Tackling Tyrants, Exploring Truths By Michael Ignatieff
By SALIL TRIPATHI
IT IS NOT EASY to pigeonhole Michael Ignatieff, a
Harvard University, whose father was a Canadian diplomat in London
blitz in the 1940s, and whose grandfather was a minister in the
in Russia, from where his family moved to Canada.
In the 1960s, as a student, Mr. Ignatieff marched against the Vietnam
but today he is one of the few liberal intellectuals who fervently
Iraq war. Renowned as an academic, Mr. Ignatieff has often gone to the
line, as a war correspondent, to understand the issues he teaches
to explore deeper truths, which can't be captured by mere facts and
he has written moving fiction. His second novel, "Scar Tissue," about
a professor coming to grips with his mother's Alzheimer's disease, was
for Britain's prestigious Booker Prize in 1993.
Mr. Ignatieff's liberalism was first tested in Britain, after he
from the University of Toronto and Harvard, when in 1984 his book,
Strangers," questioned some of the assumptions of the welfare state at
when Margaret Thatcher was dismantling the welfare state. He was
the nearly yearlong miners' strike in 1984-85, and the socialists'
approach to restructuring the industry disillusioned him. Much later,
an acclaimed biography of British historian and philosopher Sir Isaiah
As the Soviet empire collapsed in the early 1990s and phrases like
states" and "ancient hatreds" were bandied around, Mr. Ignatieff
sovereignty, international law, intervention, impunity, and amnesty
with outcomes that were not always neat or elegant. The result was a
books on the nature of war, ethnicity, and nationalism -- "Blood and
Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism," "The Warrior's Honor:
the Modern Conscience," and "Virtual War: Kosovo and Beyond" --
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
like a nation-state, not intervene or get involved -- conventional
Mr. Ignatieff turns on its head in his latest novel, "Charlie Johnson
Flames" (Chatto & Windus, 150 pages, GBP 12.99, or 18.67 euros).
Charlie Johnson is a jaded, tough, award-winning American reporter
the U.K. who has seen everything. With his Polish cameraman Jacek, he
to war zones in the Balkans, African flashpoints like Mogadishu,
Luanda, Angola, and lately, Kabul in Afghanistan: "All assignments
. . . like so many rows of tape . . . holidays from hell every one of
Jacek seemed to survive them by keeping everything contained within
frame of his viewfinder. . . . They had seen the world together,
seen it too close to know what it really meant."
Johnson and Jacek are in the Balkans again, chasing a scoop: Rebel
have made inroads in Serb-controlled territory. But things go horribly
sadistic colonel razes the rebel-held village and calmly sets afire
woman who has reluctantly sheltered Johnson and Jacek. She tries to
tossing "objectivity" to the winds, Johnson tries to save her, but in
He plunges into depression at his failure and leaves his
his manager and ignoring warnings, he returns to the war zone,
kill the son of a b-." The obsession seems manic, but the woman in
impinged, penetrated, entered -- perhaps the only one who ever had --
small space he kept between himself and the entire world."
TV images can stir public opinion. But what next? The international
can offer only the U.N. Charter, the Geneva Conventions, and war-crime
tribunals. But that's ponderous; sometimes cases are chosen to advance
arguments, not primarily to seek redress for victims. "The U.N. is
addressing the gap between the rights of states and the rights of
Ignatieff said on a recent visit to London.
The Holy Grail is the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, which ended the
Years' War in Europe and enshrines national sovereignty, protecting
external intervention; now states can intervene only in self-defense,
under U.N. authority to preserve international security. Yet, this
tyrants to act with impunity against their own population. Experts
problem but can't agree on what can be done.
There was, in fact, a report, "The Responsibility to Protect,"
the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty,
Ignatieff was one of its authors. Formed with the support of the
government, it identified principles permitting military intervention
humanitarian reasons. For Mr. Ignatieff, invading Iraq was necessary
just, because of
the nature of the regime of Saddam Hussein.
In a series of lectures he gave earlier this year, Mr. Ignatieff
"It is not always possible to avoid killing some human beings in order
still more; not always possible to avoid deceiving an electorate for
purpose of accomplishing a secret operation that will save their
possible to avoid entrapment, deception and violence to catch and
terrorists. The means are not absolved because the ends are
remain what they are: evil. But we countenance them because failing to
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,
building a new architecture. The U.N. won't do it. Individuals like
Johnson can't do it. Will America step up to the plate?