Thursday, September 28, 2006

Meeting Michael Ignatieff

I met Ignatieff. He is not as tall as I thought. He is around 6 foot to 6, 1. He is slight and his posture is bad. His narrow shoulders, his tendency to hold his hands tightly by his side and his poor posture extenuate his head. The way he holds himself physically seems to reflect his intensely introspective nature. This might sound odd, but if he was to become the next leader of the party, the party should see to it that he see a personal trainer. A good trainer will open his body up and metaphorically open him up to the Canadian people. If nothing else if he was to develop his lats, he would be less inclined to hold his arms so tight against his body and would instead spread them wider. This is would give his gesticulations a less tortured feel.

His first words to me and to those around me was to explain why he was wearing makeup. He said that he was made up for television not because he choice too, but because that is just what it is done. He mentioned this later too. He was right to mention it. It was quite noticeable. I presume he just did not have the time to take it off.

Once Ignatieff had made the rounds and we had all sang happy birthday to Sukh Dhaliwal, Ignatieff made his case for why he should be the next Liberal leader. It was obvious that he is comfortable in front of crowd, has a superb grasp of the English language and that his breath of learning and wealth of experience is great. His opening marks about the diversity in the Lowermainland were well laid out. They came off as intelligent observations of a seasoned traveler and not as pandering.

Ignatieff focused on three areas the environment, Immigration and Native issues. He first talked about his environment platform and of the three this was the best thought out and he had little trouble answering questions about it later. Of all the Liberal candidates his environmental platform appeals to me the most; those who argue that only carrots will do the trick are dreaming; some sticks are needed too; there needs to be a carbon tax.

The next area he hit on was immigration. His comments were all over the place and where not sufficiently underpinned by a well thought out argument. They seemed more like unconnected musings, however well informed, than well thought out policy. His views on family unification, for example, were, well, different. Indeed, no matter how nice it would be to let every adult immigrant to Canada bring their parents here, from a policy point of view, the idea makes little sense. The road to hell is paved with good intensions. The average immigrant to Canada is slightly older than your average Canadian. Needless to say, we should work to make the reverse true. After all, one of the primary justifications for high levels of immigration is that we need more immigrants to prevent a pension and health care crisis caused by a disproportionate number of baby boomers in the Canadian population. Allowing huge number of immigrant baby boomers only makes the problem worse – much worse.

That said, it was clear that Ignatieff opinions on the matter have been shaped in no small measure by his time in office and that he is someone who takes the concerns people bring to him very seriously. I am sure he was right in saying that 80% of what he does as MP relates to immigration; Speaking from personal experience, under funding and under staffing of Canada’s immigration department and its foreign embassies means that urban MPs have to pick up the slack and sometimes the pieces. It was nice to hear a politician acknowledge that the immigration system is massively under funded. I was also encouraged when he said that Canada needs more immigrants than what we are currently letting in. We do, but we need them to be younger.

Next on the agenda was Native self government and related topics, but before I elaborate I have a confession. In my opinion, Native self government may be the dumbest idea, from a policy perspective, the Liberals have ever championed. Furthermore, although some Liberal strategists might think that pandering to natives is a hinterland strategy that will lead to more Merasty miracles, this will only provide the Conservatives with all the benefits of a Willie Horton strategy in those aforementioned hinterlands without the running the danger of actually employing one. Ignatieff comments centered on wanting to make amends for past racist policies, wanting to increase the number of Native students in university and how impressed he was with the new crop of Native leaders. It was liberalism at its mushy guilt ridden worst.

Afterwards, Ignatieff answered questions from the gallery. One concerned Afghanistan. Another concerned the economic wisdom of his environmental policies in light of the fact that Washington is unwilling to adopt Kyoto. His answers were a study in contrasts. In answering the environmental question Ignatieff mentioned that properly crafted regulations would help incentivevize Canada’s oil and gas industry into becoming a world leader in producing greener technology; in the long term this would benefit Canada economically and not hurt it. In other words he gave a reasoned response. Conversely, when asked about Afghanistan he studiously avoided two areas people want to him to address: 1) is the mission doable? 2) How does Canada benefit from being there? Instead he assured us that the Taliban were awful people and implied that going to Afghanistan gave him some epistemic insight that others who have not been there have not had. It was an argument from authority and one I found it off putting. I know of no one who harbors any illusions about who the Taliban are. However there are those of us who are convinced that leaving is the lesser of two evils and Ignatieff needs to address our arguments.

I did not want to flog a dead hoarse that is Iraq, but just before Ignatieff left for the airport I had a chance to ask him about his Kurdish talking point he goes with whenever the subject of Iraq comes up and so went with it. For example :

“Q: What do you tell Liberal delegates who ask why you thought it right to support George Bush in Iraq when the Liberal Party of Canada had decided it would not?

A: What I say is, they have to understand what I saw in Iraq in 1992. I have been a human rights reporter and you get scorched by what you see. I saw what Saddam Hussein did to the Kurds in 1992 and I decided there and then that I would stand with these people no matter what happens. And I've done so ever since.”

Given that Kurdistan has been a de facto independent state since 1992, I asked him why he thought the plight of the Kurds in 2003 was a compelling reason for regime change. He rehashed his all his reasons for going to war and so did really answer the question. I hope for his sake that he abandons this talking point before Dion and Rae force feed him the illogic of it.

If Ignatieff is going to hold off Dion and Rae, he is going to have to cry uncle on Iraq. In so doing, he is going to have come up with a different argument for why we should be in Afghanistan. His humanitarian argument for why we should be in Afghanistan inevitably bleeds back into his humanitarian argument for why he supported the Iraq war; that inevitably puts him in a world of hurt.
Not only is Ignatieff’s Kurdish talking point is fatally flawed, but Ignatieff decision to go only with his humanitarian argument with regard to Iraq has made things worse not and better. His only substantive argument for why we should be in Afghanistan is a humanitarian one and this argument inevitably bleeds back into his humanitarian argument for why he supported the Iraq war; that inevitably puts him in a world of hurt. Indeed, as any possible US target is going to have a less than stellar human rights record Ignatieff plays into the hands of those who charge that he would commit Canada to whatever Washington dreams up, albeit for different reasons. Ignatieff needs to cry uncle on Iraq and explain how the two missions are different.

His past attempts to distance himself from Iraq did not exactly bare fruit. Indeed the reasons he gave for why he would not have sent troops to Iraq apply just as readily to Afghanistan . Two in particular come to mind.

1) Ignatieff said that support of the population was vital and population did not support the Iraq mission. However, polls suggest that extending the mission has no better than support of half the population and polls showed at the time of the May vote that strong majority of Canadians were opposed to extending the mission.

2) Ignatieff claimed that a potential national unity crisis was reason enough for staying out of the Iraq war. That said, a terrorist attack, inspired by Canada 's presence in Afghanistan , could spilt the country apart, especially if Quebec is the victim. Currently the Afghan mission is opposed by what 70% of Quebecers. If Quebecers die as a result of us being there, the separatists will use it as a reason why Quebecers need their own country with its own foreign policy. Given what has just transpired in Ontario, and the fact that the accused were said to be motivated by Canada's role in Afghanistan and what happened in Spain and Britain, Ignatieff can not very well claim that chances of such an attack or not insignificant.

Ignatieff often says that he will hold Harper’s feet to the fire should he change the nature of the Afghan mission. However he does not say just what consequences are in store for Harper if he drifts off course. No one seriously believes, especially in light his refusal to cry uncle on Iraq, that Ignatieff would stop supporting the mission, for example. Furthermore as he came to power only in January he is only associated, rightly or wrongly, only with the Conservative mission. All told, the comment seems a throwaway aimed at placating his Afghan critics. What he desperately needs to do is this: He needs to sketch out the point at which he would consider abandoning the mission. This is not as daunting as it first seems. I would suggest he could change his benchmarks for success into reasons for reconsidering the mission.

"Q What are your benchmarks for Canadian success in Afghanistan?

A The Taliban offensive will probably run out of gas as the winter season comes. These things are seasonal. One benchmark of success is if we don't get a resumption next spring. If it comes back gangbusters in April '07, we do have a problem. The second benchmark is just intelligence co-operation. Are villagers helping us? Our moral legitimacy depends on us believing we are their friends and the Taliban their enemies. If we start to lose intelligence co-operation and help, that's a pretty good benchmark that something has gone badly wrong in our relationship.”

Overall impressions: Ignatieff says that Canada is a serious country and Canadians are serious people. I would like Ignatieff to name which countries are not. Anyway, Ignatieff needs to be less serious. Canadians might be “serious” people, but the liberal minded of us dream of doing a pirouette or two behind the Queen’s back. Ignatieff is often compared to Trudeau, but a better comparison is Ken Dryden. Ignatieff is serious, kind, considerate and empathic and is entirely undeserving of some of the attacks made on his character. He is, if nothing else, a good person. However, if Ignatieff is going to win, he is going to have to find in himself some of Trudeau’s swagger. Incidentally, Rae seems to be the only candidate right now with any sort of swagger. Failing that, perhaps Ignatieff could get away with championing a sexy, advant guard and largely peripheral issue. Those who know me know that I think the legalization of marijuana is such an issue.

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