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.

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.

"Canada's colonial culture ... prizes those who have gone to the 'center' to learn," says University of Toronto political science professor Stephen Clarkson, referring to Ignatieff's sojourns in Canada's former colonial ruler, England, and its current dominant influence, the US. "It's not held against you in Canada the way it would be in the States or France or Britain."

What almost did kill off Ignatieff's run were several campaign gaffes. In August, he told the Toronto Star that he was not "losing sleep" over civilian deaths in Lebanon. Then in October, he told a French-language television show that Israel's July 30 missile strike on the Lebanese village of Qana, which killed dozens of civilians, was a "war crime."

Ignatieff's opponents used the opportunity to paint him as a bumbling political neophyte.

Then Ignatieff jumped from the frying pan into the fire with remarks late last month supporting the Liberal Party's Quebec wing's quest to have Quebec recognized as its own nation.

"I speak for those who say Quebec is a nation, but Canada is my country," Ignatieff said. His comments sparked a hailstorm from critics from across the political spectrum who blamed him for reopening a painful, divisive debate 11 years after the latest Quebec referendum on secession was defeated.

But that criticism lost some of its sting when Parliament this week overwhelmingly passed a motion put forth by Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper declaring that Quebeckers "form a nation within a united Canada." All but one of Ignatieff's main rivals fell in line with it, making Ignatieff look like a leader on the Quebec issue.

The controversy around his comments, though, demonstrates Ignatieff's unusual approach to campaigning. "He's not running a front-runner's typical, cautious campaign," Professor Clarkson says. "He's been acting as an intellectual, not as a politician worried about not offending important sectors of the electorate."

Whether that approach will win over the delegates he needs to become the Liberal Party's next leader will become evident once voting starts Friday night. Ignatieff's main rival is Bob Rae, a political veteran and former premier of Ontario. They are trailed by Stéphane Dion, an experienced member of parliament from Quebec, and Gerard Kennedy, a former Ontario education minister.

"Anything can happen because it's so close," Clarkson says. "The speeches will be very important." Most of the delegates at this weekend's leadership convention in Montreal are committed to one politician on the first ballot – but after that, their allegiances may shift, and any of the candidates could win.

In his own words

"The disagreeable reality ... 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."

"To defeat evil, we may have to traffic in evils: indefinite detention of suspects, coercive interrogations, even pre-emptive war.... The question is not whether we should ... but whether we can keep lesser evils under the control of free institutions."

"Congress failed to put the ... case for war to adversarial scrutiny and debate. The news media allowed itself to be managed and browbeaten. The war may or may not bring democracy to Iraq ... but it hasn't done democracy any good at home."

"[America] is the last nation left whose citizens don't laugh out loud when their leader asks God to bless the country and ... further its mighty work of freedom."

Source: New York Times Magazine

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