- The Washington Times - Monday, June 7, 2004

THE LESSER EVIL: POLITICAL ETHICS IN AN AGE OF TERROR

Michael Ignatieff

Princeton University Press, $22.95, 212 pages

Liberal ethicist and historian Michael Ignatieff shocked admirers last year when he came out in favor of war in Iraq. Luckily for the disappointed, he offered one small gratification when, in a New York Times Magazine column written just as the war began, he smeared his new co-opinionists.

“Supporting the war [does not] make you a Cheney conservative or an apologist for American imperialism,” he declared. The message was clear: You antiwar types have lost the argument. But rest assured, I still prefer your company over dinner.

Mr. Ignatieff, a professor of human rights policy at Harvard, will need to make similar gestures if readers fully digest “The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror.” The book is an extended rumination on how constitutional democracies should think about terrorism.

But it is also an argument for controversial things like targeted assassinations of key terrorist leaders, effective interrogation measures — measures short of physical coercion or pharmacological inducement, but only barely — and even pre-emptive war against rogue regimes aspiring to obtain nuclear weapons. Liberal admirers will find much to object to in Mr. Ignatieff’s antiterrorism counsel.

Mr. Ignatieff thinks constitutional democracies should strive for an ethics of prudence, not principle. “There are no trump cards, no table-clearing justifications or claims,” he argues, not even rights, nor the necessity of terrorist emergencies. The rule of expediency is not what Mr. Ignatieff calls for — far from it — but he takes pains to dispel illusions that the Western democracies can keep their hands clean of war and intrigue when fighting terror. “Either we fight evil with evil or we succumb,” he writes. So how to fight evil with evil, precisely?

Begin by remembering that a lesser evil is still an evil. Next, apply three tests to any antiterror policy: a dignity test, a conservative test and an effectiveness test.

Is the action cruel and unusual or otherwise degrading? If so, it fails to reflect our true nature as small “l” liberals and needs to be rethought. Is it conservative? That is, does it conserve our institutions and freedoms, or does it depart unreasonably from them? If so, it cannot stand, because it erodes the very things the terrorists have targeted in the first place.

Third, does it work? If it erodes longer-term intangibles like governmental legitimacy and political support for the constitutional order, it becomes unsustainable as national policy. So far, so good.

It’s when Mr. Ignatieff gets to the specifics that he runs afoul of liberal nostrums. First, assassination. Killing enemies by stealth or in a targeted manner “can be a justified lesser evil,” Mr. Ignatieff writes, “but only against bona fide terrorist targets actively engaged in hostilities against a democratic state,” as a last resort against impending attacks, and with due regard for the innocent. So much for three decades of conventional wisdom.

Were the Bush administration and the CIA right to train missiles on Ali Qaed Sinan al-Harthi in his car in Yemen two years ago? Yes, to judge by a fleeting reference to this event.

Second, interrogation. Torture cannot be justified as a policy, Mr. Ignatieff writes, but “conscientious people may disagree as to whether torture might be admissible in cases of necessity.”

This passage, written and published before Abu Ghraib, does justice to the torture question in a way the current heated discussion does not. Mr. Ignatieff insists on a prohibition of torture, but he struggles to explain what interrogation measures he would allow. He allows for sleep deprivation and stress-inducing disinformation, but physical coercion is out, as are truth serums and deprivation of food or water.

Mr. Ignatieff calls torture “probably the hardest case in the ethics of the lesser evil.” He treats arguments to allow harsher methods, like Alan Dershowitz’s, with respect. Both of which show how close this human-rights thinker is to countenancing the Dershowitz argument.

And lastly, pre-emptive war. Mr. Ignatieff supported war in Iraq, but called it a “preventive war,” not a pre-emptive one (he supported it on humanitarian grounds, not security ones). A real pre-emptive war is rare, Mr. Ignatieff argues, but could be justified if a government or terrorist group were to seek to acquire or use nuclear weaponry, and if a handful of other last-resort and reasonable-means criteria were met.

So it’s clear the Times Magazine set will be disappointed. Not that Mr. Ignatieff abandons them outright: The book has enough portrayals of American intelligence agents as jackbooted thugs and human rights NGOs as angelic to keep the left nominally happy. But a more reasonable mind is hard at work here on a thoughtful ethics of antiterrorism that transcends pettiness and partisanship.

Brendan Conway is managing editor of the Public Interest.

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