Michael Ignatieff Interview ‘Those Fighting Islamic State Are the Lesser Evil’

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Interview Conducted By Erich Follath

In an interview, Harvard professor and UN advisor Michael Ignatieff discusses his concept of the responsibility to protect civilian populations threatened by genocide, German weapons deliveries to the Kurds in Iraq and the idea of a deal with Assad to bring peace to Syria.

Michael Ignatieff’s ancestry alone would seem to bestow him with a kind of global citizen status. One of his grandfathers, Count Pavel, served as the Russian education minister under Czar Nicholas II and on his mother’s side, he’s related to Canadian philosopher George Grant. Igantieff, 67, was born in Toronto, but grew up in numerous countries as the child of a diplomat. After completing a degree in history, he began writing historical as well as fictional works. He then got involved in the intricacies of international law. Working on behalf of the United Nations he was largely responsible for developing the concept of “Responsibility to Protect,” or “R2P,” which foresees mandatory international measures if a civilian population is threatened with genocide. As the head of the Liberal Party from 2008 to 2011, he served as the leader of Canada’s political opposition in Ottawa. Ignatieff, often cited as one of the most important thinkers of our time, is a professor of politics at Harvard University. He also serves as the chairman of the Richard C. Holbrook Forum for the Study of Diplomacy and Governance at the American Academy in Berlin.

SPIEGEL recently sat down with Ignatieff for an interview covering conflagrations around the world — in Iraq, Syria, Gaza, Ukraine and beyond.

SPIEGEL: Professor Ignatieff, in a dramatic reversal of its previous policy, the German government has decided to supply the Kurds with weapons, arguing that this is the only way to stop an act of genocide. Was it the right decision?

Ignatieff: I think it’s an important geostrategic and political signal. It also means Germany is assuming the central role in the Western alliance, to which it is entitled. Europe would be condemned to ineffectiveness without a more active German foreign policy and without Berlin taking a more self-confident approach.

SPIEGEL: As justifiably horrified as we are by the barbaric killing being committed by the terrorist group Islamic State, is there truly a threat of genocide? Aren’t the American air strikes already pushing back the radical Islamists?

Ignatieff: The advance of the Islamic State has not been stopped and the terrorists are regrouping. They control large amounts of territory, which makes them especially dangerous. We shouldn’t just judge the militant organization on the basis of the number of people being threatened in the region and on the question of genocide.

SPIEGEL: What else should we judge them on?

Ignatieff: The Islamic State is an extremely dangerous force for all of the Middle East, and it could destroy its entire fragile structure of state order. If the Islamic State consolidates, the Persian Gulf will also be destabilized, which could jeopardize the global oil supply.

SPIEGEL: So it’s more a question of geostrategic concerns than genocide?

Ignatieff: Both issues are at stake. The Islamic State is as much a threat in terms of realpolitik as it is an attack on all values of civilization. With their barbarism, the terrorists are a disgrace for Islam. The Middle East is a multi-ethnic, multi-denominational region, in which Sunnis, Shiites, Christians and Yezidis have lived together for many centuries. The West may have imposed borders and nation structures on the region, but it didn’t have to push multi-ethnicity because it already existed. And this structure of tolerance worked in the past — at least for the most part. Anyone who destroys this structure isn’t just playing with fire. He’s unleashing a global conflagration.

SPIEGEL: But can sending even more weapons to a Middle East that is already bristling with them be a recipe for success?

Ignatieff: It’s admittedly unfortunate, but unavoidable in the current situation.

SPIEGEL: Wouldn’t it be the job of the United Nations Security Council to fight the jihadists with armed force?

Ignatieff: Of course, a solution like that would be the best. And it’s true that Russia and China, for different reasons, fear an advance of the Islamic State, but they would rather be spoilers in the international system and let the blame for the collapse of order fall on the US.

SPIEGEL: So German armor-piercing missiles will soon be destroying American tanks provided to the Iraqi military and captured by the jihadists. Can it be guaranteed that German weapons won’t end up in enemy hands and used against us one day?

Ignatieff: No, no one can really guarantee that. If the Germans want to be sure that they don’t end up in the wrong hands, they’ll have to send in ground troops.

SPIEGEL: Berlin has ruled out combat troops. But the Kurdish peshmerga security forces aren’t the only ones who want weapons from the West. The communist Kurdish Workers’ Party wants them as well. Is the PKK, whose armed underground struggle has cost thousands of Turks their lives, justifiably classified as a terrorist organization in the United States and Europe?

Ignatieff: I had the opportunity to visit a PKK training camp a few years ago. There were child soldiers there — not a welcome sight.

SPIEGEL: While the regular Iraqi army and the peshmerga have fled from advancing jihadists in many places without putting up a fight, the PKK rebels helped free the people trapped in the Sinjar Mountains, despite their inferior weapons.

Ignatieff: Yes, they are apparently often the most determined fighters. It’s a moral dilemma for the West. But all those who are fighting the Islamic State militants are currently the lesser evil. And it’s essential that the Americans continue with their air strikes.

SPIEGEL: Isn’t former US President George W. Bush partly to blame for the current disaster thanks to his his 2003 invasion, a war that you once endorsed?

Ignatieff: Yes, he is. At the time I allowed myself to be fooled by the arguments being advanced by the US government, just as many others did. I regretted my endorsement and publicly admitted to my mistake. I have always been an interventionist, someone who believes that it is acceptable to violate a country’s sovereignty for humanitarian reasons — especially when a dictator is massacring his own people and when there is there a threat of genocide. I believed that was the case at the time. The only problem is that the US government manipulated public opinion.

SPIEGEL: Now the alternatives are bleak: Either the Islamic State will continue to expand very rapidly or the peshmerga and PKK will join forces to establish their own Kurdish state directed against Baghdad.

Ignatieff: I don’t see it quite that pessimistically. I believe the Kurds have recognized, at least for the foreseeable future, that they have to remain part of the Iraqi federation. Yes, there is that strong desire for independence. But the current development is actually more likely to curb it.

SPIEGEL: We’re hearing completely different things from Arbil.

Ignatieff: I’ve been traveling to the Kurdish region for more than 25 years. It’s remarkable what they have already achieved in their largely autonomous region within Iraq. In contrast to Baghdad, the administration works there, the economy is booming and religions are practiced freely. I’ve found that the Kurds know perfectly well who they have to thank for this. The only truly indisputable success of a Western intervention since 1991 is the Kurdish enclave, which was able to develop as a result of the establishment of a no-fly zone. It would be a shame if the West or the Kurds themselves jeopardized this successful experiment. And the Islamic State terrorists certainly can’t be allowed to destroy it.

SPIEGEL: The Islamic State controls large portions of Syria. No one is helping the people there. Only in recent days has the US government started thinking about attacks on Islamic State positions in Syria. Aren’t we applying a double standard?

Ignatieff: Yes, one could see it that way.

SPIEGEL: The moderate forces fighting against both the jihadists and the Assad dictatorship feel especially alone. Many in the West believe we should have supplied them with weapons long ago.

Ignatieff: I was always opposed to such arms deliveries. Unlike in Kurdistan today — and in Kosovo in the past — the opposition in Syria never had a convincing, common political front and a reliable command structure. But that is the condition for intervening on one side of a conflict.

SPIEGEL: And that’s why we have to accept more than 190,000 victims to date, for the majority of which the brutal Assad regime can be blamed? What happened to the international responsibility to protect civilians? Doesn’t your R2P concept demand intervention?

Ignatieff: The destruction of the Assad regime’s chemical weapons, covered by a UN resolution, was a success. But Western countries, facing the obstructive posture of Moscow and Beijing in the Security Council, failed to prevent the massive killings in the civil war. That’s a tragedy. If our goal is to protect the civilian population in Syria, and we apply the R2P doctrine, this can only mean that additional arms shipments to any forces will only worsen the situation.

SPIEGEL: Why are you so certain about that?

Ignatieff: Everyone who is turning the Syrian civil war into a proxy war — Saudi Arabia and Qatar, as well as Russia and Iran — must understand that no side, neither Assad nor the rebels, can win the conflict. That the continued fighting will only cost more and more human lives. A UN-brokered cease-fire could emerge from a recognition of the stalemate. Each side would adjust to the status quo. The outcome would be a divided Syria, with Assad in control in Damascus, but with a de-facto dominance in the north and east for the rebels of the Free Syrian Army and the Kurds — once the Islamic State has been destroyed. Some rather strange, indirect alliances will have been created. After all, both Assad and the West fear and are fighting the jihadists.

 

Is Assad the Lesser of Two Evils?

SPIEGEL: And he is now offering his services to the West as a partner. You wouldn’t have any objection to keeping the dictator in power — Assad as the lesser evil?

Ignatieff: I think it’s the only way to end the slaughter of the civilian population. Listen, I know that this is a deal with the devil. It’s hard to imagine an uglier tradeoff for peace and justice than this one. But continuing to demand Assad’s removal without having real leverage to force it to happen has become an empty threat — an even more hopeless strategy. The alternative is more years of civil war, death and destruction.

SPIEGEL: With all due respect, now you’re sounding more like a jaded political realist than a hopeful, humanitarian interventionist.

Ignatieff: Even if I continue to believe in the responsibility to protect and build on its importance, I can’t put this concept above everything else. I’ve spent my whole life trying to reconcile my human rights convictions with realistic geopolitics. Sometimes it’s an almost unbearable discrepancy.

SPIEGEL: This dilemma is also evident in the war between Israel and the Palestinians. Is there a moral and politically realistic guideline here?

Ignatieff: The rocket attacks by Hamas are undoubtedly a violation of international law. Israel has the right to self-defense, to destroy the rocket launchers from which they are fired. But the Israel army also has to respect international law and avoid indiscriminate force, especially to the civilian population.

SPIEGEL: The Netanyahu government claims it’s doing so.

Ignatieff: Oh, come on. The director of the UN school in Gaza City gave the Israelis the coordinates for his facility a dozen times — and gave them to Hamas, as well — and still the school was bombed and children died. One can only pray that both sides will recognize that the advances of the Islamic State and the dissolution of government control in the Middle East also pose a great threat to them. Both sides — Israelis and Palestinians alike — are currently being betrayed by their political leadership.

SPIEGEL: Shouldn’t this lead to a re-evaluation of US-Israeli relations in Washington?

Ignatieff: It’s time for President Obama to examine whether Washington’s strategic interests are really still identical with Israel’s. I believe these interests have been drifting apart for a long time.

SPIEGEL: While (German Chancellor) Angela Merkel is very reserved with criticism of Israel, for historic reasons, she has clearly positioned herself against the Russian president in the Ukraine conflict, most recently with a solidarity visit to Kiev. Do you think its right that Berlin is getting so actively involved in Ukraine?

Ignatieff: I welcome a new, more self-confident German foreign policy. Merkel has the most influence in Europe and she has strong ties to both Kiev and Moscow. Putin isn’t naïve. He knows how far he can go. The consequences of his actions can be bluntly explained to him.

SPIEGEL: Do you think a NATO maneuver in western Ukraine and the forming of a NATO rapid-action force for Eastern Europe is appropriate?

Ignatieff: When a Russian leader says, even in jest, that he could take Kiev in two weeks, the danger is that we underreact, not overreact. As important as it is to strengthen NATO commitments, even deployments in the Baltic states, Poland and elsewhere, we also need to help the Ukrainian government, with arms and advisors to push back an invasion that is clearly Russian-backed and reverse the military momentum so that a negotiated political solution, favorable to Ukraine’s survival as a united state, becomes possible.

SPIEGEL: We should not demand anything of Kiev?

Ignatieff: The chancellor should also demonstrate toughness to the Ukrainian government and clear away illusions. The road to the EU isn’t an autobahn. Fundamental changes are necessary. Kiev has to contain rampant corruption, create functioning democratic institutions and grant the east more autonomy. And no one should promise NATO membership to Ukraine.

SPIEGEL: Does the West have to accept the occupation of Crimea, a violation of international law, if Putin cooperates in eastern Ukraine?

Ignatieff: The West may not be able to reverse the annexation of Crimea, but it should never accept it. We don’t have to recognize it officially — just as we didn’t do that in the Baltic countries after World War II, and this helped the Baltic states eventually to regain their freedom.

SPIEGEL: Iraq, Gaza, Ukraine — the world seems to have come unhinged in the last few weeks. And the concept of “responsibility to protect,” which you drafted and which was accepted by a large majority of UN countries, doesn’t appear t