Michael Ignatieff Interview 'Those Fighting Islamic State Are the Lesser Evil'


Interview Conducted By Erich Follath

Part 2: 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 to be very effective.

Ignatieff: I have no illusions there. The Russians and the Chinese don't want R2P because the responsibility to protect limits government sovereignty and permits -- even demands, in an extreme case -- outside intervention. Government sovereignty is an important value. Still, it can't be a license to commit mass murder within one's own borders. That's why we need responsibility to protect. The atrocities committed by the Nazis, right up to Pol Pot's Cambodian genocide and the genocide in Rwanda, have shown the world what is possible without an international standard. And you see it again today.

SPIEGEL: You've been criticized by those who say the R2P concept can easily be abused. Critics say that it creates an excuse, under the cloak of humanitarian intervention, for regime change desired by the West, and that it hides America's true strategic motives.

Ignatieff: First of all, R2P is about prevention. Military intervention is the last resort. And the UN should legitimize that in an ideal situation.

SPIEGEL: In Libya, there was a UN Security Council resolution in 2011, also accepted by Moscow and Beijing, to prevent an impending genocide by Moammar Gadhafi's troops advancing on Bengazi. When this goal was reached, NATO unilaterally expanded the mission -- to regime change in Tripoli and the dictator's overthrow. Putin felt tricked.

Ignatieff: Responsibility to protect doesn't mean regime change. But let's not mince words: The concept is stuck in a democratic crisis of legitimacy. The problem isn't just growing isolationism and gradual compassion fatigue, in light of all the atrocities. There is more at stake than the reservations over the financial costs of an intervention and the disappointment that we haven't truly been able to create stability in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. People in democratic countries have become mistrustful of their political leaders, who -- like Bush and (former British Prime Minister Tony) Blair in the 2003 Iraq war -- are selling something under false premises. Leaders who, in this way, are betraying principles they claim to advocate. So the Western public believes, to quote a song by my favorite rock band, The Who: "Won't get fooled again."

SPIEGEL: Combat operations in Iraq and Syria are unpopular in the United States, and in Germany more than two-thirds of the population is against sending weapons to the Kurds. Can democratic politicians govern against the will of the majority?

Ignatieff: No, at least not in the long term. There is only one thing they can do: Campaign for their convictions. Otherwise we won't be able to prevent genocide in the future, either.

SPIEGEL: Professor Ignatieff, we thank you for this interview.

Discuss this issue with other readers!
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Inglenda2 09/09/2014
1. The lesser evil! How can there be a good and bad genocide?
When Ignatieff says - The Islamic State is as much a threat in terms of real politic, as it is an attack on all values of civilisation - he may well be right. But one historical point seems to have forgotten, these fighters, who from a western point are viewed as terrorists, are in fact acting in exactly the same way as the founder of their religion. did during his lifetime. To say they are a disgrace for Islam shows how little most Non-Moslems know about this religion. However, just to condemn one group for committing mass killings, while excusing others, for example China during the demonstrations for freedom, or Israel in Palestine and Poland before and after WW2, is typical of the political hypocrisy which exists within the so-called civilised nations, which now have every good reason to fear reaping what they have sown.
john.ely.796 09/10/2014
2. Ignatieff Supported Bush's Disasterous Iraq War
The first rule of thinking about R2P, especially in Islamic areas, is to pay no attention to 'advisors' and 'intellectuals' - in this case one who doesn't know of the difference between republican citizenship and garden variety cultural nationalism, the difference being a history of self-government!!! - is to pay little attention to those who imprudently supported Bush's Iraq War and have not explained why this was such a profoundly idiotic idea.
peskyvera 09/10/2014
Why don't we begin at the very start? The West has to meddle where it has no business and were it not for the fact that most of the Middle East is rich in natural resources, none of this would be happening. The West doesn't care about 'democracy' and 'human rights' in this region, it only cares about the wealth that is to be extracted. We also 'bless' those people with our decadence and corruption. Any wonder they go against us? The West is the creator of this monstrosity. We reap as we sow.
mibrooks27 09/11/2014
Let's see... The Syrian government has been caught using chlorine gas to kill civilians. ISIS has shot civilians. Syria has strafed refugees using war planes. ISIS has used artillery to butcher them. Pray tell, how do you come to the conclusion that one side is better or worse than the other? Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya are all in the same mess. It seems to me that stability, in the a Middle East, means a brutal dictatorship in charge, one that keeps the religious crazies under their thumb. When the West meddles, everything flies apart and we get the series of disasters, in the named countries, that we are responsible for. Western meddling managed to destabilize the entire region. Get out! Stop meddling. Do likewise with the Ukraine. Our leaders haven't learned one thing in the century since they started the First World War.
macthenaif 09/11/2014
Mr Ignatieff is an intellectual contortionist as he demonstrated so well in positioning himself in support of the Iraq war and again in exculpating himself when the time for reckoning came. His views may in fact be sincerely held but I am not eager to recommend him to anyone looking for a guide.
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