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Tough choices in war on terror

Ask any seasoned opponent of the numerous wars waged by the United States and Britain over the past 13 years for a list of their intellectual hate figures, and the name Michael Ignatieff is bound to appear pretty near the top.

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Since 1991, when he supported George Bush Sr's war in Iraq, the Canadian author has been a key exponent of what he calls ''empire lite''. Although it would be easy to describe him as a more intelligent, North American version of pro-war English columnist David Aaronovitch, Ignatieff is an unusual figure within the group of commentators who are often tagged the ''B52 liberals''. Unlike former Communist Party member Aaronovitch, or ex-Trotskyist Christopher Hitchens, he is not a one-time leftist who has defected to the right. Throughout his political life, Ignatieff, 57, has written and spoken in the cause of what he terms ''liberal democracy''. Although his career has been varied, encompassing a biography of Isaiah Berlin and a political novel, Charlie Johnson in the Flames, he has returned, time and again, to how best to defend and uphold free-market liberal democracy. His latest book, The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror, is a broad-ranging case for the judicious use of military force by Western democracies in the face of the threat from al Qaeda and ''rogue states'' such as Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Speaking to me from his summer retreat in Provence, he talks of his ''fury'' at an anti-war left which appeared to him to be arguing that: ''Good deeds can only be done with clean hands''. ''If we have to wait for people with perfectly clean hands,'' he remarks, ''we'll wait forever.'' The 2003 Iraq War was, Ignatieff believes, a case of the ''lesser evil''. He cites Saddam's torture centres and the chemical attack on Halabja in 1988 as underpinning his support for the invasion. ''That was what I cared about,'' he says, ''because I'm a human rights person.'' This justification of the Iraq War on a human rights basis, despite his suspicions of the Bush administration - which he roundly condemns as a ''neo-conservative junta'' - puts Ignatieff in a curious position. He denounces what he considers to be the idealistic ''moral perfectionism'' of the anti-war movement, yet there is a strong strand of idealism in his attempts to absolve himself of any responsibility for the bloody quagmire of post-war Iraq. I put it to him that the widespread trampling of international law by the United States, most notably at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, complicate his case. Many people now consider the US military to be a ''cure'' that is worse than the disease. ''The whole book [The Lesser Evil] is written so that we don't have a cure that is worse than the disease,'' he contends. ''The book says that the chief threat posed by terror to liberal democracies is an over-reaction [on the part of democratic states].'' Even as he insists upon his own good intentions with regard to Iraq, however, Ignatieff is clearly uncomfortable with the widespread perception that he is an apologist for a badly-misconceived occupation orchestrated by a vociferously right-wing White House. ''I am not a neo-con,'' he says emphatically. ''I am an American Democrat. I will vote for Kerry in November. I am a strong supporter of a multilateral foreign policy. ''I chose to support the war in 2003, because I thought it was the best of a series of bad options, but so did Kerry, by the way. I hate to be pigeonholed [as a neo-conservative], and I won't be pigeonholed. I'm running my own line on this.'' Indeed, the writer, professor of the Carr Centre for Human Rights at Harvard University, runs his line on a variety of international political issues. On Israel/Palestine, for example, he opposes the wall being built inside the West Bank by Israel as a ''land grab'', but supports the building of a wall along Israel's 1967 border. It is the only way, he says, for Israel to protect its citizens from Palestinian terrorism. How the Palestinians are to protect themselves from the Israeli army and Jewish settlers is something Ignatieff neglects to mention. On the collapse of the Stalinist states in Eastern Europe and the subsequent regional instability, he comes across as a rather self-conscious cold warrior. ''It's unpopular to say so,'' he admits, ''but Margaret Thatcher was a better friend of Eastern Europe than most of the centre and left of British politics. I'm sorry, I don't agree with Thatcher's domestic policies, but, internationally, she was the one, in 1992-93, who was saying: 'We've got to do something to save the Bosnians from being massacred.' Not Michael Foot or Neil Kinnock.'' If he is scathing of past British Labour leaders, Ignatieff is fulsome in his praise of Tony Blair. The prime minister is directing, he believes, ''the most courageous foreign policy by a British prime minister since Churchill.'' Although, given his congratulatory comments about Thatcher, many in the Labour Party will no doubt wish the writer would keep his views on Blair. From Iraq to Israel and back to the Cold War, there is something of the right about Ignatieff's ''liberalism''. He is not, of course, a neo-conservative, but when he can comfortably adopt the stances he does while supporting John Kerry's Democratic Party, he doesn't need to be. It is only when I ask him about his family history (his grandfather, Count Paul Ignatieff, was a minister in the last Czarist government in Russia) that I discover the full elasticity of his definition of ''liberal''. ''Anybody who thinks of White Russian refugees from Communism thinks of moustachioed colonels and ladies sitting in Paris thinking that Lenin is a kind of cannibalistic monster. That's the cliche'', he observes. ''In fact my family was almost pathetically naive in its desire to think well of the Soviet experiment. My grandfather was a Russian liberal, and he knew, better than anybody, that liberalism had failed, because the revolution destroyed his career, and destroyed his life.'' Ignatieff accepts that he often appears to believe in the old ''circular theory'' of politics. ''The extreme left and the extreme right meet at the bottom of the circle in the sense that both are ideological,'' he argues. Michael Ignatieff is, if nothing else, an ideologue. In fact, ask him to ruminate on the politics of the left, and he will admit to a political ideology which is almost biologically inherited: ''I'm pretty anti-Communist, and I'm pretty impatient with visions of socialism. The bedrock of my liberalism is that I do not think you can construct a democracy without a free market. You either have a free market, or you don't have freedom. That's clear blue water between me and anything that looks like socialism. It [socialism] is not in my genes.''

The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror, Edinburgh University Press, £ 15.99 .

Michael Ignatieff is at the EIBF on August 29.

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