—   The sharp point of dissent   —

Section: Politics
7 July 2005

Christopher Hitchens: Flickering Firebrand

1. Introduction / Faith in Bush

Right-click here and choose 'Save target as ...' to download the entire article as a word document. This article was published in issue 24 (2005) of Arena journal.

His former illusion at least implied a positive ideal. His disillusionment is utterly negative. His role is therefore intellectually and politically barren. … He advances bravely in the front rank of every witch-hunt. His blind hatred of his former ideal is leaven to contemporary conservatism.
- Isaac Deutscher on apostates, quoted in 'Third Thoughts' by Christopher Hitchens, The Nation, November 1987.[1]
IN an offhand remark tucked away in a book review in The Nation many years ago, journalist Christopher Hitchens once averred: 'The real test of a radical or a revolutionary is not the willingness to confront the orthodoxy and arrogance of the rulers but the readiness to contest illusions and falsehoods among close friends and allies.'[2] Years later, he was to famously leave The Nation over just such differences of opinion with the left concerning every major political development that has flowed from the September 11 attacks.[3] In the immediate aftermath of the multi-storey immolations in New York and Washington, Hitchens unsheathed his pen and with it gored such sacred oxen as Noam Chomksy, Sam Husseini, and later, Tariq Ali.[4] Whether it is acknowledged or not, the seed of an apostate had been slowly germinating in him for some time. (He has dated - or backdated - his first rethinking of the morality of intervention in Iraq to the end of the Gulf War.[5]) And the 9/11 cataclysm provided him with the necessary Grenzsituation in which to reveal his true credentials as a contrarian - specifically, that he would tolerate no nonsense even from fellow-travellers. Hitchens' apparent disgust that the left had the nerve to continue to critique the 'larger issues' of US policy in the middle east throughout this period provided him with what might, in the world of David Horowitz, be called his Betty Van Patter epiphany: in short, a moment of disenchantment (with the response to a violent attack) that quickly grew into a full-blown political apostasy.

If he is now (as the above citation seems to indicate) being true to himself, he is certainly not being false to no man. For in the years since, Hitchens, in attempting to excoriate the anti-war left as essentially hypocritical, has himself contributed in no small measure to the bloated corpus of hypocrisy surrounding the 'war on terror'. In giving practical expression to his own definition of radicalism, he has done so only in the most lopsided way, abandoning serious scrutiny of the rulers with the worst possible timing, and stigmatizing as 'soft on fascism'[6] friends and allies who critique them. When illusions and falsehoods (with very real geopolitical consequences) about WMDs and (now thoroughly discredited) Al-Qaeda links to Iraq were being promulgated with breathtaking arrogance by Washington, Hitchens chose to go along with them against all evidence to the contrary, and was characteristically nettled by people who did not see matters his way. Is the Horowitz comparison deserved? Has Hitchens become, as he once described Paul Johnson (who also made a 'much-advertised stagger from left to right'[7]) a man who having lost his faith, believes he has found his reason? It's time to examine the apostate's progress.

* * *

Christopher Hitchens once possessed near-iconic status in the print media world. An Oxford-educated journalist who moved to the US more than twenty years ago, he quickly became the darling of the left, exhibiting a prodigious ability to skewer double standards and abuses of high office. Indeed, his pieces in The Nation and Harper's often exemplified Amira Hass's very definition of the purpose of journalism - to 'monitor the centres of power'. Whether writing on the deliquescence of communism in eastern Europe, the tragic fate of Cyprus, or the machinations of Washington powermongers, he was insightful, learned, and a thoroughly entertaining literary pugilist. (He memorably described Norman Podhoretz as 'a moral and intellectual hooligan';[8] and a reading of Nixon's memoirs gleaned the lesson that 'the unlived life is not worth examining.'[9]) For me, two works stand out: No One Left to Lie To, his superbly reasoned polemic on Bill Clinton; and The Trial of Henry Kissinger, in which, in one slim volume, he compiled a devastating indictment of a war-crimes celebrity and geopolitical gangster.

So the questions arises: why now defend George W. Bush personally and his Iraq invasion politically?

From a goulash of wobbly rationales and flat assertions, three main arguments, roughly overlapping, can be distilled from Hitchens' post-9/11 writings. One: the US confrontation with Saddam Hussein was a welcome development, long-postponed and unavoidable. Two: the intervention in Iraq is an important humanitarian one that at least partially redeems the previous depredations of US realpolitik, especially with regard to the Kurdish population. Three: Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

As with even the most disingenuous apologias, a slender thread of veracity runs through at least Hitchens' first two reasons for supporting the dauphin's campaign in Mesopotamia. But this thread strains to support the weighty baubles of contradiction which he dangles from it. Moreover, the vitriol which Hitchens pours upon the anti-war movement seems somewhat out of court for someone who openly agrees with them on the irrefutable history of Western interference in Iraq. Note too that the anti-war faction agree with Hitchens on the turpitude of Al Qaeda and the Iraqi Ba'ath regime. For them, it literally goes without saying. But because the obvious remains unsaid at the expense of broadcasting the rather more urgent message of putting a halt to the new imperialism, Hitchens has been able to score easy points by turning their silence against them, pretending that it is symptomatic of callous indifference to the fate of Iraqis (which the movement presumably signalled by turning out in unprecedented numbers to insist that Iraqis not be bombed).

During the course of this essay I will examine - inter alia - each of these arguments in turn, and their immanent contradictions. Firstly, however, it is necessary to briefly examine the contradictions that suffuse Hitchens' support for George W. Bush's administration.

* * *

One will note that this is not merely support, but uncritical support. The conspicuous controversies which envelop the President and his cohorts constitute the elephant in the room which Hitchens has to squeeze past virtually every time he defends the Washington hawks. Anyone familiar with Hitchens' previous incarnation as an arch-muckraker will know that his full-throated support for George W. Bush (and coziness with Paul Wolfowitz et al) is a true metamorphosis, and nothing beautiful has emerged from the chrysalis. The current occupant of the oval office, freshly placed back in power by the ballots of biblical literalists (the belief that the world was created yesterday seems to hold great appeal to those born at that time), is just the kind of incurious dullard and venal right-wing warmonger whom Hitchens has spent much of his career railing against. One might imagine that Bush and the kakistocracy that enthroned their philosopher-king would be an intolerable offense both to Hitchens' intellect and politics. Not so. In an election-year interview on C-Span,[10] Hitchens freely admitted that he would vote for Bush if he had a vote. In an earlier C-Span interview,[11] Hitchens also admitted that the President exhibited 'that apparent lack of curiosity, that apparent inability to read for pleasure, that apparent want of intellectual weight' but then added that 'maybe that would be a positive thing … maybe that would prove that anyone really can be president. Never let us forget … it's supposed to be possible in this Republic for anyone to be the president.' As everyone knows, the true nature of the American dream (which Hitchens here mangles) is that a highly capable person ought never to be impeded by limitations of class from achieving greatness - the hackneyed example being Abraham Lincoln's journey from log cabin to White House. Bush's ascendancy, on the other hand - whereby a moneyed dolt was hustled into high office by Dad's cronies and a fortuitously positioned brother - represents a kind of Presidential primogeniture, the triumph of class privilege over all strata of meritocracy, including grammar.[12] But even if all of what Hitchens said were true, that still wouldn't stop an educated fellow like him from at least hoping that the world's finest democracy could produce a leader who doesn't think that people from Greece are called Grecians and can name at least one President from a list of two of the world's nuclear-armed nations.[13]

Is it bravery or just embarrassment that induces Hitchens to defend George W. Bush on the weakest of issues and attack his detractors when the President is at his worst? Consider his apologia for a faux pas:
The President is also captured in a well-worn TV news clip, making a boilerplate response to a question on terrorism and then asking the reporters to watch his drive. Well, that's what you get if you catch the President on a golf course. If Eisenhower had done this, as he often did, it would have been presented as calm statesmanship. If Clinton had done it, as he often did, it would have shown his charm.[14]
Note that this passage accidentally admits to Bush's lack of statesmanship and charm. Note also the author's betrayal of his own writings on Bill Clinton: having devoted an entire book to pillorying the former President as a war criminal and a rapist, Clinton now apparently has 'charm' - and all this in defense of an even worse president. A pretty pass to arrive at.

Moreover, Hitchens attempts to portray his support for the Republican oligarchy as some sort of conscience-driven ideological sacrifice. 'I decided some time ago that I was, brain and heart, on the side of the "regime change" position' he wrote in March 2003.[15] Noting in the same paragraph that New York Times writer Thomas Friedman had 'finally lost his nerve' and withdrawn his support for 'this' removal of Saddam, he adds: 'I am fighting to keep my nerve.' Two things to note here. One: the putatively steely moral fibre that is required to side with the strong, with the militarily unstoppable, in preparing for their assault upon a disarmed and sanctions-ruined nation. Two: the contradiction. Hitchens admits that it takes an act of will to cling even to this position - so there's clearly some vestigial, left-wing pang of conscience still twitching in him. Not to worry though - he's fighting it.

My favourite Hitchens rationale, however, is perhaps his most oft-repeated one: that George W. Bush is the only US President to have used the word 'Palestinian' and 'state' in the same sentence (Hitchens' words).[16] It is a breathtaking defense of lip-service. And it is a sad end for a critique of great power to arrive at. From a myriad of hypocrisies, Hitchens could easily point to the endless US flow of arms to a state that openly uses this matériel to maintain an illegal thirty-seven year occupation, brutalize a defenseless civilian population, and effect a slow-motion, settlement-based colonization which - if allowed to continue sine die - will guarantee the final erasure of Palestine. For all his rhapsodizing about the tyrannical regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bush has somehow never found the time to condemn the ravages of the despot in Jerusalem who, with tanks and US-supplied helicopter gunships, tyrannizes over millions of Palestinians. With the slaughter of 69 innocent civilians at the Jordanian village of Qibya in 1953, Ariel Sharon was the man who opened Israel's account of UN condemnations, and then went on to preside over greater massacres (of up to 2000 Palestinian refugees) in West Beirut in 1982. Does Hitchens really believe that a US President who describes such a person as a 'man of peace' has a serious plan in mind to help the defenseless civilian population suffering under his jackboot? But Hitchens now seems content to accept the crumbs of verbiage brushed from the imperial table.

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1 Hitchens, Christopher. For the Sake of Argument: Essays and Minority Reports, (hereafter FSA) Verso, London, 1993. p. 114
2 Hitchens, 'C.L.R. James', The Nation, July 1989, FSA, p. 325.
3 Hitchens completed the metamorphosis relatively recently by defecting to William Kristol's Murdoch-owned Weekly Standard, where he wrote a prolix attack on the anti-war British MP George Galloway.('Unmitigated Galloway', 30 May, 2005)
4 Hitchens, 'The Fascist Sympathies of the Soft Left', Spectator, 29 September, 2001
5 Democracy Now, December 4, 2003. The moment came, according to Hitchens, while being driven around northern Iraq by Kurdish guerillas with a picture of George H. W. Bush taped to the front of their jeep. He found that 'I didn't have an answer' to their remark that were it not for the US President, they would all be dead. Hitchens did not take the trouble to correct their innocence: Bush took some time off for golfing during the height of their crisis, and was only impelled to act by considerations of 'regional stability' and the decidedly unphotogenic TV imagery of millions of Kurds streaming out of Iraq.
6 Hitchens, 'The Fascist Sympathies ...', Spectator, Ibid..
7 Hitchens, 'The Life of Johnson', Critical Quarterly, 1989, FSA, p. 260.
8 Ibid., p. 264.
9 Hitchens, 'Nixon: Maestro of Resentment', Dissent, Fall 1990, FSA, p. 244
10 C-Span, 20 February, 2004.
11 C-Span, 1 February, 2002.
12 To crown it all, Bush has distinguished himself by dodging both the Vietnam draft and the national guard service that allowed him to perform the first dodge. This hardly qualifies him as the kind of President you'd want during wartime.
13 I'm being unkind, of course: during a pre-presidency interview Mr. Bush managed to identify Pervez Musharaff as 'General Something'. See David Corn, The Lies of George W. Bush, Three Rivers Press, New York, 2003, p. 14
14 Hitchens, 'Unfairenheit 9/11'. Printed in The Review (Australia), July 2004.
15 Hitchens. Regime Change, (Published in the US as A long Short War). Penguin, London, 2003. p. 5
16 Democracy Now interview, 3 December, 2003; Regime Change, p. 19; LateLine interview (ABC TV, Australia), November 4, 2004.