reviewed by Ian Williams
It is sad to read Christopher Hitchens’ shrill and un-nuanced polemics in A Long Short War. It is also confusing, since he is trying to maintain all the former positions he held while on the left, while uncritically embracing his new friends, whom he calls, “the Pentagon Intellectuals” or the “tougher thinkers in the Defense Department.” The resulting portmanteau politics are an ill-matched and disturbing mix.
It is a shame because Hitchens has often performed an indispensable role in debunking the unthinking dogmas pushed by the thought police of the left. But now he has finally succumbed to the disease of the Leninist left: he has become a free-floating antithesis with not much thesis, unless you accept as such his claims of wisdom and morality for the Bush administration. Everyone who disagrees with him on the cardinal issue of uncritical support for the war on Iraq is attacked in quasi-Vyshinkyist fashion.
It has always been lonely on the American left, one reason being its tendency to shrink itself by throwing people overboard at the first hint of thoughtcrime. One wonders over the years how many other decent people may have been harried rightwards by dogmatic intolerance and application of political litmus tests. Were you for or against Vietnam, McCarthy, Kosovo, Afghanistan?
Few of those doing the persecution had much time for nuance. Please comrade, may I be anti-McCarthy and anti-Soviet at the same time? May I oppose the Vietnam War, without condoning the behavior of Vietnamese communists? All too often the answer has been “certainly not,” and one can almost (almost, I stress) sympathize with the neocons and others, and wonder if the intolerance of the left did not drive them to the right.
Logos 2.4 – Fall 2003
But old habits die hard. Hitchens, like so many of the neocons he now seems to have joined, is steeped in the robustness of Trotskyist and Leninist polemics. When he was under attack for supporting NATO action against Milosevic, he was robust, and mostly correct in his counter-attacks. And then came September 11th. Ironically, some on the left who had opposed a war in the Balkans over ten thousand dead Kosovars, supported one in Central Asia over three thousand dead Americans.
Very few on the left, or indeed anywhere else, actually tried to justify the attack on the World Trade Center itself, but some did oppose the ensuing war in Afghanistan. However, with broad sweep, Hitchens now accuses “many cultural leftists,” of “somewhat furtively” uniting with the European hard right in “believing that September 11 was a punishment for American hubris.”
It is at this stage that Hitchens has become his own enemy. He has become the mirror image of the shrill dogmatists who had opposed him all along. In emulation of George W. Bush’s instructions to his speechwriters, he no longer does nuance. It was, in fact, perfectly possible to be horrified by the atrocity at the World Trade Center, and even to admit that military action against the Taliban and bin Laden was desirable, while still pointing out that it was the previous amoral work of the hard right now in the Bush administration and their involvement in Afghanistan that had made the Taliban and Al-Qaeda possible. After all, Neville Chamberlain’s name is still mud for his part in paving the way for the Blitz on London. One can deplore the cause without condoning the effect.
September 11 was, of course, what made the invasion of Iraq possible. There were and are some serious arguments to be made for a multilateral humanitarian intervention in Iraq and other places to remove genocidal
Logos 2.4 – Fall 2003
But Hitchens’s uncritical support for the motives and methods of the Bush administration dropped him to a whole new level. To begin with, while much of what George W. Bush said about Saddam Hussein was, of course, true, as Hitchens knows, it was equally true when many figures in this administration were covering for Baghdad in the honeymoon years before their protégé ran amok and invaded Kuwait.
In real politics, one accepts good consequences even from evil actors. But while welcoming, for example, Stalin’s belated support in the war against Hitler, Hitchens’s hero, George Orwell, did not flip to uncritical support for the regime in Moscow the way that Hitchens has for the Bush administration. The White House’s motives for intervention were neither publicly nor privately about democracy in Iraq and it betokens a desperate act of faith on Hitchens part to presume they were.
It is true that Hitchens has a long and honorable record of support for democracy in Iraq, and for the rights of the Kurds. But that does not really justify his adulatory defense of Bush and calumniation of his critics. For example, he himself managed to support intervention in Kosovo without becoming a noticeable cheerleader for Bill Clinton’s all around moral probity.
Hitchens’s well established contempt for Clinton should not obscure the issue that many in this administration, with the help of Clinton’s own deep irresolution, harried him into military ineffectiveness because he had not served in Vietnam, a war he had in fact opposed. In contrast, many of the most sedulous detractors of Clinton actually agreed with the war—but dodged the draft. Hitchens’s response is to attack those who used the well- deserved epithet “chicken hawk” against them. It is true, as he says, that there is now a volunteer army, and even if it were not, those he calls the “Pentagon intellectuals” are not of age or health to qualify. But that does not detract from their fundamental hypocrisy.
While we touch upon Vietnam, along with McCarthy for long the Shibboleth of the Left, it seems equally odd that Hitchens vilifies Harold Wilson, the British prime minister for his “disgusting” support for the war in Vietnam. In fact, Wilson successfully resisted LBJ’s extreme political and economic pressure and refused any British military involvement in the conflict
Logos 2.4 – Fall 2003
Hitchens quite rightly excoriates primitive anti-Americanism, but then does Bush’s work with equally primitive anti-anti-Americanism, tarring everyone who disagrees with current American policies with the same brush. He is quite right that the simple-minded refrain of “blood for oil,” made little economic or political sense. He is even right about the motives of the some of the organizers of the mass protests who did not allow criticism of Saddam Hussein on their platforms (not, incidentally in New York, where anti- Saddam dissidents spoke from the platform). But the delusions of the marginal are surely a lesser subject for polemics than the Orwellian use of images and hints from the administration that led 70% of Americans to entertain the likelihood that Baghdad was involved in September 11th?
Hitchens neatly avoids this question with a humorous hypothetical aside on the likely fate of the Iraqi intelligence chief who denied knowledge of the perpetrators the day after, which sadly avoids the main issue: there is no evidence whatsoever of Iraqi involvement.
For evidence of a nuance missing from neo-Hitchens, one could look at Kofi Annan’s speech to the UN General Assembly on September 23, in which he called for multilateral support for genuine humanitarian intervention, while warning of the grave dangers to the world order of the unilateral attack that the U.S. had undertaken.
In these polemics, Hitchens allows no room for those who agreed with him about Saddam Hussein, but saw profound dangers in the Bush administration’s contempt for International Law and the United Nations. Six months after the Iraqi invasion, with chaos spreading across Iraq, Bush reinforcing support for Sharon’s rampages, no sign of weapons of mass destruction, and no evidence of any links between the still at large Saddam Hussein and terror, it is sadly evident that Hitchens has bravely but foolishly jumped on a sinking ship, morally and practically.
Unlike the neocons who have only their residual admiration for Leon Trotsky and their utter self-certainty remaining of their old politics,
Logos 2.4 – Fall 2003