Sunday, February 03, 2008

My Meeting with Michael, So To Speak, Part Two

Ignatieff hears questions from students, gives answers

As promised yesterday, a full transcription of the lengthy (40 minutes +) question and answer period from Friday's Michael Ignatieff speech at the University of Alberta:

Q: "Mr Ignatieff, do you condone waterboarding, or any other forms of torture, allegedly used in Canada?"

Anne McLelland: "Is that a question or a statement?"

Q: "It's a question."

Ignatieff: "I not only don't condone it, everything I've ever written has been a strong conservative critique of waterboarding. If you don't know what waterboarding is, it's giving people the experience of drowning. It's a practice that has been used by some of our allies, and should have absolutely no part under any circumstances in Canadian practice and we should denounce it internationally. I hope that's clear."

Q: I really appreciate what you said in regards to saying that Canada needs to start strengthening and not be ashamed of our military. How to you suggest we get our NATO partners in Afghanistan to step up and take on more of the dangerous role Canada has been disproportionately been filling. How do we get NATO to step up?

Ignatieff: "That's a great question. I think that, let's be blunt, for many Canadians it's been a wake-up call to discover that we've got an alliance of... Oh dear, I'm going to do one of those things that old professors should never do -- I'm about to cite as fact something I don't know... I think there are 25 members of NATO? Can somebody tell me if that fact is accurate. It's a lot of countries? 25? Something like that.

Anyway, I've just given you the government health warning: some of the facts that come out of my mouth are not accurate.

The point is, relating to your question, of those 25, only about five or six are ready for the full range of activities that NATO may be commanded to engage in i Afghanistan. We're one of them. I think that there's no question that we have to have a very tough eyeball-to-eyeball conversation with some of our allies. I think that we're entitled to do that. We're entitled to say "listen, come on guys, is this an Alliance or is this the kind of club where people head to the exit when the bill comes in?"

There is that. Let's not... you use the word "disproportionate". I think we have to be careful about using that word. Many other countries have paid a very heavy price in Afghanistan. I think strategically it's not wise to say our burden has been disproportionate. We've paid a terrible price, and I'm not wishing to minimize it for a second. Let's be careful about the word "disproportionate". Other countries have lost soldiers, brave men and women.

The right way to go with allies is not to talk as if we're the only ones who pay a price, but say "we've paid a price, so let's get some help here". I think we certainly support doing that.

Q: Mr Ignatieff, what is your opinion on banning nuclear weapons? What should Canada do in relation to foreign aid?

Ignatieff: "I've said something about what we should do about foreign aid so I think I'll focus on the nuclear question. It's interesting that that question is less salient now than it was in the '70s and '80s and yet there's still a huge number of nuclear weapons out in the world.

Canada has played a role in deactivating excess nuclear weapons. We need to reduce stockpiles. We need to talk to our American allies about a knee-roll on stuff. Can we get it right down, right down, right down, set us on a track to reduce risks.

One of the concerns we had at the end of the cold war were loose nukes scattered through the former Soviet Union. All of them just behind a chain-link fence. Canada's been part of the process to get that under control.

We've taken a lead against nuclear non-proliferation and on the issue one of the pressing issues is Iran. I just don't think anybody thinks that it is in the interests of global security for an Iranian regime to possess a nuclear weapon. We have worked within the International Atomic Energy Agency to make sure that if they proceed to peaceful nuclear energy that it stays peaceful.

I regard the prospect of the Iranian regime having a nuclear weapon with enormous concern, partly because of the statements that come out of the mouth of its president.

Q: "Do you think Canada should, under any conditions accept a partition of Afghanistan and, if so, under what conditions?"

It seems one should, in hindsight, provide a caveat before Ignatieff's answer to this particular question (as some may recall, it's a question that I announced before hand I would be asking Mr Ignatieff). In hindsight, this turns out to be the wrong question to ask a sitting politician -- one who will, presumably, be seeking reelection in the near future.

While there was significant room for a more nuanced answer, in hindsight it became apparent that the question potentially carried undertones of separatism or outright imperialism (not the intent of the question, but this all can be explained in detail later.

As such, it's entirely understandable that Ignatieff would want to provide a brief "form" answer to the question -- even though this is an important question to consider (once again, this will be explained later).

Ignatieff: "Should Canada under any circumstances accept a partition of Afghanistan? I think the answer is "it's not our country". They have a democratically elected government. Canada takes a very particular view of partitions because of our history. We've taken a very firm stance everywhere in the world against secession, breaking up the unity of countries, and we're right to do so.

And so that question, if it's a question at all, is a question
entirely for the Afghan government."

Although disappointing (even if understandably so), Ignatieff's answer touches on a number of important points: certainly, the Afghan people have the right to make such decisions unhindered (even if not necessarily uninfluenced -- we have earned influence via the commitment of blood and treasure to the stabilization of the Afghan state).

However, we must also keep in mind that when we speak about Afghanistan, we aren't talking about a fully-functioning state, and certainly not by the means by which we define the modern state.

Afghanistan is a country without enforcable borders, without the ability to fully exert its own sovereignty within those unenforcable borders, and with no overriding sense of nationalism to unite the various ethnic groups within its borders. The Pashtun 40% of its population has never submitted to centralized government by the remaining 60% (mostly Uzbeks, Tajiks and Hazaras), and vice versa. Afghanistan, as it currently exists on the world map, has never been stabilized without billions of dollars in annual foreign aid.

In short, Afghanistan is less a failed state, and more a non-state. Under the means by which we define the modern state, it simply does not exist, and never really has.

We as Canadians should decide whether or not we wish to exert our efforts toward preserving an artificial geographical construct that was established more or less arbitrarily under the British Empire, or if we're prepared to condone a partitioning of Afghanistan along ethnic lines so long as that occurs peacefully (whether or not we hold any faith that this can be accomplished is another matter), and under natural conditions.

Of course, Ignatieff may agree with this entire assessment, and he would certainly be the one to do so -- he's been to Afghanistan, interacted with the Taliban, and possesses a unique perspective on Afghanistan and its prospects for reformation, particularly vis a vis human rights.

While a more nuanced answer to this question certainly would have been appreciated, it's far from fair to demand that Ignatieff pay the political price for an answer that, under any conditions, could be construed or misconstrued as a tacit approval of separatism. While I consider his answer disappointing, I would actually agree with him that he did the right thing.

Q: "I'm from a generation that welcomed American draft dodgers. What do you think Canada should be doing now with Iraqi draft dodgers?"

Ignatieff: "This is a very painful issue for me. Because we're the same, without making reference to your age, madam, making reference to mine.

Many, many very deep and and close friends of mine when I was an undergraduate at the University of Toronto came up to Canada to resist the draft. A Prime Minister that I very much admire made that a principle for Canada to give refuge to people who, for reasons of conscience, could not serve.

But I think that without pronouncing finally on the issue, I think there are some substantive differences between the situation in the '60s and the situation now. The individuals concerned volunteered for military service. The draft is not involved. Compulsion was not involved in the Iraqi case. I've met some of them personally. They volunteered for service and then came to have moral difficulties which they have every right to have. Now they want to stay.

The difficulty I have is that we are allies of the United States. Being an ally doesn't necessarily mean we approve of their policies in Iraq, but we're shoulder-to-shoulder in Afghanistan.

I'm uncomfortable about saying that people who volunteer for military service for a NATO ally should be given refuge in a country that is also an ally actively involved in combat. I'm not pronouncing finally on this, I'm just trying to be open and honest about my actual difficulty. This is an actual difficulty for me.

I don't want us to sacrifice our tradition of being a country that is a haven for people who have problems of conscience with military service, but I don't see that there is a perfect fit between what we did in the 1960s and what we're being asked for in 2007.


Ignatieff: "This is a question, for those who can't hear, about our relations with India.

I'm very struck by the lag time in my own consciousness about this, it's a story told against myself. I remember the Indian consul in Toronto -- by the way, we were at a Canada/India foundation meeting -- he said "do you have any idea what the value of the software industry in India is? Just the portion of the industry devoted to writing code?" I said, "I have no idea".

$28 billion. These are giants now. Their software industry, just in the code-writing side dwarfs Canada's. We have been, I think, very very slow to wake up to the realities of the multi-polar world. It's not just India.

When Laurier said "the 20th century belongs to Canada" what actually happened is we tied ourselves to the rocket of the American rise to power. We had a very good century tied to that rocket, and a lot of our foreign policy was driven, essentially, by our relationship to the Americans, our relationship with NATO and our preoccupation with European security.

But that created consequences. We neglected India. We neglected China. We were very slow to wake up to the fact that the world was changing very fast.

Canada is now faced the wrong way. We're faced south. We need to face west. We need to face east. We'll always have a close relationship with the United States.

I'm not talking policy, I'm talking what's in our helmet here. Until we realize that we're in a multi-polar world, in which all the action isn't in Washington, London, Paris, New York, but Delhi, Beijing, I don't think we're going to get a truly global foreign policy.

It's a generational change. I know everything there is to know by an educated person about Sienna and Florence and my education is Euro-centric.

I know nothing about Indian culture, to be frank. That's a second toll against myself. I know nothing about Chinese civilization. We've got whole elites in Canada that have the wrong helmet on. It's not just a matter of boosting the percentage of our economic activity, it's not a matter of recognizing their software industry dwarfs ours, it's a matter of taking off the old helmet and putting on a new one.

A global helmet. A truly international one.

I'm not going to be drawn into "should it be China, should it be India?". It should be both.


Ignatieff: "The question was about the Manley report on Afghanistan and the questioner made the very important point that changing the configuration of our military presence should be results-determined rather than time-determined. This is a very elegant way to express the kinds of decisions we have to make.

Mr Manley, as I understand it, is in the results-determined business. That is, people when they read the Manley report are a little concerned as it doesn't say when we're out of there. Manley's saying, "well, we're out of there when the job is done". That makes people legitimately concerned in Canada that you're opening up a never-ending can.

In a democracy we can't have never-ending commitments.

Solidarity is not endless. It's not unending. Duties have to be finite for them to be duties at all.

But where I would go is to say "let's define a role for Canada". That is, results-oriented, that defines very specific targets. Let me give you an example.

Canada should say, "we're willing to keep some troops in Afghanistan after 2009. But what we're going to do is we're going to train up 5,000 Afghan army for you. That's our target, and that's what we'll deliver. When we've done that, you get someone else to do this. That's a results-oriented approach to our military commitment. That training function is a potential role for our country. Similarly with the police but I think the army may be the priority.

The point here is that it relates to a value. Afghanistan belongs to the Afghans. It doesn't belong to NATO. It doesn't belong to the people who intervene. The only mandate we have to be there at all is that we have the permission of the Afghan government.

Our job here as Canadians is to work ourselves out of a job. To take the security burden that we have shouldered and transfer it slowly, in a results-oriented process to those who have to bear the burden. To the Afghan people themselves.

That's where I see a reflection of what Canada ought to do. It's on that track.


Ignatieff: "The questioner used the phrase I used about us being a middle power to suggest we were kind of a mild-mannered interlocutor, we're kind of a butler shuffling back and forth between the two. That's not what I mean by middle power.

I think it's very important to understand that Canada is not neutral about certain things in the Middle East. We are not neutral between a democratic state and terrorist organizations. We are not neutral between suicide bombers and democratic states defending themselves. It doesn't mean that we necessarily approve of every action taken by a democratic state.

We aren't neutral between those two parties. We can't be. This isn't about Israel. This is everywhere. When a democratic state is attacked by anyone we are on the side of the democratic state because we're a democratic state.

Israel is just a sub-case of a much larger thing, in which we cannot be partial. Canada has known terrorism in our country. Between the terrorist and democratic state, we can't be neutral.

Can we do something? To get to the second part of your question. I think we can. I think not a lot of Canadians realize that we have some very, very capable Canadians, some in the military, some in the police, who are working with international authorities to improve the capabilities of the Palestinian security forces. That's very important. It's very important for the Palestinians to have a capable, legitimate and honest security force. It's also very important for the security of Israel that the Palestinians have a capable and legitimate security force.

That's one place where I think we can provide technical expertise of an important kind.

We also have a historical mandate, on a more technical point, going back to the Madrid conference of 1991, about refugees. We were tasked to put together groups who could work on the problem of the refugees. We aren't neutral on that issue, but we can be helpful and facilitative on that issue. Again, it depends on if Abbas and Olmert, Palestinians and Israelis do a deal in 2007. If they do, then I think it would be a great thing for Canada to say that it's a good subsequent deal between the two parties, "how can we help?".


Ignatieff: "This is a question about Canada's role in Darfur. Because I was involved so heavily in the drafting of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, it will be easy to see what my answer is.

I think that I've talked a lot to Romeo Dallaire and others and also to those involved in the Darfur campaign about what we could do.

There's a whole bunch of stuff.

One of them is to use diplomatic efforts to try and get the Darfurian rebel groups to together. The Darfurian resistance is splintering. They need to be brought together so there's a diplomatic peace. We can also provide command and control facilities for a combined UN-African Union peace force. We can also provide, or help to rent, some helicopters.

I think, for a variety of reasons, that the deployment of Canadian ground troops to Darfur is not called for at the moment because the African Union has not asked for them and the Sudanese don't want them.

Well, the Sudanese objections in my view, I don't have much time for the Sudanese government.

But there's a lot that Canada can do because this is where peacekeeping experience is so useful. We can provide the command and control units, the people who figure out what the strategy is. What the logistics ought to be in that unit. The telecommunications aspects of that. That would be an important contribution to this. It would make a real difference.

The problems in Darfur, however, are extremely serious. Sometimes people can say that "if I can just go there. Why Afghanistan? Why not Darfur?". The only thing to bear in mind when you say that is just think about what a deployment of Canadians in Darfur would look like.

It's 55 degrees centigrade. There's no cover anywhere. Do you think the
Janjaweed are going to get off their camels and walk up when they see a Canadian flag and our hand? No. It's a combat mission.

I mention this simply because there are no soft options for Canada in the 21st century. There are no easy roles. They're all tough. You have to pick which role you think you can do, then do it as well as you can. That's the challenge for us.

One of the things I believe is most fundamental about our country, it's not just that we matter it's that we are serious people. We don't fool around. You ask a Canadian to do something and he'll do it to the best of his ability for as long as he or she is asked to do it. That is a thing about our country about which I'm fiercely proud.

We have to have a foreign policy in which we understand that the choices out there are tough and most of the things that we'll be asked to do are difficult.

Because we're a serious country if you ask a Canadian to do something we just get on and do it. That's how we should do our foreign policy


Ignatieff: "The question is about why doesn't Canada take leadership on a mission where we're the leader like in the Congo or possibly some other nation, instead of in Afghanistan, appearing to follow on with the Americans.

I think there is some anxiety in Canada bout that question: are we just doing the American's business in Afghanistan? I've always taken the view about Afghanistan that that's not the case. That while the Americans are present in Afghanistan, it would not be true to say that it has become an American mission.

It's a NATO mission, with UN approval, with the explicit authorization of the Karzai government. We're not following anybody's precepts.

Of all the places in the world right now where Canada matters, Canada matters most in Afghanistan.

I'm an opposition politician, and not a very important one in a foreign government. The president of Afghanistan doesn't give an opposition politician an hour of his time unless Canada matters, and we had an hour of his time in Afghanistan.

You've got to understand that.

The capabilities that Canada has put on the ground in Afghanistan gives clout. Many Canadians are even a little anxious about when I use words like clout, or matter, or that kind of stuff. This isn't macho talk, I don't like macho talk.

I'm just saying we count. And if we count, we should use our influence to the maximum. We don't count simply because we're allies of the Americans. We count because we've done hard work there. Crucially, our work has won the confidence of Afghan authorities and the Afghan people. For that reason I think we should stay the course.

Then the issue is whether staying the course in Afghanistan precludes other activities. I think it certainly does limit our options. I cannot believe it precludes other international engagement, including participation in the same scale in the Congo.


Ignatieff: "Peacekeeping is where you have two combatants who reach an agreement to stop fighting and then you have a nice Canadian from Chicoutimi or Edmonton and he walks up and down until they're all cooled down and everybody goes home. That's Cypress and we've done that and that's peacekeeping. We're proud of that. We invented it, and I hope we have further examples where we can do that.

But in the modern world conflict is not between belligerent states but within the states. There are states of civil war. The Afghan insurgency is partly a civil war that comes out of Pakistan, but involves the Pashtun tribes against the central government.

In these situations, we're in what could be called peacemaking. Let me tell you what peacemaking I saw us do in Afghanistan.

We're in the Argendav valley, Panjwai -- this may begin to trigger stuff from the news bulletins. They fly you in in a Linx helicopter, very low. What you see as you sweep along the valley is farms on either side of the river bed, 175-200,000 people living there and Canada provides the security there.

Now, what are we trying to do there? We're trying to train the Afghan army and the Afghan police to provide security for that region. If we succeed in doing this, and that's peacemaking of a kind, that is we're creating security where it didn't exist before, the second thing we'd like to do is, flowing down the Argendav river, at the top of it is a dam. The entire irrigation system for the Argendav valley starts from that dam and runs down to the bottom. If we can establish security and put a command post of Canadian soldiers at the top, near the dam, we can restart the irrigation, right down the valley. We transform the agriculture in the Argendav valley and provide not only security, but economic development for 200,000 people.

Now that strikes me as peacemaking and peacebuilding. It creates security and it creates the conditions of economic development. We've never done this kind of stuff before using military force. And so it's new and unfamiliar for Canadians. We don't even know if it will work. One thing I do not want to do is oversell it to you. It's a work in progress and it might fail.

But I think this is the kind of thing, the difficult work, that Canada should be doing. It will combine something we've not put together: a combat soldier, a trainer of police, and an irrigation engineer. It's a combination we've never tried to do.

I think we should persevere and get that done. Get it done right. Thank you for your attention.

Further analysis of Mr Ignatieff's comments will follow in later days. Stay tuned.


  1. A lot of hard work, Patrick. It's a shame this isn't linked from Small Dead Animals or some site with heavy traffic, as it's a very good piece of inside information into the deputy leader. I liked his answer on American draft dodgers. He waffled quite a bit on issues, but overall I liked many of his answers. Good work! I'll save this link in the event I can find a relevant way to link to it.

  2. Well, Raph, he said a lot of things about Afghanistan: some good, some bad, some kind of waffly.

    (For example, it's good that we have clout, but apparently can't spin that into any form of influence on the future of the Afghan state itself? What else would the clout be good for?)

    I certainly wouldn't discourage you from writing some analysis of the speech. I'll be doing just that over the next couple of days.

    As for Small Dead Animals, well... I tend to fly under the radar a little more than that.


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