The Lesser Evil:  Hard Choices in a War on Terror by Michael Ignatieff
The Lesser Evil: Hard Choices in a War on Terror by Michael Ignatieff

The Lesser Evil: Hard Choices in a War on Terror

Jan 23, 2004

Ignatieff says that while the battle against terrorism may sometimes require infringing international norms on the use of force, we must constantly guard against slipping from the lesser evil to the greater.


JOANNE MYERS: Thank you all for joining us this morning as we welcome Michael Ignatieff to our Worldview Breakfast program. This morning he will be talking about The Lesser Evil: Hard Choices in the War on Terror. More than two years have passed since the destruction of New York’s Twin Towers. In Afghanistan, al Qaeda and the Taliban have suffered setbacks. In Iraq, an appalling regime has been toppled. Yet the struggle against the war on terror continues.

I think all of us would agree, or we would like to believe, that it is the duty of our government to defend us against attacks. But when the capacity to disperse evil on a global scale moves from the hands of states to those of individuals, the nature of the asymmetric warfare waged by the terrorists required some governments to take preemptive actions.

Even so, one could cogently argue that a government’s responses should be measured and not disproportionate to the degree of the threat, that governments should not undermine civil liberties or erode the rule of law among those that they are meant to protect. The issue thus becomes how to preserve the proper balance between guaranteeing civil liberties and safeguarding the national security.

In an effort to provide a needed international perspective to the debate over the choices governments are required to make in the war against terror, I've asked Michael Ignatieff to help us to gain clarity as we face this new challenge. Why Michael? Simply because he is one of the most influential voices in international affairs today. He has never allowed the prevailing public opinion to divert him from the course he thinks is right, and I know he will bring, with eloquence, the tools of an ethicist and a reporter, of an intellectual historian and a geopolitical analyst, to offer us poignant insights to the most difficult moral issues of the day.

As past visits to the Carnegie Council have shown—when he concludes—you will be thinking about the issues in a way you have not done before.

The core of his current research includes war, intervention, nation-building, the change in global order, and always human rights. Although most of these topics have occupied center stage since September 11, even before the terrorist attacks the notion in the West of humanitarian intervention made his work of particular importance.

Whether as a broadcaster for the BBC, a member of an international commission, or a human rights scholar, Michael has been present at a number of global hot spots, and his work often reflects what he has witnessed. His published books have included intellectual history, philosophy, biography, fiction, and international affairs.

I would particularly call your attention to his trilogy on the Balkans, which focused on ethnic hatred and ethnic war. They were: Blood and Belonging, The Warrior’s Honor, and Virtual War; and also his wonderful biography of Isaiah Berlin: A Life. His writings have appeared in Foreign Affairs, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, The New York Review of Books, Dissent, and The New Yorker.

Currently, Michael is the director of Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights, whose purpose is to examine the policy and actions of governments, international organizations, and independent actors that affect the realization of human rights around the world.

Michael, it is a pleasure and honor to have you back with us once again.


MICHAEL IGNATIEFF:It’s a great honor to be here.

This talk is built upon the Gifford Lectures which I delivered last year, and which will be published by Princeton University Press in April in a book called The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror.

I will talk to you about a few of the hard choices in a war on terror in the interest of moral clarity, but it will be impossible for me to get through this hour without infuriating some of you, as these are questions that arouse deep moral feeling and challenge political allegiances.

We’re all in favor of moral clarity and clear lines on terrorism, and when we get down to the business of choosing, we actually disagree profoundly.

First of all, what do I mean by terror? Can we define terrorism when one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist? There is no moral relativity on this at all: A terrorist targets non-combatant civilians to achieve a political goal. Those who undertake political actions that target civilians are terrorists.

Those, for example, who wage an armed struggle on behalf of the oppressed and do so confining their combat to military objectives can be called freedom fighters. The distinction is very clear, and depends on whom you attack.

Let’s first look at the political objectives that terrorists resort to or choose. We all believe that the ends do not justify the means. The real moral strain with terrorism is that time and again terrorists claim that they are fighting for justice, and much of 20th- century terrorism has been committed in the name of justice. The liberation of people from occupation, colonial rule, foreign military conquest—self-determination terrorism—has been typically fueled by a claim of justice.

This is when our moral clarity begins to break down, because for all of us there are just causes that appear to justify barbarous and atrocious means. When the call of justice is strong, we bend our moral condemnation of terrorism.

As a human rights teacher, the chief embarrassment about terrorism is that human rights has become the chief ethical justification of terror in the 20th and 21st century, by which I mean that self-determination—the longing of people to be free from occupation, military oppression, conquest—has justified terrorist acts. What military or political means can be used justly in pursuit of objectives which we all think are part of our human rights heritage?

Human rights claims do not justify the targeting of civilians under any circumstances. Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands does not justify terrorist attacks on civilians under any circumstances. The Palestinian people have a just cause. The end of military occupation of territory acquired after the 1967 war in Gaza and the occupied territories is a just cause. But a just cause does not ever justify the targeting of civilians. That’s one side of the question.

The other side of the question is to determine who is a civilian. We start from a presumption that we know what a civilian is and then find ourselves with categories where we start scratching our heads: is that a civilian or not? Is a settler in the occupied territories a civilian? Were the pieds-noirs in Algeria civilians?

Let’s start with the Algerian case. In the Algerian case, it was argued that because the pieds-noirs, the French settlers in Algeria, benefited from colonial occupation and oppression, they were legitimate targets.

Were whites in South Africa legitimate targets in a liberation struggle simply because they benefited from the apartheid system? Are settlers in the occupied territories justified targets because they’re benefiting from illegal occupation?

We have to hold on to the concept of civilian immunity, even in the case of settlers, because while I disagree profoundly as a political matter that there should be, for example, settlers in Gaza—it’s political insanity to have the Israeli defense forces defending small clusters of civilians in places where the only possibility, once you’ve put those settlers in, is endless conflict, human rights violations, death, and horror—I still believe that settlers are entitled to the Geneva Convention protections on civilian immunity, just as I believe that the targeting of pieds-noirs in Algeria in the 1950s was a violation of the laws of war and an act of terror which no amount of injustice can justify.

The minute we lose the civilian-immunity concept, we find ourselves in a slippery slope in which you judge civilian immunity by the moral character of the civilians, and step by step you then get into a racial, ethnic or religious set of justifications; that is to say, these civilians aren't really civilians and they're all Jews anyway, so what does it matter? You begin to get down into an area of moral declension, the end of which is a moral abyss.

We have to hold to a notion of civilian immunity, even when that immunity may be, from a political point of view, morally suspect. And that’s a hell of a discipline to hold to, but the alternative is to have a war of all against all.

The liberal tradition in which I speak has always justified the use of armed force in cases of intolerable oppression. My case is not an argument for political quietism, for turning the other cheek in all circumstances. What is the United States’ Declaration of Independence but a justification of the use of violence when fundamental rights and liberties are denied? That’s part of the liberal tradition, and of the human rights tradition. But it never justifies the targeting of civilians, even those who benefit from or collude in injustice.

Equally, self-defense claims—every people has a legitimate right to self-defense and to ensure its survival—do not entitle you to do anything you please. There are no table-clearing claims in the poker sense: I’ve got trumps, therefore they clear the table, my arguments win. The self-defense and self-determination arguments don’t clear the table. All moral action requires forms of balancing.

The self-defense claim that goes into the current building of the wall in the occupied territories is an entirely specious claim in which a legitimate claim to defend the State of Israel is being used to legitimize the acquisition of territory on a permanent basis.

Secondly, if you're talking about security, the suicide bombers that have attacked Israel—actions which are a political disgrace to the cause of Palestinian freedom—have done so through perfectly normal checkpoints, so that the wall is providing zero additional security. It’s a Maginot Line in security terms that accomplishes an illicit moral goal, which is the acquisition of territory by stealth.

Therefore, the entirely legitimate moral claim that sustains the construction of that wall—the self-defense of an embattled people—is a specious use of a moral argument to cover another design.

Let’s look at the third issue. Terrorism is a politics of violence that targets civilians. I've mentioned the civilian immunity side of it. Now I’ll discuss the politics.

One of the most difficult balances in a war on terror is military and political strategy. The maxim that I would hold to, as a matter of practical politics, is to never negotiate with terrorists but never be afraid to negotiate. Any military strategy against terror is bound to fail, since terror is not fundamentally a military activity; it’s a political activity seeking political goals.

Liberal democracies face the dilemma that they must never negotiate with terrorists because to do so is to recognize a terrorist, to accord him moral recognition as a political equal. A person who targets civilians is not a person any liberal democracy can ever talk to.

At the same time, a liberal democracy must talk to the people suffering injustice and address the political causes, hurts and indignation that terrorism feeds on. How to maintain the balance between never negotiating with terrorists but always keeping a political track open to negotiate, to draw off support from terrorists is one of the central dilemmas of anti-terrorism policy in the modern world.

You can't win a war on terror without a political strategy. But you must calibrate that strategy in such a way to avoid rewarding terrorism as an activity.

One admirable attempt to this end has been that of the British Government. They have always mixed a political initiative to both the Unionist and the Nationalist communities with a very firm military attempt to control terror. They’ve balanced a military and political strategy in a way that seems less than exemplary, but the broad strategic judgment—never negotiate with the IRA but talk to Sinn Fein, holding your nose—seems the right way to go.

It is possible to win a military campaign against terror and lose it politically because supposed moral clarity prevents you from taking appropriate political measures.

Finally, we need to look at preemption. And here, with my heart in my mouth, I have to take on the Secretary General of the United Nations, a man for whom I have the deepest regard.

One of the problems with the Charter now is that in a world in which there must be preemptive military action to forestall weapons transfer to terrorists, to forestall and preempt attacks before they take place, either by states in collusion with terrorists or terrorist groups alone, preemption is simply an inevitable feature. Whatever your view of its morality, it’s an inevitable part of any ongoing war on terror.

In the intense Iraq debate, if you take away the actors in question, which is an impossible thought experiment, and ask yourself what would any liberal democratic state do if it had verifiable, solid intelligence of weapons of mass destruction transfer to terrorist groups, or the development of weapons that could pose a national security threat, and the opportunity arose to take those facilities out before the state or terrorist group in question became undeterrable, it’s clear that any state with capability, not just the United States but France, Germany, the United Kingdom, would act in a preemptive way.

This drives a truck straight towards the articles of the UN Charter that define aggression. We have to think in realistic terms, instead of barring the door to preemption and saying that we must maintain a definition of aggression that takes preemption off the table. The moral justifications for preemption proceed from our verifiable, imminent evidence of attack.

We’re not in a world in which the preemptive challenge we face is massed armies forming, tanks moving and people being mobilized. We’re looking at a world of perfidy and deception, the tricks of the trade of terrorism, are a norm. In such a world, it is inevitable that preemption will be a constant ethical dilemma for an effective anti-terrorist strategy.

The final point, the other conclusion that stares us in the face, is that in moral terms a policy against terror cannot be based on the idea that the citizens of a particular country must come first, that they must have a moral preference.

One of the strongest criticisms of American policies since 9/11 has been that it proceeds from an “Americans first” set of moral preferences. We can't have an effective global war on terrorists if every nation state is saying, “I'm going to take decisions on the basis of a moral preference for my citizens above all others,” because that way literally the madhouse lies.

Multilateralism and multilateral cooperation are not just Mom and apple pie, but rather strategic necessities of states. Who wouldn’t prefer to have Mohamed El Baradei in Tripoli, or in Pyong Yang, or in Tehran than having the 101st Airborne? Who in the United States wouldn’t prefer that? If terrorism is a global threat, the set of moral priorities that privilege the unilateral defense of sovereignty are simply incoherent relative to the threat we face.

If you, unfortunately, put my previous point about preemption together with the multilateral point, we return to the problem that this is all very true but that you need an international consensus to take strong military action when one state absolutely demands it as a matter of national security. The two points won't work together without international coordination.

I can't see a world that is safe from terror unless we have viable, well-funded, credible, multilateral inspection regimes that are backed by the capacity and will to use force.

Thank you very much.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: You’ve slightly mischaracterized the Secretary General’s concerns about preemption, because what he has been talking about lies at the heart of the three flaws in preemption doctrine as we understand it today. One is indeed the question, can this rest on a preference for one country’s nationals and their security above others?

The second is the practical point as well. You provided a few examples of when countries might consider preemption. For example, whereas the United States is in a position to act on this sort of conviction, India, which had exactly the same set of convictions, could not act across the border preemptively, and there are good reasons why it couldn’t and why it would not have been tolerated had it done so.

And the third issue is that when one looks at the issue of preemption, there’s always a judgment, and the question is, who makes that judgment? If each country subjectively perceiving a threat was in a position to make a judgment that it could act upon that threat, without any international standards or court of referral, then indeed there is a danger; as you say, “This way anarchy lies.”

But the Secretary General has raised these as issues, which a high-level panel is examining. We hope that the collective wisdom of experienced statesmen and stateswomen will come up with a different approach.

But he has diagnosed the problem. He has not said that he has a definitive view; he has said that these are issues we need to worry about. So how do we address these concerns without falling afoul of these traps?

In going back to your first point, I have no difficulty with the proposition that terrorism is unacceptable because it involves attacking civilian non-combatants.

The gray areas come, however, in defining civilian non-combatants. Settlers are civilians, yes, but what if they’re armed to the teeth, as many of the settlers are? Are they then non-combatants?

Then there are civilian administrators administering an occupation that may be considered unjust, supported by or protected by large numbers of armed people. Where do you draw the line and on what basis do you decide—and I’m not suggesting that people sitting in a café and getting blown up aren't innocent victims; of course they are. It’s the gray area in the other areas that have led to some of the difficulties in discussing this issue with the UN.

MICHAEL IGNATIEFF: The strongest point you make is that preemption is all very well, but without consistent rules, with rules that only allow the most powerful state to take action, the legitimacy of those rules is by definition compromised.

My painful experience as an intellectual working in this field is that you can have any thoughts you want on this about the need for consistency, and moral consistency, but when you get into the real world of politics, people bunker down into positions which are extremely difficult to shake.

So I plead for a discussion that’s honest and open on this. It’s a moral fantasy to assume that preemption is only a problem posed to the U.S. All states confronted with a terrorist challenge face the problem, and thus should act and reason about this as if all of their interests were involved, instead of thinking that preemption is a problem about how to keep the big giant in the box.

On the question of whether civilian immunity can hold with armed settlers: Armed settlers who engage in attacks on Palestinian civilians forfeit their immunity, whatever uniform they’re wearing. If they’re attacking Palestinian targets, they forfeit immunities. But their children, non-combatants ancillary to them, do not forfeit their immunity.

As for civilian administrators, it depends on how close they are to the military sharp end—a social welfare administrator is one thing; an administrator who’s part of the logistical apparatus of oppression is another.

While the civilian immunity principle is blurry, troubling, difficult to hold onto, abandoning it opens us up to the war of all against all. The only way to hold onto it is to explore honestly all the gray-area cases to make them less gray.

QUESTION: You base your arguments on the assumption that there is a just world order out there, which we can refine here and there to ultimately create a better world order.

What would the reaction be if you gave the same remarks, not to a group of middle-class Western citizens living in comfortable homes but walking into a Palestinian camp or a Chechen camp, or a group of angry Muslims who feel that the world is unjust; that when a settler is killed it’s page one news in The New York Times, but when 20 Muslims are killed, it’s buried on page 20 at the bottom.

So you say, now it’s okay to attack an armed settler but not okay to attack an unarmed settler, isn't this about a guy arguing about the number of angels on a pin?

If you had to give the same remarks to a very different audience, number one, would you use the same arguments? And, number two, do you think your arguments would succeed?

MICHAEL IGNATIEFF: A, I would use the same arguments, and B, I do not expect them to succeed for a second.

I have made the arguments in the refugee camp adjacent to Bethlehem, and what you predict invariably occurs. But that’s precisely why I'm making the argument.

The abandonment of the civilian immunity principle has been a political catastrophe for the Palestinian people long term. Anybody is entitled to say that. That I haven't shared the horrendous experience of these people doesn’t invalidate the propositions. It just means that they won’t be believed.

We don’t live in a just world where changes around the margin will make a difference. The civilian immunity principle, which is the core of international humanitarian law, is frayed, barely standing up, and needs defense. We live in an incredibly unjust, raw, and turbulent world. We re not living in the liberal fantasy of your dream or mine.

If you force the oppressed, the weak, the occupied to fight clean, they will always lose. In an unjust world, to ask the weak and the oppressed to play by the rules is to consign them to defeat, and that’s the chief difficulty about making the argument I'm making, because it seems to be an argument for moral perfection; that is, “Fight clean. You may still lose but you’ll go down to noble defeat.” The Palestinians and the Chechens don’t want to hear that. They say, “Why should we fight clean? They’re not fighting clean. Unless we fight dirty, we can't win.” That is the justification for terrorism in the modern world.

But I would say to the Palestinian people that that argument is premised on another hidden premise: The resort to terroristic methods is a desperate last resort.

My claim about the Palestinians is that they have resorted to terrorism not as a last resort but often as a first resort. Terroristic methods have been built into the Palestinian struggle from the beginning, and have been used not because peaceful methods were no longer possible but to foreclose peaceful methods.

The painful reality about much of the Palestinian struggle has been that it has not been in the service of a one-state solution. And this is said by someone who passionately believes in the right of Palestinian self-determination, A, and believes, B, that the safety of the United States and of Israel is dependent—and to a degree that no one in Israel and the U.S. seems to understand—on granting that right to a stable, contiguous, viable Palestinian state.

The critical problem in American security policy is that Americans do not realize that their security now literally hangs on the granting of this right. But the Palestinians have gone about securing that right in a way that raises very serious questions about the legitimacy of their tactics.

So I'm afraid you have to go to the refugee camp, and you have to tell them this to their face. It doesn’t work terribly well, but it has to be said. I believe in the substance of the claim, but the methods used to support the claim have been a disaster from the beginning.

QUESTION: You defined the difference between terrorists and freedom fighters, but the word currently in vogue is “insurgents.” Are there people who deserve to be described in that way?

MICHAEL IGNATIEFF: A land mine that blows up a U.S. military convoy—a convoy composed entirely of Bradleys and Abrams and people in flak jackets—is, in a civilian immunity definition, an attack by an armed insurgent group and looks like an act of war. It’s active resistance to an occupation regarded as unjust, and it’s not necessarily problematic. It’s nasty, it’s horrible, it’s terrible.

The same insurgent group may then go to the gates of the green zone, target the people coming into the zone, kill 24 of them, and that then looks like a terrorist attack because it’s targeted against civilians, and it may be the same insurgent group doing both.

Let’s admit complexity here. In both cases the insurgents need to be crushed for another moral reason, which is that the only way in which the Iraqis can achieve democratic self-determination is if the security situation is stabilized and these people are defeated.

But it’s an uncomfortable fact of my own moral principles that what looks like terrorism in one case looks like armed struggle in the other. One attack looks illegitimate to me, the other looks like an act of war. I want both of them defeated by military means and also by political means, which relates to my point about combining military and political.

It’s absolutely crucial that the Iraqi people have a political horizon towards which they can drive. Unless they can get into a ballot box and say, “We don’t want insurgency, we don’t want to be dying on a daily basis; we don’t like the Americans, we want to rule ourselves and we want security,” you must create a political process which drives the insurgents out of business, but you also have to have a military prong to put them both out of business.

QUESTION: Could I ask you to enlarge particularly on the last of the principles you enunciated in connection with those detained in Guantanamo? Do you have any reflections on their status as combatants or non-combatants, and the difference between the treatment received by those with foreign nationality and the one who has U.S. citizenship.

MICHAEL IGNATIEFF: One of the difficulties about being a professor and an ethicist is that you're supposed to have clear answers. I find Guantanamo very tough, and what I'm going to say will not be satisfying.

First of all, it’s morally fraudulent and politically stupid for the United States to say, “You're on an American base but it’s in Cuba, and therefore it’s beyond the reach of U.S. law.” That was a catastrophic piece of legal cleverness which has blown up in their faces, and I hope that the Supreme Court will rule that the due process protections of U.S. law should apply to any detainee in its custody.

I know it’s a large claim, and it opens up an opportunity for extremely bad people to make vexatious use of the U.S. courts. But bad people are making vexatious use of the U.S. courts every day of the week, and why shouldn’t we have another 600 doing it?

I favor U.S. court review of Guantanamo because any other solution gets us into military tribunal areas where what the world sees is that the detaining power is both judge and jury in its own case, whereas civilian review of this is appropriate because the war on terror is not like a state of war.

America should have and should be repatriating nationals of other countries to face the civilian jurisdiction of their courts. The British aren’t absolutely crazy about having these guys come home because it lands them in a whole set of problems.

The war on terror requires us to maintain the idea of adversarial justification. It requires a strengthening of checks and balances. I want the courts there to check executive power, to subject it to adversarial review.

The U.S. Federal Court is very deferential to the Executive and in some ways properly so, because the country has been attacked. But U.S. jurisprudence has the best equal protection jurisprudence in the world, and they can do the job.

There should also be some military tribunal jurisprudence for war crimes cases. But the whole regime should be subject to scrutiny from another branch of the U.S. Government, as well as to international scrutiny.

The Red Cross has done a good job in holding this process to scrutiny and in making private representations which are positive.

Some of the international European comments of, “Oh, my god, Guantanamo; doesn’t it prove that everything we hate about the Americans is absolutely true?” are specious. The issue in Guantanamo is not conditions, but due process and fairness. The basic issue is how to apply the rule of law in a terrorist situation.

Some of the vexatious ideological use of Guantanamo is just mischievous nonsense, because as Tony Blair has rightly said, “A lot of these people want to kill us.” There’s a small portion of human beings who are lethally dangerous and probably have to be detained at pleasure. The problem is to find a dispositive system that weeds out the wheat from the chaff, that returns home the 13-year-olds and the kids wandering around the battlefield with deluded ideas.

I’ve been in Afghanistan. I’ve talked to Taliban people. Eighteen-year-olds who went to a madrasa, were told vicious junk—funded by the Saudis—and then wandered into a battlefield, sent north by all these lunatic preachers to fight the Great Satan at age seventeen, should be repatriated immediately.

But you may be down to 50 or 75 who should be there for a very long time, but subsequent to judicial proceedings supervised by the U.S. Federal Court system.

QUESTION: Coming back to preemption, how do you ensure integrity of motive in the policy of prevention?

MICHAEL IGNATIEFF: There was an absolute obsession about integrity of motive, to the exclusion of consideration of consequence, in the debate over the Iraq war. I supported the war, although I was absolutely convinced that there was oil, Halliburton, an endless number of motives in the mix. But I had made the human rights judgment that 26 million Iraqis would be better off as a consequence of these acts. My judgment was based on the consequence rather than the intentions.

But that doesn’t get me off your hook, which is that it’s very important for intentions to be scrutinized. The only safeguard for scrutinizing intentions is good institutions.

One of the things that must disturb anybody like me who supported the war in Iraq was the ways in which the case was made to the American and British peoples. I would not accuse either government of deliberate, outright lying or deception, but the case was not as candid as it should have been.

The honest case was "we have a risk, a threat, we don’t know how serious it is right now, we don’t know what the capabilities are. But we can also infer that Saddam's strategic intentions are perfectly clear, and that in five years, if we don’t act now, we will have an undeterrable threat." That would have been an honest presentation of real intentions. It was not presented in that way.

So the intentions question is one of adversarial democratic review, and the road to war was one on which there were two places where our institutions broke down. One was in the domestic political context, where the postwar bitterness is great precisely because a democratic electorate felt deprived of the full facts. They had no information to assess intentions.

Secondly, in the Security Council, there is bitterness in the world that the case wasn’t fully presented as a speculative case, which would have been the honest case. “We don’t know what he’s got, but we know who he is and we know what we’re looking at five years down the road.”

If you can't make the honest case, don’t make the dishonest case, would be the only answer I would give to the intentions question.

If India has a preemptive case to make about threats, you must go there with a dossier that’s straight and independent. You need to keep your intelligence and security services immune from political pressure. That’s a huge regulatory problem for every country. We’re leaning on the Americans and the Brits at the moment over this, but every country has this problem. The intelligence services are always telling politicians what they want to hear, and it’s crucial to create firewalls so that an intelligence service can say, “Here are the facts. I’ll tell you only what my traffic tells me and not a centimeter more.”

How we do that is a problem for all of our governments. But it’s absolutely crucial. Intelligence is the backbone of democratic public policy, and we have to regulate it with firewalls so that when a whistle blower says, “You’ve asked me to do something that trips over into political manipulation of intelligence data,” they should be protected from prosecution. They should be encouraged to speak up, again within limits, because you can't have a completely leaky and open system.

The regulation of intentions is a big interrogation of the viability of democratic institutions.

QUESTION: Shouldn’t we broaden the discussion to include governments who do not care for their own citizens, who keep their country’s resources in the hands of an elite and therefore create conditions which lead to frustrated people?

In the case of the Palestinians, the leaders have neither devoted themselves to diplomacy nor fed their people, but have used resources to build palaces for the elites in Gaza and the West Bank. If we’re considering the justice of certain causes, we should first ask whether the leaders are delivering resources and taking care of their own people.

MICHAEL IGNATIEFF: It’s possible to support the claim of the Palestinian people to self-determination, to a contiguous, joined-up, and viable state on the West Bank in Gaza, without condoning the flagrant corruption, misappropriation of funds, trafficking and conniving with terrorism in the Palestinian leadership.

The Bush Administration is potentially rhetorically engaged in the most radical rethink of its policy in the Middle East in 60 years. If the President is serious about encouraging democracy in the Middle East, it amounts to a massive structural change in American foreign policy, which means that we will be less cozy with dictators, authoritarian Islam and the Saudi regime.

In the fundamental disagreement behind all the moral disagreements about preemption and the war in Iraq, there’s a much more basic problem which we’re not seeing, which is that post 9/11, the US decided, as a matter of national policy, that the status quo in the Middle East was no longer supportable on national security grounds.

The minute the President read the intelligence traffic that said that sixteen of the hijackers were Saudi nationals, he knew that American foreign policy based on the relationship between Iben Saud and Franklin Roosevelt was over.

The European resistance to this war was in defense of the status quo ante in the Middle East. The Americans said, “The status quo ante meant that 3,000 of our citizens got killed in 9/11.” It’s a disagreement about whether the status quo is acceptable in the Middle East.

The Europeans were Bismarckian about this. “Cling to nurse for fear of something worse.” Keep the state order the way it is. Prop up these old regimes. And I hope that the Americans said, “This isn't good enough.”

It’s a policy disagreement between a status quo, Bismarckian stats-raison policy in the rest of the world which favors stability over justice, stability over freedom, stability avant tout, and an American policy which terrifies everybody because they want to throw the cards up in the air for reasons related to a perceived vital strategic interest. They have coddled up to the Saudis and got squat, they protected the Saudis against the Iraqis and got squat, they’ve messed around with having the UN force the compliance of Iraq and had a dictator thumb his nose at them for thirteen years, and it’s time to do some business.

The criticism I would make of American policy is that if you're going to clear the board, if you're going to be a revolutionary in the Middle East, you had better get serious; you had better know what you're getting into, which means that you must do something about the Saudi regime and the Palestinian claim.

The criticism of American policy that works is not that it’s dangerously destabilizing but that it’s not destabilizing enough.

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