Last week, Michael Ignatieff, the current front-runner in the race to lead the Liberal Party of Canada, called for a ceasefire in the three-week-old war between Israel and Hezbollah.
Rivals criticized the good professor for his tardiness, suggesting that a real leader would have thought to make that call before hundreds of Lebanese, dozens of Israelis and several Canadians lost their lives.
Unfortunately, Ignatieff, that most cosmopolitan of candidates, was on vacation in Hungary at the time, and could not be reached for comment.
On his return to Canada Ignatieff did speak to reporters. He explained why he’d been silent throughout his vacation, “I’ve been following (the war) minutely from the beginning,” he said, “and watching it unfold and figuring out when was the time when a statement would be important and relevant.”
Three weeks into the maelstrom it became important and relevant for Ignatieff to join those calling for a ceasefire, not because innocent civilians are dying under the bombs and rockets, but because Israel is now experiencing “diminishing returns.”
You can see his point: There’s nothing more frustrating than destroying half a country and getting little in return.
Up until this week, Ignatieff’s position was indistinguishable from that of Canada’s interim Prime Minister Steve Harper.
“It was very important,” he said, “for Israel to send Hezbollah a very clear message.” And of course if it’s worth sending a very clear message, why not say it with bombs?
The problem with calling for a ceasefire before so many died is that it wouldn’t have been logical, and Ignatieff is a very logical man.
“A ceasefire on the Israeli side becomes logical for Israel when it has achieved its military objectives and when it reaches the point of diminishing returns, and that is the point we’ve reached now,” he explained.
The Toronto Star, perhaps in a spirit of charity, asked if Ignatieff had been moved to call for a ceasefire by the carnage in Qana.
A week ago, the Israeli air force destroyed an apartment building in that Lebanese town, claiming to believe that it was a storage house for Hezbollah missiles. Dozens of bodies were carried out of the rubble, including many children, but no one reported any evidence of stored rockets.
It would have helped to humanize the logical Ignatieff if he’d been moved by this atrocity to call for an end to the bombing, but he was quite clear that such was not the case.
“It wasn’t Qana,” he denied.
“Qana was, frankly, inevitable in a situation in which you have rocket-launchers within 100 metres of a civilian population. This is the nature of the war that’s going on.
“This is the kind of dirty war you’re in when you have to do this and I’m not losing sleep about that.”
The country will be glad to know that the estimable Ignatieff’s sleep is not troubled. Quite a lot of other people are losing sleep though, every night as the jets scream overhead. But then, it’s a dirty war, so what’s to be done?
The reason Ignatieff is able to be so sanguine about the mangled bodies under the rubble in Lebanon is that he believes in the doctrine of “the lesser evil.”
In a book of that name, he makes the case for the War on Terror, and the right of the US to violate both national and international laws in order to protect itself and its democracy from terrorists.
“In a war on terror,” he says, “I would argue, the issue is not whether we can avoid evil acts altogether, but whether we can succeed in choosing lesser evils and keep them from becoming greater ones.”
That’s why Ignatieff supported the US invasion of Iraq, a lesser evil which has claimed tens of thousands of lives and left the country a bloody quagmire from which it will not recover for decades to come.
It’s also why he supports the continued carnage in Afghanistan, where our war-lord allies in the Northern Alliance are presumed to be a lesser evil than the Taliban — though it’s not entirely clear on what grounds this assumption is based.
The trouble with the notion of the lesser evil is that each observers brings a parcel of prejudices to the evaluation.
In the case of the War on Terror, Ignatieff and others see evil terrorists on one side and liberal democracies on the other.
Turn the picture around and you see colonialism versus resistance, and whole different concept of which evil is the lesser.
Seen head-on, hundreds or even thousands of civilian deaths might seem like a greater evil than an attack on a military patrol. But step far enough to one side and the whole perspective changes.
If the only imperative you can see in the region is Israel’s right to defend itself, then Lebanese children killed in bombing raids are nothing to lose sleep over.
It may be that Ignatieff is building an election strategy.
Hitherto indistinguishable from Steve Harper in his support for the slaughter, by calling for a ceasefire now that the bombs are bringing diminishing returns he may be trying to position himself as the lesser evil.
Don’t buy it, Canada. It couldn’t be more obvious that when it comes to war, Harper and Ignatieff are just two sides of the same coin.