—   The sharp point of dissent   —

Section: Politics
7 July 2005

Christopher Hitchens: Flickering Firebrand

2. ‘Herd’ morality versus ‘humanitarian’ intervention

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.

With respect to the 'long postponed' confrontation with the Ba'ath regime in Iraq, there were plenty of signals early on that might have alerted Hitchens to having backed the wrong horse. A stream of pre-war UN weapons reports documenting no WMDs is difficult to willfully ignore, much less miss. The unprecedented millions who poured into the world's capitals on February 15, 2003 to protest the 'war' necessitated by the 'threat' would surely give anyone pause. Moreover, they raise a more fundamental point. If the mob the world over can spot a fabricated casus belli a mile off, and an educated journalist couldn't (and still refuses to - more on that later), why should anyone ever again read him for an enlightened opinion on the matter? (As early as March 18, 2003, he wrote: 'there's reason to believe Bin Laden may be dead',[1] and just six days before Bin Laden's pre-election reappearance Hitchens had the misfortune to write: 'Even if he is still alive-which seems open to great doubt ...'[2]) With regards to the millions who protested this war he had the following to say:
I should like to say that the demonstrations I attended or witnessed in London, Washington, San Francisco and elsewhere were actually organized by people who do not think that Saddam Hussein was a bad guy at all. They were in fact organized by groups who either openly like Saddam, and Milosevic, and Mugabe, and Kim Jong-Il, or by those who think that Osama bin Laden represents a Muslim cry for help.[3]
Nietzsche once said that when we find ourselves on the side of the majority, it is time to stop and consider. Hitchens, the inveterate contrarian, seems appalled that his views have been adopted by popular elements, and his knee-jerk reaction seems to have been to swing the other way entirely. Any credible exponent of left-wing ideology would be delighted that the public at large had finally announced its recognition of the piratical nature of US foreign policy, and its rejection of Bush's overextended 'preemption' doctrine. But the masses of people who expressed condemnations of US power entirely consonant with much of Hitchens' pre-9/11 writings seem to have left him in the lonely position of being unoriginal and uncontroversial. So before we knew it, he was on the other side, a contrarian once again. Note that Nietzsche - who was himself no lover of the morals of the masses - said stop and consider, not reflexively assume that your views are wrong because they are the majority opinion.

But is that all? Noam Chomksy once theorized that the post-1967 coziness of the American left with Israel had its roots in the Vietnam war protests during the 'sixties. Intellectual elites appalled by the rabble gatecrashing the public arena to enact real political change took consolation in Israel's six-day pulverizing of nationalist third-world upstarts like Nasser.[4] This development essentially cauterized the wound suffered in Indochina. Something not dissimilar seems to have happened to Hitchens, who plainly cannot abide the presence of a demotic element in the debate over Iraq's future and the war on terror. Part of the explanation for Hitchens' turnaround may lie in his temperament - the impulse to express willfully invidious views has always been a strong trait - but that should not prevent us from recognizing the undisguised snobbery of his tone whenever he speaks of the 'nihilistic antiwar faction',[5] or 'blithering ex-flower children'[6] and their 'silly placards'.[7] He has, in separate places, referred to the Iraqi resistance and the Iranian and Libyan regimes - all of whom are implacably opposed to US interference in the region - as 'riff-raff',[8] a choice of words which probably imparts more than he would wish it to.

There is also the chic doctrine of 'liberal imperialism', to which Hitchens appears to have tacitly hitched his wagon. In this Weltanschauung, force can be used by Western civilization for 'good', to topple autocratic regimes for the benefit of mankind in general, particularly when circumstances are sufficiently exigent to trump any considerations of sovereignty (a word increasingly appearing in scare quotes). Subsequent investigations in Iraq have shown, however, that circumstances vis-á-vis WMDs were not exigent. And 'Orwellian' is too hackneyed a description for the 'liberal imperialism' conceit, a neologism which would not look out of place in the colonial lexicon beside the 'white man's burden' of the British (memorably shouldered at Amritsar); the 'philanthropy' of Leopold II's piratical rule over the Belgian Congo (which is estimated to have claimed between five and seven million lives and inspired the world's first human rights movement);[9] and the 'civilizing mission' of the French Empire.[10]

The 'civilizing' of Algeria, to take just one example, involved the forced conversion of mosques to churches, the suppression of the native language, the expropriation of tribal lands, destruction of the environment, and (during one not atypical raid) the hacking off of women's' hands for their jewelry.[11] In the recent furore over Iraq, there has been much knowing and ironic quoting of General Allenby's 1917 promise of liberation upon entering the conquered Ottoman vilayet of Baghdad. But it's also worth remembering today that when the French invaded Algeria in 1830, the false pretext was a threat of piracy that had long ceased to be a serious problem since Thomas Jefferson pacified the Barbary Coast in 1804. (The intervention was thus explained as a 'defense' of the invading country, as with modern Iraq.) And as with Allenby and Bush, the pre-invasion rhetoric stated that it was not to be an occupation, but a liberation:
We French, your friends, are leaving for Algiers. We are going to drive out your tyrants, the Turks who persecute you, who steal your goods, and never cease menacing your lives ... our presence on your territory is not to make war on you but on the person of your pasha. Abandon your pasha; follow our advice; it is good advice and can only make you happy.[12]
Following the 'liberation', the French stayed for 132 years. When they were finally driven out in 1962, it was at the cost of war that claimed one million lives.

The evidence seems fairly clear. Virtually every Western colonial regime that ever existed has sought to justify its incursion into other countries by an appeal either to 'defense' or 'benevolence' - sometimes both at once. With this history in plain view, it is strange that Hitchens has never furnished his readers with an explanation of why the invasion of an oil-rich Iraq by an oil-hungry camarilla in Washington will be any different.[13] This concept of 'liberal imperialism' is simply a dressed-up version of age-old colonial precepts; it thus has a chequered history to say the least; and those who are willing to take the risk of giving it moral currency today not only must accept the consequences of what may be done to a civilian population in its name, but must do so in the full knowledge that history has forewarned them. This, as we shall see, applies a fortiori to the people of Iraq and especially Iraqi Kurds.

But should we not cheer the toppling of a tyrant such as Saddam Hussein? This, after all, is the very best thing that can be said about the US intervention in Iraq, and yet, as the history shows, it is purely a side-benefit.[14] As I've stated before, Hitchens' main quarrel with the anti-war movement concerns their relative silence on this matter. In this blank space he has scribbled their imaginary support for a brutal regime - a self-supplied argument which he then easily refutes. Thus we learn that: 'the anti-Bush/Blair "left" has, to its credit, been perfectly honest in identifying itself both with Saddam Hussein and with Islamic fundamentalism.'[15] No examples provided.

In the course of advocating the downfall of a despot, Hitchens asseverates that the US, guilty of so much collaboration with Saddam Hussein, is therefore morally obliged to clean up the mess they helped to create. If we ponder the consensus that the Saddam regime would certainly have been toppled from within years before the invasion were it not for the US-enforced sanctions which crippled the country's economy and made the populace hopelessly dependent on the government, it becomes apparent that this confrontation was not unavoidable, but rendered unavoidable by the US. Nevertheless, Hitchens asks us to believe that the nation which kept in place a regime that tormented a defenseless population for years should now be allowed - nay, is obliged - to put in place the successor regime. By this rationale, communist China should have exclusively supervised the process of state-formation in Cambodia, following the ouster of the Beijing-supported Pol Pot regime which cast the country into unspeakable darkness for four years; Russia likewise becomes the most apposite candidate to reconstruct the Hungarian independence which it crushed during the 1956 invasion; and a Turkish 'liberation' of Kurdish north-eastern Iraq would have been just fine with Hitchens on redemptive grounds. (We know that's not the case, of course, since he has described the regime in Ankara as 'an ally we're better off without'.[16]) His best shot at advancing this argument goes as follows:
Some say that because the United States was wrong before, it cannot possibly be right now, or has not the right to be right. (The British Empire sent a fleet to Africa and the Caribbean to maintain the slave trade while the very same empire later sent another fleet to enforce abolition. I would not have opposed the second policy because of my objections to the first; rather it seems to me that the second policy was morally necessitated by its predecessor.)[17]
The analogy could hardly be more specious. In terms of its gestation, its motives, and its power relations, the abolition effort was the diametric opposite of the Iraq intervention. It began in 1787 as a tiny grass-roots movement with no political support[18] and continued to snowball until it could no longer be ignored by a reluctant British government which had all along indoctrinated the country into believing that the slave trade was vital to the economy. The Iraq invasion, by contrast, originated at the exact opposite end of the power spectrum: plotted by a tiny cabal at the apex of political power in Washington who had a declared interest in preserving a hydrocarbon economy, it was instantaneously opposed by perhaps the largest grass-roots movement the world has ever seen, and, far from ending in liberation, it has now degenerated into what unembedded journalists in Iraq are uniformly describing as 'a bloody mess.'[19]

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1 Hitchens, Regime Change, p. 8
2 Hitchens, 'In Front of Your Nose' Slate, 25 October, 2004.
3 Hitchens, Regime Change, p. 10
4 'US Middle East Policy and the American peace Movement' UC Berkeley, 14 May, 1984
5 Hitchens. Regime Change, p. 102.
6 Hitchens. Regime Change, p. 11.
7 Debate with Mark Danner, UC Berkeley, 4 November 2003.
8 Hitchens, 'Qaddafi Does a Deal' Slate, December 22, 2003; John Stewart's Daily Show, 1 December 2004; 'Beating a Dead Parrot', Slate, 31 January 2005.
9 See Adam Hochschild, King Leopold's Ghost, Boston, 1998.
10 See, for example, M.E. Chamberlain, Decolonization, (2nd edition), Blackwell, Massachusetts, 1999, p. 71
11 See Peter Mansfield, The Arabs, Penguin, London, 1976. p. 115 et seq.
12 Ibid.
13 To place the matter in context: if the oil-producing world is divided into seven geographic regions, the second-richest of these is South America, with an estimated 95 billion barrels of 'proven resources'. Iraq alone is estimated to possess in the order 105 billion barrels.
14 At the Azores conference on the eve of the war, the coalition announced that they were going to invade anyway, even if Saddam stepped down.
15 Hitchens, 'Long Live Labor', Slate, 25 April, 2005
16 Hitchens, 'Not Talking Turkey', Regime Change, p. 73
17 Hitchens, Regime Change, p. 6
18 Specifically, with twelve men meeting in a printer's shop in London. See Adam Hochschild, Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to free an Empire's Slaves, Houghton Mifflin, New York, 2005.
19 Patrick Cockburn, Independent, 28 June, 2005