Empire Lite: Nation-Building in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan

Michael Ignatieff, Penguin Books, 2003, 134 pages.

By John Bacher (reviewer) | 2006-10-01 12:00:00

Agree with them or not, Michael Ignatieff's recent books such as Warrior's Honor and Virtual War, at least had a stern, if disagreeable, intellectual rigor in their calls for armed humanitarian intervention.Tragically, Empire Lite is a transitional book. It moves away from his past clear message and is a product of the spin doctoring associated with political parties, one of which the author hopes to lead.

The term "Empire Lite" is not supposed to mean "nice" or "humanitarian" empires. Instead it is a derisive implication that "everything is done on the cheap, from day to day, without long-term security guarantees and short term financial assistance that would genuinely create the conditions for national independence."

While favoring better-funded and more durable humanitarian interventions, Ignatieff warns against Vietnam-style fights against imaginary demons. By combining calls for a heavier imperialism with warnings against more Vietnams, Ignatieff enters into a quicksand of inconsistency. His latest book hides such paradoxes by throwing out satirical barbs without regard for his motivating concern: a better-managed humanitarian imperialism.

Most of Empire Lite refers to the failures of empire builders, who are subjected to merciless ridicule. The United Nations administrator for Kosovo for instance, Bernard Kouchner, a founder of Doctors Without Borders, is a characteristic target.

Ignatieff mocks a 1992 publicity feat of Kouchner -- wading ashore with a sack of rice to feed the starving children of Somalia. Such feats are portrayed as stepping-stones of an ambition to become an "imperial governor." In his scorn for UN administrators and their allied non-governmental organizations (NGOs), Ignatieff's text often seems lifted from the polemics of American conservatives.

Given all the mocking of the humanitarian administrators of Kosovo, Bosnia, and Afghanistan, one would have expected Ignatieff to be a public critic of the American plans to invade Iraq. Doom would appear to have been inevitable after the difficulties of previous interventions in the Iraq region, with its with massive revenues from oil deals. Yet Ignatieff became a prominent defender of the Iraqi war, which, considering the billions spent on it by the United States, can hardly be called "lite."

One of the most poignant episodes in Empire Lite is the interview with Lakhdar Brahimi, then serving as the United Nations' special representative to Afghanistan. He would later serve in this role in Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, but would eventually resign in frustration over American occupation policies.

Although Brahimi was fortunately not in the United Nations compound at the time, a suicide bomber would later destroy its headquarters in Baghdad, killing 19 people, of whom the most prominent was veteran UN diplomat Sergio de Mello.

Brahimi's resignation in Iraq is more significant in view of Ignatieff's determination, throughout Empire Lite, to depict UN administrators as bungling incompetents. Such arguments were also used by influential American neoconservatives, such as the American Enterprise Institute, to justify the governing of Iraq by the American administrator, Paul Bremer. Whatever errors the UN made in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan -- the subject of Empire Lite -- these pale in comparison with US failures in Iraq, about which Ignatieff has remained silent.

Many of Brahimi's criticisms of the US administration of Iraq can be seen in retrospect as prophetic. To give the country's interim governing council more legitimacy, he attempted to prevent its members from supervising the country's elections.

In finger pointing at the bumbling of UN administrators and various humanitarian aid agencies as causes of global instability and violent conflict in the post-cold war era, Ignatieff is widely off target. In his massive literature on this subject he has nothing to say about more compelling problems, such as the funding from Saudi Arabia causing mayhem through the export of extremist ideologies.

The greatest failure of Empire Lite is to ignore the obvious alternative to imperial invasions for humanitarian relief -- the removal of dictatorships by nonviolent people power. It is astonishing, in a book that deals largely with the former Yugoslavia, that Ignatieff should have nothing to say about the most important reason for the relative quiet and stability in the Balkans at the time his book went to press. This is the nonviolent ouster from power of the former Serbian dictator, Slobodan Milosevic.

In Empire Lite Ignatieff describes the peace-seeking Serbian Orthodox monks of Kosovo's Decani monastery as puppets of Kouchner. He ignores how these monks had bravely struggled for peace to the point of closing down their shrines rather than allow them to be used to justify genocide. The Decani monks' hard-line Serbian opponents, held up by Ignatieff to be more representative of mainstream (i.e. bigoted) Serbian opinion, are now marginalized, as their subsidies for troublemaking were cut off by Belgrade.

Ignatieff appears simply to be unaware of serious proposals to strengthen democracy, the rule of law, and human rights in Kosovo, Bosnia, and Afghanistan. He has nothing to say, for instance, of political scientists' proposals to devise voting systems that would make it more difficult for ethno-nationalist parties to win elections.

One hopes that Empire Lite will spark Canadian debate on foreign policy. This would encourage nonviolent measures to promote democratization instead of World War II-style military interventions.

What is most disturbing with the thrust of Empire Lite is that the book is the culmination of the author's two-decade literary revolt against his great father, George Ignatieff. The veteran guiding light at External Affairs and a critical advisor to Lester Pearson, John Diefenbaker and Pierre Trudeau, George Ignatieff was one of the few establishment figures to emerge as a genuine hero to the Canadian political left.

George Ignatieff was revered by his fellow "peacemongers" (a title he claimed in his memoirs), because of his diligence in forging Canada's position as a "middle power." This notion was based on the belief that our country would use its influence to strengthen the United Nations as the means to achieve a peaceful world order.

In his bid to become leader of the Liberal Party, Ignatieff the younger seems poised to complete wrecking the work of his father, with an extensive body of writing and speeches promoting armed intervention against non-nuclear tyrannies as the path to peace. An Ignatieff government's foreign policy would move Canada away from its insistence on multilateral (i.e. UN) intervention, toward the unilateralist doctrines now in favor in both London and Washington. 

A government in which Michael Ignatieff served as prime minister might have to back away from such policies in the face of popular mobilizations, but the thrust of his government would be to blend in with strategic doctrines such as those articulated by British Prime Minister Tony Blair -- attempting to put a humane face on the justifications of military force promoted by George W. Bush.

The tragedy of Michael Ignatieff's filial revolt is compounded by the failure of his opponents in the Liberal leadership race to propose alternatives to armed humanitarian intervention. What is especially paradoxical is Bob Rae's critique of his views.

Rae now waves the UN flag and upholds Canadian traditions of peacemaking. His criticisms ring hollow, however, in view of his own opposition to United Nations Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson's protests against Israel's assault on the offices of the Palestinian Authority. In supporting Robinson's denunciation, and in an effort to reduce the level of v iolence, the NDP Member of Parliament Svend Robinson went to the beseiged buildings in Ramallah as a human rights observer.

Rae responded to the two Robinsons' position -- particularly that of Svend --which, he indicated, offered "no positive contribution to the war on terror." On this note, Rae let his NDP membership lapse and went on the road to seek the leadership of the Liberal Party.

It is also tragic that rival candidate Gerard Kennedy, a proud Canadian of Ukrainian heritage, does not invoke the achievements of the Orange Revolution, which nonviolently brought democracy to his ancestral land.

The ineptness of Ignatieff's Liberal rivals puts a special burden on the peace movement. This is one time when it is especially important to show how Canadian foreign policy should seek to foster human rights by nonviolent means.

Reviewed by John Bacher, an activist/ writer in St. Catharine's, Ontario.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2006

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2006, page 28. Some rights reserved.

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