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Falling Hawks

1.

The “war on terror” inaugurated on September 11, 2001, and its mutation into the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 certainly divided political conservatives, with gung-ho neocons on one side and old-school realists on the other: Paul Wolfowitz versus Brent Scowcroft or, for those who prefer their feuds domestic, George W. Bush versus his father. That argument on the right, however, has been positively mellow in comparison with the debate among liberals and on the left, where the politics of the post–September 11 era, and especially Iraq, has sundered old alliances, forged new ones, and triggered soul-searching defections and recantations on a scale last seen a half-century ago, when progressives were forced to take sides on communism.

Of course, there was a predictable chorus of hard-left voices, some of them heard on September 12, who argued, though not in so many words, that America had it coming. It is Christopher Hitchens’s engagement with these former comrades in anti-imperialism, the likes of Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein, that dominates the latest collection of his writings: Christopher Hitchens and his Critics: Terror, Iraq, and the Left.

That is a pity, since the livelier, and less predictable, action was not on the outer banks of the left but in the liberal mainstream, whose center can be located somewhere close to the editorial page of The New York Times. Hitchens, the British-born polemicist, literary critic, TV talking head, and all-around intellectual showman, was one of a large cluster of progressives who found themselves embarked on a bumpy journey after the attacks on the Twin Towers, one that took them into the unlikeliest company. But Hitchens went further, for longer, than almost any of the others. An odyssey that had begun with membership in a Trotskyist splinter group in the Oxford of 1968, agitating against the Vietnam War, and continued for more than three decades as a journalistic hero of Anglo-American radicals, famed especially for his scathing indictments of Henry Kissinger and Mother Theresa, would end up with a line drawing of Hitchens on the cover of Prospect magazine, clutching his trademark tumbler of whisky and wearing a T-shirt bearing the two-word legend “Vote Bush.”1

At first it seemed as if this would not be a solo voyage. Ultra-leftists may have had their doubts—Hitchens had great fun eviscerating Oliver Stone for speaking of “the revolt of September 11”—but to a remarkable extent liberal opinion put aside its partisan antipathies and broadly supported a Republican administration, in both its initial declaration of war against radical Islam and in its immediate military action in Afghanistan. Much of that consensus began to crumble once liberals saw exactly how Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney meant to prosecute their “war on terror.” The choking of civil liberties contained in the USA Patriot Act and the stripping of Geneva Convention protection from those deemed enemy combatants and held in Camp X-Ray at Guantánamo Bay were too much for many. But the widest divisions came with Bush’s next project, the removal of Saddam Hussein.

Liberals began to part company, from the President and from each other. The Nation was against a war in Iraq; The New Republic was for it. In the Times, Thomas L. Friedman was for it, Paul Krugman against. In the US Senate, twenty-nine Democrats voted for the October 2002 resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq; twenty-one voted against. In that chamber, Hillary Clinton voted for war; outside it, an Illinois state senator by the name of Barack Obama spoke out against.

Hitchens did not waver in giving his full endorsement to a unilateral invasion of Iraq and nor did those who joined him in what the Times editor Bill Keller once called the “I Can’t Believe I’m a Hawk Club.” These liberal hawks included luminaries such as Paul Berman, whose Terror and Liberalism has become a set text for those convinced that the great left struggle of the twenty-first century will be against Islamist extremism, Slate editor Jacob Weisberg, The New Yorker‘s George Packer, and many others, writing from equally influential perches.2 They may not have had an instinctive sympathy for the Bush White House; besides his cavalier attitude toward civil liberties, they disliked Bush’s unilateralism, his cowboy diplomacy.

Nevertheless, those misgivings were trumped by the perceived threat of Saddam’s presumed arsenal of weapons of mass destruction as well as the simple moral case for removing a sadistic despot who had tyrannized his own people for more than two decades. Kosovo had given these liberal hawks a taste for military intervention to advance a humanitarian cause; many admitted they had a bad conscience that the US had not similarly intervened to prevent genocide in Rwanda. Some, like Friedman, were persuaded by the neoconservative hope that a new Iraq would serve as a democratic model, lighting up the wider Middle East.

Almost as soon as the invasion had begun, though, and certainly as soon as the administration’s ill-preparedness for its aftermath became apparent, several of these liberal hawks felt their wings wobble. One by one, leading progressive backers of Bush’s war recanted, either wholly or partially. Not Hitchens though; he stood firm. Last March, Slate invited pro-war writers to mark the fifth anniversary of the invasion by responding to the question “How Did I Get Iraq Wrong?” The sub-headline on Hitchens’s contribution read simply: “I didn’t.”3 As he told Prospect:

Iraq was the property of a fascist and sadist who was butchering his people, squandering the resources of the country, preparing to hand over to his unbelievably nasty sons, who would probably have had an inter-dauphin fratricide of their own. And instead we have a humorous Kurdish socialist as the president of Iraq, and I’m supposed to apologize. Well, fuck that.

The result has been that the Bush administration has retained perhaps its most powerful spokesman on the center-left. Prolific to an extent that enrages the envious, Hitchens straddles the Anglo-American debate in a way that almost no other contemporary public intellectual can match. He can defeat opponents even when outgunned on the merits, thanks largely to the erudition and élan of his prose. He uses humor to withering effect, able to dismiss his foes with a single line: “There is, of course, a soggier periphery of more generally pacifist types, whose preferred method of argument about regime change is subject change.” The style can be university lecture one moment, barroom knockabout the next. He writes of jihadists: “They wish to be martyrs—we should be willing to help.” He identifies George Galloway, the leftist and antiwar MP, as “never happier than when writing moist profiles of Saddam.”

Most of Hitchens’s reasons for keeping the hawkish faith can be found in this collection. Take the fact that, more than any other, has driven onetime supporters out of the pro-war camp: the absence of WMDs. “Just you wait,” Hitchens had once warned WMD skeptics. It would take a Lewis Carroll, or at least Donald Rumsfeld, to do justice to Hitchens’s response to the failure of those all-important weapons to turn up. “If nothing has been found so far, and if literally nothing…is found from now on, it will mean that the operation was a success,” he wrote in May 2003. Later: “Thanks to the intervention, Saddam Hussein has been verifiably disarmed, and a full accounting of his concealment and acquisition programs is being conducted. Where is the objection to that?” The absence of evidence is deemed not to be evidence of absence but, on the contrary, evidence of the presence of WMDs in the immediate past.

For Hitchens, invasion was the only way to establish the nonexistence of weapons whose existence was the chief justification of the invasion. He all but ignores Hans Blix, even though the Swedish diplomat was telling the Security Council in the weeks leading to war that his UN inspections were proceeding unimpeded and that he would need “months, not years” to verify disarmament, and even though he was able, eventually, to perform seven hundred inspections at five hundred Iraqi sites before he was told to leave by the State Department.4 In this respect, and in several others, Hitchens was in lockstep with the Bush White House.

Even those who believed that Bush was honestly misled by the intelligence on WMDs offer no such charity when it comes to the other publicly argued justification for the Iraq war: the alleged links between Saddam and al-Qaeda, and between Saddam and the September 11 attacks. Berman, who argues that Baathism and radical Islamism are “branches of a larger single movement,” namely Muslim totalitarianism, nevertheless did not hesitate to declare that “the claim that Saddam and Osama were in cahoots was one of Bush’s principal mendacities.”5 Yet Hitchens, the scourge of US intelligence deceptions going back to Richard Nixon, would hear none of it. On the notorious Prague visit of Mohamed Atta, he writes: “It was, I was told (and this by someone very sceptical of Plan Bush), ‘70 percent likely’ that Atta came to Prague to meet [the Iraqi secret policeman Ahmed] Al-Ani.” It is a poignant pleasure to imagine the acidic treatment the artist formerly known as Christopher Hitchens would have meted out to that blind quote and that impossibly random percentage.

Hitchens worked hard to do what the administration could not do: cement the link between Saddam and jihadism. He tells us of the Koranic verse Saddam added to the Iraqi flag, and the handwritten Koran reputedly scribed in the dictator’s own blood. But conflations such as this had dangerous consequences, helping administration officials to pretend that an invasion of Iraq was somehow an advance in the war on radical Islamism. Many others saw it as a distraction, intellectually and practically: military personnel and resources that should have been deployed in Afghanistan or elsewhere, hounding al-Qaeda and searching for bin Laden, were instead diverted to Iraq, while Iranian power in the region grew much stronger. Hitchens was untroubled, arguing that it was surely not beyond the US to walk and chew gum at the same time. As he wrote in an on-line symposium with his fellow hawks in January 2004:

I cannot see the point of the case about a “distraction” from the hunt for Bin Laden, and this is not only because I strongly suspect that dear Osama has already passed away…. The tactics and resources that are required to fight a covert war against nihilistic theologues, and the tactics and resources that are required to remove a totalitarian dictatorship, are somewhat distinct…but who can argue that we should not be ready and able to perform both such undertakings, possibly simultaneously? The two in fact reinforce one another, and coalition forces in Iraq are now rapidly acquiring deadly skills that will certainly be required in other places and at other times before the war against jihad and its patrons is over.

  1. 1

    See Prospect, May 2008.

  2. 2

    A substantial grouping of liberal hawks are to be found among the signatories of the Euston Manifesto, a document published in April 2006 and chiefly authored by a collection of British bloggers, journalists, and activists. It can be read at eustonmani festo.org. Hitchens wrote in warm support of the manifesto in “At Last Our Lefties See the Light,” The Sunday Times, April 30, 2006.

  3. 3

    See “How Did I Get Iraq Wrong?,” Slate, March 17, 2008, www.slate.com/id/2186740/.

  4. 4

    See Hans Blix, “A War of Utter Folly,” The Guardian, March 20, 2008.

  5. 5

    For more admissions in this vein, from Berman, Friedman, Packer, and others, see “Liberal Hawks Reconsider the Iraq War,” Slate, January 2004. Several quotations from those writers that appear here are drawn from that symposium.

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