Torture for Democracy (1): Michael Ignatieff’s New Imperialism

It began as a “prank,” in the words of the Canadian Press this past 17 August 2009. An anonymous critic of Canadian Liberal leader sent a mass mailing, using a BBC address, to the parliamentary press gallery. In each envelope a was a colour copy of a damning piece about Michael Ignatieff, published four years ago in the New Humanist, with select passages highlighted in yellow.

Laurie Taylor’s article in the New Humanist, “No more Mr Nice Guy,” is worth reading in full, and for more than just a few bits of academic scandal concerning Ignatieff, a prominent scholar who until recently was the director of Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. It was especially important that Canadian journalists read it, since much of the Canadian public seems to think there is some opposition between Ignatieff the Liberal, and Stephen Harper, the current Conservative Prime Minister. Yet, when it comes to foreign policy, the two are indistinguishable (in fact the argument could be made that they are indistinguishable in most other respects too, aside from academic pedigrees). This is even more critical now, especially as very recently Ignatieff sought to defeat Harper in a vote of no confidence, with the hope of triggering an election that would, he hopes, see him elected as Canada’s next Prime Minister.

Ignatieff, alleged champion of human rights, was referred to by a senior academic quoted by Taylor as a “virus in the human rights movement.” Conor Gearty, Professor of Human Rights Law at the LSE, author of the 2005 Hamelyn Lectures, Can Human Rights Survive?, wrote about Ignatieff among others in the February 2005 edition of the Index on Censorship. Gearty, according to Taylor, showed “the process by which a number of well-meaning liberal intellectuals and human rights lawyers had handed Donald Rumsfeld ‘the intellectual tools with which to justify his government’s expansionism’.” Such people had created an intellectual “climate in which even torture could be condoned,” one of these being Michael Ignatieff. Ignatieff immediately resigned from the editorial board of the Index on Censorship, Taylor told us, but also sought to prevent the publication of Gearty’s article.

Gearty’s piece was headlined “With a little help from our friends. Torture is wrong and ineffective. So why is it making a comeback?” In it he placed Ignatieff in the “category of hand-wringing, apologetic apologists for human rights abuses.” One reason was that Ignatieff had begun to develop arguments for “humanitarian interventions” in so-called “failed states.” Ignatieff then used that logic to justify the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. In his 2004 book, The Lesser Evil, Ignatieff the liberal human rights champion argued, “defeating terror requires violence. It may also require coercion, deception, secrecy, and violation of rights.” While not openly condoning torture, critics argue that Ignatieff’s rhetorical trick can be summarized as “and yet, and yet,” an incrementalist allowance for policy decisions that necessitate harsh treatment of detainees in the defense of liberal democracy under threat from “Islamic extremism.” Ignatieff does condone harsh treatment: “forms of sleep deprivation that do not result in harm to mental or physical health, and disinformation that causes stress.” On 2 May 2004, in The New York Times Magazine, Ignatieff argued that, “Permissible duress might include forms of sleep deprivation that do not result in lasting harm to mental health or physical health, together with disinformation and disorientation (like keeping prisoners in hoods) that would produce stress.” Beyond that, however, and without condoning waterboarding and beating, for example, Ignatieff’s argument becomes trickier. In Gearty’s words:

“The trick …is to take the ‘human’ out of ‘human rights’. This is done by stressing the unprecedented nature of the threat that is currently posed by Islamic terrorism, by insisting that it is ‘a kind of violence that not only kills but would destroy our human rights culture as well if it had a chance’. In these extraordinary circumstances, ‘who can blame even the human rights advocate for taking his or her eye off each individual’s puny plight, for allowing just a little brutality, a beating-up perhaps, or a touch of sensory deprivation?’. But once intellectuals do open this door then scores of Rumsfeldians pour past shouting ‘me too’ and (to the intellectual’s plaintive cries of protest) ‘what do you know about national security – go back to your class work and the New York Review of Books’.”

In Ignatieff’s words “necessity may require us to take actions in defence of democracy which will stray from democracy’s own foundational commitments to dignity.” Gearty argues that this provides an escape clause for those who torture:

“If Abu Ghraib was wrong then that wrongness consisted not in stepping across the line into evil behaviour but rather allowing a ‘necessary evil’ (as framed by the squeamish intellectuals) to stray into ‘unnecessary evil’ (as practised by the not-so-squeamish Rumsfeldians).”

The problem with introducing notions of good and evil, as explained by Gearty, is that it ultimately defeats the very idea of human rights. Why should evil people get the same rights as good people? As Gearty says, “The wonder is not that we good guys abuse their human rights, but that we continue to use such language in relation to them at all, recognise that they have any residual human rights worth noticing.”

Ignatieff, incensed that his “reputation” would be damaged, made the rounds seeking to prohibit the publication of Gearty’s piece. He failed even to sway close friends. This is where Taylor’s piece begins to focus on the political ambitions of Ignatieff:

To some, this concern about ‘reputation’ is best explained by a bizarre development in Ignatieff’s career path: his apparent new interest in pursuing political office in his home country of Canada. When this rumour first began to circulate there was widespread scepticism. But this was soon swept aside by the proliferation of ‘informed’ newspaper articles on Ignatieff’s new ambitions. “If the political supporters of Michael Ignatieff have their way,” wrote the Boston Globe on 19 July this year, “the human rights scholar and journalist may soon abandon his post as director of Harvard’s Carr Centre for Human Rights Policy and enter the political fray.” Neither would Ignatieff confine himself to running for parliament at the next Canadian election. “Power brokers have recruited Toronto-born Ignatieff to return to Canada  with the intention of grooming him to succeed Prime Minister Paul Martin.” This theory has been reinforced by the recent announcement that Ignatieff is leaving Harvard to take up a year-long post at the University of Toronto. The Toronto Star on 26 August, suggested this is a prelude to a bid for leadership of the Liberal Party. Many Canadian pundits have been hailing Ignatieff, with his looks, charm and intelligence, as a liberal gift from heaven: another Pierre Trudeau.

Judith Vidal-Hall, editor of the Index on Censorship, told The Times Higher Education that the magazine had refused to offer him any apology or retraction, but had repeated its request that he take up a right to reply. “It is entirely my personal view that what he wanted from us was an unqualified apology, which would give him a clean bill of health for political life in Canada,” she said. Hence the value of the so-called “prank” in making sure that the dirt got notice.

Otherwise, the prank should have served to underline what we know of Ignatieff since he returned to Canada, which is that as a liberal he is no less of an interventionist than what others call the “neo-conservatives.”

Unlike other opponents of the Conservatives, even within his own party, Ignatieff has  been a vocal supporter for the Canadian mission in Afghanistan, while continuing his endorsement of the “responsibility to protect,” the newest mantra to be worked into the now fashionable counterinsurgency doctrine marketed to the media by the Pentagon. In voting to extend the Canadian mission in Afghanistan, Ignatieff rose in parliament to say, “I express unequivocal support for the troops in Afghanistan, for the mission, and also for the renewal of the mission.” Not only that, he introduced an argument to shift Canada away from its long avowed interest in “peace keeping”: Ignatieff argued that Canada must shift from a “peace-keeping paradigm” to one that “combines military, reconstruction and humanitarian efforts together.” Ignatieff shook hands with Harper afterward, having helped Harper to win the vote in parliament. During a subsequent event, Ignatieff stated, “the thing that Canadians have to understand about Afghanistan is that we are well past the era of Pearsonian peacekeeping.”

Ignatieff’s Liberal Party biography emphasizes his “humanitarian interventionist” principles now recoded as the “responsibility to protect”: “In 2001, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy appointed Michael as one of Canada’s representatives on the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, a groundbreaking effort to help shape future United Nations actions in response to humanitarian crises.”

Writing about Ignatieff’s Lesser Evil, Ronald Steel summarizes Ignatieff’s views as follows:

Michael Ignatieff tells us how to do terrible things for a righteous cause and come away feeling good about it. In this case the terrible things are pre-emptive war (that is, aggression), targeted assassinations, ”coercive interrogations” (torture lite) and indefinite imprisonment of suspects without trial or counsel. That is the ”lesser evil.” The righteous cause is the preservation — bruised but mostly intact — of our democratic system from those who might threaten it. The failure to do so is the ”greater evil.”

Sober minded observers have long known that liberal democracy has never cringed from engaging in vast violence against opposition, both at home and especially abroad. Ignatieff’s arguments simply offer more ideological decoration, so that some can comfort themselves in thinking that “we may do some nasty things” but being in the ultimate defense of our democracy means that we can never be “as evil as the other.” Razing Fallujah and bombing civilians with white phosophorous may be nasty, “inevitable,” but at least we are not bad as those who performed the three video recorded beheadings we know about. This is meant to justify the nonsensical, yet seemingly popular idea, that there can be a good murder, usually accompanied by bulgy veined throats shouting “there is no moral equivalence!” Of course not, not when your moral superiority is revealed to be complete chimera. So now we have “evil torture” versus “democratic torture.”

In “Exporting democracy, revising torture: the complex missions of Michael Ignatieff,” Mariano Aguirre wrote that Ignatieff has argued that “democracy” must be imposed from outside, and that it is the duty of the United States to promote democracy worldwide, and our duty to assist it. As such,

Michael Ignatieff has been useful to the US government as it has tried to promote democracy in the middle east. He brings to this unofficial job a special, double-edged approach: he provides conservative arguments to the liberal audience and liberal alibis to the conservatives.

The likely next Canadian prime minister is not only one whose arguments should disabuse the ignorance of those who think there is some meaningful difference between “liberals” and “neo-cons,” but one who makes no bones about being viscerally pro-American: “leave relativism, complexity and realism to other countries … America is the last country with a mission, a mandate, a dream, as old as its founders.” As we argued on this blog in recent weeks, thanks to interlocutors such as Max Ajl and Jeremy Hammond, the real dividing line in North American foreign policy is not the one imagined by the media, that of liberal vs. conservative, but of imperialist vs. anti-imperialist, and as we know almost all sides of the political spectrum line up on both sides.

For more on Michael Ignatieff’s positions, see:

See also the video post for this article.

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7 thoughts on “Torture for Democracy (1): Michael Ignatieff’s New Imperialism

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  2. Stacie

    I’ve been reading Ignatieff’s NYT Magazine article……. Either I’m very out of it right now or the article goes in many directions, not all of them consistent with one another. I could agree with one set of statements and then be totally thrown off in the next paragraph wondering how it logically follows from the earlier ones. Is that part of the point? That he provides arguments for just about any direction you want to go?

    So, for example, the first two quotes here v. the last three:

    “An outright ban on torture, rather than an attempt to regulate it, seems the only way a democracy can keep true to its ideal of respecting the dignity even of its enemies. For that is what the rule of law commits us to : to show respect even to those who show no respect for us.”

    “There has never been any certainty, moreover, that information extracted by torture is more reliable than information coaxed out of a suspect by persuasive means. Why should we suppose that pain produces truth? And how can we forget what everyone who has ever been tortured always tells us: those who are tortured stay tortured forever. If you want to create terrorists, torture is a pretty sure way to do so.”

    “But defeating terror requires violence. It may also require coercion, secrecy, deception, even violation of rights.”

    “To defeat evil, we may have to traffic in evils: indefinite detention of suspects, coercive interrogations, targeted assassinations, even pre-emptive war.”

    “To paraphrase Cofer Black, the former C.I.A. counterterrorism chief, we may want to put terrorist heads in boxes, but we need presidents, not C.I.A. operatives or their for-hire hitmen, to decide whose heads we are targeting. There have to be rules, presidential directives controlling the resort to assassination.”

    From: Ignatieff, Michael. “Lesser Evils.” New York Times Magazine, May 2, 2004, p. 46.

    1. Maximilian Forte

      Excellent choice of quotes, it really shows what you were talking about, and I have to wonder how many other readers walked away in confusion, or, feeling that they found gems of wisdom within the article to adopt as their own while ignoring any contradiction.

      This is an example of what Mariano Aguirre calls the “and yet, and yet” rhetorical trick. It is designed to sneak up the key points on readers. First, he reaffirms everything about “us” that is wonderfully humanitarian, democratic, and liberal. Then he brings in the evil others. And finally, if we want to defend all of the greatness we affirmed about ourselves in the first move, then sometimes one needs to do awful things to the evil others, for a while.

      I don’t find that it is any less realpolitik than Soviet communists deciding they had to impose governments, trade with some Western capitalists, and sacrifice certain aspects of the revolution, so as to ensure that the Revolution would survive and go back to its true, good nature.

      What Ignatieff does, and no wonder — pardon the common cynicism — that he chose a career in politics, is that he speaks out of both sides of his mouth, to look soft, reasonable, civilized, rational, calm, but just to better lay the ambush, which is about the need to do violence.

      Someone once described this kind of character to me in very eerie terms: a man tip-toeing on eggshells, with a 50 caliber machine gun on his back.

      I very much dread his coming to power in Canada. What we have now, Stephen Harper, is like a cross between Sarah Palin and John McCain, but I find some left wing Canadians even saying “better the devil we already know,” and not caring if Harper stays in office.

  3. ryan

    “And finally, if we want to defend all of the greatness we affirmed about ourselves in the first move, then sometimes one needs to do awful things to the evil others, for a while.”

    That’s the real scary part. This is a rationalization that I have heard–sometimes put quite subtly, off and on for the last several years. I cannot believe that it even sounds remotely reasonable to anyone, but certain folks seem to go right along with it. But then again, this comes from the people who coined the phrase “War on Terror,” which always sounded like super-sized insanity to me.

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  5. skdadl

    I’m very late to this post, but it is a terrific reading of Ignatieff — thanks. In our current despair over Harper, I think it’s important that we keep this history in mind as well.

    The “and yet, and yet” gambit — plausible deniability built in to everything Ignatieff writes, yes? His NYT article came out the same weekend most of the world was also learning about Abu Ghraib — I remember thinking at the time that he deserved the timing.

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