Michael Ignatieff: Under siege

He admits that his stand on Iraq has given him sleepless nights

David Usborne
Saturday 21 January 2006 01:00

Michael Ignatieff has had enough of the self-anointed experts on TV and in the newspapers spouting about Monday's general election in Canada. Oh, those "all-wise, all-knowing media", he lamented last week, "the pundits, the columnists, the reporters, know the result already. If you believe the media, it's all over".

Such chiding seems pretty funny coming from the same Ignatieff who for most of the 1980s and 1990s took his perch as one of the most prolific pontificators on Britain's comment pages and television sets, usually for the BBC. Is this the same square-jawed intellectual of the left, who loved publicly to assail everyone from Margaret Thatcher to the dilly-dalliers in Europe when Yugoslavia imploded?

But if Ignatieff, 58, has suddenly lost his sense of humour, we might need to forgive him. A Canadian by birth - but with more than a dash of Russian blood, some of it even royal - Ignatieff is himself running in Canada's election for the Liberal Party in an allegedly safe constituency on the edge of Toronto. And for all kinds of reasons - some of his making and others not - he really hasn't been having fun at all.

It was about five years ago while delivering a speech in Canada on his well-worn theme that his native country had become marginalised on the world stage by squishy leftist-liberal sanctimony in Ottawa when an audience member posed a tricky question. Isn't that enough carping about Canada from your ivory towers, the person wanted to know, How about coming home and doing something about it?

It took a while, but Ignatieff eventually picked up the gauntlet. Early last year he delivered the keynote speech at the Liberal Party convention in Ottawa, and in November it was announced that he would run in the seat of Etobicoke-Lakeshore in Toronto. The general election was called soon afterwards, when the Liberal Prime Minister, Paul Martin, was ousted in a no-confidence vote in parliament.

But why is he doing it? His career as a political philosopher, mostly in matters of foreign affairs and human rights, had been going just fine. He had serial books under his belt, including two novels, a half-score honorary doctorates, and, since 2000, when he left Britain after 24 years, a coveted human rights professorship at Harvard. What could possibly explain his desire to plunge into grubby national politics - deep-in the-woods Canadian politics, what's more - at this distinguished time of his life?

Perhaps he simply recognised the uncomfortable truth behind the questioner's challenge, that being a gas-bag, however incisive and provocative, is not enough. At some point you need to join those you castigate and see if you can do better. Just as likely, however, it has to do with ancestry and genes. Ignatieff comes from a family that considered international treaties light reading and the attainment of high office almost a solemn duty.

The royal part is for real and perhaps is the source of Mr Ignatieff's sometimes haughty - some might say patronising - bearing. (The blue blood may be behind the good looks that prompted Canada's weekly Macleans to name him the country's "sexiest cerebral man" in 2003.) Princess Natasha Mestchersky was married to Ignatieff's paternal grandfather, Count Paul Ignatieff, a close aide to the ill-fated Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and his last education minister. Come the Russian Revolution, the Count escaped with his wife and five sons, and landed in a welcoming land of peace and freedom called Canada.

One of Paul's sons, George Ignatieff, was to become one of the foremost figures in 20th-century Canadian diplomacy. He was ambassador to Yugoslavia from 1956 to 1958, and his country's representative to Nato before transferring to New York where he was ambassador at the UN. If Canada has a self-image of a nation that has been a force for good in the world, then George Ignatieff can take much credit.

As his son, it is no wonder that Michael Ignatieff, who wrote about his Russian forebears in his 1987 book The Russian Album, became the man he is. He was a foreign-service brat who, they say, could speak Serbo-Croat at 10 years old (when Daddy was in Belgrade). He inherited his father's brains and passion for world affairs. It now seems that some deeper calling to serve Canada survived in him.

After a degree in history from the University of Toronto, Ignatieff began his adult career as a journalist, writing for The Globe and Mail in the mid-1960s. Sliding into academe, he received a PhD in history from Harvard in 1976, two years later coming to Britain to take up a senior research fellowship at Cambridge.

From 1984, Ignatieff settled into his life as commentator, author and intellectual celebrity, writing for The Observer, hosting The Late Show on BBC2 for a while, as well as contributing regularly to The New York Times Magazine and to Canadian broadcasts and journals. His views on nationalism and international security were honed as war raged in the 1990s in the Balkans, from where he frequently reported. Aside from a biography of Isaiah Berlin published in 1998, a spurt of books in the same period was inspired by the Balkan conflict and later by the war in Iraq. They have included Virtual War: Kosovo and Beyond as well as Empire Lite, The Lesser Evil and the 1995 fictional novel Charlie Johnson in the Flames.

It has been no small glittering career for Ignatieff. No wonder that when he came knocking on the door of the Canadian Liberals, they responded quickly. They parachuted him directly into the Toronto seat, won by his Liberal predecessor in the last election with a huge 9,000-vote majority. Instantly, the gossip began: in Ignatieff the Liberals had found a man they would quickly groom as a future leader and, in time, Prime Minister. A few commentators began to call him the next Pierre Trudeau, the last Canadian leader to whom the rest of the world truly paid attention before he stepped into the shade of retirement in 1984.

The Etobicoke-Lakeshore district straddles both prosperous streets of handsome homes and more gritty neighbourhoods ruled mostly by Italian and Ukrainian immigrants. The spectacle of Ignatieff knocking on doors and addressing sparse audiences in community halls and school gyms was described by the conservative Canadian writer Mark Steyn as "like watching a classical pianist accompany the clowns in a burlesque house". More than out of place, however, Ignatieff has occasionally felt under siege.

First he faced dissent from the local Liberal association, which charged the party with forcing Ignatieff on to it without the usual due process. Next came anger from the Ukrainian community after someone found what they saw as a dire insult to their race in something Ignatieff had written in his 1993 book Blood and Belonging. "I have reasons to take the Ukraine seriously indeed," he opined slightly unfortunately. "But, to be honest, I'm having trouble. Ukrainian independence conjures up images of peasants in embroidered shirts, the nasal whine of ethnic instruments, phony Cossacks in cloaks and boots..." Ignatieff insisted the paragraph had been taken out of context.

The anti-Ukrainian charge has been overtaken by another - that Ignatieff also believes Western nations can indulge in at least limited torture in interrogating terror suspects. A columnist in the Toronto Star said Ignatieff supported so-called "torture lite". Again, Ignatieff fought back, asserting that, while he has agonised about the issue, his conclusion has been to support a ban on torture of all degrees. Among those who came to his defence - and the Toronto Star was obliged to correct its columnist - was Kenneth Roth, director of Human Rights Watch. "I myself would not always agree with the lines that Ignatieff draws," he said, "but these views cannot fairly be equated with support for torture or 'torture lite'."

Nonetheless, wherever Ignatieff goes on the trail these days, he is dogged by protesters, some dressed in the orange jump-suits worn by inmates of Guantanamo Bay. There are other allegations against him, that he is too pro-American and most relating to his role as one of the left's lonely supporters of the Bush-Blair decision to invade Iraq, without UN support. For many grassroots Liberals in Canada, this is too much. Ignatieff says his position was born of a visit to northern Iraq in 1993 and the suffering he witnessed among the Kurds at the hands of Saddam Hussein.

"There are no peaceful diplomatic remedies when we are dealing with a Hitler, a Stalin, a Saddam or a Pol Pot," he wrote in 2001. Ignatieff has admitted, however, that his stand on Iraq has given him sleepless nights because of what one man might think: his father, George.

We will know on Monday night how much damage all of this is doing to the Ignatieff candidacy. More than anything, however, he may fall victim to very bad timing. National polls show the Liberals of Paul Martin being swept aside by a resurgent Conservative Party under its less-than-charismatic leader Stephen Harper. Harper himself visited Etobicoke-Lakeshore a week ago after his party officials identified it as the one constituency in greater Toronto that the Liberals might not hang on to.

No wonder Ignatieff is getting testy with the media. They say the Liberals will lose badly, pointing to a less than exciting political debut for him that would consign him to the back benches of a decimated opposition. It would be a long road indeed from there to becoming the next Trudeau. Maybe he himself will lose to his Conservative opponent. And maybe, for him, a personal loss wouldn't be a bad thing. There is always Harvard. And the television current affairs shows. And at least he will be able to say he tried where others of the chattering classes have not.

A Life in Brief

BORN 1947, Toronto.

EDUCATION Upper Canada College, Toronto; University of Toronto, Harvard, and King's College Cambridge.

FAMILY Married to Zsuzsanna Zsohar; two children from previous marriage.

CAREER After university teaching posts, became regular commentator and critic. Books include: The Russian Album (1987), novels Asya (1991); Scar Tissue (1993), Charlie Johnson in the Flames (2003), biography of Isaiah Berlin (1998) and The Lesser Evil (2004). Served on International Commission on Kosovo; professor of human rights policy, Harvard.

HE SAYS "I never felt part of the political common sense of Britain. I didn't really get what people there cared about."

THEY SAY "The best contemporary account of what it is really like to be faced with the intense moral dilemmas of modern conflict." - John Simpson on Ignatieff's book Charlie Johnson in the Flames

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