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Michael Ignatieff: Assad as Partner of the West – the “alternative is more years of civil war, death and destruction.”

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Ignatieff: Assad as Lesser Evil.

Michael Ignatieff is known as a “humanitarian interventionist”.

On the Iraq War and the US-led invasion in 2003 he said this (Guardian 2003),

To support the war entails a commitment to rebuild that order on new foundations. To support the war entails other discomforts as well. It means remaining distinct from the company you keep, supporting a swift and decisive victory, while maintaining your distance from the hawks, the triumphalists, the bellowing commentators who mistake machismo for maturity.

Ignatieff’s academic and political career (as leader of the Canadian Liberal Party) is outlined here.

More recently, Der Spiegel reports, “working on behalf of the United Nations he was largely responsible for developing the concept of “Responsibility to Protect,” or “R2P,” which foresees mandatory international measures if a civilian population is threatened with genocide. As the head of the Liberal Party from 2008 to 2011, he served as the leader of Canada’s political opposition in Ottawa. Ignatieff, often cited as one of the most important thinkers of our time, is a professor of politics at Harvard University. He also serves as the chairman of the Richard C. Holbrook Forum for the Study of Diplomacy and Governance at the American Academy in Berlin.

Ignatieff presented an interesting account of human rights in Human rights as politics and idolatry (2001). This argues that human rights should be considered not in abstract ontological ways, but through what they do for people. Unfortunately, as was noted at the time, Ignatieff tended to adhere to a supplementary position which relied on the coercive strategies to enforce human rights without giving any clear institutional frameworks or limits for the use of force.

This lead him, as with many ‘humanitarian interventionists’ to see no boundaries for action to impose  rights. That is, the issue of democratic sovereignty in countries, positive consent, was elided. Yet without the democratic expression of people’s wills this would mean in effect a legal “amalgamation of states under one superior power”, a form of undemocratic “monarchy”  that Kant famously warned against.

Ignatieff has offered other ethical speculations on politics and war. One might argue that his present position is a development of the principle of the “lesser evil” – morally disreputable acts that are needed to prevent still worse outcomes – that he defended in The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror (2003)

In Der Spiegel a few days ago this interview appeared, which does not seem to have picked up widely elsewhere.

It can be compared with the above comments.

Michael Ignatieff Interview: ‘Those Fighting Islamic State Are the Lesser Evil’

One should read the whole interview but these passages stick out,

Ignatieff: The destruction of the Assad regime’s chemical weapons, covered by a UN resolution, was a success. But Western countries, facing the obstructive posture of Moscow and Beijing in the Security Council, failed to prevent the massive killings in the civil war. That’s a tragedy. If our goal is to protect the civilian population in Syria, and we apply the R2P doctrine, this can only mean that additional arms shipments to any forces will only worsen the situation.

SPIEGEL: Why are you so certain about that?

Ignatieff:  Everyone who is turning the Syrian civil war into a proxy war — Saudi Arabia and Qatar, as well as Russia and Iran — must understand that no side, neither Assad nor the rebels, can win the conflict. That the continued fighting will only cost more and more human lives. A UN-brokered cease-fire could emerge from a recognition of the stalemate. Each side would adjust to the status quo. The outcome would be a divided Syria, with Assad in control in Damascus, but with a de-facto dominance in the north and east for the rebels of the Free Syrian Army and the Kurds — once the Islamic State has been destroyed. Some rather strange, indirect alliances will have been created. After all, both Assad and the West fear and are fighting the jihadists.

SPIEGEL: And he is now offering his services to the West as a partner. You wouldn’t have any objection to keeping the dictator in power — Assad as the lesser evil?

Ignatieff: I think it’s the only way to end the slaughter of the civilian population. Listen, I know that this is a deal with the devil. It’s hard to imagine an uglier tradeoff for peace and justice than this one. But continuing to demand Assad’s removal without having real leverage to force it to happen has become an empty threat — an even more hopeless strategy. The alternative is more years of civil war, death and destruction.

SPIEGEL: With all due respect, now you’re sounding more like a jaded political realist than a hopeful, humanitarian interventionist.

Ignatieff: Even if I continue to believe in the responsibility to protect and build on its importance, I can’t put this concept above everything else. I’ve spent my whole life trying to reconcile my human rights convictions with realistic geopolitics. Sometimes it’s an almost unbearable discrepancy.

Written by Andrew Coates

September 13, 2014 at 4:37 pm

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