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,…


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