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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.

These two fronts did indeed reinforce each other, but only in a way that helped al-Qaeda. Deprived of their haven in Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq provided a new focus for their activities, a conflict in which they might more easily kill Americans and perfect new strategies of suicide bombing, and which served as a recruitment magnet for jihadis from across the Middle East. Yet Hitchens had written: “Will an Iraq war make our Al Qaeda problem worse? Not likely.”

There had been no connection between the September 11 attacks and Saddam, yet Bush persisted in the lead-up to war in running the two together, implicitly justifying the latter as a defensive response to the former. The Hitchens of old would have surely been among those liberal hawks most repelled by the notion of leading a democratic nation to war on such a false prospectus, through that chain of “mendacities” admitted by Paul Berman. Even those who supported military action can surely see the grounds for concern in a president telling the nation that, for example, no decision for war had been taken, and further persuading the nations of the world that the United States sought to initiate a genuine diplomatic process, including a UN inspections effort, when, in fact, war had been long decided.6 This poses serious questions for a democracy, as the earlier Hitchens would have been the first to realize. Yet the new incarnation refuses to see even that any deception took place.

Some liberal hawks broke from the project once they understood that the clear regional beneficiary of a broken Iraq was a strengthened, and now unchecked, Iran, able to wield wider influence through Iraq’s Shiite parties. Yet in Hitchens’s writing on Iraq, Iran barely features. Others lost faith in a mission to remake a nation, and a region, which lacked full international support, troubled especially by the precedent such unilateralist action might set and by the long-term damage inflicted on the international system. Hitchens’s response is to crack a joke about the reliability of French and Russian soldiers. And while other liberals could not support an administration that so readily trampled on the Constitution and routinely resorted to torture of detainees, whether in its own prisons or by rendition to others, Hitchens used his valedictory column in The Nation to wave goodbye to “those who truly believe that John Ashcroft is a greater menace than Osama bin Laden.”

For every misgiving voiced even on the hawkish left, Hitchens had a ready and stubborn answer. George Packer could see that preparing the way for democracy with cluster bombs was fraught with danger: “War is a very blunt instrument for such delicate work—going into Iraq with tanks and then trying to nurture democrats is like doing the finish on cabinetry with a sledgehammer.” But Hitchens has shown no such qualms. Indeed, one of the motifs of this collection is the pleasure the writer seems to take in war and violence. One column is entitled “Ha Ha Ha to the Pacifists”; elsewhere he explains that ridding the world of jihadis will be “a pleasure. I don’t regard it as a grim task at all.”

While other liberals worry about the physical, moral, and psychological toll war is taking on those young men and women serving in Iraq—as well as on the Iraqis themselves—Hitchens cites as the tenth of his reasons why Iraq was “A War to Be Proud Of”:

The training and hardening of many thousands of American servicemen and women in a battle against the forces of nihilism and absolutism, which training and hardening will surely be of great use in future combat.

In 2004, when the Iraqi death toll was climbing, Hitchens wrote that “the tree of liberty [is] being watered in the traditional manner.”

Even the sheer incompetence of the administration’s postwar handling of Iraq, a matter of consensual agreement elsewhere, receives only grudging acknowledgment from Hitchens. When asked to assess the grim price of the Iraq war, he ducks the task, refusing to accept that any costs might be set against the undeniable benefit of having toppled a brutal regime, descending instead into sub-Churchillian rhetoric: “One cannot know the price of anything in advance, but one can be determined to pay it no matter what, as in a struggle for one’s own life or for the life of loved ones.”

That is far from the only occasion on which Hitchens swerves away from the concrete and practical—the two million Iraqi refugees, the hundreds of thousands killed and wounded—diverting himself onto the moral plane. This is the terrain on which he is most at home, asserting moral certainties, not immersed in wonkish debate on policy—his Prospect interviewer found him with little to say on economic and social questions, and what little he offered was “a multitude of contradictions.” This might be why he prefers aiming his fire leftward, hurling missiles at the Aunt Sallies on the radical margins. They are easier targets—and this collection pits Hitchens against too many opponents who are not of his stature—but, more relevantly, their currency, like his, is often high principle rather than on-the-ground pragmatics. In this realm, he can argue whether it was morally right or wrong to topple a wicked despot, rather than whether the US administration was equipped for the task and what the regional impact would be.

Indeed, this same trait may explain why he was drawn to the swift, spectacular option of removing Saddam by force rather than the long, gradual, laborious work of nurturing democratic and liberal elements within the Arab and Muslim world. (The West did not win the cold war by invading Poland or Czechoslovakia, but, among other things, by spending several decades encouraging dissenting forces in Eastern Europe.) Packer could be speaking about Hitchens personally when he writes, “One problem with liberal hawks is that great moral dramas are always more attractive to us than difficult long-term tasks.”

For Hitchens this results in a curious blind spot. His starting point is a wholly sound moral revulsion at both Islamist extremism and Baathism. Both are to be defeated swiftly and violently. Any objection to that goal could only, therefore, be rooted in a failure to see the moral evil these forces represent. To be against either Bush’s war on terror or invasion of Iraq is to be “soft on fascism.” What he does not consider is that his opponents might be just as repelled by jihadism, just as determined to defeat it, as he is—and yet, in good faith, believe that Bush’s tactics would not weaken the bin Ladenist enemy, but strengthen it. Which in the case of Iraq is exactly what has happened.

The crucial distinction here, barely addressed by Hitchens, is between the hard-core jihadists themselves and those they would recruit, between the nineteen hijackers of September 11 and those millions around the world who cheered as they saw the Twin Towers fall. It is the difference between Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri in their Waziristan cave and the well of angry Muslim opinion from which they draw. Make the wrong move—torture prisoners or lie your way into the invasion of a Muslim country—and you will deliver recruits to al-Qaeda in their millions. And what should be the crackpot ideology of an eccentric sect, a creed that, in the words of Martin Amis, is “racist, misogynist, homophobic, totalitarian, inquisitional, imperialist, and genocidal,” acquires worldwide purchase.

2.

Many of Hitchens’s critics are determined to find the true motivation for his shift rightward, which they presume to be psychological. They suggest he has been lured by the draw of power, that his new-found belief in both the United States and capitalism as the world’s last truly revolutionary forces is about wanting to be on the winning side. Natural enough in a man approaching sixty, contemplating his own “finitude,” says Finkelstein. There are precedents here, whether in the person of Paul Johnson, the former New Statesman editor turned arch-Thatcherite, or, according to Stefan Collini, the “pop-eyed, spluttering and splenetic” Kingsley Amis. (It is the fate of both Hitchens and his pal Martin Amis to be compared to the latter’s father.)

Two other explanations suggest themselves. First, Hitchens has always presented himself as the daring voice against the chorus. His Nation column was billed Minority Report; he is the author of a mentoring work called Letters to a Young Contrarian. It’s at least possible that simply because it became fashionable for liberal hawks to reconsider their position, Hitchens decided to dig in further. As for a former leftist backing Bush—and it is hard to see how his stance on the war could lead Hitchens to do anything else but support John McCain in November—people will always pay good money to see the rebel breaking from his tribe.

Or perhaps a diagnosis of “Orwell syndrome” would be more accurate. Hitchens is a devotee of Orwell; some have suspected a self-conscious desire to emulate him, right down to the jacket photographs with accompanying cigarette. Yet many admirers of Orwell admit to a stab of envy: he was lucky to be writing in such epic times, they moan, reporting on the titanic struggles of the twentieth century; if only we were blessed with such material, we too could reach those heights. By this light, reporting on Cyprus in the 1970s was all very well, but Guernica it was not.

And then along come the September 11 attacks and suddenly there is a subject worthy of these would-be Orwells’ talents. Why squander such a moment with on-the-one-hand-on-the-other equivocations? Better, surely, to light another cigarette, reach for the Remington portable, and fire off a thousand words of antifascist denunciation in the spirit of Eric Blair. This surely was the sensation Hitchens was describing when he recalled his first reaction to the attack on the World Trade Center:

It was exhilaration…. Here was a direct, unmistakable confrontation between everything I loved and everything I hated. On one side, the ethics of the multicultural, the secular, the skeptical, and the cosmopolitan. (Those are the ones I love, by the way.) On the other, the arid monochrome of dull and vicious theocratic fascism. I am prepared for this war to go on for a very long time. I will never become tired of waging it, because it is a fight over essentials. And because it is so interesting.

To be like Orwell, Hitchens had to be writing on a struggle of Orwellian clarity, as morally uncomplicated as the battle against Nazism or Stalinism. And so he saw the post–September 11 wars the same way. Thus Hitchens writes that “the Baathist/al-Qaeda collusion has always been that of a Hitler–Stalin pact.” Never mind that, as Fred Kaplan pointed out, “it follows that invading Iraq in response to 9/11 was like invading the Soviet Union in response to Nazi Germany’s aggression against Czechoslovakia.” The crucial thing was to be able to take the stands Orwell had taken.

Hitchens gets close to his hero; as an essayist he may indeed be one of the very best of his generation. But what made Orwell stand out was not just the panache of his prose, but his judgment: on the great questions of his age, he was right. Hitchens cannot say the same. Which makes reading Hitchens rather like watching an Elvis impersonator: it’s great fun, but one is always aware that it is not quite the real thing.

3.

Martin Amis has fallen into at least two traps that have been artfully avoided by his friend and former New Statesman colleague. The first is that he has been sloppy, especially in interviews, about preserving the distinction between Muslims and Islamists: this despite his avowal that “naturally we respect Muhammad and we do not respect Muhammad Atta.” In The Second Plane, a collection of Amis’s journalism along with a couple of September 11–inspired short stories, the novelist allows himself some baggy generalizations:

Today, in the West, there are no good excuses for religious belief— unless we think that ignorance, reaction, and sentimentality are good excuses. This is of course not so in the East, where, we acknowledge, almost every living citizen in many huge and populous countries is intimately defined by religious belief.

Later Amis declares: “No doubt the impulse toward rational inquiry is by now very weak in the rank and file of the Muslim male.” In a travelogue with Tony Blair, accompanying him during his last days in office, Amis turns tutor to the prime minister: “The Sunni are more legalistic,” he tells him. “The Shia are dreamier and more poetic and emotional.”

Partly because the book’s contents were already familiar, its arrival in Britain was entirely overshadowed by a row over an interview Amis had given in 2006 and which was exhumed by the Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton. Amis had told the London Times:

There’s a definite urge—don’t you have it?—to say, “The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.” What sort of suffering? Not letting them travel. Deportation—further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan…. Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children.7

Suddenly the entire Muslim “community” must be hurt. And there is similar trouble to be found in an argument about Muslim demographics, warning the West that Muslims are having large families while quoting evidence that “every Western woman in the EU is producing an average of 1.4 children.” In that same Times interview, Amis said of Islamists—not Muslims: “They’re also gaining on us demographically at a huge rate. A quarter of humanity now and by 2025 they’ll be a third. Italy’s down to 1.1 child per woman. We’re just going to be outnumbered.”

Perhaps chastened by the mauling he has taken from a liberal press convinced he is turning into a reactionary blimp like Amis père, the author prefaces the book with a disclaimer that he is no Islamaphobe but rather an “Islamismophobe.” Which brings us to the second trap. No one doubts that Hitchens is clever, but he is rarely accused of using his prose purely as a display window for his own pyrotechnical talents. That is a charge that has long dogged Amis and it has been freely applied to The Second Plane. Rarely can a book have been so widely panned for the virtuosic quality of its writing, but that is the fate that has befallen this collection. In The New York Times Leon Wieseltier bemoaned phrase-making designed to draw attention not to the subject but to itself. He singled out the very first sentence, which described the second aircraft “sharking in low over the Statue of Liberty,” as “an invitation to behold the prose and not the plane.”

This represented yet another split in the liberal hawk camp, in that Amis and Wieseltier are united in their aggressive opposition to Islamism. (Indeed, some bystanders mused that the two were fairly alike in their style, too: Wieseltier charging Amis with ostentatious writing was, said Ian Buruma, “an exercise in the pot accusing the kettle.”) All the same, there was some merit in the critique. The flashiness of the language is more than once an impediment to the argument in The Second Plane. It’s not just the look-at-me vocabulary—“Thanatoid”—but the indiscipline of a writer who believes that a long set of often-unconnected musings on the topic of the hour has value simply because it is written by him.

The same sense that hovers over the Hitchens anthology is present here too, the relief that at last an Orwell-sized subject has landed on the author’s desk: “If September 11 had to happen, then I am not at all sorry that it happened in my lifetime.” Lacking Hitchens’s breadth, journalistic skills, and historical reach, Amis has written a much slighter volume. (Reading it one wonders why, given that Amis regularly tries his hand at polemic, Hitchens has never attempted fiction: if he is keen to emulate Orwell, surely he has to leave behind a novel.)

That said, Amis manages to be right on a matter about which his pal was not, deeming Iraq “the wrong war.” For that, understanding that the last thing the war against jihadism needed was a detour to Baghdad, he deserves some credit. In that context, Amis also serves up some choice observations. On Tony Blair: “He also knew that his trump was not a high one: the need of the American people to hear approval for the war in an English accent.” On Bush: “From September 11 to the autumn of 2003, he had the body language of the man in the bar who isn’t going anywhere till he has had his fist fight.”

Both Hitchens and Amis, armed to the teeth with talent, have ended up on similar terrain, sharing it with a good number of former leftists and liberals of their generation. At last they have the grand theme for which they waited so long. The trouble is, it does not come in the same clear black-and-white as the era to which they, Hitchens especially, look back. They may be graying, but they struggle with gray.

  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.

  6. 6

    In early July 2002, according to Elizabeth Bumiller, Condoleezza Rice, then Bush’s national security adviser, informed Richard Haass, the director of policy planning for the State Department, that “the President has made up his mind.” Convincing evidence of the administration’s predetermination to go to war is also contained in the Downing Street Memo, documented best by Mark Danner, “The Secret Way to War,” The New York Review, June 9, 2005, and in the book The Secret Way to War: The Downing Street Memo and The Iraq War’s Buried History (New York Review Books, 2006).

  7. 7

    See Ginny Dougary, “The Voice of Experience,” The Times, September 9, 2006.

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