After decades abroad as a TV host, academic and public intellectual in Britain and the United States, Michael Ignatieff’s Canadian political homecoming has ended in disaster. Having resigned as Liberal leader, he quickly accepted a new job at the University of Toronto’s Massey College. Last week he said farewell to his Liberal colleagues in Ottawa, and then flew off to France for a vacation.

In the wake of his spectacular failure, a liberal meme has gathered steam: Canada was just not ready for an intellectual like Ignatieff; he was ‘too smart’ for the job. Having studied Ignatieff’s intellectual journey, I would assert that this rationalization is the product either of partisan Liberal arrogance (hubris can apparently remain after a fall) or of a complete disregard for the man’s actual record as a public figure. In reality, as a public intellectual — notwithstanding a brief youthful dabbling in socialist academic writing — Ignatieff has served power, advocated war and greased the skids for the rollback of civil liberties in the so-called ‘war on terror’.

A version of the following article originally appeared in the Australian publication Green Left Weekly. It’s an effort to explain Ignatieff’s political failure in Canada to a non-Canadian audience who may only remember him for his long essays in defence of the U.S. Empire and of George W. Bush’s war. I’m sharing it here to provide a counterpoint to some of the liberal lamentations for Ignatieff’s demise. 


On the day the U.S. invasion of Iraq started in March 2003, Michael Ignatieff was having drinks with Kanan Makiya, a fellow academic at Harvard, at Casablanca restaurant in Cambridge, Mass. Makiya was the Iraqi exile who reportedly told the Bush administration that the U.S. would be greeted in Iraq with “sweets and flowers.” 

Years later, when Ignatieff finally admitted his error on Iraq, he conceded he had put too much faith in his Harvard friend’s predictions. Exiles, from afar, sometimes mistake their fantasies of triumphant return for reality.

In January 2005, three insiders from Canada’s Liberal Party came calling on Ignatieff at Harvard. Writing in The Walrus, Ron Graham described the meeting. The kingmakers from Ottawa outlined a scenario whereby Ignatieff would return to Canada after three decades abroad, win the party leadership and in short order become prime minister of Canada. The Liberals were the country’s “natural governing party,” after all. It’s not known whether there was mention of sweets and flowers. Ignatieff accepted the invitation.

In the end, however, his visions of conquest proved almost as delusional in Canada as they did in Iraq.

Last week, Michael Ignatieff’s homecoming and political career came to an ignominious end. His Liberal Party had their worst results ever Monday night, reduced to little more than a rump third party, with 34 seats and a mere 18.9 per cent of the vote. The social democratic NDP led by Jack Layton replaced the Liberals as the official opposition, with over 30 per cent of the vote. Ignatieff even lost his own seat in what was once considered a ‘safe’ Liberal riding in suburban Toronto.

This was the culmination of a decade-long implosion of historic proportions for what was the most successful political franchise of the 20th century — having held power for more of those 100 years than any other party in the western democracies. The Liberal juggernaut began to stall early in this century, as Paul Martin fought a vicious battle with supporters of then Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien to speed up his long awaited succession. Martin, the Gordon Brown of Canadian politics, finally took over from Chrétien, but the internecine battles had taken their toll and he lost power in short order.  

In 2006, Ignatieff’s first leadership bid was upset by Stéphane Dion. Ignatieff’s prominent role in advocating for the war in Iraq and justifying Bush’s rollback of civil liberties in the ‘war on terror’ was fresh in people’s memories, and this played a role in his loss. Though defeated, Ignatieff never really dismantled his campaign team, and undermined Dion on key issues like Afghanistan and climate change.

Despite a pseudo mea culpa on Iraq — written in New York Times Magazine, naturally — Ignatieff kept up a hawkish stance on Afghanistan, helping along Harper’s militaristic inclinations. In early 2008, to take just one instance, Stephen Harper signaled his resolve to once again extend the unpopular war in Afghanistan. Dion briefly made noises about bringing down the government over the issue, but he was quickly disabused of this notion because of the pro-war positions of both Ignatieff and Liberal MP Bob Rae.

After Dion’s 2008 resignation, Ignatieff wrested the leadership of the Liberals without a vote by the membership. The deal was cut in the backrooms after Harper had, through misinformation and scaremongering, won the war of ideas against a proposed opposition coalition government. The agreement would have seen Dion installed as prime minister in coalition with the NDP and supported on key issues by the Bloc Quebecois. Harper unleashed a massive campaign, denouncing the Liberals’ deal with “socialists and separatists.” He asked and received a rare prorogation of Parliament, essentially in order to buy time, and in the interim the Liberals ditched Dion in favour of Ignatieff.

When Ignatieff took over from Dion, it was to much relief from Bay Street Liberals. Hopes were high in the Toronto Liberal establishment. (Ignatieff’s coronation was rubber stamped in an uncontested vote by delegates at the May 2009 Liberal convention in Vancouver). He spent much of the first two years of his Liberal leadership positioning the party on the centre-right of a number of key issues.

In fall 2010, as leader, Ignatieff again propped up Harper’s extension of Canada’s mission in Afghanistan beyond 2011. Around the same time, Ignatieff absented himself in order to kill a private member’s bill from his own party that would have given refuge to Iraq war resisters from the United States. Ignatieff was careful to match Harper statement for statement in support of Israeli occupation and the siege of Gaza, turning away from his own writing that had once compared the occupied West Bank to apartheid South Africa.

Ignatieff ditched Dion’s talk of a carbon tax and other measures to tackle global warming in favour of boosterism for Canada’s tar sands, the biggest oil reserves on the planet. He belittled National Geographic after a critical article on the tar sands, and talked about Canada’s “economic destiny” being played out in the West. This pandering reaped no fruit — the Liberals never gained a seat in Alberta and have been reduced to four seats in all of Western Canada. 

Columnist Chantal Hébert identified the Afghanistan decision as the moment that Quebec voters “lost interest in the Liberals.” The ‘Orange Wave’ of the NDP then swept away both the Bloc Quebecois and any hope of a Liberal resurgence in that crucial province.

Having moved to solidify the support of business and foreign policy hawks, Ignatieff then tacked to the left at the start of this spring’s election campaign, criticizing Harper’s wildly expensive no-bid purchase of F-35 fighter jets, and outlining a number of modest reforms that echoed many of the points in the NDP platform. The result was that almost no one in Canada bought it, opting either for Layton’s warmed-over social democracy — far more convincing and delivered with a gentler face — or Harper’s Conservatives.

In the wreckage of his failed Canadian intervention, Ignatieff left a majority government for the Bush-like Stephen Harper.

There were some who saw this disaster coming years ago. Dion’s wife, Janine Krieber, made the most accurate of predictions, lambasting Ignatieff in a scathing note posted in 2009 on her Facebook page. Fuelled no doubt by personal animosity, it has nevertheless proven prophetic.

“The Liberal party is in a free fall, and it won’t recover. Like all the liberal parties in Europe, it will become a poor little thing at the mercy of ephemeral coalitions. For having refused the historic coalition that could have placed it at the head of the left, it will be punished by history…

“Do we really have the right leader to discuss [Afghanistan, torture]? Can someone really write all these insanities and make us believe he’s simply changed his mind? To justify violence, he must have really given it serious thought. Otherwise, that’s very dangerous. What guarantee would there be that he wouldn’t change his mind again? The party base understood all of this and Canadian citizens are in the process of understanding. Ignatieff’s supporters didn’t do their homework. They didn’t read his books, didn’t consult his colleagues. They contented themselves with his ability to navigate the cocktail circuit. Some of them are enraged now. I hear: ‘Why didn’t anyone say anything?’ We told you loud and clear. You didn’t listen.”

Having myself taken the time to read Ignatieff’s books and numerous long essays and papers, I can say that Krieber was right. It’s not so much that he spent more than thirty years abroad; it’s that during that time he scarcely wrote anything of significance in reference to Canada. In the introduction to his book The Rights Revolution, he concedes he was a “Martian outsider” to the country’s political debates.

As a teenager at Upper Canada College, the boarding school of choice for the Canadian establishment, Michael Ignatieff used to tell friends that he would be prime minister one day. In the end, he could not make that youthful boast a reality. But his name will be forever etched in Canadian history as the man who led his party to new lows. 

How the Liberals must now rue the day they came calling on Bush’s war advocate at Harvard.

Derrick O'Keefe

Derrick O'Keefe

Derrick O'Keefe is a writer in Vancouver, B.C. He served as rabble.ca's editor from 2012 to 2013 and from 2008 to 2009.