actually been able to describe themselves as a progressive party. In fact they’ve been the main instrument of Canada’s ruling class throughout this country's history, governing for the majority of the 20th century. 

As you explain in your book, in the May 2011 general election Ignatieff led the Liberal Party to the biggest defeat in its history, with the social democratic NDP becoming the official opposition to the Conservative Party. Ignatieff also lost his riding (constituency) in the election. The next day he resigned as leader of the Liberal Party. Why did the Canadian electorate reject Ignatieff and the Liberal Party?

It’s hard to overstate the significance of the Liberals’ defeat – the first time in history they’ve been relegated to third party status. It certainly was not all Ignatieff’s fault; the party had been taking on water for the better part of a decade, in part because of the legacy of vicious internal power struggles. 

Ignatieff failed to win the hearts and minds of Canada, partly because, as much as he rolled up his shirtsleeves while giving stump speeches, he had the manner and bearing of the Count Ignatieffs from whom he descended. ‘Retail campaigning’ did not come naturally to him, and he often looked unnatural or even pained while doing it. 

As leader, Ignatieff made some disastrous political decisions that helped seal his electoral fate. As mentioned, he repeatedly assisted Harper in extended Canada’s role in the unpopular war in Afghanistan. This, for instance, helped to doom him in Quebec, the most consistently anti-war region of the country. 

Since the NDP’s surge in the May 2011 election, what has been the state of Leftist politics in Canada? Is the NDP a vehicle for progressive change in Canada?

Within just months of the election, tragedy struck, with NDP and leader of the Official Opposition Jack Layton dying of cancer. The party is now in an unprecedented position with over 100 MPs, including the big majority of seats in Quebec. But the reality is Harper’s Conservatives now have a majority government, and the opposition parties are all either rebuilding or choosing a new leader. This mean it is full steam ahead for Harper’s right-wing agenda, and there are areas of policy where he barely even meets token opposition within the House of Commons. For example when his new government voted to extend Canada’s participation in the bombing of Libya, the only dissenting vote was from Elizabeth May – the one elected Green MP. 

The main reasons I see to be hopeful for real change in the future are coming from outside electoral politics. There are some determined social movements, including a new generation of committed and creative climate justice activists; and there are a number of indigenous peoples fighting hard to stop destructive mining, oil and gas, and resort development projects on their lands. Nothing is more important politically in Canada than decolonization, ending the oppression and suffering of the First Nations. 

The NDP is certainly still the main political vehicle that millions of people see to defend them from the worst of the right-wing agenda. And now, as Official Opposition, the party stands the best chance of defeating Harper electorally. So the debates within the party matter. People on the left, for instance, should take a real interest in the ongoing leadership race. 

None of this to deny the fact that the political movement we need is much bigger and more profound than the narrow range currently allowed in parliamentary politics. I dare say there’s room for a broad, new anti-capitalist network. There’s an urgent need for institution building on the left, in terms of alternative media, basic political education and social movement mentoring and training.  

As I write in the book, the left does not have a clear, compelling political project. This is not just a Canadian problem; it’s a global problem. This is the political challenge of our times: to revive the socialist alternative. But it has to be a democratic, humanistic, ecologically sensitive alternative. 

Finally, I want to ask you about Canada and climate change. Earlier this month Canada became an international climate change pariah by withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol. Why did Stephen Harper’s Conservative Government do this?

Climate change is part of what makes our political tasks so urgent. As I’ve written recently, capitalism is driving us off the cliff and we need to collectively pull the emergency brake (to paraphrase Walter Benjamin’s memorable line about revolutions). 

Canada is leading this insane drive off the cliff, and it’s entirely about the politics of Big Oil. Canada is increasingly becoming a “petro-state”, with all the corruption and distorted development patterns that this entails. Harper’s political roots are in Alberta, and his government is totally committed to radically expanding the tar sands, which is already considered the world’s largest industrial project. That brings me back to the importance of indigenous struggle within Canada. The tar sands are poisoning the land and water of the indigenous people of northern Alberta. 

Ignatieff, I should note, was a big fan of the tar sands. He liked to go on about the “awesome” power they gave Canada in the world. At one point he even dissed National Geographic, after that magazine did a photo shoot of the moonscapes and toxic tailings ponds created by the tar sands. 

The oily politics of Harper are quite open; it’s central to his agenda. Rather than confront this, Ignatieff also proved to be a “useful idiot” for the tar sands. 

Further Reading, suggested by Derrick O'Keefe:

Tony Judt, on 'Bush's useful idiots' : http://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n18/tony-judt/bushs-useful-idiots

Derrick O'Keefe, on 'pulling the emergency brake': http://www.commondreams.org/view/2011/12/18-1 


Derrick O'Keefe is a contributor and editorial advisor to rabble.ca and a member of the editorial collective of the magazine Canadian Dimension. He is the author of, most recently, Michael Ignatieff: The Lesser Evil?

Ian Sinclair is a freelance writer based in London, UK. He can be found at http://twitter.com#!/IanJSinclair and at ian_js@hotmail.com

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