Nearly a year after the American public rejected the foreign policy of the Bush Administration, Canada faces an embarrassing leadership struggle between two neocon cheerleaders.
On Friday, the Liberal Party of Canada threw down the gauntlet and submitted a vote of no confidence in the minority government led by Conservative PM Stephen Harper. Many progressives might think "why not?" Harper is, after all, a wolf in wolf’s clothing, managing to run a neoconservative, neoliberal government with voter support of his party in the mid-30 percent range, and all the rest of Canada to his left.
Unfortunately, Harper’s challenger, Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff, is just as much a wolf, but poses a much greater danger to the Left because he dresses as our shepherd.
Until Friday, Michael Ignatieff’s Liberals had supported the Conservative government in 79 consecutive confidence votes since 2007. That wouldn’t be so concerning if the Liberals had been winning major concessions for progressives, but no such luck.
At a basic level, Ignatieff has acted in ideological accord with the Conservatives. Ignatieff is short on details of how he would have behaved any differently than Harper, even when agitating for an election. If he is a progressive at all, it is in hindsight only: whether in the States or in Parliament, Ignatieff goes along when policy is being made, denies problems as they occur and complains unconvincingly about the consequences.
It’s something of a pattern with him. Take this video, which is just one of many on YouTube that use Ignatieff’s own words against him. Despite the tone of the video, don’t jump too quickly to the conclusion that the quotes are taken too out of context, for reasons I’ll discuss below.
Regarding his 30 year absence: in isolation, that isn’t a deal-breaker. Many Canadians travel, study, work and even reside abroad for a spell. We might look askance at his habit of referring to the USA as "my country," and referring to "we Americans," but what really matters is who Ignatieff became in the meantime.
It’s his embrace of the values on display in those quotes that make him... not one of us.
You might be tempted to excuse his quotes because elsewhere he tries to acknowledge that these things are evil and that we have to draw a line before we go down any slippery slopes to greater evils. But keep three things in mind.
First, Ignatieff repeated the same lines in several places, and they’re not even the worst he's said. See below.
Second, it was Ignatieff and those like him who gave intellectual cover for the neocons to go a step farther, and a step farther. Ignatieff always talked about limits to keep us from going too far, but his standard for what is acceptable is greater and lesser evils. He leads his audience onto the slipperiest slope of all, and advises them to avoid the slopes below.
American imperialism is acceptable to him because We are Good Democracies and They are Evil. He swallowed whole the idea of American exceptionalism and rejected "Pearsonian peacekeeping" in favour of the forceful expansion of "free trade, human rights and democracy, enforced by the most awesome military power the world has ever known."
And in the service of that empire, he claims that "necessity may require us to take actions in defence of democracy which will stray from democracy's own foundational commitments to dignity." Specifically, "to defeat terrorism [democracies] must use violence, coercion, secrecy, deception, and even the violation of rights." He thinks we are "compelled to traffic in evil" like "indefinite detention of suspects on lower standards of probable cause, coercive interrogations that fall just short of torture, targeted assassinations of terrorist suspects, and even preemptive war."
He proclaimed, "Imperial power requires controlling the subject people’s sense of time, convincing them that they will be ruled forever," and later in the same article wrote, "Afghans... understand the difficult truth that their best hope of freedom lies in a temporary experience of imperial rule."
Closer to home, he said he's "not sure we can stick to a pure civil libertarian position all the way" and asserts that "sticking too firmly to the rule of law simply allows terrorists too much leeway to exploit our freedoms."
He can add conditions and warnings and asterisks to his heart’s desire, but between those statements Ignatieff carved a wide and slippery slope leading to everything Bush did.
Third, it’s much more dangerous to have a Liberal make these arguments than a Conservative. Ignatieff makes support for empire and its abuses mainstream by packaging their ethics in superficially liberal arguments.
Liberals can argue with some justification that they represent the natural ruling centre of Canadian politics: it has been some time since the median voter on the political spectrum would be anything other than a Liberal, and the party is indeed quite large. So it’s one thing for a Conservative to cheerlead for empire and the violation of human rights, but it’s quite another when it becomes the platform of a centre-left government.
It goes beyond foreign policy, of course. As James Laxer wrote recently,
The Liberals are led by a man whose instinctual response to every issue is to turn to the right. A believer in the benign character of the American Empire, he’s done this for years on Afghanistan. He did it on the coalition when he walked away from the chance to install a progressive government last January with himself at the helm. And over the past year, he’s repeatedly failed to come up with sweeping new ideas to cope with the economic crisis and to offer a platform that addresses the needs of Canadians. When he walked away from the coalition and supported the Harper government in return for the issuing of a few report cards, Ignatieff made it evident that he offers Canadians nothing new.
Viewed in that light, Ignatieff’s push for an election now seems more like a squabble for who gets to wear the crown than a fight to change the direction of the country.
So for now, it appears the Bloc Québécois and NDP believe they can get more accomplished by extracting concessions from the Cons than by working with the Liberals, a damning indictment of where the Liberal Party stands today.
That can continue until the Liberal rank and file, most of whom opposed Ignatieff on his support of Harper’s Afghanistan policy, overcome him and the old boys who anointed him, and offer Canada a real choice. Till then, we have no need for a false champion.