Christopher Hitchens and the Two Lefts
By Leslie Evans
I cannot help but feel deeply the loss of Christopher Hitchens. I never met him. I read a number of his books, many of his articles in Vanity Fair and in the online Slate magazine, and saw a few of his speeches on video. Contrarian though he was, he had become for me, with a few other similar thinkers, a political anchor in a time when the world was sorting itself into new and unexpected categories and many old convictions had become sterile and untenable.
In 1965 at sixteen Hitchens joined the British Labour Party, where he became part of its left-wing youth. He was soon expelled for campaigning against the war in Vietnam. He joined the International Socialists, Trotskyist followers of Tony Cliff, in time to be thrilled by the global revolutionary outbreaks of 1968, above all the May-June worker-student uprising in France. Hitchens began to write for their press in 1970. I was then just completing several years as managing editor of the Intercontinental Press, the New York weekly news magazine of the Trotskyist Fourth International. In May of that year I became editor of the International Socialist Review, the monthly magazine of the U.S. Socialist Workers Party. In 1977 the British International Socialists changed their name to Socialist Workers Party. Despite the confusion of their identical names the two groups were not on friendly terms, though they shared a common ideological heritage in variations on Trotsky’s Bolshevism.
Hitchens worked for most of the 1970s for the London left-wing New Statesman. He moved to New York in 1981, two years after I left there to go into the iron mines in northern Minnesota. In America he wrote for The Nation, excoriating, as we Marxists did, the evils of capitalism in general and American imperialism in particular.
He had an exceptional talent. Like Churchill, who he despised, he read rapidly and widely and had virtually eidetic memory, giving his carefully wrought journalism unusual sweep and depth. He was as much a literary critic as political scourge; erudite and pugnacious, with only a few fixed guiding stars, the most important a hatred of tyranny and of religious obscurantism.
The most shocking scene in his memoir, Hitch 22, was not about politics. In April 1973, his mother Yvonne abandoned his father, an austere British naval officer, and ran away to Athens with her lover, a defrocked pastor. There the pair committed suicide. Hitchens was summoned to the grisly scene, guiltily wondering if, had he spoken to her one more time, he could have forestalled the tragedy. While there a major military protest erupted against the right-wing junta. Hitchens filed a story with the New Statesman and launched his career as a foreign correspondent.
For the next twenty-nine years he was on the move for various leftist publications, covering events in sixty countries, including Pakistan, India, Chad, Zimbabwe, Uganda, the Darfur region of Sudan, and Iraq under Saddam Hussein.
For the politicized, Hitchens is best remembered for his militant atheism, admired on the left, and his break with the far left after 9/11 and support for the U.S. war in Iraq, from which leftists and most liberals shrank in horror. I never found his atheism particularly interesting. By the time I acquired Hitchens’ God Is Not Great I had already read Sam Harris’ and Richard Dawkins’ anti-God books and did not take the time to read Hitchens’ addition to the genre. I certainly agreed that militant religion had come to pose a mortal threat to liberal democracy, but felt that a political battle to set secular limits was more likely to have results than trying to change deeply held belief systems.
His support to the Iraq war was grounded in his hatred of totalitarianism and his conviction, already forming a decade before 9/11, that the Arab and Persian Middle East had become a cauldron of right-wing dictatorships and religious fanaticism that threatened democratic societies everywhere. I did not for a very long time pay much attention to that thread in his thinking either.
What drew me to Hitchens was his critique of the Marxist and anti-imperialist left in the age that dawned with the collapse of Communism. I felt by the turn of the millennium that the world lineups that had shaped my politics in the sixties and seventies had morphed into new forms that I was struggling to understand. With Tolkien’s Galadriel I could sense that “The world is changed, I feel it in the water, I feel it in the earth, I smell it in the air.” Hitchens was articulating what was different and I read him with rapt attention.
A major factor that had attracted both of us to the far left was revulsion at our respective governments’ promotion of right-wing dictatorships in what we then called the colonial and later the third world. The litany included the CIA-backed Iranian coup against the liberal Mosaddegh government in 1953; toppling Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954; the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and the murder of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo in 1961; the U.S.-backed Pinochet coup against Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973; and above all the decades-long war in Vietnam.
The world that dawned with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 proved to be quite different from the Cold War realm, where a ruthless United States swatted down real and imagined pro-Communist governments wherever it found them. In fact, all of the imperialist sins in the standard list were blows struck against what Washington perceived, somewhat paranoically, as emergent Communist threats. The Manichean Soviet-Western split was gone and with it much of the motivation for the capitalist West’s bad behavior toward emergent states.
The disappearance of the Soviet adversary was followed by several years of a drugged up high where the American establishment strutted as the hegemonic power on the planet. Those were the days of Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 “The End of History and the Last Man” fantasy, where the American variety of mostly free market capitalism was now to be the unchallenged model for every country. The Republican right puffed itself up with self-congratulatory praise about the power of the United States. Perhaps because they took this stuff too seriously, much of the left succumbed to the illusion that the United States was now more dangerous than ever, king of the world - and hence bringing it low was the cardinal task of the age.
A more sober assessment was Samuel P. Huntington’s lecture the same year on the Clash of Civilizations, framed as a reply to Fukuyama, which proposed that there are multiple civilizations, divided by firmly entrenched cultures, religions, and economic patterns that are not about to go away. He named the Anglo, European, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Latin American, and Islamic as the world’s major civilizations. This was largely rejected at the time and caricatured as proposing inevitable war between the rivals. That is not at all what Huntington said, only that the other civilizations were not going to adopt the American pattern – the neocons were notoriously over optimistic here – and that the lines where they met were hot spots (famously: Islam has bloody borders).
Instead of American hegemony, multiple rival powers emerged, many of them, the optimism of 1991 notwithstanding, hostile to democratic institutions. There is the authoritarian and Mafia-ridden Russia of Medvedev-Putin; the numerous dictatorial failed states of Sub-Saharan Africa; the Communist dictatorships of China and Vietnam, which have turned capitalist and become America’s economic rivals, along with rapidly advancing India; nuclear armed North Korea; and an increasingly prosperous Latin America distanced by history and inclination from the United States. The Arab and Persian Middle East has mostly been a spoiler in the world system: cripplingly undeveloped suppliers of oil, mired in a stifling religious miasma that ensures their continued backwardness, marked by dictatorships and fanatical Islamic movements locked in many variations of mutual combat, with the jihadis, in and out of power, aspiring to a world revolution that would exterminate modern civilization and replace it with a medieval totalitarianism. The Arab Spring offers hope here, though we need to await its further evolution.
Anti-imperialism was a cardinal element of Hitchens’ as well as my politics. Beginning with the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, and deepening after the collapse of communism at the end of the 1980s, the political tectonic plates shifted. The most active opponents of U.S. and British influence became Islamic theocrats, narco terrorists like the FARC in Colombia, the North Korean nightmare state, and various unsavory dictatorships such as Robert Mugabe’s kleptocracy in Zimbabwe, or repressive demagogues like Chavez in Venezuela.
Guided by the unreconsidered premise that American imperialism was the most evil force on the planet, much of the far left embraced any regime or movement that claimed the United States as its enemy. In the process many became champions of dictatorships, often of the far right, and of the ultraright religious totalitarians of the Islamic jihad. A common subtext here was endorsement of Hamas’ and Hezbollah’s drive to destroy Israel, leapfrogging from morally admirable opposition to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza to the patently anti-Semitic promotion of jihadi movements that call for the expulsion of the Jews from the region – including the Israeli majority whose families are refugees already expelled from a half dozen Arab states – and commonly for extermination of the Jews altogether.
For both Hitchens and myself the alarm began to sound with leftist support to the Islamist theocracy in Iran.
I began to break with the Socialist Workers Party in 1981, in part over a historical dispute on Lenin’s politics, but contemporaneously over their coverage of the Khomeini theocracy in Iran. At a certain point after the 1979 Islamic Revolution the American SWP, in imitation of the Cuban government in Havana, which they hoped to influence, eliminated from their press any reports on the mullahs’ crushing of the Iranian liberals, leftists, and unionists, portraying Khomeini solely as an anti-imperialist. At the time I called that kind of politics Third Worldist and rejected it, but did not yet see what it signified about changes in the world alignment of forces.
Hitchens hit the same roadblock a few years later. In a 2003 interview in Frontpage he recalled:
“The realization that we were in a cultural and political war with Islamic theocracy came to me with force and certainty not on 11 September 2001 but on 14 February 1989, when the Ayatollah Khomeini offered money in his own name to suborn the murder of my friend Salman Rushdie.”
Hitchens, while having hopes for the beleaguered democratic forces in the Arab world, was one of the first on the left to recognize that the new multicentered world contained more newly risen enemies of democracy than victims of imperialist oppression. He derived his insight not from Huntington, but from his hero, George Orwell, who lived in the age of Hitler and Stalin, when it was obvious the world had irreconcilable regimes and that there were far worse things lurking than British or American imperialism.
At root for both Hitchens and Orwell, democracy was worth defending. For the Marxist left, “bourgeois” democracy is a fake, to be swept aside by a totalizing state power. For the narrow anti-imperialist, their own country is the irredeemable villain, while its democratic institutions do not weigh much in the balance. Orwell excoriated the British intellectuals of his own day who imagined that Soviet communism was a utopian alternative to Britain’s evils, or saw little to defend in their homeland. In his The Lion and the Unicorn essay in 1940 Orwell wrote:
“[T]he really important fact about so many of the English intelligentsia – [is] their severance from the common culture of the country. In intention, at any rate, the English intelligentsia are Europeanized. They take their cookery from Paris and their opinions from Moscow. In the general patriotism of the country they form a sort of island of dissident thought. England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality. In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings. It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during ‘God save the King’ than of stealing from a poor box. All through the critical years many left-wingers were chipping away at English morale, trying to spread an outlook that was sometimes squashily pacifist, sometimes violently pro-Russian, but always anti-British.”
This not from a man of the right but from a still-convinced socialist. The people he disparages are of a type quite widespread in the wake of the sixties radicalization. They hardened their political views in the days of the struggle against the Vietnam War. I was one myself for many years. Of course, there was a parallel alienation on the right, in reaction to the upheavals of the sixties and the defeat in Vietnam, visible today in the Tea Party movement.
It was time, Hitchens felt, to accept responsibility to defend a society that is among the better ones in the world rather than campaign to scrap it in hopes that a superior one could take its place. The United States remains the strongest single player, but one clearly facing many unfriendly powers and in rapid relative and absolute decline. One measure of this is that, despite its vaunted technological and economic superiority, the U.S. has not unequivocally won any of the many wars it has waged since World War II (except for the invasion of tiny Grenada, which proves my point).
Of the various enemies of democratic society the most active and threatening in the last decade have been the Islamic jihadists. They do not hold state power outside of Iran, Gaza, and, arguably, southern Lebanon, but have a large following within the Muslim world – we will have to see as the Arab Spring evolves just how large. At the least, 9/11 and the Al Qaeda offshoots in Iraq, Algeria, and in Europe showed they can inflict traumatic damage.
Christopher Hitchens took this struggle to heart. In the introduction to his last book, Arguably, written just six months before he died, he says,
“The organizations that find and train men like [9/11 hijacker Mohammed] Atta have since been responsible for unutterable crimes in many countries and societies, from England to Iraq, in their attempt to create a system where the cold and loveless zombie would be the norm, and culture would be dead. They claim that they will win because they love death more than life, and because life-lovers are feeble and corrupt degenerates. Practically every word I have written, since 2001, has been explicitly or implicitly directed at refuting and defeating those hateful, nihilistic propositions, as well as those among us who try to explain them away.”
He pursued this theme in many venues. In a July 2005 article in The Mirror he summarized the grievances put forward by Osama bin Laden in his various messages to the world, most of which can be found much earlier in the extremely influential writings of that father of modern jihad, Egyptian theorist Sayyid Qutb (see my article on Qutb’s views):
“The grievance of seeing unveiled women. The grievance of the existence, not of the State of Israel, but of the Jewish people. The grievance of the heresy of democracy, which impedes the imposition of Sharia law. The grievance of a work of fiction written by an Indian living in London. The grievance of the existence of black African Muslim farmers, who won’t abandon lands in Darfur. The grievance of the existence of homosexuals. The grievance of music, and of most representational art. The grievance of the existence of Hinduism. The grievance of East Timor’s liberation from Indonesian rule.”
In Arguably he describes a meeting where he spoke at the American University of Beirut in February 2009. He tried, he says, to highlight positive democratic currents in the Middle East: Egyptian dissident Saad-Eddin Ibrahim, who shortly afterward became an inspirer of the anti-Mubarak revolt; the Cedar Revolution against Syrian domination in Lebanon; the Kurdish struggle against Saddam Hussein and, since his fall, against the revanchist Baath and Al Qaeda “insurgents”; and Salem Fayyad’s work to reform the Palestinian Authority. His audience, he said, including most of the Americans, were hostile, responding that revolutionary authenticity belonged to groups like Hamas or Hezbollah. Here Hitchens states his central life credo:
“For me this was yet another round in a long historic dispute. Briefly stated, this ongoing polemic takes place between the anti-imperialist Left, and the anti-totalitarian Left. In one shape or another, I have been involved – on both sides of it – all my life. And, in the case of any conflict, I have increasingly resolved it on the anti-totalitarian side.”
Like his mentor, George Orwell, Hitchens remained on the left after his break with those leftists who placed anti-Americanism above anti-totalitarianism, and despite his opponents’ fatwas of excommunication. His former comrades of the British Socialist Workers Party in 2004 formed a Marxist-Islamist alliance, launching the Respect Party, which includes supporters of Hamas and of the Muslim Brotherhood. It called not only for an end to the war in Iraq but for the destruction of Israel. The party elected one member to parliament in 2005 and won quite a number of local elections, until it underwent a devastating split in 2007.
The more venerable New Left Review in its May-June 2003 issue called for support to the “resistance” in Iraq and for solidarity with North Korea’s Kim Jung Il in his stand against imperialism. The American SWP more recently sent a goodwill mission to the comrades in North Korea.
Hitchens’ turn quickly earned the vituperation of the scabrous doyens of anti-Americanism: Noam Chomsky, Alexander Coburn, Norman Finkelstein, and Edward Herman and their coterie. George Galloway, one-time British Labour politician, inveterate enemy of Israel, and supporter of Saddam Hussein, quipped that Hitchens was “the first-ever metamorphosis from a butterfly back into a slug.”
Hitchens, never one to duck a fight, responded in kind. In the afterword to Christopher Hitchens and His Critics he replied to the lot:
“[T]he years after the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1989 are marked by the recrudescence of danger from different forms of absolutism in Serbia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Darfur, and North Korea, and, once again, a huge number of ‘intellectuals’ will not agree that the totalitarian principle, whether secular or religious, is the main enemy. There is, apparently, always some reason why this is either not true or is a distraction from some more pressing business or is perhaps a mere excuse for ‘empire.’”
The anti-imperialist left underwent a certain devaluation in the last two decades, making a more moderate progressive politics increasingly attractive. Hitchens took this rather farther than I would, claiming a temporary alliance with the neocons and becoming a bit of a friend to neocon-in-chief Paul Wolfowitz. I would say in his defense that the American right is composed of many different currents, and the neocons are far removed from the Christian evangelicals (most of the neocons were Jewish), or even their cynical compatriots in the Bush-Cheney-Rove group. They are best summed up in John Gray’s Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia as “armed missionaries” on a quest to export simulacra of the American political structure. They have been described as advocates of a right-centrist version of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. This is likely what Hitchens saw in them. Their welcome in the halls of Republican power was short lived.
Though he viewed the American military in Iraq as a means to free the Iraqi people from their fascistlike dictator it did not endear him to George W. Bush, of whom he said, “He is unusually incurious, abnormally unintelligent, amazingly inarticulate, fantastically uncultured, extraordinarily uneducated and apparently quite proud of all these things.”
As usual Hitchens was not a sideline commentator. Terry Glavin in his obituary in the Ottawa Citizen recounts:
“Reporting from Pakistan’s borderlands while American bombers rained guided missiles down on Taliban strongholds, Hitchens learned that at least two American F-16 pilots were women, and he could barely contain the urge to rush to the Taliban embassy with the news: ‘It’s your worst nightmare, you bastards. She’s pissed, she’s packing, and she’s headed for you.’”
“But he wasn’t about to flatter American conservatives, either. Invited by a cable news talk show to offer his views on the death of the American celebrity evangelist Jerry Falwell, Hitchens refused to play along, saying that if Falwell were given an enema he could be buried in a matchbox.”
No doubt Hitchens after 2001 moved to the right of where he had been, but to the end he regarded himself as primarily a leftist. “He was brilliant and often exasperating,” wrote Timothy Noah, a long-time collaborator on Slate, in his death notice in the New Republic, “even before 9/11 made him an unrepentant Iraq hawk; I won’t say ‘conservative’ because even in his lefty days Hitchens had a conservative streak, especially in his literary taste, and even after he started writing for the Weekly Standard he remained in many ways a man of the left.”
In his late writings I thought Hitchens was too soft on Trotsky, too hard on Churchill and Clinton. He wrote with great bitterness against the death penalty, submitted himself to water-boarding to prove that it really is torture, and mocked the sainted Mother Teresa and Christian fundamentalism. He went to Chile to testify against the Pinochet government and Henry Kissinger in the murder investigation of the killing of Charles Horman (the case portrayed in the film “Missing”).
It is necessary to say something about Hitchens and the Iraq War. There were many good reasons why any democrat or humanitarian should have opposed Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. The main debate over the war has been whether they affected direct American interests enough to justify military intervention, and whether such intervention could succeed in stabilizing a less repressive regime. The well of American public opinion was poisoned at the outset by the Bush administration’s decision to try to motivate an invasion by claiming Iraq posed an immediate threat to the United States and had some connection to the 9/11 atrocity. The charge that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction was based on the highly dubious testimony of the defecting Iraqi scientist code named Curveball and some limitations Saddam placed on UN inspections. The idea he was in league with Al Qaeda had an even thinner foundation. When neither proved to be true, Democrats en masse, not just the hard core anti-imperialist left, regarded the already unpopular Bush as a liar and opposed the whole operation. Support for the war never recovered from that false start.
There was a plausible case for the invasion, but it was more indirect and less likely to persuade a largely isolationist public. The Bushies included it in their motivation, but it was drowned out by the furor over the missing WMDs. The problem, as the neocons saw it during their brief ascendency in Washington, was to break up the status quo of economic stagnation, dictatorship, and religious fanaticism that made the whole region a petri dish for toxins that were repeatedly morphing into other parts of the world. This was really a long-term issue in which 9/11 was only the spark that provoked the concern. The aim was not to punish particular authors of the World Trade Center attack but to try to insert a foothold for a more moderate politics into the region. Where to do that? The states most tied to 9/11 were Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, both allies, if dubious ones. Corrupt Saudi princes lavishly funded Wahabi extremists, out of whose ranks came 15 of the 19 hijackers. At the same time they were officially friendly and the single largest source of oil on which the American economy depended. Pakistan’s intelligence service had mentored the Taliban, with which it still maintained strong ties, viewing Afghanistan as a pawn in its conflict with India. Here we had another formal ally, and a nuclear armed one at that.
Iran, the largest open enemy, was Shiite, while all the hijackers were Sunnis, making the connection too remote. Its fifty million inhabitants were a daunting opponent, as it appeared that the Islamic government, while less popular than in 1979, still commanded the loyalty of some important portion of the people.
That left Iraq. Saddam was by far the most repressive of the Arab and Persian Muslim dictators. The New York Times said in his obituary that he had murdered as many as 1 million of his own people, many with poison gas, apart from the hundreds of thousands who died in his wars. He was also the most expansionist. He had waged a nine-year war against Iran (1980-1988) that left 1 million Iranians and 500,000 Iraqis dead or wounded. Then, only two years later, there came his invasion of Kuwait.
While Bush and Cheney chose to use far fetched and inflammatory claims to justify their pending invasion, the widespread notion that the choice of Iraq was arbitrary and that America had no special interest there since the end of the Gulf War years before is not the case. The U.S. after 1990 remained deeply and militarily involved in Iraq up to the moment of the 2003 invasion. Under three administrations, Republican and Democratic, it maintained, with the UK and France, the risky and costly no fly zones that covered more than half the country – in the north to protect the Kurds, and in the south to guard the Shiite Muslims. The U.S. alone by 1999 had flown over 200,000 sorties over Iraq, facing anti-aircraft fire from Saddam’s batteries. The UN Security Council sanctions, imposed in 1990, by the time of the U.S. invasion in 2003 had resulted in as many as 500,000 deaths from malnutrition, mostly of children (some contested estimates are much higher). The sanctions, pursued by Clinton as well as the two Bushes, were having an unacceptable human cost. They could be withdrawn, or Saddam could be toppled. In the post 9/11 climate making a major concession to the Iraqi dictatorship was not a likely possibility.
Whether the American people could have been convinced on humanitarian grounds and to help reform Arab dysfunction in America’s long-term interests will never be known. Probably not under Republican auspices. Bush’s stupidity meant that the war’s initial supporters were predominately on the political right, with the liberals and left firmly in opposition. There were, however, a few leftists with a history of defending Saddam’s victims who endorsed the invasion. Christopher Hitchens was prominent among them.
As a British citizen and internationalist there was no reason for Hitchens to make paramount America’s costs, the focus of the dispute in the United States (except for the hard anti-imperialists who had more fundamental disagreements). He and his closest cothinker, British journalist Nick Cohen, began from the interests of the Iraqis, particularly the threatened Kurdish minority. There are as many as seven million Kurds in Iraq, perhaps 20% of the population. A non-Arab people, religiously Sunni Muslims, there are altogether something between 28 and 35 million Kurds, the largest ethnicity in the world that does not have its own country, split between Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria. Hitchens spent several months in the Kurdish lands in 1991, just after the Gulf War, crossing over the Iraqi border into Free Kurdistan. He describes his experience in his book Love, Poverty, and War:
“I enlisted the help of an armed escort hardened by months of guerrilla fighting. Hoshyar Samsam, who knew this country well and had been the personal bodyguard of Jalal Talabani [a central political and military leader of the Kurds, today president of Iraq], was taking care of me. He calmly conducted me through bomb-shattered villages and deserted towns. He foraged for me in an area blighted by famine and helped me dodge Iraqi patrols.”
The Kurds in Iraq’s north, like the Marsh Arabs in the south, staged massive uprisings after the Americans in the Gulf War forced the Iraqi army out of Kuwait. Bush the Elder promised them support. It never came, and both peoples were massacred. For those who knew and cared about the Kurds this was an unpaid blood debt on America’s ledger.
Both Hitchens and Cohen were friends with Kanan Makiya, a Kurdish emigre and Trotskyist who championed opposition to Saddam Hussein. Cohen in his What’s Left? How Liberals Lost Their Way, says that Makiya was a hero of the left until the U.S. Gulf War, when criticism of Saddam was suddenly dropped and Makiya’s liberal and leftist friends shunned him. On the whole, once the United States was involved in 2003 the American and British left refused to have anything to do with democratic, liberal, or leftist Iraqis for fear of seeming to endorse the U.S. invasion.
Orwell grappled throughout the thirties with the implicit disconnect between his socialist beliefs and the attitude he should take toward his country’s battles. He finally concluded, as the war with Germany began, that England’s democratic tradition justified public patriotism, that patriotism was not a monopoly of the political right, and that patriotism had to be toward the country as it existed, not the usual leftist subterfuge of claiming to be patriotic to the state that was to come into being after the present one is destroyed by the hoped-for revolution.
In Orwell’s shadow, Hitchens made the same journey at the turn of the millennium, while much of the international left went the other way. He was a strong advocate for the Clinton administration’s military intervention in the Balkans after the breakup of Yugoslavia, in defense of the victimized Bosniak Muslims.
Bush compounded his initial propaganda disaster by the post-invasion decisions to dissolve the existing Iraqi army and de-Baathify the government, the newly jobless soldiers and bureaucrats streaming into the ranks of the terrorist insurgency. The small progressive current in America and Britain that supported the war on humanitarian grounds included at the outset Christopher Hitchens, Paul Berman, Nick Cohen, Fareed Zakaria, Thomas Friedman, and a score of other prominent names. Most of the liberals fell by the wayside by 2005 or 2006 as the war dragged and the civil war erupted within it. Hitchens, Cohen, and Berman stuck it out.
I worked out my own views on the war in a long email correspondence with an unrepentant Trotskyist friend. She regarded the American government as malevolent and necessarily ill intentioned, viewing any military action by its forces as totally reactionary. At UCLA, where I worked at the time, I had gotten to know a young couple, Alicia Stevenson and Jonathan Dotan, UCLA seniors who had spent considerable time in Bosnia-Herzegovina as interns in the NATO occupation government set up to protect the Muslim population. Among their duties was to identify bodies excavated from mass graves in Srebrenica, from the 1995 massacre by the Serbs of 8,000 Bosniak Muslims. As editor of the UCLA International Institute’s website I published their account, in October 2003, many of the dead still anonymous eight years after the killing. There was no way that I could view the U.S. intervention as predatory. Christopher Hitchens had a still more intimate involvement in that conflict.
I would not have advocated the invasion of Iraq, but I rejoiced to see Saddam overthrown. The die had then been cast and the choice to hurriedly back out was not really there. Like Spain in the 1930s, it became a contest between the international jihadi right and their local Baathist thugs, opposed by the weaker if more numerous native forces defending a more democratic and pluralist future, if still one in which Islam would be a prominent feature. I felt from that moment, as Hitchens and his cothinkers did, that it was wrong to weigh the stakes too narrowly, only from the standpoint of U.S. public opinion. An Islamicist victory would give them a major territorial base in the Arab world, a large source of oil to fund their efforts, and embolden those forces on a global scale.
Many of my friends on the far left tried to shoehorn the Iraq invasion into the Vietnam pattern. Saddam was a despot even to his Sunni base, and a mass murderer toward the 80 percent of his people who were Shiites or Kurds. I started from that remnant of my Trotskyist training that made me an internationalist. We had gotten the Iraqis into this – again! – and our moral obligation was not to abandon them for a second time to the killers, unless they clearly wanted us to get out.
Iraq, like Yugoslavia, was a creation of the post-World War I redrawing of the map of Europe and the Middle East. Both countries, Yugoslavia, which dates to 1918, and Iraq, from 1920, were cobbled together from pieces of historic enemy peoples. They held together only so long as firm authoritarian leaders kept the lid on.
When these were gone, a free-for-all bloodbath ensued. In Iraq this was deliberately exacerbated by the swarm of foreign jihadi militants who flowed in. Notable of this type was Musab Al Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda in Iraq. Al Zarqawi was a Jordanian who had run an Al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan. His initial cadre infiltrated northern Iraq from Iran. Others came through Syria. They adopted a deliberate strategy of mass murder of Shiites to provoke a civil war that would, they hoped, make stabilizing the situation impossible. I do not believe that the crime here is in deposing the dictatorships that glued these places together. Rather, the ethnic warfare had to be worked through, stopped if possible. This is a cost that it seems to me unfair to debit to the American account. The accepted number of deaths of Iraqi civilians since 2003 is 104,000. The most authoritative source for such numbers, the Iraq Body Count website, reports that the U.S.-led coalition committed only 12 percent of these killings; the vast majority were by the Baathist and Al Qaeda death squads, the counter anti-Sunni killings by Muqtada Sadr’s Shiite militia, the roadside and suicide bombings. It can be said that the large majority of the deaths of the last eight years are the final installment of Saddam’s exactions from his people, more than some kind of wanton slaughter by the Americans.
From the beginning the Kurdish leadership welcomed the Americans, refrained from the mutual Arab Sunni-Shiite slaughter taking place in the south, and worked to build a peaceful and productive enclave in their northern quadrant.
Among the Shiite majority, the Americans were accepted by the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, considered by some the most influential figure in present-day Iraq. Al-Sistani strongly supported the elections that were held under American protection, including urging participation by women, and promoted nonretaliation to the Sunni attacks on Shiites, attributing them to foreign Wahabis.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki may be ineffectual and corrupt, but he is not a monster. Elections are reasonably honest by the standards of the region, Sunnis and Kurds are elected to office and take part in the government, the regime tries to protect the safety of its people. It doesn’t have a clean record on torture by European or American standards, but it is far less repressive than either Saddam’s dictatorship or even Shiite Iran, with which it has friendly ties. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani promotes many of the more reactionary tenets of the Quran, but he believes in women’s suffrage, endorses abortion when the health of the mother is in danger, and does not accept the Iranian doctrine of rule by the mullahs.
American deaths in Iraq were 4,477, the price of bringing down the worst and most dangerous of the Arab dictators. In Korea, 36,000 Americans died to save only half the country, and that is widely and reasonably chalked up as worth it. I would ask those who think the Iraq war was a wholly negative effort to consider whether the world and the United States would be better or worse off if the North Korean regime, which bears a striking similarity to that of Saddam Hussein, controlled the whole peninsula today and there was no South Korea.
My stepson Eric for a while had a tag line on his emails that read “Not every problem has an American solution.” There are many dictatorships and failed states. The U.S. can’t do much about most of them. But the frequently heard argument that no military intervention can be fruitful in trying to depose a tyrant in someone else’s country is falsified not only by both World Wars, but in the Arab east by both Iraq and by the fate of Gaddafi in Libya. Sometimes even a very costly and risky deed should be undertaken.
Christopher Hitchens supported the American effort in Iraq, for his own reasons, which were humanitarian to the core. The war ended within days of his death, with an outcome closer to what he had hoped for than to the pessimistic expectations of most of the war’s critics.
Iraq was his most controversial commitment, but his canvas was almost incalculably broad. In his hospital bed as he lay dying he continued to write, to read, to be read to, and to engage, as he loved to do, in interminable conversations. His friend, novelist Ian McEwan, visited him regularly in his last weeks. The day after Hitch died McEwan in the London Guardian recounted one of his last visits:
“And this was a man in constant pain. Denied drinking or eating, he sucked on tiny ice chips. Where others might have beguiled themselves with thoughts of divine purpose (why me?) and dreams of an afterlife, Christopher had all of literature. Over the three days of my final visit I took a note of his subjects. Not long after he stole my Ackroyd [a copy of Peter Acroyd's London Under], he was talking to me of a Slovakian novelist; whether Dreiser in his novels about finance was a guide to the current crisis; Chesterton’s Catholicism; Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese, which I had brought for him on a previous visit; Mann’s The Magic Mountain – he’d reread it for reflections on German imperial ambitions towards Turkey; and because we had started to talk about old times in Manhattan, he wanted to quote and celebrate James Fenton’s A German Requiem: “How comforting it is, once or twice a year,/To get together and forget the old times.”
McEwan concluded with the best tribute I have seen:
“His unworldly fluency never deserted him, his commitment was passionate, and he never deserted his trade. He was the consummate writer, the brilliant friend. In Walter Pater’s famous phrase, he burned “with this hard gem-like flame”. Right to the end.”