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How the Iraq War sank Michael Ignatieff’s Liberals

John Michael McGrathWebsite

Did Michael Ignatieff's pro-Iraq war stance doom the Liberals? Creative Commons photo by Flickr user WmPitcher.

Did Michael Ignatieff's pro-Iraq war stance doom the Liberals? Creative Commons photo by Flickr user WmPitcher.

Listening to Michael Ignatieff address his few remaining dispirited supporters on election night, I couldn’t help but picture the room dotted with the ghosts of Baghdad. I wonder whether Ignatieff saw them too, like so many Banquos’ ghosts in the room that night as he took responsibility for his party’s dismal showing in the 2011 federal election.

Having since resigned his leadership, it may seem to rude to kick him now that he’s down. But the colossal scale of the Liberal defeat in this election can’t be fully understood unless we talk honestly about Michael Ignatieff’s career as an intellectual and politician—and the Iraq War remains central to both.

Ignatieff’s career as a Canadian politician is bound up in the war: he was first courted by backroom Liberals in the spring of 2004, as an iconic “serious” small-L liberal. (American liberalism was entering what would be years of toxic, self-destructive debate about whether “good liberals” could oppose the war.) For this type of centrist liberal, supporting the invasion of Iraq was the “serious” choice, contrasted with the dreamy foolishness of pacifism.

Paul Martin’s government, terrified that the brief moment of spine Jean Chrétien had shown by avoiding direct Canadian involvement in the war, was terrified about the state of relations with the Bush government. Ignatieff’s recruitment was a signal to the Americans and the Canadian elite that the Liberal Party could still be trusted, despite Chrétien’s heresy. It was more about distancing the Liberals from left-wing policies than the war itself.

Ignatieff wasted no time. His landmark speech to the Liberal Party in 2005 was full of rhetorical slaps at the left, but here’s my favourite, in retrospect:

“A little bit of free political advice: anti-Americanism is an electoral ghetto, and we should leave the NDP to wither inside it.”

As it turns out, anti-Americanism was a pretty reliable compass in the Bush years — and Ignatieff would get first-hand experience at leading a party to wither in an electoral ghetto.
In 2006, as he began running for the Liberal leadership that spring, Ignatieff told a University of Ottawa crowd “being serious” — there’s that word again — “means sticking to your convictions. I went to Iraq in 1992 and saw what Saddam Hussein had done to the Kurds and the Shia. I decided then and there that I’d stand with them whatever happened.”

Or not. Just 16 months later, he disavowed the embattled Kurds and Shia in the pages of the New York Times (the paper of record for serious liberals). In several hundred masochistic words he dismantled his own support for the war, in what even a strong supporter of his called “self-abasing twaddle.” Even here, Ignatieff took a few shots at the anti-war left:

“…many of those who correctly anticipated catastrophe did so not by exercising judgment but by indulging in ideology. They opposed the invasion because they believed the president was only after the oil or because they believed America is always and in every situation wrong.”
Which is his way of saying that even though opponents were right, they were right for the wrong reasons. Ignatieff still needed to prove how serious he and other war-supporting Liberals were, and how unserious their critics. He could admit he was wrong, but couldn’t bring himself to acknowledge his opponents were right.Meanwhile in 2011 the politicians who opposed war in Iraq early, clearly and loudly are actually doing okay: MPs like Jack Layton of course, but even Liberals like Bob Rae and Stéphane Dion retain their seats in the House of Commons—something Ignatieff cannot say. There’s little comfort in being proved correct about the biggest humanitarian and diplomatic catastrophe of the 21st century so far, especially when what transpired was so much pointless death and waste. But at least the war’s opponents maintained some kind of moral clarity.

Did any of this actually matter in the Canadian election of 2011? It’s impossible to prove why something didn’t happen, so this must be understood as pure conjecture—but I believe it must be considered. At the very least, Ignatieff’s habit of hippie-punching drove away wavering left-wing supporters, and given that the entire Liberal campaign relied on the hope of pushing the NDP vote down, that was a strategic blunder: it’s difficult to imagine someone less palatable to the Canadian left than Ignatieff. Most importantly, as the Bloc vote collapsed in Quebec, Ignatieff’s intellectual history left the party totally unable to capitalize on the opportunity in Canada’s most anti-war, anti-imperialist province.

The Liberal Party is going to spend the next few years trying to stage a comeback. It’s what political parties do when they’ve suffered a humiliation like this. In the spirit of Ignatieff’s 2005 advice to the Liberal Party, I’d like to offer some of my own: if a Canadian academic signs up to support another costly, horrific example of western hubris in the Muslim world and unrepentantly defends it for years after sensible people have grasped the horror of it all — well, run far, far away, as fast as you can. Seriously.

John Michael McGrath is a freelance reporter and writer in Toronto.

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