I have a confession. I find it difficult to imagine Dick Cheney shedding a tear for dead or maimed Iraqi civilians, or being genuinely cheered by the spread of freedom unless it comes tied firmly with reassurances about the enhancement of American power. To make matters worse, my cynicism extends to many of the hawks who recently sold the war by appealing to the great balance of good over evil that it would assuredly achieve. Many of these hawks spent their entire careers looking the other way when it came to human rights abuses, and they continue to do so wherever U.S. interests aren’t directly involved.
But thatâ€™s a judgement about people, and not the actual case. I certainly think that one could offer good arguments for the war along these lines. More than that: I think that some do. So perhaps thereâ€™s hope for me after all.
Chistopher Hitchens is a good example of the better type of hawk. Hitchensâ€™ story is now well known. A famous critics of the powerful, a left-wing gadfly, Hitchens quit The Nation in protest last fall over itâ€™s predictable knee-jerkism about the war. (And in my own modest way, I followed him, by dropping my subscription around the same time.) Most of Hitchensâ€™ waking hours now seem to be consumed with the thankless task of shooting down left-wing nonsense (can anyone guess which Greek figure Iâ€™m thinking of? Hint: Think of boulders and hills). Whatever one thinks of the conclusions heâ€™s reached, or the way he argues for them, it seems undeniable that Hitchens backed the war out of a serious concern for the human beings who actually live in Iraq. And thatâ€™s more than I can say about some of the critics of the war.
But Hitchens is also irritating. As evidence, I submit his latest column, published in Slate yesterday.
The piece illustrates Hitchens at his best and his worst. At his best, Hitchens is an absolute master of the stinging put-down. He has a fine eye for the most embarrasing tangle in an opponentâ€™s argument. And he can usually be counted on to correct factual mistakes in a way that maximizes embarrassment on the opposing side.
Here are a few examples. Maureen Dowd gets stung first for sloppiness:
Maureen Dowd writes, displaying either an immense insider knowledge of day-to-day Baghdad or else no knowledge at all, that the American forces assigned to protect Chalabi would have been enough on their own to prevent the desecration of the National Museum. Since Chalabi was in Nasiriyah, far to the south, when the looting occurred, and since up until now he has provided his own security detail (I’d want my own bodyguards, too, if I’d been on Saddam’s assassination list for a decade), and since we don’t know by whom the actual plunder of the museum was actually planned or executed (or at least I don’t), Dowd might wish either to reconsider or to offer her expertise to Gen. Garner.
Then Hitchens calls Dilip Hiro on one of his more stupid remarks in a piece written for the Times on the same day:
Dowd’s bias was redressed in the New York Times on April 23, when Dilip Hiro expressed scorn for Chalabi’s presence in Baghdad at all, informing him that he should really have been on the Shiite pilgrimage to Karbala but apparently “couldn’t be bothered.” Had Chalabi doubled back on his tracks and gone south for a self-scourging, and thus been in several places at once, we would no doubt have had Thomas Friedman or Nicholas Kristof accusing him of pandering to fundamentalism and to Iran. (And how well I remember Dilip Hiro, all those years ago, trying to reassure me that, appearances to the contrary, the Ayatollah Khomeini was just the Mahatma Gandhi of Iran.)
Hitchens is right about both cases, of course. Itâ€™s not quite right to say that one of Dowdâ€™s weaknesses is getting carried away into transports of rhetorical excess. It actually seems to be her schtick. Itâ€™s nice to see her called on it. Hiroâ€™s little dig on Chalabi is also fair game (I was struck by it myself when I read the piece).
But as usual, Hitchens shows a strong preference for the lowest-lying fruit and a depressing lack of interest in meeting more intelligent criticism of his position. Behind Dowdâ€™s silly remarks stands a perfectly sensible concern that Iraq seems to have lost more of its cultural patrimony in the U.S. invasion than it did to the Mongols. In the months leading up to the invasion, archaeologists issued numerous warnings (I remember reading them at the time) to the Pentagon about just such a danger. And they had received assurances that every precaution would be taken to prevent it. If a tenth of the effort that the U.S. had put into defending its oil fields had gone to protecting its cultural treasures, the scale of the damage would surely have been greatly reduced. But, as we know, the U.S. hadnâ€™t the troops on the ground for this. Rumsf- excuse me â€“ Franksâ€™ plan either didnâ€™t bother with such details or did but was botched in its execution.
Hitchens has a response here, but I think it borders on dishonest. Alluding to reports that some of the looting may well have been an inside job, Hitchens throws the whole matter into doubt: “since we don’t know by whom the actual plunder of the museum was actually planned or executed (or at least I don’t)”. As Hitchens knows perfectly well, even if some of the antiquities were pinched by professionals, a great deal was clearly also lost in the general looting which followed. The whole thing was a terrible fuck up, and it seems senseless to deny it. By focusing narrowly on Dowdâ€™s rhetorical excesses, Hitchens leaves the sensible criticism here untouched.
The same thing goes for the criticism Hitchens levels at Hiro. Itâ€™s fine as far as it goes, but also surprising in what it leaves out. Granted, in a column of finite length, Hitchens canâ€™t be expected to cover everything. But one might expect a column defending Chalabi to address his criminal conviction in Jordan for shady business practices. Since I donâ€™t have much faith in the Jordanian justice system, I would be quite receptive to the argument that the conviction was politically motivated, or otherwise bogus. Trouble is, Chalabi isnâ€™t making that argument and neither, as far as I know, are his supporters. Nor has he ever really dealt with allegations that he misspent funds allocated to the INC by the U.S. govt during the 90s.
Hitchensâ€™ choice of target may be partly motivated by a legitimate desire to punish Hiro for saying something stupid. But it surely also suggests where he thinks the main burden of proof rests in a defense of Chalabi. By failing to address these perfectly legitimate concerns about Chalabi, Hitchens seems â€“ to me at least â€“ to imply that he thinks them unimportant. They’re not.
Hitchensâ€™ remarks about Chalabiâ€™s long exile from Iraq contain the same sort of mix of truth and error. Hitchens writes:
This minor but persistent warp in the coverage is congruent (if a warp can be congruent) with another larger one. Obviously, a reporter hoping to get attention must now put due emphasis on Shiite fundamentalism. And many Shiite Iraqis are under the impression that Dilip Hiro was once under: that a society can be run out of the teachings of a holy book. However, the majority of Iranian Shiite voters have concluded in the past few years that this attempt has been a failure. The contradiction here deserves a little more attention than perhaps it has been receiving. And the contact between the Iraqi National Congress and the secular forces in Iran may be of more significance than we are being told.
Hitchens just misses the main worry about Chalabi, which is that few Iraqis know who he is, beyond a vague recollection of his family name. That might be overcome, but it is a genuine liability, since it means that he must both build a power base in Iraq quickly, and avoid the impression that heâ€™s an American lackey. Hitchens says nothing to address this concern.
Moreover, while I share the hope with Hitchens that the Iranian experience will convince Iraq to turn away from an Islamic government, this hope depends on the assumption that the Iranian experience will be interpreted by ordinary Iraqis in roughly the way that we do. And to say that the Iranian experience “deserves a little more attention than perhaps it has been receiving” leaves it unclear exactly how much weight he thinks we should assign it. Hitchensâ€™ parting shot on this point is uncharacteristically limp: “and the secular forces in Iran may be of more significance than we are being told.” I certainly hope so, Mr. Hitchens. But this isn’t enough to convince me to stop worrying about whether the Pentagon’s infatuation with Chalabi is well-grounded or not.
And so it goes with Hitchens. Hitchens recently argued, also in Slate, against critics of the contract recently awarded to Boots and Coots to fight fires in Iraq’s oil fields. And so, perhaps they were. As Hitchens points out, fighting fires in oil fields is a risky and difficult job, and only a few companies have the resources and expertise to do it. And he also assures us that: “I want to be the first to agree that transparency in the administration and allocation of oil revenues is of the highest importance.” But as soon as he’s said this, he’s off again complaining about the U.N. All of this is fine as far as it goes. The problem, once again, is that it doesn’t go nearly far enough. The criticism of the Boots and Coots contract was partly motivated by the fact that the bidding process was closed and untransparent. If Boots and Coots was the best company for the job, why shouldn’t it have prevailed in an open bid? But suppose there wasn’t time for this (forget the year-long build up to war). Fine. The concern about Boots and Coots is still part of a larger – and legitimate – concern about transparency and openness in post-war Iraq. Hitchens can’t even seem to bring himself to say that he would be disappointed if the process turned out to be as closed and untransparent under the US as it was under the UN.
I can’t doubt Hitchens’ sincerity or his motivation for backing the war. And I continue to read him because he does put his finger on some of the sillier remarks made by the anti-war left. But the fact that he can’t be bothered to defend his position against the more plausible criticisms makes it increasingly hard to take him seriously.