"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Bush administration foot-dragging and ineptitude in handling the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans has profoundly demoralized his supporters on the right. The hawkish intellectuals who gathered around George W. Bush to support his “War on Terror” once used language that suggested his machine-like omnicompetence. The Afghanistan War was to be “Operation Infinite Justice” until it was pointed out that Allah was the only one in that part of the world generally permitted to use that kind of language. The images of civilians abandoned to their fates and unchecked looting from New Orleans, however, reminded everyone of Bush’s disastrous policies in Iraq, and suggested a pattern of criminal incompetence.
These bellicose intellectuals–a band of Wilsonian idealists, cutthroat imperial capitalists, Trotskyites bereft of a cause, and neo-patriots traumatized by Sept. 11 are now increasingly divided and full of mutual recriminations. Among them all, the combative British essayist Christopher Hitchens continues most forcefully to uphold the case for the war, most recently in a piece for the Weekly Standard.
In contrast, this week Francis Fukuyama, long since upbraided by History for his Hegelian fantasies concerning the end of History, openly castigated the Iraq war as an unfortunate detour in the War on Terror, in an opinion piece in the New York Times. Hitchens, fighting a rear-guard battle against public disillusionment with the war, suggested 10 reasons why Americans should be proud of the Iraq war. His essay appeared the week after George W. Bush launched his own public relations crusade for “staying the course” in the face of the media attention given to Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a U.S. soldier killed in the war. (Hitchens dismisses her campaign as “the sob-sister tripe pumped out by the Cindy Sheehan circus and its surrogates.”) The campaign was a dud, derailed by dithering in Baghdad over a never-finished constitution and continued mayhem and U.S. deaths. Bush’s alarmed handlers are looking at polling numbers on his performance as president and on his handling of Iraq that are heading so far south that they’ll soon be embedded in the wilting Antarctic ice shelf.
It is sad to see Hitchens reduced to publishing in the Weekly Standard, intellectually the weakest of the right-wing propaganda fronts for the new class of billionaires created by the excesses of corporate consolidation in recent decades (it is owned by Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch). It is even sadder to see this grotesque, almost baroque, essay carom from one extravagant argument to another, miring itself in a series of gross fallacies and elementary errors in logic. I have read Hitchens for decades and usually admire his acute wit, his command of detail, his polemical gifts, and his contrarian sense of ethics, even when we disagree. He must surely know, however, that his argument for the Iraq misadventure is growing weaker every day, since he clearly does not any longer care to defend it rigorously.
The essay begins by arguing that cowardice and short-sightedness dominated the 1990s, during which democratic leaders declined to react, or reacted too late, to the dictators, genocides and failed states that emerged with the end of the Cold War. Rwanda, Serbia, Kosovo and Afghanistan stand in this view as monuments of shame. Once the West finally shed its cynical isolationism with the interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo, and once the dangers of inaction had been demonstrated by Sept. 11, Hitchens argues, it was natural and proper for the United States and the United Kingdom to fix their sights on Iraq.
Hitchens lays out the familiar charges against the Baath regime in Iraq. It had invaded neighboring countries, committed genocide, given refuge to terrorists, and contravened the provisions of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Hitchens’ argument succeeds only by confusing the situation in Iraq in the 1980s with that in 2003. He mysteriously neglects to note that the Baath regime had in fact given up its weapons of mass destruction in the 1990s, in perhaps the most thorough-going and successful U.N.-led disarmament in modern history. At the time of the 2003 war Iraq was neither in contravention of U.N. resolutions on disarmament nor of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
A further problem is that the same charges could be made against other states. For example, Israel has launched several wars of aggression, gave refuge to terrorists of the Jewish Defense League, defied a whole raft of U.N. resolutions, and thumbed its nose at the Non-Proliferation Treaty far more successfully than Saddam, producing hundreds of nuclear warheads where Iraq never produced a single bomb. Of course Israel cannot be compared to Saddam’s Iraq in the numbers of persons killed by its wars and repression, but if the issue is crimes against international law, then the numbers are surely less important than the fact of an infraction.
Hitchens is, moreover, highly selective in his outrage. He is not disturbed by the brutal, scorched-earth tactics of the Russians in Chechnya or the heavy-handedness of India in Kashmir. The deaths of 3 million Congolese pass without mention. The terrorist threat posed by the Tamil Tigers and the weakened state in Sri Lanka does not attract his attention. Many more dangerous situations existed in the world than the one in Iraq, which turns out not to have been dangerous at all.
Hitchens castigates Iraq as having been both a rogue and a failed state, and offers this self-contradictory depiction as a legitimate cause for war. If we translate this Orwellian concept, it transpires that a warrant is being offered to superpowers to invade other countries at will, since all possible targets clearly will either be fairly strong states (rogues) or weak ones (failed).
The argument is most dishonest in leaping from alleging crimes to lauding unilateral action to punish them, outside any framework of international legality. The U.N. Security Council declined to authorize a war against Iraq. Iraq had not attacked the United States or the United Kingdom. Iraq had no nuclear weapons program and no unconventional military capabilities, and it posed no threat to anyone except its own people in 2003. Hitchens collects anecdotes about centrifuge plans and centrifuge parts being kept by Baath figures after the nuclear program was dismantled, as though a few buried rotting blueprints and rusting parts were something more than pitiful testaments to a decisively defeated dream. In essence, Hitchens is arguing for the legitimacy of a sort of hyperpower vigilantism, in which the sitting president of the United States decides which regimes may continue to exist, virtually by himself. The U.S. Congress did not even have the moral fortitude to declare war. The U.N. charter forbids wars of aggression, and, indeed, forbids all wars not clearly defensive that are not explicitly authorized by the Security Council. The Security Council may be, as Hitchens implies, corrupt and yellow-bellied, but it represents most of humankind, while Bush did not even represent a majority of Americans.
After his general argument, Hitchens turns to his 10 specific reasons why the war on Iraq should be celebrated. Hitchens’ first point is that Bush has overthrown Talibanism and Baathism, and has exposed “suggestive” links between the two, who he says had formed a “Hitler-Stalin pact.” His attempt to tie these ideologies together is absurd, but he goes through the motions because he wants to hide the Iraq disaster under the U.S. achievements in Afghanistan — which he overstates. In fact, the secular Arab nationalist Baath state had nothing whatsoever to do with any radical Islamist movements, including Talibanism. Talibanism is a variant of the Deobandi school of revivalist Sunnism deriving from British colonial India. The link Hitchens suggests is the Jordanian terrorist Ahmad Fadil al-Khala’ilah, known as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who went off as a teenager in 1989 to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, but arrived only in time to wave goodbye to them. He later had a vigorous rivalry with Osama bin Laden and refused to share resources with him. It is not clear what his relationship was to “Talibanism”; he appears to be a radical “Salafi” in the Jordanian Sunni revivalist tradition.
Hitchens writes that Zarqawi “moved from Afghanistan to Iraq before the coalition intervention.” In fact, Zarqawi moved to Iraqi Kurdistan, over which the Baath Party had no control after the United States imposed the no-fly zone. Hitchens wants to use Zarqawi’s ties in Kurdistan with the tiny Ansar al-Islam terrorist group, which he asserts Saddam supported to fight his Kurdish enemies, to prove that there was some kind of connection between Saddam and al-Qaida. But the allegation that Saddam supported Ansar has never been proved. In any case, Zarqawi was not even in Iraq before 9/11, so his presence there can’t be used to prove that Saddam was involved in 9/11. Hitchens also claims (who knows if it is true) that Zarqawi recently renamed his group “al-Qaida in Mesopotamia.” But that is no proof of a link between Talibanism and Baathism. This fallacy is known as anachronism: Later events do not cause earlier ones.
The truth is, Bush squandered his victory over the Taliban by failing to follow through at the crucial moment, and by diverting needed military resources into a disastrous second front in Iraq. He allowed bin Laden and his key associate, the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, to escape, probably into the lawless mountain regions on the Pakistani border, from where they put out videotapes encouraging the later bombings in Sharm El Sheikh and London. He diverted the resources that could have been used to put war-torn Afghanistan back on its feet instead to a costly imbroglio on the Tigris. After the successes in fighting narcotics trafficking in the 1990s, nearly half of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product now derives from the poppy trade, which shows up as heroin in Europe and raises the specter of Colombian-style narco-terrorism. Remaining Taliban are adapting to Afghanistan the techniques of roadside bombings and shaped charges honed by the guerrillas in Iraq, with whom they appear to have established tenuous links. Politicians with ties to the Taliban are likely to do well in the Pashtun regions in the forthcoming parliamentary elections.
Hitchens next lists as an achievement of the Iraq war the “capitulation” of Moammar Gadhafi’s Libya over its weapons of mass destruction programs. But Hitchens offers no proof whatsoever that Libya’s overture had anything at all to do with the Iraq war. Rather, it is quite clear that Libya is a case where the European and U.S. economic sanctions placed on the country to punish it for its terrorist activities actually worked as designed. (European sanctions had already been lifted, in return for a change in Libyan behavior, in 1999. U.S. sanctions had not.) Moreover, al-Qaida leader Anas al-Libi had Gadhafi in his sights. Gadhafi, influenced by North African Sufism and millenarianism, is no fundamentalist. He saw an opportunity to end the U.S. sanctions, which were harming Libya’s economic development, and to form a common front against radical Islamism. All he had to do was give up his rather insignificant “weapons of mass destruction” programs.
Hitchens does not do us the favor of admitting that the tiny country of Libya, despite its past involvement in serious acts of terrorism, was not exactly a dire menace to Western civilization. Gadhafi no longer needed the chemical weapons he is alleged to have used in the Chad war, since it had wound down. His nuclear ambitions had never advanced from the drawing board. So he made a small concession and received huge rewards. There is no reason at all to believe that without the Iraq war this breakthrough, years in the making, would have been forestalled. This fallacy is known as “post hoc ergo propter hoc,” that is, “afterward, therefore because of.” Not every event that occurs after another is caused by its predecessor.
Hitchens is correct in asserting that the Libyan breakthrough led to the unmasking of the A.Q. Khan network, which illegally transferred nuclear technological know-how from Pakistan to Iran, North Korea and Libya. But since the breakthrough itself was not a consequence of the Iraq war, the unmasking cannot be credited to the war.
Having committed the fallacies of anachronism and questionable cause, Hitchens now goes on to some other points that I think are too trite to spend much time on. He says that the Iraq war helped to identify a quasi-criminal network within the United Nations elite, referring to the oil-for-food scandal. But surely we did not need to send 140,000 young Americans to war in Iraq in order to carry out some basic investigations with regard to United Nations officials resident in New York? This fallacy is known as a lack of proportionality.
He then goes on to suggest that the Iraq war had caused President Jacques Chirac of France and Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of Germany to admit that nothing will alter their “neutralism.” He suggests that their current alleged insouciance with regard to Iran is of a piece with this neutralism. This argument contains an ad hominem fallacy, since it seems to suggest that their political stances simply derive from their being craven men. Hitchens neglects to address the obvious rejoinder that the Bush administration failed to make a convincing case to them that Iraq posed an imminent danger to Europe or the United States. It might also be that no convincing case has been made about Iran as yet, either.
Hitchens then argues that the ability to certify Iraq as truly disarmed, rather than having to accept the representations of a “psychopathic autocrat,” is a benefit of the Iraq war. Yet the American public spends over $30 billion a year on our intelligence agencies. Why should it have to be necessary to launch a costly and possibly disastrous war in order to find out something that a few spies should have been able to tell us? Moreover, if Hitchens were not so contemptuous of the U.N. weapons inspectors, he might acknowledge that they could have answered this question themselves from February 2003, if only Bush had given them the time to perform their mission, which he asked the U.N. Security Council to authorize. The Central Intelligence Agency gave them a list of more than 600 suspect sites. Satellite photos of many of these sites showed “suspicious” activity, but it turned out that they were mostly just being looted, something easily certified when they were visited and found stripped. The U.N. inspectors had cleared some 100 of those before Bush pulled them out and just went to war.
The weapons inspectors were all along far more professional and far more capable than anyone gave them credit for. It was they who had dismantled Iraq’s nuclear weapons program after the Gulf War. We did not need a war to discover whether Iraq was truly disarmed. Hitchens has here attempted to turn Bush’s enormous blunder, of invading Iraq on suspicion of nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, into a virtue. “Well,” he says with a smirk, “now we know for sure, don’t we?” This fallacy is called the “false dilemma,” since Hitchens has left out the possibility of our knowing with fair certainty — by methods other than warfare — that Iraq was disarmed.
The seventh benefit of the Iraq war, Hitchens says, are the “immense gains” made by the Kurds. But the Kurds had already made their gains, under the U.S. no-fly zone. Since the war, their situation has arguably worsened. They are faced with finding a way to reintegrate themselves with Baghdad, a process clearly painful for them (they keep threatening to secede at the drop of a turban). Their oil pipelines have been sabotaged, and they have been subjected to a wave of assassinations, kidnappings and bombings. And the petroleum city of Kirkuk, which they desperately covet, is still inhabited by Turkmens and Arabs who do not intend to go quietly. Turkey has threatened to invade to protect the Turkmens. Kurdistan is now a powder keg. These are not immense gains.
Hitchens then rehearses the argument, loudly made in conservative circles a few months ago, that the Iraq war encouraged democratic and civil society movements in Egypt, Syria and Lebanon. He argues that Lebanon, in particular, has “regained a version of its autonomy.” As I argued in greater detail in March, the argument that Bush’s Iraq war has spread democracy in the Middle East is extremely weak. Let us look at his examples one at a time.
Hitchens has not shown that the Iraq war has encouraged democratic and civil society movements in Egypt. Bush’s war did encourage 100,000 Muslim Brothers to come out to protest it, and it therefore reinvigorated the fortunes of political Islam in Egypt. The Mubarak government, however, refuses to recognize the Brotherhood as a legitimate political party, despite its popularity. Democratic and civil society movements in Egypt are of old standing, and they did not need an American imperial boot print in Iraq to jump-start them. Hosni Mubarak has agreed to allow a small number of officially recognized parties to field candidates against him in the presidential elections, but this change is window-dressing. Does Hitchens seriously believe Mubarak will lose?
As for Syria, it has not changed much. The Syrians had to leave Lebanon in part because their heavy-handedness had decisively alienated the Lebanese, including Sunni allies. In addition, the Saudis, who in the past have helped to fund the Syrian troop presence, withdrew their support for it.
The major change in Lebanon is that in the wake of the Syrian withdrawal of 14,000 troops, the Shiite fundamentalist Hezbollah Party and its militia seem to be filling in the security vacuum. These developments in Lebanon had almost nothing to do with Iraq. Lebanon has been having parliamentary elections since the 1940s (there were even some in the French colonial period). This entire argument is simply a form of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, which seems plausible to Americans only because they know so little about Egypt, Syria and Lebanon and the preexisting trajectories of those countries’ political development.
Hitchens’ last points are the most gruesome and heinous. As number 9, he argues that “thousands” of “Bin Ladenist” infiltrators into Iraq have been killed. The studies done of the Muslim volunteers who have gone to Iraq indicate that the vast majority of them had never been involved in terrorism before. They went because they were angered by the U.S. military occupation, as they see it, of a Muslim country. So Bush’s Iraq is not a flytrap bringing in already-existing al-Qaida operatives. It is actively creating terrorists out of perfectly normal young men who otherwise would be leading a humdrum existence. This argument is a form of begging the question, since it assumes facts not in evidence in order to force a foregone conclusion.
There are, by the way, probably not very many foreign fighters in Iraq. Only 6 percent of the fighters captured by the United States at Fallujah were foreigners. At that rate, if estimates of 20,000 guerrilla fighters are accurate, there would be about 1,200 foreigners. It is also probably not the case that the United States has killed all that many of them, though hundreds have died as suicide bombers, helping kill thousands of Iraqis and hundreds of U.S. troops. That the argument is heinous was recognized by one Iraqi observer, who asked Bush to please find some other country to which to attract terrorists and kill them, since rather a lot of innocent Iraqis were getting killed in the cross-fire.
Finally, Hitchens argues that a benefit of the war is the “training and hardening” of many thousands of American servicemen and women, which he says will be of use in “future combat.” Large numbers of the servicemen and women in Iraq are in the National Guard or the Reserves, and very large numbers are not going to renew their service when they finally get out of Iraq, so their war experience is unlikely to do anyone much good later on. Many will suffer severe trauma, psychological problems and alcoholism as a result of horrific wartime experiences. Some number will end up on the street begging. Thousands of U.S. troops have been “hardened” right into wheelchairs, with lost limbs, faces blown away, and little prospect of productive lives. We had a right to ask them to sacrifice themselves to defend our country against aggression. We did not have a right to ask them to give their bloody forearms, tattered eyeballs, shattered tibias, oozing brain mass, and crushed pelvises to achieve the petty foreign-policy aims that Hitchens lists in his article, even if the Iraq war had accomplished most of those aims, which it has not.
Christopher Hitchens has produced not a coherent picture of positive achievements clearly flowing from Bush’s Iraq war but rather a farrago of innuendo, logical fallacies, begged questions, anachronisms, false dilemmas and questionable causes. Nor has he in any balanced manner addressed the negative foreign-policy consequences of the war. These include the diversion of resources from the fight against al-Qaida to Iraq, the neglect of Afghanistan (itself a basket case and a proven threat to global security), the strengthening of the Iranian position when the Shiite religious parties came to power in the Jan. 30 elections, the deep alienation of much of the Muslim world, the dangers to the world economy inherent in a destabilization of the Oil Gulf, and the rendering of the American colossus as faintly ridiculous, given the false representations that the Bush administration made about the danger Iraq posed to Europe and the United States.
Even the ability of the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent plausibly to lecture Uzbek strongman Islam Karimov about his use of torture has been effectively removed after revelations of U.S. torture at Abu Ghraib. Hitchens says that the U.S. practices at Abu Ghraib were much better than those of Saddam. But when you are reduced to defending yourself by pointing to your superiority over a genocidal psychopath, then you are suffering from severely low self-esteem and should enter a 12-step recovery program rather than invade other countries.
The Iraq war, like all foreign-policy quagmires, is a conundrum, not an unalloyed propaganda victory for any “side.” There was a case to be made for removing Saddam Hussein, on the basis of the Genocide Convention. But that case required a U.N. Security Council resolution. As it was, the war was illegal, and I turned against it the moment the Bush administration tossed aside the United Nations, in March 2003. As undertaken, it contravened the United Nations charter. Worse than being merely illegal, it was impractical. It lacked the kind of international support that George H.W. Bush assembled for the Gulf War in 1990-91, and which would have been critical to its success.
Still, the war itself was short and need not have been a total disaster. It did after all accomplish the overthrow of one of the most odious dictators of the 20th century, a mass murderer. But the manner in which the Bush administration trumped up the casus belli was profoundly dishonest, and few good things follow from a dishonest policy. The subsequent period of American hegemony in Iraq has been a disaster, beset with ignorance, arrogance, cupidity, double-dealing and shadiness, not to mention a massive civilian death toll, vindictive military policies, and a sheer incompetence that dwarfs all the previous foreign-policy misadventures of the United States during the past 220 years.
It is not that no good has been done. Enormous good has been done, by devoted troops on the ground helping build community centers or restore schools, by campaign workers helping build a democratic ethos, by medical workers carrying out immunizations, by savvy commanders who have taken on and killed the serial murderers who call themselves by such names as “Monotheism and Holy War” or “The Army of Muhammad.” The good that has been done, however, has been fatally poisoned by bad policy. The best-case scenario for Iraq is now to limp along as Lebanon did in the 1980s, in a desultory and shadowy set of revolving civil wars. Iraq may eventually emerge, as Lebanon did, from this medium-term instability. It is certainly the case that the sooner U.S. ground troops are out of that country, the sooner its recovery can begin.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)