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On Michael Ignatieff

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Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff would like Canadians to see him as the next Pierre Trudeau, a man of wisdom and learning who has returned to his native land after decades abroad to play the role of the Lawgiver, the Lycurgus or the Solon of our age. The day Ignatieff announced that his party would vote in favour of the Harper government's budget in January, he cut his ties with the coalition Stephane Dion had forged with the NDP, and proclaimed that he had been a Liberal all his life. On this defining occasion in his career, as he was hewing to the right politically and making it clear that he wanted nothing to do with the nation's social democrats, Ignatieff wrapped himself in the cloak, not of small "l" liberalism, but of the big "L" partisan variety. He intended to lead the "party of Laurier," a favourite phrase of his, back to its natural place, in power in Ottawa. Lately, Ignatieff has been saying that the Liberal Party must offer Canadians "hope" and we all know from whom he purloined that word. Yes, he does aspire to being considered this country's Barack Obama.

Trudeau, Laurier, and Obama -- Ignatieff calls up images of all three in his quest for power.

Ignatieff presents himself as a progressive, different from Stephen Harper, but he is very careful to position himself well to the right of the NDP. His problem with Harper, as he has repeatedly said, is that Harper is a divider, while Ignatieff insists that he is a uniter, striving to achieve national unity. Ignatieff gets passionate about national unity at a time when most Canadians are intensely worried about what will become of their jobs and the economic well-being of the communities in which they live. He is more at home with abstractions than with people, not because he is an intellectual, but because he finds people unfathomable.

Does Ignatieff measure up to the men to whom he wants to be compared?

Long before he became the leader of the Liberal Party, Pierre Trudeau took to the barricades in opposition to the authoritarian regime of Maurice Duplessis. He lined up with the workers during the historic and bitter Asbestos strike in 1949.

In November 1885, standing before a vast crowd at the Champs de Mars in Montreal, to express outrage about the execution of Louis Riel, Wilfrid Laurier declared that "had I been born on the banks of the Saskatchewan I myself would have shouldered a musket." He followed this with one of the most eloquent speeches ever delivered in the House of Commons in which he set out the case for the Metis.

And Barack Obama, who passed up a career in law to work as a community organizer on the south side of Chicago, understood the plight of the jobless and the marginalized.

I don't dispute that Trudeau and Laurier took the side of reaction numerous times during their careers, just as Obama has in his. What I insist, though, is that all three had moments of radicalism that emerged out of their participation in people's struggles.

Such courageous political engagement is notably absent in the career of Ignatieff. And this is not because Ignatieff has not had time to show his stuff. If he does win office, he will do so at a more advanced age than the members of the trio with whom he likes to be compared. Trudeau ended his days as a bad boy abroad at a much younger age than Ignatieff was when he finally returned to Canada, having spent most of his time abroad seated in comfortable pews.

Ignatieff's journeys to war torn countries attest to the fact that he does not lack physical courage. What has been missing in him is any taste of life outside the upper classes. Far from having immersed himself in people's struggles, the hallmarks of Ignatieff's career have been elitism, narcissism and a pronounced tendency to veer to the right rather than to the left when the political heat is on.

No one who knew the man would ever make the case that Pierre Trudeau was free of elitism and intellectual snobbery. On the other hand, no one ever called Trudeau a stuffed shirt, something that cannot be said in the case of Michael Ignatieff. Keen observers of the political scene in England have told me that during his days as a television commentator there, Ignatieff was reckoned to be a windbag, a man who passionately adopted positions on human rights issues only after they had become the conventional wisdom.

In truth, the most noteworthy instance of edgy or original thought on his part was when he reached the conclusion that the American Empire could be a force for human rights, the rule of law and democracy in failed states.

"It is at least ironic that liberal believers...," Ignatieff noted in Empire Lite, "someone like me, for example -- can end up supporting the creation of a new humanitarian empire, a new form of colonial tutelage for the peoples of Kosovo, Bosnia and Afghanistan." But before you are offended by the imperial label, he cautions, you should consider that "it is an empire lite, hegemony without colonies, a global sphere of influence without the burden of direct administration and the risks of daily policing...but that does not make it any less of an empire, that is, an attempt to permanently order the world of states and markets according to its national interests."

In a similar vein, Ignatieff further writes that "we are no longer in the era of the United Fruit Company, when American corporations needed the Marines to secure their investments overseas. The 21st century imperium is a new invention in the annals of political science....a global hegemony whose grace notes are free markets, human rights and democracy, enforced by the most awesome military power the world has ever known."

Famously, he supported the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq in 2003. "The case for empire is that it has become, in a place like Iraq, the last hope for democracy and stability alike," Ignatieff wrote in the New York Times Magazine in January 2003, noting that critics "have not factored in what tyranny or chaos can do to vital American interests." It was during this period of his life that Ignatieff made periodic visits to Canada and lectured the locals in his native land not to indulge in simple-minded anti-Americanism. Here was the wise man, coached in the ways of the world, comfortable in the company of the powerful and the cognoscenti. He was noticeably less at home with Canadians and when he wore a hockey shirt to try to look the part, he appeared as out of place as Michael Dukakis in a tank.

Ignatieff's inclination to make his liberalism feel brawny by vaulting to the right as he did on Iraq, has been repeated on important occasions since his return to Canada. (In a mea culpa piece in the New York Times Magazine in 2007, Ignatieff conceded that he had been wrong on Iraq. Although he deserves credit for admitting his error, the way he did it reeked of narcissism. While acknowledging that he had been wrong, Ignatieff refused to give credit to those who had been right about Iraq. "Many of those who correctly anticipated catastrophe," he wrote "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.")

In the spring of 2006, when the Liberal parliamentary caucus divided on whether to support a Harper government motion to extend the duration of Canada's military mission in Afghanistan, Ignatieff lined up with the hawks. "I express unequivocal support for the troops in Afghanistan, for the mission, and also for the renewal of the mission," he told the House in his speech on the motion.

Ignatieff's decision to back the Harper budget in January was entirely in keeping with the whole of his career. He always stays with the elite in the choices he makes, just as he did when he decided that he had been wrong on Iraq. By then, every intelligent liberal or practitioner of reel politique was opposed to George W. Bush's war. That stance had become the conventional wisdom.

But offending the Canadian business class by lining up with the NDP was unthinkable for Ignatieff. It was less offensive and truer to his inclinations to line up with Stephen Harper.

When he has imagined himself becoming prime minister, I am sure that Ignatieff never considered making that ascent arm in arm with Jack Layton. It didn't feel right to him. He would do it the way Laurier had or not at all.

The problem with that, of course, is the real fate of flesh and blood Canadians who are living through a terrible time of economic crisis. People losing their jobs and facing the prospect of having to sell their homes into a depressed market are being abandoned to the tender mercies of Harper and Jim Flaherty. Communities in many regions of the country are suffering through a mean time. The number of victims of this economic transformation, much more severe than a typical recession, continues to rise. Many placed their hopes in the coalition, backed as people said by the "62 per cent majority." The coalition offered genuine hopes for a progressive government that would put flesh and blood Canadians first.

Dion and Bob Rae were up for that. But not Ignatieff, who was the very last Liberal MP to sign the letter to the Governor General to say that he had lost confidence in the Harper government. Ignatieff doubtless conceived of arriving at Rideau Hall for the swearing-in as the leader of his own government, one that did not include social democrats. As for the Canadians who were hurting, they would just have to wait.

Suppose Canadians were to extend a blank cheque to Ignatieff to govern the country, what could they expect? On the economy, his ideas have been vague to date. He is following the old Mackenzie King play book of allowing the Harper government to defeat itself. But we do have some clues about the direction he would take. He has distanced himself from two progressive positions of previous Liberal leaders. He declared that the National Energy Program of Trudeau, whose goal was to achieve fifty per cent Canadian ownership of the petroleum industry, was a mistake. And he has abandoned Dion's Green Shift, whose central plank was a carbon tax. Put those two things together and what we have is a leader who is determined to make peace with Big Oil. Oil sands development is fine with him -- just keep it clean. On recovery from the economic crisis, Ignatieff has already voted for the Harper government's budget and therefore, has endorsed its stimulus plan. Basically he's fine with the idea that Barack Obama will lead the recovery and when commodity prices rebound Canada will be back in business. He's a gung-ho supporter of NAFTA and the concept of the North American partnership between Canada and the United States. His version of True, Patriot, Love is the kind George Grant wrote about in Lament for a Nation: "Perhaps we should rejoice in the disappearance of Canada. We leave the narrow provincialism and our backwoods culture; we enter the excitement of the United States where all the great things are being done....This is the profoundest argument for the Liberals. They governed so as to break down our parochialism and lead us into the future."

Ignatieff has failed to notice that the global economic tsunami signals the passing of the age in which the United States is the centre of the world, economically and in other ways. Ignatieff has no clue that this global economic crisis was caused in large measure by the failure of the American neo-liberal socio-economic model, with its rewards directed only at the few. Ignatieff is onside with a neo-Liberal restoration, a task as undesirable as it is unrealistic.

On foreign policy and defence, Ignatieff believes in a muscular Canada that will stand shoulder to shoulder with the United States and the United Kingdom on the world stage. "You can't protect people just with blue berets and a sidearm," he has chided Canadians. "It requires -- and this is the difficult bit for Canada---it requires military capability."

Ignatieff has a few grab-bag projects in mind that he likes to mention. He favours more emphasis on early childhood education, a high speed rail system in the Central Canada corridor and he wants to make himself the "learning prime minister." This is the kind of thing Liberals have always said since Mackenzie King began flirting with the idea of medicare in 1919 -- Lester Pearson made good on this, after Tommy Douglas and Saskatchewan had done the heavy lifting, in the late 1960s.

Having signed on to a right wing agenda on the major economic and foreign policy issues, Ignatieff dangles a few progressive looking trinkets in front of Canadians to convince liberal minded people in Toronto's Annex that he really is different from Stephen Harper.

Not this time. There's too much Harper-lite in this Liberal for us to turn ourselves inside out to send him to 24 Sussex Drive. Fortunately, progressives need not flock to Ignatieff. There are too many important things to be done to choose this flawed vessel for our deliverance.

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