David Frum May 23rd, 2006 at 12:00 am
Give the man credit: Michael Ignatieff, lately of Harvard University, the British Broadcasting Corporation and King’s College (Cambridge), is showing a real aptitude for politics.
As a writer, Ignatieff won acclaim for his dense, deeply considered meditations on issues of nationhood, human rights and international responsibility. Ignatieff’s reputation for intellectual and moral seriousness caught the eye of Canadian Liberals looking for a leader to redeem their disgraced and corrupted party. This past week, Ignatieff distinguished himself again, with a short intervention in the Afghanistan debate that my exacting colleague, Andrew Coyne, praised as “exemplary.”
By contrast, the abrupt about-face on Afghanistan executed by Carolyn Bennett, Stephane Dion, Ken Dryden, Joe Volpe and the other Liberal leadership candidates looked glaringly hypocritical and opportunistic. And while it is essential for a Liberal leader to be hypocritical and opportunistic (remember the GST!), it is unseemly to appear so.
Bob Rae misstepped, too. He justified his opposition to the Afghanistan resolution with a fierce attack on the integrity of the new Conservative government: “Everything they do, it’s not done for statesmanship, it’s not done for anything else. It’s done for partisan advantage.” This is hardly the right way to talk if you yourself have just switched parties yourself in order to run for prime minister.
Ignatieff, by contrast, showed the flexibility and cunning of the true professional.
Here’s what he said on the floor of the House of Commons on May 17: “I also want to express my unequivocal support for the troops in Afghanistan, for the mission and for the renewal of the mission.”
Clear, right? Unequivocal means . . . unequivocal. Or does it? Listen and learn, listen and learn.
“I support the mission precisely because it is the moment where we have to test the shift from one paradigm, the peacekeeping paradigm, to a peace enforcement paradigm that combines military, reconstruction and humanitarian effort together.”
In other words, Canada is not doing something in Afghanistan. It is testing something. But the essence of tests is that they can be failed. And once something has failed a test–why naturally, it must be discarded.
Ignatieff continued: “I have been to Afghanistan and I believe this new paradigm can work.”
Clear again, right? But notice: Ignatieff believes the new paradigm will pass its test. But any of us can be wrong in our beliefs. And then, of course, we must change our minds.
Ignatieff then devoted the third paragraph of his four-paragraph speech to laying out the conditions that might cause him to change his mind:
“I have three questions . . . I support the mission but I want to know whether it is the mission that the Liberal government signed on to or whether it is a new mission. Therefore the questions are: Does the renewal of the mission imply more troops? Does it imply a change in the strategic direction of the mission? Does it imply a change in the balance between the military component, the reconstruction component and the humanitarian component?”
In other words, when Ignatieff said he was unequivocally committed to the mission, he meant the mission precisely as it existed before the Liberals left office. Any change in the mission’s “strategic direction” or its “balance” or in the number of troops will transform the mission into a “new” mission. And since both of those terms are studiously (even aggressively) vague, Ignatieff has reserved to himself almost perfect freedom to adjudge that the mission has morphed into something “new.”
And when it does, why then, Ignatieff will consider himself at liberty to reverse himself. “My support for the renewal of the mission is dependent upon believing that this proposal is continuous with, and not a departure from, the existing mission of the former government.”
In other words, while Ignatieff’s support is “unequivocal,” it is also highly conditional.
He has taken a stand on principle, while committing himself to nothing. He has appealed to the patriotic right, while creating new options to swerve to the isolationist left. He can plausibly claim to have backed the mission 100% if it goes well–while ensuring that he can equally accurately claim to have given notice of his intention to bail out if things go badly.
He has promised to flip, if flipping seems called for, and to flop, if a flop looks more appropriate. Afghanistan if necessary–but not necessarily Afghanistan. It is the authentic Mackenzie King touch. Liberals: You have found your rightful leader.