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

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.


Interview Conducted By Erich Follath

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.

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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