Boy, can Hitchens ever kick the crap out of a straw man! That’s the last time it’ll look at him with that funny blank look! Here’s Hitchens going after more of those caaahraaaaaazy critics of the war. A day or so has passed since the piece appeared in Slate, so I’m assuming that it’s already been torn apart by packs of wild bloggers, that pitiless lot. They’ve no doubt already exposed the difficulties in the piece, and better than I could. But somehow this never stops me from throwing in my two cents. I’m starting to realize that I regard blogging away unknown in much the way that I think of voting: practically, my vote makes little difference, and yet there’s both a duty and a privilege (and a small thrill) involved in going through the trouble.
I suppose it was only fair to let Hitchens blow off a little steam after he left the Nation. (This was about the same time I let my own subscription lapse – I always knew exactly what they would say, and omit to say, before I read each issue, so what was the point?) And so he did, in column after column, sometimes unfairly distorting the views of his former comrades, but also occasionally getting the better of an argument. If I can permit myself a little conjecture (and of course I can – it’s my blog), it seems likely to me that all this was a very public process of purging himself of views he had previously held. Some of us go into therapy – others write opinion pieces. That would certainly account for some of the animus in his writing. We’re often most ferocious with past selves; we know their temptations intimately. (If I were really in a psychoanalytic mood, I would speculate that the full story here involves a reaction to Martin Amis’ criticisms of Hitchens in his book on Stalin, a reaction which might have set him even more firmly in his â€œroot out all evil, whatever the costâ€ mindset. But I’m not in a psychoanalytic mood today, and I may well be wrong.)
But he kept writing in this vein, and he continued to obsess about the stupidest and most simplistic anti-war arguments long after it had stopped being appropriate, and long after he had started to write for a broader audience with very different concerns, and very different objections to the war. The result is that Hitchens writes as if the only people who opposed the war on Iraq were raving mad lefties, labouring under the burden of severe intellectual and moral handicaps. Well, I’m sure there were plenty of those. But of course there were plenty of moral idiots, uninformed blow-hards and raving mad zombies of the right urging the war too, and that was never a reason in itself to resist it. If we care about having a debate, about persuading, about arriving at a sensible view, we have to do better than that.
It cannot have escaped Hitchens – or can it? – that the war was opposed by an extraordinary cross-section of America’s foreign policy establishment, right and left, and by a great many people who knew a great deal more about the region than Hitchens (though he’s clearly better informed than many who urged on, or dissented from, the war just as loudly as he did). Many of these people had supported the war on Afghanistan, waged quite recently and by the same President in response to the same sort of alleged threat, and against a similarly bleak historical background. Cowardice, moral indifference, a pathological aversion to the application of force – none of these are particularly useful in explaining why so many thoughtful people discovered reasons to dissent so vigorously from the Bush administration’s war on Iraq.
I have never doubted that Hitchens’ concern for the people of Iraq is deep and genuine, or that his support for the war was based on that concern. In this respect, his writing on Iraq sometimes has a bracing moral vigour which makes it a useful spur for re-evaluation and further reflection. But this does not spare his writings on the same subject from a deep intellectual dishonesty. Polemic is a rough sport, and it’s easy to get carried away, especially when the stakes are high, to lose one’s temper, to exaggerate, to get lost in point-scoring. This makes it perilous to judge a commentator’s work on the basis of a single column, usually produced quickly, and perhaps not representing the best that he’s thought on a subject. But the cumulative case against Hitchens is absolutely damning. He appears to be constitutionally incapable of engaging honestly with the more plausible reasons for hating Bush’s war, and this failure makes his arguments go cockeyed. Taken as whole it’s fair to say that Hitchens’ work consistently distorts rather than enlightens; evades rather than engages. And I’m sick of it.
Here – for the record – are what seem to me the more serious difficulties with either side of the debate. If you want me to take you seriously on the subject of the war (I admit, no one seems especially anxious about this – but still), you’d better demonstrate at least a basic awareness of these difficulties.
There was both a prudential and a moral case for the war. The best prudential case was centred on the likelihood that Saddam Hussein had pursued an ambitious weapons program after the departure of the UN inspectors in 1998. The Bush administration’s particular claims about Iraq’s weapons programs were dubious even before the war, but the basic concern was not at all unreasonable. And who could have guessed that among Saddam’s sins sloth would figure so prominently in the story of his downfall? It was not especially plausible to think that Iraq had an advanced nuclear weapons program, but it was plausible in the extreme to think that Saddam Hussein would have restarted the programs had the inspections regime been lifted. And whatever the apparent successes of the sanctions regime in retrospect, it is important to remember that prior to the war it was widely regarded as a failure, as a costly drain on American resources and diplomatic capital in the region, and as a monumental PR disaster. And because of all this the sanctions regime was slowly crumbling away. This was a real long term threat, and a threat to everybody. A nuclear-armed Iraq would probably have been deterrable, but no sensible person could have looked forward to the gamble.
I think this case for war can be met – met decisively, in fact, because a clear-minded response to the broader problems of nuclear proliferation, terrorism, instability, and human rights disasters in the region saw Iraq as only one part of a larger story, and for all its dangers, not the most dangerous part by a long shot. Allocating so much energy, time, and effort to Iraq drew away resources from the larger problem. The short term results of this experiment have been ominous; I’m afraid the longer term results will prove disastrous. But that’s beside the point. If you want to argue against the prudential case for war, here, in outline, is the basic worry you need to address.
There was also a plausible moral case for the war. The Ba’ath regime in Iraq was a wicked one, as vile as any in the world, expect, perhaps, for North Korea. There was little hope of internal change. The Kurds in the North would have been menaced as long as the regime remained in power, and unforeseeable shifts in the balance of power in the region might have undermined U.S. resolve or capacity to protect them. The regime was carrying out an ambitious program of environmental devastation in the South, wiping out an indigenous culture which had survived for well over a millennium (and, in fact, this may be reversed by the U.S. – and just in time). One could go on at considerable length about the regime and it’s depredations. It’s hard to know what value – what intrinsic value – could attach to the sovereignty of a regime of this sort. And I think it’s very hard for anyone who seriously contemplates the situation of Iraqis under the Ba’ath regime to resist the desire to see it vanished from the face of the earth.
(Indeed, I noticed a phenomenon among people who studied Iraq, which I called, awkwardly, Saddamification: There comes a point at which the stories – credible, independently confirmed stories – about Iraq under Saddam Hussein are so awful that some commentators were no longer able to weigh to the pros and cons of invasion very well, because the desire for justice, for retribution, made attempts at dispassionate analysis seem cynical and heartless. I felt some of this myself. While I was teaching a class on the war in Iraq and immersed in the subject I had a number of nightmares (rare, for me) about Saddam Hussein. And many times I devoutly wished him dead and gone.)
What’s more, the sanctions regime which featured prominently in most of the alternatives to war imposed very serious hardships on ordinary Iraqis. This was a consequence which the anti-war movement had a difficult time facing.
I think the moral case for the war can be met – though I’m less confident on this point than I am on the prudential question. It can be met, I think, by pointing to two main worries. The first is that the Bush administration manifestly lacked – lacks – the will, or the wisdom, or the discipline, or the smarts, to pull off such a delicate and difficult task. The second worry is that even handled with all the wisdom in the world, the country has been so badly brutalized and for so long that there is a very real possibility of a civil war within the next few years. And then things really will be worse than they were under Saddam Hussein. It was indeed an awful prospect to leave Iraqis to their fates under Saddam Hussein, but, to be blunt, a half-trillion dollars (what the war might well end up costing) might also have been spent on a great many other worthy people who are now left to suffer from malaria, AIDS, poverty, disease and so on. The relevant moral test is not how much better off the Iraqi people are now than they would have been without action – it is how much better off the world as a whole would be if the same resources had been spent other than they were.
This is what the debate on the war should look like, I think, if not in outcome, then at least in the basic kinds of considerations for and against it which were worth taking seriously. People of good will can – and do – differ on the answers to these question. But these are the questions.
Hitchens cares. This is good, and I think distinguishes him from many pundits who clearly don’t. But it’s not enough to make him a morally serious critic who uses his platform to raise serious questions, meet serious objections, persuade the unpersuaded. Indeed, it hasn’t saved him from becoming a cheap partisan hack addicted to bluster and innuendo, who not only fails to persuade, but who fails in the end to even try.