Faith-Based Analysis

Michael Ignatieff, now a Canadian MP and contender for a top leadership position in the Liberal Party, was slow in responding to the Israeli war on Lebanon. He told the Canadian media on August 1st that “I’ve been following it minutely from the beginning and watching it unfold and figuring out when was the time when a statement would be important and relevant.” (Linda Diebel, “Rae criticizes liberal rival for delay,” Toronto Star, August 2, 2006). He considered it necessary to give Israel enough time “to send Hezbollah a very clear message” that kidnapping soldiers and firing rockets on Israel will not be tolerated. Of course, Israel was killing mainly civilians and destroying civilian infrastructure while sending this message, and there was the question of whether the world shouldn’t be sending Israel the message that aggression and the commission of war crimes under the pretense of “self defense” is not permissible, but like George Bush and Condoleezza Rice, for Ignatieff the Israeli message was crucial, not any Lebanese civilian casualties or Israeli law violations.

Michael Ignatieff is a skilled trimmer, who has adjusted his principles and thoughts to the demands of the U.S. and Canadian power elite, and advanced accordingly—from academia to preferred commentator on human rights and other political issues in the U.S. mainstream media, and on to becoming a member of the Canadian parliament. He was for some years Carr Professor of Human Rights at Harvard University, and for several years was a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine. He has always found that what the United States has been doing in the international arena is good—well-intentioned, necessary for international well-being, and inevitable, though occasionally flawed in execution. He was a strong supporter of the U.S. wars in Yugoslavia, objecting mainly to the sluggishness in the application of force. He approved the invasion-occupation of Iraq and has supported the use of torture in the abstract as well as specifically in the Bush administration’s so-called “war on terror,” and as noted he has recently been very understanding of Israel’s need to defend itself against the threats of Hezbollah and its other enemies.

One would have thought it might be problematical for a professor of human rights to vigorously support two wars (Kosovo, Iraq) carried out in violation of the UN Charter and hence “supreme crimes” in the view of the judges at Nuremberg. These two wars of aggression also resulted in serial war crimes, such as the regular bombing of civilian sites and the use of illegal weapons such as cluster bombs, napalm, phosphorus and depleted uranium, that should have been anathema to a devotee of human rights. But these matters didn’t bother Ignatieff, who was troubled only by the lag in initiation of NATO violence in the Balkans and the ineffectiveness and mismanagement of the occupation of Iraq. Similarly, Israel’s long-term ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in the occupied territories, and massive human rights violations in the process, have not troubled him in the least, although he is bothered by the failure to bring “stability” and the absence of a quiet occupation and dispossession process.

He gets away with this support for supreme crimes and systematic violations of human rights because he does this only as regards crimes and abuses carried out by the United States and its allies and clients. He is quite passionate about the crimes or alleged crimes of target states such as Yugoslavia and Saddam’s Iraq. As this bias parallels and therefore supports official positions, he is treated well by the Western elite and their instruments such as Harvard University and the New York Times. He can make egregious errors and unverifiable and dubious claims, accept official claims as unquestionably true, and apply double standards across the board, without cost. Treating him well means not only giving him support and access, it also means letting him get away with intellectual murder.

Ignatieff came into prominence during the Balkan wars, where he joined forces with a number of other liberal intellectuals and journalists who took on the cause of Alija Izetbegovic–author of the Islamic Declaration and close ally of Osama bin Laden–and the Bosnian Muslims, and pressed strongly for military intervention on their behalf.1 Ignatieff’s position also aligned him with the Clinton administration, and he established “close relations” with Richard Holbrooke, General Wesley Clark and former Yugoslav Tribunal chief prosecutor Louise Arbour.2 These close links with officials with an axe to grind might be thought to compromise a journalist and human rights activist, but it doesn’t work that way in the United States—as with “embedded” journalists, such links enhance a reporter’s authority. It is only in enemy states that official connections and embedding compromise journalistic integrity, as by assumption our officials don’t lie and manipulate, and/or the linkages do not cause journalists to lose their critical capacity, whereas elsewhere governments lie and embedded journalists become propaganda agents of the state.3

One revealing illustration of Ignatieff’s integration into the propaganda apparatus of the war-making establishment was his November 2, 1999 op-ed column in the New York Times on “Counting Bodies in Kosovo.” By the time Ignatieff wrote this piece, the wilder claims of the State Department that 100,000 or even 500,000 Kosovo Albanians had been killed by the Serbs had collapsed in the wake of the very modest results of the intense forensic searches that followed the NATO takeover of Kosovo after June 10, 1999. The new claim made by Carla Del Ponte, the Yugoslav Tribunal’s prosecutor (who had succeeded Louise Arbour), was that 11,334 Kosovo Albanians had been killed. According to Ignatieff, whether all the 11,334 bodies will be found “depends on whether the Serb military and police removed them.” Possible error or inflation by the Tribunal and its sources was ruled out for no reason but deep bias.

Del Ponte had been vetted by Madeleine Albright before taking her position, the Tribunal had been organized and largely staffed and funded by the NATO powers, and it consistently served as a PR-judicial arm of NATO.4 The Tribunal’s investigator, who recommended dismissing any charges of war crimes against NATO without a formal investigation, stated that he had been satisfied with NATO press releases as an information source on the motivations and results of NATO actions.5 Del Ponte followed his recommendation, implicitly accepting this use of evidence, and expressing satisfation that there was “no deliberate targeting of civilians or unlawful military targets by NATO” (presumably the targeting of the Chinese Embassy and the Serb broadcasting facility, among hundreds of other non-military targets, was lawful). Only an unscholarly partisan would take her number as definitive (and only a partisan newspaper would invite Ignatieff to write on the subject and subsequently bring him on board as a regular). Eventually only some 4,000 bodies were recovered in Kosovo after the NATO takeover, by no means all or even a majority Bosnian Muslim civilians, and 2,398 remain listed by the Red Cross as missing, yielding a total—6,398—substantially below the 11,334, a difference never commented on by Ignatieff or the New York Times.6

During the Kosovo conflict Ignatieff offered a stream of claims and interpretations that make an enlightening contrast with his apologetics for Israeli aggression, ethnic cleansing and structured racism. Commenting on an incident in which the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) murdered six Serb teenagers, Ignatieff wrote that this was “doubtless a KLA provocation, intended to goad the Serbs into overreaction and then to trigger international intervention. Yet it is worth asking why the KLA strategists could be absolutely certain the Serbs would react as they did [he is referring to the “Racak massacre” of January 15, 1999]. The reason is simple…only in Serbia is racial contempt an official ideology.”7

We may note first that for Ignatieff the KLA killings were only a “provocation,” not a murderous act to be severely condemned. Note also that although there is compelling evidence that the Racak incident was arranged into a “massacre” following a furious battle, and is therefore of extremely dubious authenticity, Ignatieff takes it as unquestionably valid.8 On the certainty of the Serb reaction, killings such as those carried out by the KLA produce similar responses in civil conflicts everywhere, so that Ignatieff’s blaming it on Serb racism is nonsensical for that reason alone. But it also flies in the face of Serb tolerance of Albanians in Belgrade, along with Roma–in contrast with Kosovo Albanian intolerance of both in NATO-occupied Kosovo.

The contrast with Ignatieff’s treatment of Israel in Gaza and Lebanon is also dramatic and revealing. With the June 25 capture of an Israeli soldier in Gaza and at least two other Israeli soldiers in still-disputed circumstances around the Israel-Lebanon border on July 12, minimal consistency with his treatment of the Serbs should cause him to regard these as “provocations” that induced an Israeli “overreaction,” and he should condemn this overreaction, which in Gaza and Lebanon has been far more deadly and murderous than the Serbs’ alleged overreaction at Racak. He might explain this overreaction and this willingness to kill large numbers of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians on the “simple” ground that “only in Israel is racial contempt an official ideology.” Of course he does not do this, although the case that can be made for racial contempt as an official ideology in Israel is vastly greater than the evidence for Serbian racism.9

For Ignatieff, Israel’s legitimate “security needs” justify the Lebanon response (and he evades discussing the reinvasion and attack on civilians and humanitarian crisis in Gaza). Didn’t Yugoslavia’s legitimate security needs justify Racak and other actions of the Serbs, with NATO threatening an attack–that soon materialized–and working in coordination with the KLA? There is of course no hint at this in Ignatieff—his frame of reference is always that of his side (NATO), and the enemy is always wrong and has no right of self defense.

Ignatieff was enraged at the Serb expulsions in Kosovo during the bombing war, claiming that “Milosevic decided to solve an ‘internal problem’ by exporting an entire nation to his impoverished neighbors,” and he also described it as a “most meticulous deportation of a civilian population” and “a final solution of the Kosovo problem.”10 One would hardly realize from these effusions that Yugoslavia was under military attack by NATO, forced to defend itself in a situation where the KLA and NATO were working in close coordination; that proportionately more [ethnic] Serbs fled the bombing war in Kosovo than [ethnic] Albanians; that there was nothing “meticulous” about the flight, induced by the KLA and bombing as well as Serb actions, and that there is no reason whatever to think that Milosevic viewed this as a “final solution,” another dishonest piece of rhetoric that conflates Nazi industrial murder with a war-induced flight of civilians.

Again, the contrast with Ignatieff’s treatment of the forced exit of a million Lebanese by the Israelis is dramatic. Here Israel is justified in “sending a message” to Hezbollah reflecting Israel’s right to defend itself. Yugoslavia had no right to send a message to the KLA and NATO powers in the process of defending itself, although NATO’s war threatened its survival, whereas Israel had only suffered minor losses in a border skirmish with a force that did not threaten its existence. Ignatieff has not even expressed sympathy with the million Lebanese displaced to “send a message” to Hezbollah; and he will clearly not speak of this as a “meticulous” ethnic cleansing and “final solution” via an “export” of Lebanese civilians. Human Rights Watch and the Red Cross (among others) have repeatedly declared the Israeli attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure to be war crimes,11 but Ignatieff has not said a word about anything wrong with Israel’s attacks on civilians or the use of illegal and anti-civilian weaponry like cluster bombs and depleted uranium, and he has never hinted that these frequent and ruthless attacks on Arab civilians could be because of Israel’s racist ideology, although the evidence for such attitudes in Israel is massive (which it is not in Belgrade).

In short, we are dealing here with gross political bias and gross apologetics for aggression, ethnic cleansing and war crimes. Add to this the fact that Ignatieff has swallowed Bush’s claim to be striving to “bring freedom everywhere,” an ideological premise that allows him to rationalize anything the Bush administration does externally because it is in a noble cause—based solely on the fact that Bush says that that is his aim (see his “Who Are Americans To Think That Freedom Is Theirs To Spread?,” New York Times Magazine, June 26, 2005; and my analysis of this apologetics landmark: Herman, “Michael Ignatieff’s Pseudo-Hegelian Apologetics for Imperialism,” October, 2005).

Facts no longer matter for Ignatieff; they are trumped by proclaimed aims and values, but only for the side he favors and that produce benefits—to Ignatieff and some of the elites that underwrite his work. Clearly this is a man worthy of a human rights chair at Harvard, a special place in the Paper of Record, and a bright political future in our close and reliable ally Canada.

EDWARD S. HERMAN is Professor Emeritus of Finance at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, and has written extensively on economics, political economy and the media. Among his books are The Real Terror Network, Triumph of the Market, and Manufacturing Consent (with Noam Chomsky).


1. For a general account, EDWARD S. HERMAN and David Peterson, “Morality’s Avenging Angels: The New Humanitarian Crusaders,” in David Chandler, Ed., Rethinking Human Rights: Critical Approaches to International Politics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), pp. 196-216 (as posted to ZNet, August 30, 2005). The New Humanitarians have been members of a network of like-minded people, often friends, who have worked in coordination with government officials and government-linked thinktanks, bonding and hobnobbing among themselves in Sarajevo or at international conferences and being fed information by U.S. and, in the 1990s, Bosnian Muslim officials. Sometimes, they worked together in establishment operations such as the Independent International Commission on Kosovo (Richard Falk, Richard Goldstone, Michael Ignatieff, Mary Kaldor, Martha Minow), the International Crisis Group (William Shawcross), the American Academy in Berlin (Paul Hockenos), George Soros’ Open Society Institute (Aryeh Neier), and offshoots of these and similar institutions. The first three groups have been heavily funded by NATO governments, and have had on their boards numerous NATO government officials, past and present.
In a nice illustration of what C. Wright Mills might have called the “social composition of the higher circles” of New Humanitarianism, Timothy Garton Ash wrote back in 1999: “When I arrive in the late evening…[at Hotel Tuzla,]…I step into the lift, press the button for the second floor, and at once subside, powerless, into the cellar. The reception committee in the bar consists of Christopher Hitchens, Susan Sontag, and David Rieff. When I join them, Sontag is just saying to Michael Ignatieff, ‘I can’t believe that this is your first time here.” And he adds that on the very next day, after arriving at an event hosted by the Bosnian Muslim leadership of Tuzla, Mary Kaldor welcomed the group, and the British actress Julie Christie read a poem in homage to Sarajevo, “glowing white…as a translucent china cup.” Ash, History of the Present: Essays, Sketches, and Dispatches from Europe in the 1990s (New York: Random House, 1999), p.147.

2. The quoted words were used by David Rieff to describe and laud his ally Ignatieff’s connections with the West’s political and military leadership, in “Virtual War: Kosovo and Beyond,” Los Angeles Times, Sept. 3, 2000.

3. Back at the time of the controversy that followed the May 1981 shooting of Pope Paul II by a Turkish fascist, the mainstream U.S. media relied heavily on the expert Paul Henze, rarely pointing out–and never suggesting any problem based on–lhis 30-year employment as a CIA propaganda specialist and his having been head of the CIA station in Turkey.

4. For a compelling analysis, see Michael Mandel, How America Gets Away With Murder (London: Pluto, 2004), pp. 132-46.

5. Ibid., pp. 188-191.

6. “Statement to the Press by Carla del Ponte” (FH/P.I.S./550-e), Carla del Ponte, ICTY, December 20, 2000, par. 16; “Kosovo: ICRC deplores slow progress of working group on missing persons,” ICRC News, March 9, 2006.

7. Michael Ignatieff, “Only in truth can Serbia find peace: There is racism everywhere in Europe, but only in Serbia is racial contempt an official ideology,” Calgary Herald, June 26, 1999.

8. On questions about Racak, see Mandel, pp. 72-80, 170-73; see also the devastating testimonies of Judge Danica Marenkovic, forensic expert Professor Slavisa Dobricain, Col. Bogoljub Janicevic, and Col. Milan Kotur, during the Milosevic defense period, March 23-24, April 8, 13, and 26, and January 27, 2006. None of this testimony was reported on in the New York Times.

9. Under the subheading “Root Causes,” Israeli analyst Reuven Kaminer says “It is impossible to oppress an entire people for 40 years and not to succumb to the ultimate rationalization for such action. Anti-Arab racism is endemic to Israeli society. This racism is so pervasive that it covers the political landscape like a cloud and infects all the thinking and the attitudes of the overwhelming majority of Israelis.” (“Who Won and Who Lost and Why,” Portside, August 17, 2006). See also EDWARD S. HERMAN, “Ethnic Cleansing: Constructive, Benign, and Nefarious,” ZNet, August 9, 2006.

10. Michael Ignatieff, Virtual War: Kosovo and Beyond (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2000), pp. 86-87, 78-79, 84.

11. See, e.g., Peter Bouckaert and Nadim Houry, Fatal Strikes: Israel’s Indiscriminate Attacks Against Civilians in Lebanon (Human Rights Watch, August 3, 2006; and Peter Bouckaert, “For Israel, innocent civilians are fair game,” International Herald Tribune, August 4, 2006.