Christopher Hitchens' last years: Islam, the Iraq war and how a man of the left found his moment by breaking with the left

Hitch despised Clintons, religion and authoritarianism. After 9/11, he moved toward war. His flaw? George W. Bush

Published February 14, 2016 11:00AM (EST)

Christopher Hitchens                     (Twelve Books)
Christopher Hitchens (Twelve Books)

Excerpted from "Exit Right"

During the later part of the 1990s it was Bill Clinton, curiously, who was the only subject who seemed to get under Christopher Hitchens’s skin as irri­tatingly as the neoconservatives. His grudge was principled. He dis­liked what he perceived as Clinton’s pandering to the Right on capital punishment, welfare reform, military intervention. It was also temper­amental: Clinton was too much the sweet-talker, the glad-hander, and the people-pleaser for a purist and provocateur like Hitchens. And it was a manifestly primal, almost fraternal thing for Hitchens, an anger that welled up in the space between the very different choices made by two sybaritic, brilliant, round-faced scholarship boys from bruised or broken homes who’d worked and charmed themselves into the upper classes.

Writing of Dick Morris, Clinton’s Machiavellian advisor, Hitchens wrote, “Mr. Morris served for a long spell as Bill Clinton’s pimp. He and Mr. Clinton shared some pretty foul evenings together, bloating and sating at public expense while consigning the poor and defenseless to yet more misery. The kinds of grossness and greed in which they in­dulged are perfectly cognate with one another—selfish and fleshy and hypocritical and exploitive.”

Even as Hitchens became, throughout the 1990s, more interested in how American military force might be wielded as a force for achieving humanitarian good, and as Clinton slowly became a cautious advocate for just such a humanitarian internationalist vision, the president was given no benefit of the doubt. Clinton was too slow and too calculating for Hitchens. Where was America, wondered Hitchens, when Hutus were slaughtering Tutsis in Rwanda? Why did America hold back as Sarajevo, once one of the most beautiful, ethnically heterogeneous, and cosmopolitan cities in the world, was torn apart by ethnic chauvinism and quasi-fascist power politics? Even when Clinton acted earlier and more decisively in Kosovo than he had in Bosnia, Hitchens never got on board with the project, choosing to snipe from the sidelines at what he saw as a cowardly refusal to commit ground troops to the fight.

In February of 1999, incensed by Clinton’s continued political sur­vival, Hitchens swore out an affidavit declaring that Sidney Blumen­thal, a senior Clinton aide and an old friend of Hitchens’s, had perjured himself when he’d testified to the U.S. Senate that he wasn’t involved in spreading rumors to discredit Monica Lewinsky. Hitchens’s impulsive act cost him Blumenthal’s friendship, as well as the sympathy of many of his remaining admirers on the Left. And it was to no avail: Clinton was acquitted by the Senate the following week.

Later that year, Hitchens published "No One Left to Lie To: The Val­ues of the Worst Family," a defiant coda to the Blumenthal affair and a final summary of his belief that Clinton was a politician of rare toxicity.

The book’s rap against Bill Clinton—that he was a phony, sur­rounded by phonies, who thrived through phoniness—was typical Hitchens. The tone, however, was aggrieved in a way that was striking. “There is, clearly, something very distraught in his family background,” Hitchens wrote, venturing the kind of pop analysis he’d often dismissed when practiced by others. “Our physicians tell us that that thirst for approval is often the outcome of a lonely or insecure childhood.”

As the twenty-first century turned, Hitchens was still a man of the Left. He still wrote his column for the Nation, and although his crusade against Clinton had struck most of its readers as overwrought, his con­tempt appeared to arise from a wellspring of leftist principle. Hitchens may have been tone-deaf to the politics of impeachment—to the desire to push back against the Right, even if it meant overlooking Clinton’s flaws—but he had always been impatient with such calculations. It was what had made him such an incisive critic of the Right’s power lust and realpolitik. He remained an idealist, and his enemies, for the most part, remained the right ones.

Something had shifted, though. Hitchens seemed tired of being on the Left, which hadn’t seen much action during the go-go 1990s, when Bill Gates, Bill Clinton, and the invisible hand of the marketplace appeared poised to solve all of our problems and to render quaint the need for a “Left” to fight against things like poverty, racism, inequal­ity, imperialism, injustice, authoritarianism, and religious intolerance. He seemed weary of his role as the disreputable, lecherous uncle of the Movement, and he seemed bored with the Movement itself and its predictable antipathy to America, and in particular its knee-jerk oppo­sition to the exercise of American military force.

What’s the Left’s answer, he began asking more and more insis­tently, when confronted with evil that can’t be remedied by a critique of capitalist-imperialism or a withdrawal of Western military power? What should one do or say when faced with evil that might be rem­edied, in fact, only by an application of Western military-capitalist ­imperialist power? His answer, which awaited only the right moment to deliver it, was that there were occasions when there was no choice but to get on board with power. Having preserved his moral cleanliness for decades precisely by puncturing grand narratives rather than embracing them, Hitchens was finally ready for his great cause.

September 11, 2001, and the war in Iraq, gave it to him. It was a perfect storm. He’d been writing about Iraq since the 1970s. He’d been concerned about the threat from the religious and secular fascisms of the Middle East ever since the fatwah against his friend Rushdie in 1989. He’d lost much of his respect for and loyalty to the Left after its tryst with Bill Clinton and what he saw as its failure to rise to the occasion in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Kosovo. In the course of his years re­porting on Iraq he’d formed friendships with men like Ahmed Chalabi, the urbane Iraqi exile leader with a Ph.D. in mathematics from MIT; Paul Wolfowitz, the most genuinely idealistic of the neoconservatives who would come to populate the Bush administration; and Jalal Talabani, the charismatic Kurdish revolutionary who would later become the president of postinvasion Iraq.

In the matter of Saddam Hussein vs. the World, the difficult choice—the morally compromised one—would have been to leave Hussein in power and thus abandon the millions of suffering Iraqis to their suffering. And Hitchens, as one of his friends would later write, had “no patience with a politics of difficult choices.” The great cause was the fight to liberate Iraqis and to defeat Islamofascism. The great cause was to support the Kurds, whom Hitchens had befriended, inso­far as you can befriend an entire people, and to stand with the resistance of exiles like Kanan Makiya, a courageous, soulful-eyed writer who’d brought Saddam Hussein’s tyranny to the attention of the West in his book "Republic of Fear."

If Hitchens had to share a bed with Norman Podhoretz, an ardent advocate of the war, then at least he didn’t have to share one with real­politikers like Brent Scowcroft and Henry Kissinger, who in the run-up to war counseled, as they always had, that the authoritarian we knew was better than the potential democrats we didn’t know. At least the neocons believed in something, and at last, hoped Hitchens, America might dispose of the politics of self-interested cynicism that had tainted its foreign policy from the end of World War II up through the Clinton administration.

Hitchens ran the data through his algorithm, and the answer, with some qualifications, was war. Vaclav Havel, arguably the least sullied moral hero of the previous twenty years, had come out in support of the war. Polish dissident writer Adam Michnik, another one of Hitchens’s wise men, wrote a few weeks after the invasion, “Today . . . the primary threat is terrorism by Islamist fundamentalists. War has been declared against the democratic world. It is this world, whose sins and mistakes we know all too well, that we want to defend. These are the reasons behind our absolute war on the terrorist, corrupt, intolerant regime of the despot from Baghdad.”

There was also history to be reckoned with. Iraq was a problem that was originally mashed together by the British empire, was exacer­bated by America’s encouragement of Saddam Hussein in his war with Iran, was invaded by America in the Gulf War, was abandoned back to Hussein’s tyranny after the war was over, and was then punished by America with economic sanctions for another decade or so. Hitchens, born to Britain and adopted by America, felt doubly responsible, and saw in Iraq the opportunity to redeem both of his nations and their sins.

Finally, Iraq was to be one of Hitchens’s Orwell moments. It was the part of the story when Hitchens saw that the fascism his country was fighting against was so great an evil that there was no choice, in the end, but to throw in on the side of flawed but redeemable liberal democracy.

“I don’t quite know in what year I first knew for certain that the present war was coming,” wrote George Orwell in “My Country Right or Left,” an essay which served as a kind of users’ manual for Hitchens in the years after 9/11. “After 1936, of course, the thing was obvious to anyone except an idiot. For several years the coming war was night­mare to me, and at times I even made speeches and wrote pamphlets against it. But the night before the Russo-German pact was announced I dreamed that the war had started. It was one of those dreams which, whatever Freudian inner meaning they may have, do sometimes reveal to you the real state of your feelings. It taught me two things, first, that I should be simply relieved when the long-dreaded war started, secondly, that I was patriotic at heart, would not sabotage or act against my own side, would support the war, would fight in it if possible. I came downstairs to find the newspaper announcing Ribbentrop’s flight to Moscow. So war was coming, and the Government, even the Cham­berlain Government, was assured of my loyalty.”

For Hitchens, the war had arrived. There was no choice but to pick a side, and the side to pick was obvious. And for Hitchens, as for Orwell, half of the fun of the refreshingly simple choice was the license it gave him to unleash the patriotism that his cosmopolitan conscience had been holding in check for decades. And who better to turn his righteous patriotic anger against than the leftists who’d for so long been Hitchens’s loving but dysfunctional family. He became a professional apostate, armed with deep insight into the leftist psyche, decades of accumulated resentments, and a polemical style perfect to the role.

“Instead of internationalism, we find among the Left now a sort of affectless, neutralist, smirking isolationism,” he wrote in the Washington Post in October of 2002, a week after he quit his column at the Nation. “. . . Sooner or later, one way or another, the Iraqi and Kurdish peoples will be free of Saddam Hussein. When that day comes, I am booked to have a reunion in Baghdad with several old comrades who have been through hell. We shall not be inviting anyone who spent this precious time urging democratic countries to give Saddam another chance.”

A month later, in a final parting shot to the Nation, he elaborated: “It may now seem trite to say that September 11 and other confronta­tions ‘changed everything.’ For me, it didn’t so much change everything as reinforce something. I am against aggressive totalitarian states and I am resolutely opposed to religious fanaticism. I am also sickened by any attempt to call these hideous things by other names. Most espe­cially in its horrible elicitation of readers’ letters on the anniversary of September 11, The Nation joined the amoral side. It’s the customers I want to demoralize, not just the poor editors. I say that they stand for neutralism where no such thing is possible or desirable, and I say the hell with it. I feel much better as a result—though I admit the occa­sional twinge.”

In the months after his departure from the Nation, and his divorce from the Left, Hitchens was at his most luminous as a writer. Writ­ing for papers, magazines, and journals of the Left, the center, and the Right, he became the most visible and articulate of the phalanx of pro-war liberal editors and writers who did so much to legitimate the war in the eyes of Democrats, independents, and the mainstream media. America would have gone to war without Hitchens, and without the narrative he and his fellow liberal hawks spun, but it would have done so with greater doubt. He gave America not the war it was about to fight but rather the war it hoped it would be fighting—a blockbuster war, fought in defense of freedom against an enemy who’d given us no choice.

“This brings me to my closing point,” he wrote in 2003, just before the invasion. “On my last visit to Kurdistan I made some friends for life, and I have kept up with them. They, and their allies in the Iraqi democratic opposition, could each tell you a story that would harrow up your soul. You’ll get an idea, when the mass graves and secret pris­ons are opened. . . . For twelve years of compromise and dither, those inside Iraq have been kept by a cowardly international statecraft as hos­tages in a country used by a madman as his own laboratory and torture chamber. In the face of a modern Caligula, many of them continually risked everything to try and free their people from a system of atrocity and aggression. I feel that they were fighting all this time on my behalf. Only after a long train of blunders and hesitations and betrayals did the United States decide that it was, at long last, in the same trench as the resistance. No matter how it comes out, or how this alliance may fray, I shall never have the least serious doubt that it was the right side to have been on.”

As the increasingly bleak Iraq invasion went on, year after year, Hitchens stood by his war. On occasion, he would criticize the Bush ad­ministration for its incompetence, and he would note its shifting rationalizations, but he never stopped insisting that the war was just and that the arguments against it were, without exception, excuses for appeasing fascism.

His fire dimmed, though. His moral certainty, which had been so seductive when the war was still a potentiality, began to look petulant in the light of the Iraq that was happening. As generals, Republicans, and even a few neoconservatives abandoned the war as a mistake, Hitchens soldiered on. Even after it was revealed that Henry Kissinger, of all people, had become an advocate of perpetuating the war, Hitchens showed no humility. He continued to contend, in his writing, not with the strongest critiques of his position, made by the most honorable of people, but with the weakest arguments made by the silliest people.

He became an anachronism, a living but visibly dwindling rem­nant of a historical tendency—neoconservatism, liberal hawk–ism, Hitchens-ism—that had seemed vindicated, and had then benen discredited, with tragic rapidity.

The diminution of Hitchens was perhaps most evident, to the public, on the August 25, 2005, episode of the "Daily Show" with Jon Stewart. He was the featured guest, and from the start he didn’t appear quite ready for the encounter. He walked out to the desk with a bit of a hunch, seeming too small for his suit, and his new beard had subver­sively altered the lines of his face, depriving it of the decadent broadness that had long worked for him as a subtle tool of intimidation. The cumulative effect was that he looked as if the responsibility for defend­ing the war in Iraq against all comers—which he’d shouldered with such exhilaration a few years before—had begun to weary him. It also seemed as though his decades of enthusiastic living might be starting to tell.

The interview turned quickly to Iraq, and over the span of the ten-minute interview Stewart was so ruthless and so disarming in his interrogation that by its end Hitchens was visibly disoriented.

“I’ve lost my place,” he said at one point. “I really can’t remem­ber where we were just before that. This is terrible.” “You tripped me up,” he said by way of acknowledging why something he’d said was “a bit platitudinous.” He interrupted himself, at one point, to deliver a comeback that would have been clever if only it weren’t in response to a dispute they’d left behind a few minutes before.

The most devastating exchange was the final one. It began with Hitchens pointing out, as he’d done too many times before, that radical Islamic terrorism and theocratic fascism have never needed any excuse to plan violence against America. “The people who say that the vio­lence of these people is our fault,” he said, “are masochistic and capit­lationist, and they should be ignored.”

“But the people who say that we shouldn’t fight in Iraq aren’t saying it’s our fault,” said Stewart. “That’s the conflation that is most disturb­ing to me.”

“Don’t you hear,” said Hitchens, “people saying we’ve made them . . .”

“I hear people say a lot of stupid shit,” said Stewart, “but what I’m saying is that there is reasonable dissent in this country about the way this war has been conducted that has nothing to do with people believing we should cut and run from the terrorists, or we should show weakness in the face of terrorism, or that we believe that we have in some way brought this upon ourselves. They believe that this war is being conducted without transparency, without credibility, and with­out competence.”

“But I’m sorry, Sunshine, I just watched you ridicule the president for saying that he wouldn’t give a timetable . . .” said Hitchens.

“No, you misunderstood why,” said Stewart. “That’s not why I ridiculed the president. I ridiculed him because he refuses to answer questions from adults as though we were adults, and falls back upon platitudes and phrases and talking points.”

Hitchens made another stab or two at responding, but by this point it was obvious that he’d been made to look foolish. He remained com­posed enough to devote the remaining few seconds to a plug for his latest book, but when he was done with that he tried to exit the stage so quickly that Stewart, it appeared, had to grab and hold him for a second or two to keep him in the frame until the commercial break began.

Christopher Hitchens wasn’t the typical turncoat. He wasn’t a man in search of God. He wasn’t betrayed by the Left. He wasn’t a refugee from communism, or a dupe of leftist ideology. He wasn’t alienated from popular culture, nor a passive receptacle for it. Hitchens was none of these types. He defined himself, in fact, by his refusal to be any type at all, and by his choice to be bound not by blood, nation, family, party, or ideology but only by what he perceived to be just and true.

On April 13, 2007, on his fifty-eighth birthday, Hitchens was sworn in as an American citizen. That spring he also published "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything." The book, like all of his longer books, was messy. It was brilliant at times, shallow at times, badly organized, gratuitously tendentious, and debaterly rather than scholarly. Out on the road promoting the book, however, Hitchens was imaginative and surprising in a way that he hadn’t been for years. He brushed aside the American taboo against speaking ill of the devout as if it were no more than a minor point of etiquette—rather than one of the pressure points of American political discourse—and said those things that many of his fellow secular citizens believed but didn’t have the platform or the nerve to say.

Hitchens’s dislike of religion wasn’t new, but the valence of it, in the wake of his defection from the Left, had changed. It was particularly discombobulating to Movement conservatives, who’d come to savor his polemical style so much when it was making the case for war in Iraq.

“The empty life of this ugly little charlatan proves only one thing, that you can get away with the most extraordinary offenses to morality and to truth in this country if you will just get yourself called reverend,” Hitchens said of Jerry Falwell, the Christian conservative leader who died not long after "God Is Not Great" was released. “. . . The whole consideration of this horrible little person is offensive to very, very many of us who have some regard for truth and for morality who think that ethics do not require that lies be told to children by evil little men. . . . It’s time to stop saying that because someone preaches credulity and credulousness, and claims it as a matter of faith, that we should respect them. The whole life of Falwell shows that this is an actual danger to democracy, to culture, to civilization.”

The book’s crusade against religion also, inevitably, made the case for the war in Iraq—that it was fought on behalf of reason against the forces of religious fascism—and thus managed to upset many on the Left, who might have been heartened by Hitchens’s disdain for the Christian and Zionist Right but who detested and distrusted him so much, by that point, that they were unable to entertain his attacks on Muslim fundamentalism for fear of inadvertently conceding some point about the Bush administration’s foreign policy.

For Hitchens it was a kind of apotheosis. He stood alone, apart from Left and Right, in alliance only with the truth. It was also a last hurrah, and a melancholy one—because last hurrahs are by their nature melancholy, and because although Hitchens sounded sharp and agile when he was on television, he looked tired and bloated. It was sad, also, because no matter how inspiring he was, the chains of Iraq rattled behind everything he said, serving as a reminder to those who contem­plated matters of posterity that he would be remembered, above all, for having gotten it wrong on the defining political question of his time.

He had help getting it wrong. The Left gave him a few too many examples of ignorance with which to dismiss the antiwar case as an ex­ercise in moral relativism or anti-Americanism. Ahmad Chalabi, Kanan Makiya, and Paul Wolfowitz, whose ultimate loyalties were to their own interests or delusions rather than to the truth or the American public, gave him a way to believe that the American government was finally going to put aside its cynical pursuit of self-interest abroad and seek justice instead. And he was given a push by the ghost of his father and the ghosts of the unnamed legions of stolid, stoic, noble British men who for centuries had shipped out to fight for the West in the name of patriotism and civilization.

Hitchens was also betrayed by history. If the Democratic Party or the American media, both enfeebled by decades of conservative pro­paganda and the burden of 9/11, hadn’t capitulated quite so quickly to the neoconservative narrative, Hitchens might not have had a war to champion. If Al Gore had been elected in 2000, there almost cer­tainly would have been no Iraq War to divide Hitchens from his old colleagues and loyal leftist readers. If Henry Kissinger had come out for the war earlier rather than later, Hitchens might have thought twice. If Hitchens hadn’t already been so personally invested in the cause of the Kurds, he might have viewed the war with more distance. If he’d quit drinking, or drinking so much, he might have been supple enough to disentangle his own fantasies from those of the men and women who were prosecuting the war. If George W. Bush’s studied ignorance and privileged resentment had provoked Hitchens half as much as Clinton’s studied empathy and phony populism once had, he might have been more wary.

Hitchens, however, ultimately failed himself. He was too much the romantic, too much the contrarian, and too much the narcissist to chart out the ways that history might fail to conform to his desires. He chose to mistake thoughtful opposition for moral cowardice and jingo­ism for righteousness. His bullshit detector, which had served him so well for so long, somehow failed to properly take the measure of George Bush. And faced with the difficulties and opportunities presented by an invasion of Iraq, Hitchens remembered only the dare, and not the caution, implicit in Marx’s observation that “World history would indeed be very easy to make, if the struggle were taken up only on con­dition of infallibly favourable chances.”

What could have saved Hitchens was blind luck. Or blind loyalty—to the Left, to his editor, to his colleagues, to his old anti-imperialism. But luck failed him, and his method, which was designed to outwit the failings of every other method, led him astray. Even Vaclav Havel can be wrong. Even George Orwell, it turns out, can be wrong, or we can be wrong about Orwell. There’s no perfect refuge anywhere.

Excerpted from "Exit Right" by Daniel Oppenheimer. Published by Simon and Schuster. Copyright © 2016. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

By Daniel Oppenheimer

Daniel Oppenheimer's book "Turncoats: The Journey from Left to Right and How It’s Transformed America," a political and intellectual history of six prominent American intellectuals who journeyed from the left to the right of the political spectrum, will be published by Simon and Schuster

MORE FROM Daniel Oppenheimer

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Christopher Hitchens Editor's Picks Exit Right George W. Bush Iraq Jon Stewart Salman Rushdie