Why Canada's liberals could pick an Iraq-war supporter as their leader
If named the Liberal Party's leader this weekend, Michael Ignatieff would be a candidate to become the next prime minister.
It would be hard to imagine a more unlikely leader for Canada's Liberal Party than Michael Ignatieff, the Harvard professor-turned-politician.Skip to next paragraph
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He supported the deeply unpopular Iraq war, has less than a year's experience as an elected official, and has spent most of his adult life in Britain and the US.
And yet, Mr. Ignatieff is the front-runner going into this weekend's Liberal Party leadership election. With the Conservative minority government barely holding on to power, the contest's winner could be next in line to become the next prime minister of Canada.
Despite a campaign dogged by controversy, from the beginning Ignatieff has been compared to the legendary former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau – not so much for his policies as for the aura of hope and charisma that surrounds him. Canada's liberals have been battered in recent years by scandal, allegations of widespread corruption, and a disastrous election last January in which they lost their 12-year grip on the prime minister's office.
"There's a real hunger for a more visionary, poetic leadership in Canada," says pollster Frank Graves, president of Ottawa-based EKOS Research Associates. "Michael Ignatieff is trying to tap into that. Whether he's successful remains to be seen."
At a recent campaign rally in a Toronto pub, Igantieff's fans talked about him as the Liberal Party's savior.
"I've been through them all: Pearson, Trudeau, Diefenbaker," said 75-year-old Irene Roth Romanowicz, naming Canada's most illustrious prime ministers in recent history. "His quality, his integrity – there is no man that I've met or any politician that I feel so strongly about," insisted Ms. Romanowicz, who has volunteered for Ignatieff's campaign ever since he moved back to Toronto in 2005 to run for Parliament.
Ignatieff does tend to inspire strong feelings wherever he goes. The son of a Canadian diplomat descended from Russian nobility, he first made a name for himself in England, as an academic, documentary filmmaker, and journalist. More recently, he served as director of Harvard University's Carr Center for Human Rights. While there, he dramatically split from the left with a 2003 essay in The New York Times Magazine supporting the US-led war in Iraq.
"Virtuous disengagement is no longer a possibility," Ignatieff wrote. "The disagreeable reality for those who believe in human rights is that there are some occasions – and Iraq may be one of them – when war is the only real remedy for regimes that live by terror."
Ignatieff, who met Kurdish survivors of Saddam Hussein's chemical-weapons attacks on a 1992 trip to Iraq, took pains to distance himself from the Bush administration, placing his views squarely in the frame of human rights.
But he didn't always distance himself from America, often using the pronouns "we" and "our" in essays about US foreign policy. Earlier this year, Ignatieff said he regretted his pronoun choice: "Sometimes you want to increase your influence over your audience by appropriating their voice, but it was a mistake."
While Ignatieff's decades-long absence from Canada is frequently noted, it hasn't killed his candidacy, as it might in other countries.