Exporting democracy, revising torture: the complex missions of Michael Ignatieff

Mariano Aguirre
14 July 2005

Mariano Aguirre is a journalist and writer on international relations. He is coordinator of research at the Fundacion para las Relaciones Internacionales y el Dialogo Exterior (Fride), in Madrid. He is the former director of the Peace Research Center (CIP), Madrid and has been a program officer at the Ford Foundation in New York. He a fellow of the Transnational Institute, Amsterdam. This article represents his personal views.

Should democracy be promoted from outside or must it develop from local conditions? And if it should be encouraged by external actors, who has the legitimacy to do this? Michael Ignatieff, Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Kennedy School of Government in Harvard University, has the answers to these questions.

First, democracy must be promoted by the United States, as he explains in his recent article “Who Are Americans to Think That Freedom Is Theirs to Spread?” (New York Times Magazine, 26 June, and - in a shorter version - The Observer, 3 July 2005). The reason for this is that the Jeffersonian desire to “spread to the whole world” the “American form of republican self-government” is rooted in the country’s history and tradition.

Second, the United States has the duty to promote “the universal birthright of mankind” because “if the American project of encouraging freedom fails, there may be no one else available with the resourcefulness and energy, even the self-deception, necessary for the task”. Europe and Canada, according to Ignatieff, enjoy the freedom to criticise the United States, but they are not willing to assist Washington in its complex task. When it comes to promoting democracy the selfish Europeans, who were helped by the US in the two great wars in the past century, look the other way.

These are dangerous arguments, based on the one hand on the assumption that one Nation or Volk has the almost divine mission to impose a vision of the world, and on the other, that the rest of the world is either weak or corrupt, and must be redeemed by the Chosen One. An echo of the past resounds around Europe.

Tools of argument

Michael Ignatieff has been useful to the US government as it has tried to promote democracy in the middle east. He brings to this unofficial job a special, double-edged approach: he provides conservative arguments to the liberal audience and liberal alibis to the conservatives.

Ignatieff considers himself a liberal, so sometimes he criticises the Bush administration. And he is an intellectual, so he has doubts about almost everything and airs them for the liberal readers of the New York Times. But in the end he shares the US government’s vision of the violent and compulsory promotion of democracy, the war against terrorism and the use of instruments, for example torture, which are apparently in need of a revisionist treatment.

Admiration is at the root of this. Ignatieff admits that he believes that, if democracy plants itself in Iraq and spreads throughout the middle east, then George W Bush could be recognised in the future as “a plain-speaker visionary”.

Coming from a sophisticated thinker, that is a surprising assessment of the man whose worldview was characterised thus during the 2004 election: “I’m not here offering myself to you because that’s how it’s done in a democracy, but because that’s just how I am, and I don’t give a damn who says different.” For Ignatieff, Bush is a “gambler from Texas” because he is the first president “risking his presidency on the premise that Jefferson was right”.

And yet, and yet.

Ignatieff employs two tools in his complex job. First, his credentials: he is the director of a prestigious academic human-rights centre, a skilful writer known for advocating a humanitarian intervention in the Balkan wars, the biographer of the heterodox thinker Isaiah Berlin, and a contributor to the New York Times and New York Review of Books.

Second, his intellectual methodology: in much of his work he begins by describing what is wrong with his subject (the war, imperialism, violations of human rights, the lack of universal health coverage in the US … ) and then pauses to say “and yet, and yet”. With that he turns to a counter-argument which lifts us up from puny thoughts into the heaven of higher values.

Too many victims in Iraq? They are dying for the future of democracy and the global war against terrorism. The US has no universal health and education coverage? It’s a sign that the Democratic Ideal is in crisis because there are too many models of democracy. And so the readers feel smaller and smaller as they see that their silly opposition to the war in Iraq or support for a multilateral democratic system is nothing more than a failure to grasp extraordinary missions and glorious fates.

In his NYT Magazine article he opens defiantly, asking “Who are the Americans to think...?”, but then he explains that yes, of course they are entitled to spread democracy, because that founding father, Thomas Jefferson, said so and because nobody else wants to promote democracy with the same enthusiasm. Bush must win the war in Iraq because the high Jeffersonian ideals and the fate of democracy are at risk in the streets of Fallujah.

This technique of “and yet, and yet”, with its challenging headlines and robust beginnings, is a useful way of capturing the attention of readers, particularly the liberal ones. You do not expect to find yourself reading the sort of article that might be written by neocons such as William Kristol and Richard Perle. Similar rhetorical methods are used by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, another liberal conservative who likes to play the enfant terrible. Ignatieff seems to be at once “thoughtful” and “provocative”, but what he does is trickery, the smuggling of concepts.

His texts end with the same message: we are in a war against terrorism and for the promotion of democracy, and the United States must take the lead because the Europeans and the Canadians are selfish. He made the case more than two years ago (NYT MagazineThe Burden”, 5 January 2003), advocating a benign, reluctant and enlightened US empire, a new US imperialism to deal with failed states. Now (again in the NYT Magazine) he repeats: only the US can lead the inevitable process of promoting democracy around the world, and that process sometimes demands war as its painful instrument.

War is for Ignatieff a last resort, but he supported the attack on Iraq, arguing that “a preventive war” was “honest”. He believed at first that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, but when the WMD did not appear he wrote: “I never thought that the key question was what weapons Hussein actually possessed, but rather what intentions he had.” (“The Year of Living Dangerously”, NYT Magazine, 14 March 2004). So this last-resort war was a war to combat intentions.

In the same article he identified what he disliked about the way the Bush administration was conducting the war – so many casualties, lack of organisation, everything messy – but ended (and yet, and yet) by asserting that given the number of American and Iraqi lives already invested, the war must be won. He is still saying this, stating in messianic tones last month that nobody would want to tell those who have died that they have given their lives for nothing.

He feels concern for the increasing American casualties; he’s worried about a war that goes on, no matter how often the Bush administration says it’s over; he’s afraid because it is hard to know whether the American people are prepared to pay the price. But he is willing to encourage them to pay that price.

He thinks that to fight a war, the people who will die, and their relatives, need “a noble thing” to believe. Luckily for them, he can provide it: the Jeffersonian dream. He implicitly criticised former US presidents for leaving Vietnam – “the price turned out to be too high”. Today he has high hopes for the Jeffersonian dream, but admits: “The real truth about Iraq is that we just don’t know – yet – whether the dream will do its work this time.”

A complicated time

The problem “this time” is that the Bush administration is trapped in its own contradictions over a war that was “mission accomplished” in 2003 but now, according to US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, will be alive as an insurgency “for another twelve years”. The problem this time is that the government is losing its credibility and its standing in the polls, that army recruitment offices are empty, and that there are voices from both Republicans and Democrats in Congress, as well as from prestigious intellectuals and diplomats, asking for a withdrawal or a deadline to leave.

It’s also a problem this time that a conservative such as the former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski considers that President Bush “has spun a hollow fiction of the Iraq war” and that his speech to the nation on 28 June was disturbingly lacking in any serious discussion of the wider regional security problems (see Financial Times, 30 June 2005).

And it is no less a problem this time that a columnist such as Bob Herbert can be moved to write the following:

“It’s easy to be macho when you have nothing at risk. The hawks want the war to be fought with other people's children, while their own children go safely off to college, or to the mall. The number of influential American officials who have children in uniform in Iraq is minuscule.”

It doesn’t end there. A former advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq, Larry Diamond, is a fellow of the conservative Hoover Institution, has just published a devastating critique of the American occupation. He writes that there was a “theological determination to go to war”, and that to “the original sin” of the lies used to justify the war has been added a long list of others. The “truly cardinal sin was going to war so unprepared for the post war”, he says. Even more: Diamond considers the Bush administration open to the charge of “monumental, gross or criminal negligence” (see Larry Diamond, Squandered Victory. The American Occupation and the Bungled Effort to Bring Democracy to Iraq, Times Books, 2005).

Regulating torture

Michael Ignatieff is immune to all this. In article after article he has established a sort of rational framework for democratisation by force and also for the revision of our understanding of human rights.

Terrorism is the key issue for him. In his latest article he says: “It’s terrorism that has joined together the freedom of strangers and the national interest of the United States.” Although the September 11th Commission established that there was no connection between the tragedy of the World Trade Center and the government of Saddam Hussein, Ignatieff, like Bush, is still promoting the theory.

He is absolutely in favour of the principles and the defence of human rights, and yet, and yet, if a terrorist has valuable information about a biological weapon that is going to explode in New York, then maybe the security forces could use some level of force on him. Thus, the director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Kennedy School of Government in Harvard University becomes a sort of Bruce Willis figure.

His proposal (quoting Alan Dershowitz to cover his back) is that “the issue then becomes not whether torture can be prevented, but whether it can be regulated”. He goes even further, and seems to like the idea that when the police need to torture a suspect they could apply to a judge for a “torture warrant” that would specify the individual being tortured and set limits to the type and duration of pain allowed (see The Lesser Evil, Princeton University Press, 2004).

In this book he plainly says that “actions which violate foundational commitments to justice and dignity ... should be beyond the pale”. But next he indicates: “The problem is to protect them in practice, to maintain the limits, case by case, where reasonable people may disagree as to what constitutes torture, what detentions are illegal, which killings depart from lawful norms, or which pre-emptive actions constitute aggression.”

It is remarkable to find the director of a Harvard human rights centre saying that “reasonable people may disagree” about what constitutes torture, for we know what torture is.

From the Spanish inquisition, from the Nazi era, from Augusto Pinochet in Chile, from the apartheid police in South Africa, from Antonio Salazar in Portugal and Francisco Franco in Spain, from Mobutu Sese-Soko in Zaire and now from those digital snapshots of Abu Ghraib, all “reasonable people” know what torture is. The United Nations charter and half a century of juridical development inside and outside the UN have showed us in detail what torture is, and the rights that we have and must protect.

Ignatieff, apparently speaking from some distant world, tells us that, yes, the repressive instincts of the executive power and the security forces should be counterbalanced by the judicial system. And yet, and yet … the Bush Administration has dismissed the Supreme Court, the Geneva Convention, the almost daily criticisms by human rights organisations and the media about torture in Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib and Afghanistan.

The problem this time, as he might say, is that suspects were kidnapped by the CIA in Italy and Sweden and sent to repressive third countries such as Azerbaijan and Egypt to be tortured. And last but not least, there is the chilling use of doctors in Guantánamo to ensure that prisoners will not die under torture by US forces (see New York Times, 22 June 2005).

Against Europe, realists and liberals

Michael Ignatieff knows that the United States is not credible or welcome in many parts of the world as a promoter of democracy. Nor is its social and economic model seen as something to be copied in Europe or Canada. He admits that in some ways “American democracy, once a model to emulate, has become an exception to avoid” because of its lack of universal protection on health care, the death penalty, the insistence on the right to bear arms and so forth. But he does not follow the argument. Instead he stresses that the democratic world is fragmented, and the US must lead: “The free world – the West – has fractured, leaving a fierce and growing argument about democracy in its place”. Given this dangerous vacuum, some nation has to lead the fight against terrorism and democracy.

He attacks Europeans as anti-democratic and selfish. He criticises John Kerry as a “risk-avoiding realist”. Henry Kissinger and the cold warriors were wrong because they thought stability mattered more than freedom and because, believing this, they supported Pinochet and the Shah of Iran. By contrast he enthusiastically praises Ronald Reagan, “who began the realignment of American politics, making the Republicans into internationalist Jeffersonians”. For him, “the emergence of democracy promotion as a central goal of United States foreign policy” started with Reagan.

Somehow, the director of the Carr Center fails to mention the effects of the Reagan doctrine in Central America and Africa, the Iran-Contra affair, the illegal attacks on Nicaragua and the promotion of the freedom fighters in Afghanistan – a policy with powerful consequences in today’s terrorism.

Ignatieff has no historical context. Fatally attracted by the style of instant journalism, he frivolously mixes history and propaganda. Quoting Thomas Jefferson in 1826, explaining his vision that Republicanism will one day triumph in the world, he does not mention that Jefferson, remembering the American war of independence, was talking about the republic in the context of sovereignty. Paradoxically, Jefferson’s letter could be read in Iraq as a call to resist foreign occupation.

In his enthusiasm to demonstrate that even at the lowest moments of Kissinger’s cold-war realism America was also supporting democracy worldwide, he invents “American officials, spies and activists” who were “there, too” when the Portuguese and Spaniards “threw off dictatorships in the 1970s”. Really?

Francisco Franco died in his bed in 1975; nobody “threw him off”. And from 1946 onwards he had enjoyed the enthusiastic support of US governments, their officials and no doubt their spies as well. Nobody in Spain or Portugal remembers American “activists” for democracy; what Spanish democrats do remember is how, when military officers kidnapped their parliament in a coup attempt in 1981, the US state department officially declared the incident an “internal affair” and said the United States had nothing to say about it. And Ignatieff should read how upset the CIA was in 1974 that it had no advance warning – from officials, spies or activists - of the revolution in Portugal.

But Ignatieff does not even know about the country he lives in. He has “an imagined community” in his mind, a homogenous and coherent American society embodying Jeffersonian ideals. And he dreams of a fair and normal electoral process: “Judging from the results of the election in 2004, a majority of Americans do not want to be told that Jefferson was wrong.”


US society, with its deep fragmentations and its millions of immigrants whose hearts and minds are in the Dominican Republic, Russia, Honduras or India, has a diversity that mocks such generalisations as “the American electorate seems to know only too well how high the price was in Iraq, and it still chose the gambler (Bush) over the realist (Kerry). In 2004, the Jefferson dream won decisively over American prudence.”

It may be difficult to explain all the reasons behind last year’s presidential vote, but we can be sure of this: not many people voted for democratic ideals in the middle east. Louis Menand wrote in a brilliant essay about electoral preferences in the US that the people vote for “hopes, fears, the prejudices and assumptions of their family, and their neighbors. For most people, voting may be more meaningful and more understandable as a social act than as a political act” (see “The Unpolitical Animal”, The New Yorker, 30 August 2004).

Ignatieff doesn’t speak about the Christian mobilisation and the manipulations of the right and their radio and TV networks that were so influential in the vote for Bush. He does not mention that millions of people voted because of fear at home rather than democracy in Iraq, nor does he refer to the resentment, promoted by the Republicans, which the humble America feels towards the liberal one. He is not interested in the daily dismantling of civil liberties in the US, or the normalisation of torture in the media (Adam Green, “Normalizing Torture, One Rollicking Hour at a Time”, The New York Times, 22 May 2005). He is not interested either in the democratic responses of those in the media, in NGOs, in the judiciary and the ordinary citizens who are defending liberties at home while he is fighting moral war in Iraq, from Harvard.

Democracy by other means

Reading Ignatieff’s arguments it is easy to believe that the only choice for Iraq, for combatting terrorism and for democratisation, is between fighting and giving up. His use of militaristic metaphors and his macho patriotic style (“leave relativism, complexity and realism to other countries ... America is the last country with a mission, a mandate, a dream, as old as its founders”) constantly implies this.

Quite the opposite is true: there are many ways to help and promote democracy, and most of them do not involve bombing Iraq, fighting on the streets of Baghdad, lying about nuclear arsenals and embellishing intelligence reports. Promoting civil-society organisations is one. Opening northern markets to southern goods and helping regional organisations such as the African Union to implement peacekeeping and humanitarian interventions are others. So are development aid, and following the recommendations of the Commission for Africa.

Another way (which Ignatieff also does not mention) is to enhance the international human-rights regime, making governments, including the US government, accountable. We can support the role of women in society, and we can help rebuild post-conflict states. And of course, a combination of domestic democratisation with external pressure can be effective, as the Chilean and Argentinian processes show (it was not US military intervention that brought democracy to these countries).

Boring and long-term as these procedures may be, they offer real hope of change. Instead, Ignatieff chooses to applaud a government that goes to war in defiance of the Security Council, that actively promotes the failure of the United Nations, that refuses to sign international treaties, that opts out of international justice and that ignores human rights in prisons – a government that is violating rather than promoting the Jeffersonian dream. In his militaristic patriotism, Ignatieff is blind and wrong.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData