Tackling Tyrants, Exploring Truths By Michael Ignatieff

 

By SALIL TRIPATHI

 

IT IS NOT EASY to pigeonhole Michael Ignatieff, a human-rights professor at Harvard University, whose father was a Canadian diplomat in London during the blitz in the 1940s, and whose grandfather was a minister in the Czarist cabinet in Russia, from where his family moved to Canada.

  In the 1960s, as a student, Mr. Ignatieff marched against the Vietnam War, but today he is one of the few liberal intellectuals who fervently supported the Iraq war. Renowned as an academic, Mr. Ignatieff has often gone to the front line, as a war correspondent, to understand the issues he teaches about.

And to explore deeper truths, which can't be captured by mere facts and theories, he has written moving fiction. His second novel, "Scar Tissue," about a professor coming to grips with his mother's Alzheimer's disease, was on a shortlist for Britain's prestigious Booker Prize in 1993.

  Mr. Ignatieff's liberalism was first tested in Britain, after he graduated from the University of Toronto and Harvard, when in 1984 his book, "The Needs of Strangers," questioned some of the assumptions of the welfare state at a time when Margaret Thatcher was dismantling the welfare state. He was puzzled by the nearly yearlong miners' strike in 1984-85, and the socialists' doctrinaire approach to restructuring the industry disillusioned him. Much later, he wrote an acclaimed biography of British historian and philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin.

  As the Soviet empire collapsed in the early 1990s and phrases like "failed states" and "ancient hatreds" were bandied around, Mr. Ignatieff saw concepts of sovereignty, international law, intervention, impunity, and amnesty play out with outcomes that were not always neat or elegant. The result was a series of books on the nature of war, ethnicity, and nationalism -- "Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism," "The Warrior's Honor: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience," and "Virtual War: Kosovo and Beyond" -- which succinctly captured the dilemmas.

  When facts can only go so far, fiction offers a way forward. Reporters are expected to be outside observers; they don't have to take sides, they should, like a nation-state, not intervene or get involved -- conventional wisdom that Mr. Ignatieff turns on its head in his latest novel, "Charlie Johnson in the Flames" (Chatto & Windus, 150 pages, GBP 12.99, or 18.67 euros).

  Charlie Johnson is a jaded, tough, award-winning American reporter based in the U.K. who has seen everything. With his Polish cameraman Jacek, he has been to war zones in the Balkans, African flashpoints like Mogadishu, Somalia, and Luanda, Angola, and lately, Kabul in Afghanistan: "All assignments lined up . . . like so many rows of tape . . . holidays from hell every one of them, and Jacek seemed to survive them by keeping everything contained within the black frame of his viewfinder. . . . They had seen the world together, though they'd seen it too close to know what it really meant."

  Johnson and Jacek are in the Balkans again, chasing a scoop: Rebel forces have made inroads in Serb-controlled territory. But things go horribly wrong. A sadistic colonel razes the rebel-held village and calmly sets afire the young woman who has reluctantly sheltered Johnson and Jacek. She tries to flee, and tossing "objectivity" to the winds, Johnson tries to save her, but in vain.

He plunges into depression at his failure and leaves his wife; then, defying his manager and ignoring warnings, he returns to the war zone, determined "to kill the son of a b-." The obsession seems manic, but the woman in flames "had impinged, penetrated, entered -- perhaps the only one who ever had -- the small space he kept between himself and the entire world."

  TV images can stir public opinion. But what next? The international community can offer only the U.N. Charter, the Geneva Conventions, and war-crime tribunals. But that's ponderous; sometimes cases are chosen to advance legal arguments, not primarily to seek redress for victims. "The U.N. is powerless in addressing the gap between the rights of states and the rights of individuals," Mr. Ignatieff said on a recent visit to London.

  The Holy Grail is the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years' War in Europe and enshrines national sovereignty, protecting states from external intervention; now states can intervene only in self-defense, or acting under U.N. authority to preserve international security. Yet, this allows tyrants to act with impunity against their own population. Experts recognize the problem but can't agree on what can be done.

  There was, in fact, a report, "The Responsibility to Protect," published by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, and Mr. Ignatieff was one of its authors. Formed with the support of the Canadian government, it identified principles permitting military intervention for humanitarian reasons. For Mr. Ignatieff, invading Iraq was necessary and just, because of the nature of the regime of Saddam Hussein.

  In a series of lectures he gave earlier this year, Mr. Ignatieff elaborated: "It is not always possible to avoid killing some human beings in order to save still more; not always possible to avoid deceiving an electorate for the purpose of accomplishing a secret operation that will save their lives; not always possible to avoid entrapment, deception and violence to catch and neutralize terrorists. The means are not absolved because the ends are justifiable; they remain what they are: evil. But we countenance them because failing to use them will result in worse."

  If the U.S. was right in taking the lead, it must now bear the responsibilities that follow, he says in another recent book, "Empire Lite." Mr. Ignatieff n is critical of what he calls American desire to dominate on the cheap, without building a new architecture. The U.N. won't do it. Individuals like Charlie Johnson can't do it. Will America step up to the plate?