Has the Iraq war made Americans safer? Nine months after their first encounter, Christopher Hitchens and Mark Danner cross swords once more.
As the situation on the ground in Iraq has dramatically worsened, are any of the pro-war hawks having second thoughts? If one of the most ardent and eloquent of those hawks, Christopher Hitchens, is a bellwether, the answer is an emphatic no. In a much-anticipated rematch of his debate with fellow journalist Mark Danner, the British radical turned White House supporter refused to yield an inch. Indeed, he lashed out at opponents of the war more fiercely than before, questioning not just their beliefs but their commitment and general moral fiber.
The question Danner and Hitchens tackled Tuesday night at U.C. Berkeley’s Wheeler Hall was simple: “Has Bush made us safer?” Before turning to the rematch, it’s worth summarizing the first debate.
Danner argued that invading Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein was both unnecessary and too risky. Although he acknowledged that Saddam was a loathsome tyrant and he would have supported ousting him under the right circumstances, he maintained that the costs were not acceptable. Saddam did not, he said, represent an imminent threat: There was no evidence that he was connected to global terrorism, and aggressive inspections backed up with the threat of airstrikes would keep him in his box. As for the consequences of invasion, they could potentially be dire. U.S. invasion would require a prolonged occupation that would expose American troops to guerrilla attacks and could result in a fractured, failed state that would be a haven for terrorists. America, with its short attention span, was not good at nation building to begin with, and was facing an enormously difficult task in Iraq, an artificially created country divided along religious and ethnic lines that had suffered despotic rule for decades. Finally, invading a major Arab state would be certain to stir up Arab and Muslim rage against the U.S., leading to more attacks against us — just what bin Laden had hoped for.
Hitchens said that America had no choice but to invade, both because Saddam represented an imminent threat and because it was our moral duty to do so. Saddam was evil, unstable and connected to Islamist terrorists such as Ansar al-Islam. He possessed a terrifying arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, which inspectors would never be able to find, and had shown in the past that he was willing to use them. His eventual fall was sure to be chaotic and risky: It was better to seize the initiative and remove him at a time of our choosing. It was also essential to demonstrate to the bin Ladens of the world that America was not a paper tiger. The risks were not great: The war would be quick, the occupation relatively painless, we would be greeted by most Iraqis as liberators, and reconstructing Iraq would proceed apace. The rest of the Arab and Muslim world would not erupt: Indeed, striking down Saddam could help revive the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. Above all, the U.S. simply had the moral responsibility to strike down psychopathic tyrants like Saddam Hussein.
Not surprisingly, as someone who opposed the war, I thought Danner’s points were more compelling. But several people I spoke to thought that Hitchens won. Hitchens had the advantage of the idealist’s lofty vantage: Danner’s plainspoken cost-benefit analysis was, inevitably, less stirring than his opponent’s call for America to unsheathe its terrible swift sword.
Many things have changed since that night, and few of those changes could have brought joy to the heart of the idiosyncratic British hawk. Hitchens correctly predicted that the invasion would be “rapid, accurate and dazzling,” but he was wrong about just about everything else. Saddam’s vast caches of weapons of mass destruction, which the Bush administration used to sell the war to the American people, have not been found. Securing and rebuilding Iraq has proved much harder than Hitchens or his fellow hawks acknowledged, not least because of the Bush administration’s shocking failure to prepare for it at all. The occupation has been bloody and will be incredibly expensive. And the situation is deteriorating, as terrorists and jihadis slip into Iraq, ordinary Iraqis — including, ominously, Shiites — grow increasingly angry, and a shadowy resistance movement kills Americans every day. Nor can the global fallout from the war be considered a resounding success. Hatred and enmity toward the United States is at an all-time high, not only in the Arab and Muslim world but in Europe as well. The Israeli-Palestinian crisis remains mired in a bloody dead end, and Bush’s recent call for the Middle East to embrace democracy fell on almost universally hostile ears in the region.
To no one’s surprise, the Bush administration and its allies, faced with this litany of woes, have refused to admit that anything is wrong. Driven by a radically militarist idealism that plays on post-9/11 fear and nationalism, the White House, like a shark, is designed only to go forward: Any acknowledgment of weakness would be politically fatal and ideologically disastrous. In the first debate Hitchens, too, played by this script: He deviated not an iota from the standard neoconservative line laid out by such intellectual authors of the war as Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle. One of the questions hanging over Debate 2, then, was whether and to what degree he would be willing to criticize his newfound right-wing brethren, admit that he or they might have been wrong about anything, or acknowledge that some of his founding assumptions were more problematic and complex than advertised. For those who entertained no hopes that anything of this introspective nature would take place, the question presented itself in a somewhat crasser form: How would the legendarily silver-tongued Hitchens talk his way out of this one?
Hitchens won the coin toss and chose to speak first. He began by attacking the idea that the war against Saddam was voluntary, a war of choice. In fact, he said, it was “inescapable,” because Saddam was so evil, insane and tied to Islamist terrorism that sooner or later we were going to have to fight him — and it would be better to take the fight to him at a time of our choosing rather than wait for a catastrophic implosion that would fracture the country and bring in Iran. Reviewing a statement made by George Bush Sr. in which he explained that invading Iraq after the Gulf War would have been too risky, he dismissed it as “pseudo-realism … it’s not as practical or as hard-headed or as prudent as it purports to be.”
The crisis, Hitchens insisted, had already been upon us. Iraq had been ready to explode. The “already lousy status quo wasn’t really a status quo.” The inspections and sanctions weren’t working: “Saddam was not in his box. The box was falling apart.” Continuing with the status quo ante bellum had a number of very obvious disadvantages. It left Saddam Hussein in power; it punished the Iraqi people with U.N. sanctions; it abandoned the Shiites and Kurds. Moreover, “It left the barbarous regime free to continue work on weapons of mass destruction, which we know for certain that the regime was doing on a very grand scale until at the very least 1999. And it left Saddam Hussein free to threaten his neighbors and to give support to jihad forces all around the world.”
Hitchens adduced a number of examples to show that Saddam, like bin Laden, was a practitioner of what he has termed “Islamo-fascism.” He said the dictator’s actions “were becoming ever more demented, ever more extreme, and ever more Islamist in their turn. The flag of Iraq was amended to include a very threatening verse from the Koran, gigantic mosques were being built in Saddam Hussein’s name, he financed openly suicide murderers in Palestine whose avowed objective is establishing a theocratic dictatorship over all, whether believers or nonbelievers.”
Those familiar with Hitchens’ longtime position as a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause were probably somewhat surprised to hear him use the expression “suicide murderer.” This rhetorical usage, a variant of the phrase “homicide bombers” favored by Ariel Sharon (and that Fox News has mandated be used in its broadcasts), removes the actions of Palestinian terrorists from any historical or political context, casting their perpetrators as Islamo-fascist evildoers driven only by religious fanaticism and anti-Semitism.
Hitchens did acknowledge the bad news that has come flooding out of occupied Iraq. He chided war supporters who “rest their case largely on the underreporting of good news,” acknowledging that those who would take praise for the war’s positive consequences — among which he listed the restoration of Iraq’s southern marshes, the reconstitution of its universities, its burgeoning free press, Kurdish autonomy and the opening of mass graves — also “automatically have to accept the blame” for the “huge lacunae in matters such as water, power and security.” He did not say that those critical problems exist in large part because of the war planners’ reckless optimism, bordering on criminal negligence — an optimism that he had shared.
Defending President Bush’s claim that post-invasion violence was a sign of “desperation,” Hitchens argued that the attackers “are making our point for us … There’s no justifiable way that a country as populous and important as Iraq can possibly be left to the mercy of such people. And there never was any justification.” Hitchens closed his opening statement by criticizing “the tendency of today’s left to take refuge in neutralism and isolationism.”
In his response and throughout the debate, Danner played Sancho Panza to Hitchens’ Don Quixote, disingenuously praising his opponent’s splendid rhetorical raiment as fit for an emperor. And so Danner opened his remarks by saying, “Gosh, that was good. I feel saddened that I have to point out the distance of those beautiful remarks from the truth of what’s going on on the ground. It feels like, I don’t know, willfully destroying a masterpiece.”
Danner’s first move was to invoke the question under discussion: “‘Has Bush made us safer?’ I ask all of you to think of it in personal terms. My answer in personal terms is no.” He then recited a litany of ways that Bush had made America less safe. Bush had ignored Clinton’s warnings about terrorism, preferring to work on missile defense. He invaded Afghanistan, but then left it “as insecure as he found it, letting al-Qaida and the Taliban flow back into a vacuum that U.S. forces left.” He “debilitated the main arm of defense against terrorism, the U.S. intelligence agencies, which are now fighting in full-throated anger against the administration.” And, of course, “He started a preemptive war with Iraq that did not have to be fought, that in spite of everything Christopher just said was not necessary, was not forced upon the United States.”
Danner, who had just returned from a harrowing trip to Iraq — he said he was the first journalist on the scene after the Red Cross headquarters was bombed — then turned to the facts on the ground. “The war, as I can testify from personal experience over the past couple of weeks, is getting worse. When I arrived in Baghdad about three weeks ago there were an average of 15 attacks every day on American forces. When I left, the average had gone up to nearly 35. For all the talk about the fact that 89, 60, 95 percent of the country is perfectly fine and pacified, in fact the area in which fighting is going on, in which Americans and Iraqis are being killed, is steadily broadening.”
Danner went on to say that after extensive reporting, including lengthy on- and off-the-record interviews with top U.S. brass, it was clear to him that the military was “completely at sea. They don’t know how to fight what is a growing insurgency.”
Citing the missing WMD and the cooked intelligence used to claim that Saddam was an imminent threat, Danner said, “The citizens of the United States were essentially swindled into supporting a war that was not necessary. They were swindled into supporting a war that is getting more serious, more difficult by the day … In fact, I would argue that the country has become involved in a war that will end up becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. It was a war against terror? Well, you have a situation on the ground where more and more jihadists are coming over what are now more and more open borders into Iraq. Were we worried at the time that Iraqis were going to be killing Americans? Well, they are doing so, right now. Were we worried that there would be more suicide bombing? Well, we see it on our television screens every day.”
Danner closed by saying that Bush’s “foolish” war should not have been fought — because there was no proof that Saddam had threatened the United States, because young Americans are now dying every day (“and they are increasingly bewildered why they are there dying every day”) and because the invasion turned Iraq into an al-Qaida-friendly haven.
In his rebuttal, Hitchens scored a point out of the gate when he challenged Danner’s claim that Afghanistan posed a greater threat now than it did under the Taliban. “To say that we are less safe there would be the equivalent of saying that we were safer from al-Qaida before Sept. 11, when unknown to us — though apparently known to our vaunted intelligence services which have suffered so grievously under the Bush administration, though not passed on to one another or to the civilian leadership — was the fact that a secret army was being formed inside our borders, with support from foreign regimes,” Hitchens caustically observed. “That was known then. It just wasn’t considered to be worthy of any serious action. The security we enjoyed when al-Qaida and the Taliban controlled Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein controlled Iraq, when it must be admitted fewer Americans were then being killed and there was less violence, was the security of a fool’s paradise.”
He whacked his bête noir, Bill Clinton, saying Clinton “didn’t do much about Saddam, or al-Qaida either, except bombing the wrong target in Sudan, lying about it and letting Osama bin Laden get away while looking better by pursuing a Nobel peace prize for a futile Oslo process.”
Then Hitchens returned again to the theme on which his entire justification for war is based (leaving aside the moral justification, which in response to a later question about North Korea he tacitly acknowledged was not absolute): the notion that Saddam and al-Qaida are two fingers of one Islamo-fascist hand.
“Is there anyone who thinks that we have not been for some time at war with the forces of jihad and the totalitarian states that underwrite them?” Hitchens rhetorically asked. “Is there anyone who really thinks that the arrangement between the Baath party and the Fedayeen Saddam and the jihadis who are now coming into Iraq began only when the United States intervened? Nobody who’s studied the question could believe this for a second — the Ansar al Islam group formed in Kurdistan under Saddam Hussein’s protection, the subventions of money and propaganda support to jihad forces all around the world were an increasingly conspicuous feature of the Baathist regime.”
After arguing that the invasion of Iraq was “a fairly useful pedagogic example” that forced Iran’s mullahs to accept U.N. inspection of its nuclear program, Hitchens took up the theme of the debate (which he distanced himself from, calling it “the slightly fatuous rubric of our own self-regard and safety”), saying, “Yes, you are safer for the disarmament of Iraq. Yes, you are safer for the physical destruction of the Taliban-bin Laden regime.”
As for the embarrassingly missing WMD, Hitchens refused to back down an inch. “The Kay report … finds evidence of an enormous and consistent concealment program,” Hitchens said. “Call me old-fashioned if you will, but by my logic of induction, a concealment program is evidence in itself. No one has a concealment program to conceal nothing. Scientists were threatened, two of them were shot, for even considering cooperation with the earlier inspectors, not that I think the Blix team was really looking … Designs and plans for missiles were found by the Kay team — who are only a quarter of the way into their work — that far exceed, by thousands of miles, the limits that Saddam Hussein was allowed. Toxins have been found concealed in private homes. It’s quite extraordinary how far the depravity of the Saddam regime has been exposed in this matter of weapons of mass destruction by the Kay report.”
In his rebuttal, Danner moved to a higher conceptual plane, raising questions about what kind of government feels the need to lie to its people for their own good, and what kind of citizenry it is that is so readily convinced by those lies.
“I think we’re all faced with a question here, which is, are we citizens or are we dupes?” Danner said. “Do we have the ability to make distinctions? Can we read a newspaper, listen to the news, listen to our leaders speak to us and make judgments on our own? The evidence of the last few months gives us some pause. Christopher Hitchens was clearly one of the 69 percent of Americans who the Washington Post claims believe that Saddam was behind 9/11.”
Hitchens interjected, “If I had thought that I would have said it.”
“I would have been grateful if you had said it explicitly,” Danner replied. “You know, George Bush came out a few weeks ago after a particularly egregious performance by his vice president and said, ‘No, we have no evidence that Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11.’ I found it fascinating that he felt obliged to say this. Because the administration, over months and months of very clever statements, very clever terminology, very cleverly dancing around the issue, was able to convince the greater majority of Americans that in fact these two threats were the same thing. These Americans who were shocked by 9/11, as everyone was, who saw their fellow citizens being killed while they were having their morning coffee, were perfectly willing to support a war against Iraq that they thought was replying to that immediate threat. Now this kind of clever obfuscation is still being employed, every day. We’ve seen a little of it on this stage.”
Danner challenged Hitchens’ repeated attempts to link Saddam and bin Laden, although disappointingly he did not offer any substantive arguments on this crucial point. “Christopher’s imminent threat arguments rely on the perception that Saddam and al-Qaida are essentially the same. They’re not. They’re not. They weren’t the same. And the arguments made for supporting the war were misleading, obfuscatory and relied on premises that have since been disproven.”
He then reminded the audience of the uncomfortable fact that some of Saddam’s most evil deeds were openly supported by the United States. “Saddam attacked his neighbors — well, America supported him in his attack on Iran. The United States supported him while he was gassing his citizens. Does that mean he was not a threat? Not necessarily. But it does mean that when you hear people making these arguments, you should reach for your wallet and make sure it’s still in your pocket.
“Our argument tonight only marginally has to do with national security. What it has to do with is national integrity. Whether we as a democracy can make decisions based on fact, based on how the world actually is … without our leaders misleading us. It seems to me on this stage we’re seeing another example of such misleading.”
Hitchens responded to Danner’s charge that the Bush administration used clever language and underhanded tricks to create the impression that Saddam Hussein was the same as al-Qaida by saying, “The Bush administration never in fact made that claim, and has never made it, and has repeatedly repudiated it.” He did not acknowledge that Danner had argued that the claim was never made explicit.
Then he returned to his central theme that there was in fact a strong connection between them. “That there is a connection between Saddamism and jihadism I think need not be doubted, cannot be doubted. Ansar, support for the suicide murderers in Palestine, support for jihadis as a rhetoric and the consistent support by the Baath party ruling Iraq for Osama bin Laden as a front-line struggle against American imperialism.”
Turning to the ugly military situation, Hitchens grew bellicose. “The United States has absolute military superiority there. To listen to Mark Danner you’d think we were on the verge of a military defeat in a war that quite simply cannot be lost. The war has barely begun. I’m not in favor of the raising of any white flag.”
At this point, Hitchens’ tone changed noticeably. He became more aggressive and personal, more didactic, more accusatory, more moralistic. This was no longer just a discussion — it was something of a sermon, one that turned into a tongue-lashing of the liberals and intellectuals who had failed to grasp the threat of Islamo-fascism. “Let’s be clear what we’re talking about. Let’s not be flippant about matters of national security. There was and there is a Hitler-Stalin pact between the forces of jihad and the forces of Baathist totalitarianism. It’s an honor to be on the other side from it, it’s an honor to have as many Iraqi and Kurdish friends as I can claim who have already decided to risk their lives fighting it, risking them for our sakes as well.”
Hitchens now descended into the basement of the liberal id and began prodding its termite-ridden foundations. “Since we’re talking about our safety, I want to put a proposition to you,” Hitchens said. “There’s a tendency in these discussions, one which I very much reprobate, and one that I find a good deal in the New York Times, and also the Democratic Party, to watch this outcome as if to say, ‘I wonder how it’s going to work out? I wonder if Bush is going to win? I wonder if the Fedayeen Saddam or al-Qaida are going to? Some days it looks bad for one side, some days not so bad.’
“Who is daring to look at this as if they were a spectator? Who is watching this as a neutral?”
He fired a shot across the do-good bow of the Berkeley audience, asking passionately why more people didn’t ask, “What can we do to help the people of Iraq?” The audience burst into brief applause.
Hitchens excoriated those liberals who failed to salute the efforts of Texan Red Adair, who put out the huge oil-rig fires set by Saddam Hussein as he retreated from Kuwait. “But everyone would prefer to sneer at that, wouldn’t they, and say that’s just profits for Halliburton and Bush’s cronies.
“What must not be and will not by me be pardoned in this debate is any flippancy of that kind, any paranoid conspiracy theory garbage,” Hitchens said sternly. “Or any view that we have any right to regard this struggle as if it was a matter of indifference to us, and we are able and willing to take bets on the outcome. Don’t let that be said of any of you here tonight.”
The schoolmaster had summoned the erring fifth-formers to the front of the class and administered a painful caning, but Danner was unintimidated. “We certainly aren’t spectators. No question about that,” he said thoughtfully. “I think Christopher’s appeal to the NGOs is very moving. Some of those people I saw on the way out of Baghdad. The NGOs are gone from Iraq. They’ve been attacked, they’ve been killed. The U.N. is gone. It’s an enormous fort now, surrounded by sandbags, by layers of concrete barriers, it’s an enormous wasteland. It struck me as, I don’t know, some kind of postmodern symbol for what we have become, that this is the United Nations in Iraq. So if you want to go help, you can.”
Of Hitchens’ remark that the U.S. had absolute military superiority in Iraq, Danner said, “This recalls a comment made over the weekend by a general who said these attacks that we’ve seen in recent days are ‘strategically and operationally insignificant.’ That’s not the case. No, the American Army is not about to be brought to its knees. But the American Army is not able to fight effectively against what’s happening there. It is simply going out on patrol — I went on a number of them — and waiting to be attacked.”
Danner warned that the Bush administration had created “what is coming to look like a failed state. A place where terrorists can enter the border at their will, carry out spectacular operations that are essentially a recruiting tool. These things are intended to build a movement, and by giving them a ground on which to do it and a clear front on which to face American troops and kill them at will, the Bush administration has helped in that recruiting tool.” And despite Bush’s repeated statements that the U.S. would never retreat in the face of the increasingly violent resistance, Danner pointed out that in fact it has “responded to each attack on the policy side by accelerating the movement to handing over security duties to Iraqis who are barely trained. They’re handing them over to civil defense patrols that have two weeks of training.”
That mattered, Danner said, because “the goal in Iraq is not simply to get out, but to leave a government that is stable, that doesn’t threaten the country. I’m not going to stand here and say we should get out of Iraq. I don’t think we can get out of Iraq. But I also don’t see the solution that would make the United States and everybody in this room and everybody we know and cherish more secure, safer.”
In his closing, Hitchens acknowledged that Danner had made some valid points but repeated his argument that “all of the things we’re now seeing in Iraq were things that we were going to see in any case. They are not the product of the removal of the Saddam regime.”
Turning to Danner’s point that the United States had supported Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran — what Hitchens called “one of Jimmy Carter’s great crimes” — Hitchens said this very fact was “one of the many reasons that I can’t desert my position in the regime-change camp. The egregious errors and crimes on the part of U.S. administrations commit us morally, and also politically, to undo the wrong that we have done. We have inherited Iraq as a responsibility. There was no avoiding the inheritance of that responsibility.”
As for the NGOs now fleeing Iraq, Hitchens accused them of abandoning their posts. He blasted “the disgraceful scuttle led by the United Nations but joined by the international Red Cross, both of these groups by the way with very spotty records in the past, in fascist Europe, in the Balkans and in Rwanda.”
Hitchens closed by saying that the two options of “nonintervention and neutralism … do not exist. They are not on the agenda. They are not open to us. Neutralism and abstention, non-intervention were never there as options.”
He argued that the intervention needed to be “more thoroughgoing, more thought out, and more, if necessary, ruthless. And all of this would have been possible I think if so many of the American intelligentsia had not decided about a year ago that Saddam was really none of its business. That its advice and counsel would be withheld. That period of neutralism and abstention has come to an end. So get ready to think about what you’re going to do about your own safety and also about the freedom and dignity and security of others. Internationalism is our only hope.”
After drily commenting, “That was rousing,” Danner said, “This is an intellectual’s war, an idealist’s war, no question about it. And you’re getting some of that idealism here. But the embrace of idealism and high-flown words doesn’t free us from having to look at the facts and the consequences of our actions.” He then rehearsed some of the gross failures of postwar planning, detailed in David Rieff’s damning recent article in the New York Times Magazine: insufficient and unprepared troops, the failure to stop looting, the decision to disband the Iraqi army.
These mistakes, Danner said, had helped create a situation that had no obvious solution, and Hitchens’ call for the intelligentsia to put its shoulder to the wheel was, however rousing it might be, meaningless. “We’re in a very messy situation in which the choice is no longer democracy or fascism, the choice is stability or chaos.” And if creating a stable government in Iraq was the necessity, “It is very unclear what path leads to that conclusion.”
He finished by repeating his point about lies and civic responsibility: “We have to look at this as citizens, as citizens who I believe were seriously misled about what our government was doing and about the consequences of its actions.”
So who won? The answer one gives depends, of course, on one’s ideological leanings. Hitchens’ most powerful argument was that Saddam represented a permanent threat, one that was only going to get worse. No one who has studied Saddam Hussein’s history and capabilities, as detailed in the most persuasive pro-war book, Kenneth M. Pollack’s “The Threatening Storm,” can deny that Saddam represented some type of threat, primarily to Saudi Arabia and Israel but to a much lesser degree the United States. In their well-founded outrage at the imperialist, militarist, unilateral bent of the Bush administration, and its equally well-founded fear that its Middle East policies seemed likely to make the U.S.-Arab/Muslim relationship indistinguishable from the Israel-Arab one, many on the left preferred not to consider the real dangers posed by a megalomaniacal regime in an age when the apocalypse can be packed into a suitcase. Saddam’s Iraq may not have been the imminent threat that Bush and Hitchens claimed it was, but to maintain that it was no threat is myopic.
It was equally obvious, however, that launching an invasion against a major Arab state, especially given the current administration’s total unwillingness to address the root cause of Arab and Muslim hatred of the U.S., the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was extremely risky. The risk, of course, was that we would turn merely local terrorists into international ones — that we would succeed in bringing together Baath thugs, Yemenis burning to avenge Palestine, enraged Iraqi nationalists, and Islamist jihadis of all stripes, uniting these angry men and women for the first time against us and giving them 140,000 conveniently located targets.
Before the invasion, Hitchens and his fellow hawks either completely failed to acknowledge this risk, or downplayed it as a nonissue. And now that events have forced them to admit that, yes, Houston, we have a problem, they have a simple answer: They’re Islamo-fascists. They’re the bad guys. They’re al-Qaida, they’re Saddam. Kill them all and let Allah sort them out. This kind of thinking is attractive to those inclined to unitary answers, satisfyingly visceral responses to terrorist atrocities like 9/11 and grand moral causes. But one need not go as far as the Stalinist left — the ANSWER crowd is so historically ignorant and morally myopic that they refuse to acknowledge that ousting Saddam was a noble achievement and call those fighting the U.S. in Iraq “freedom fighters” — to recognize that simply calling our foes “terrorists” and lumping them all together as “Islamo-fascists” is simplistic.
The heart of Hitchens’ argument — one you’ll also hear from the neoconservative intellectuals who brought us this war, and from pro-war liberals like Paul Berman — is the concept of Islamo-fascism, an irrational, totalitarian pathology erupting from the backward Muslim/Arab world. In this view, Saddam and bin Laden and Hamas are merely different manifestations of that same threat. Thomas L. Friedman gave voice to a version of this belief when he wrote that we had to invade Iraq to “burst the terrorism bubble” — implying that al-Qaida, Palestinian terrorism and Iraqi totalitarianism are all related, that these Arab terrorists need a taste of the lash, that a decisive blow would show them that the U.S., contrary to bin Laden’s claims that we’re soft and cowardly, is tough. Friedman has shown considerably more awareness of what the U.S. needs to do for the Arab world than Hitchens or his fellow hardline hawks, but on the underlying concept they agree.
The problem is not just that Hitchens’ arguments for this crucial point are weak and unconvincing, but that he never even acknowledges that it is a controversial point — let alone that neither the majority of experts in the field (including pro-war analysts like Pollack) nor the intelligence agencies of the U.S. government agree with his position. The examples he gives are dubious: Saddam’s connection to Ansar al-Islam is highly questionable, his support for the families of Palestinian suicide bombers had nothing to do with Hamas’ Islamist ideology, and his Islamist rhetoric was merely part of his egomaniacal desire to portray himself as a legendary Arab hero. The only caliphate Saddam wanted to restore was the caliphate of Saddam. None of these questionable arguments justify Hitchens’ repeated assertions that the truth of his position is beyond doubt: “That there is a connection between Saddamism and jihadism I think need not be doubted, cannot be doubted”; “There was and there is a Hitler-Stalin pact between the forces of jihad and the forces of Baathist totalitarianism.”
Hitchens derided the CIA, but never mentioned that this very issue is what caused the bitter break between the administration and the intelligence agencies. It was the hawks who demanded that the CIA find evidence of this alleged connection between Saddamism and jihadism — and when it failed to come up with even a shred of evidence that there was any such connection, those same hawks set up their own intelligence units to come up with information more to their liking. One would expect the zealots at the American Enterprise Institute to dogmatically insist on the truth of ideologically driven assertions for which there is no evidence; one would expect better from Hitchens.
A striking example of the crude arguments Hitchens adduced in support of the concept of Islamo-fascism was his characterization of Palestinian suicide bombers as having the “avowed objective” of “establishing a theocratic dictatorship over all, whether believers or nonbelievers.” This is only true of the Hamas leadership, not of secular militant organizations like the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. And it is a completely false characterization of most of the Palestinians who carry out such attacks. As Amira Hass, the Israeli journalist who probably knows more about Palestinian suicide bombers than any other journalist, noted in a recent talk at Berkeley, religion is not the motivating force behind most Palestinian suicide bombers. Many of them may not be particularly religious at all, she noted, and most are driven by the desire for revenge.
In the end, what was disappointing was Hitchens’ failure to acknowledge the ambiguities and complexities of the issues at hand. There was no evidence that any doubts about his position had entered his mind: Indeed, he was more strident and accusatory than in the first debate, accusing the intelligentsia of a trahison des clercs. One does not expect the hawks in the current administration — the Rove-programmed, Lone Star-swaggering Bush, the choleric old rams Rumsfeld and Cheney or the true-believing Wolfowitz — to dispassionately examine their beliefs. But Hitchens is not an administration apologist, he is an independent thinker. And the role of independent thinkers is to question everything, including their own beliefs or those of their circle — to be “clear, dry, without illusion,” to cite Stendhal’s prescription for the novelist.
Yet for whatever reason — perhaps a conviction that the importance of the cause trumps all other considerations, perhaps continuing anger at the dogmatic leftists who turned on him in a fury when he dared to violate orthodoxy after 9/11 — Hitchens did not acknowledge any shades of gray in the pro-war position. Although he did offer several very mild, general criticisms of the Bush administration, he also went considerably further than necessary in defending it. And on several occasions — when he flatly denied that it had surreptitiously tried to pump up the connection between Saddam and bin Laden, and when he derided the U.S. intelligence services while refusing even to acknowledge that the Bush administration had cooked its own intelligence, to take two examples — he came dangerously close to sounding like a party hack.
As the occupation grinds on, the rhetoric on both sides is likely to become harsher, more dogmatic, more moralistic. This is not desirable. Hitchens and Danner rightly agreed that we are responsible for the broken nation of Iraq; I am sure they would both also agree that we are responsible for our own. Americans and Iraqis are dying, and many more will die. The road ahead is dark and full of danger. It will take all of our clarity of thought, unimpeded by rancor and partisanship, to see our way.