—   The sharp point of dissent   —

Section: Politics
7 July 2005

Christopher Hitchens: Flickering Firebrand

5. The payoff / Conclusion

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.

Now the final test. Hitchens couldn't possibly stand by and defend the Cheney/Halliburton war profiteering, could he? Well, in a word, yes. He actually goes one better and turns his ire on critics of the cabal, describing as 'oleaginous' 'people who prefer Saddam Hussein to Halliburton'.[1] And if you enjoyed that non sequitur as much as I did, you will certainly appreciate the manner in which it is unpacked:
I can't open a bulletin from the reactionary right or the anti-war left without being told that Iraq is already worse off without Saddam Hussein. My suspicion - that these people never meant what they affected to say - is thereby materialised. And how can we tell that Iraq is worse off? Because contracts for its reconstruction are being awarded to American corporations. Can that be right? In other words, of the three feasible alternatives (that the contracts go to American capitalists, or to some unspecified non-American capitalists, or that Iraqi oil production stays as it was), the supposed radicals appear to prefer the last of the three.[2]
But the contract (an exclusive, no-bid one at that) didn't have to go to the US Vice-President's old chums, did it? Hitch isn't so silly that he'll say that outright, but he's certainly there in spirit, implying that only this company could do it. The reductio ad Halliburton is made by the following elision: 'The number of real-world companies able to deliver such expertise is very limited. The chief one is American ...'[3]

So let's have a look at the Cheney/Halliburton chronicles. During the 1990s Halliburton violated federal law by selling dual-use drilling equipment to both Iraq and Libya. The sale of six pulse neutron generators to Libya (which can be used to detonate nuclear weapons) led to Halliburton pleading guilty to criminal charges in 1995 and having to pay a total of $3.81m in fines.[4] In May 2003 it was revealed that Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown and Root paid $2.4m in bribes to a Nigerian official in order to secure favourable tax treatment.[5] KBR now has contracts in Iraq worth $18bn, including a two-year $7bn no-bid contract awarded exclusively to that company by the US government, whose Vice-President is still on the Halliburton payroll.[6] Other work given to KBR includes a $7m contract to build holding cells at Guantanamo Bay. In July 2002 Halliburton and Cheney were sued by Judicial Watch Inc. for accounting fraud. And in August 2004 Halliburton paid a $7.5m fine to settle an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission into its failure to disclose changes in its accounting practices. So, as Hitchens might ask, what's all the fuss about?

Hitchens' glibness in the face of all this might be bearable if he had not contemporaneously poured scorn on France for doing exactly the same thing - that is, trading with the enemy and supplying rogue regimes with weapons technology.[7] But when Cheney/Halliburton do it, it's their critics who get Hitchens' scorn. Why? It's not as though all of the above is deniable, after all. If Hitchens had simply remained silent on the issue, he had a chance of pretending ignorance. But he could not contain his disdain for the peace camp, and in an attempt to carve some hypocrisy from their quite reasonable questions, he has merely drawn attention to his own. But is sympathy for shady businessmen really so out of character? After all, Hitchens continues even today to back the fugitive embezzler Ahmad Chalabi (whom he named as one of his 'comrades in a just struggle and friends for life'[8]) even when the US had ditched him - amid accusations of intelligence-peddling to an Iranian regime Hitchens detests - as a nonentity in Iraq's future.[9]

* * *

So where will it all end? The retroactive damage done by Hitchens to his own oeuvre is a concern. I find myself gazing sadly at his great passages critiquing abuse of power in high places, for he endorsed those abuses just when the right was at its most reactionary and when the left needed his voice and perspicacity the most. By his own admission, even those who published his pieces thought he was writing 'rash and dangerous nonsense.'[10] And his current stance now makes many of his most cogent arguments from the past look profoundly insincere. At the start of his pro-war book Hitchens self-consciously confesses:
At the evident risk of seeming ridiculous, I want to begin by saying that I have tried for much of my life to write as if I was composing my sentences to be read posthumously. I hope this isn't too melodramatic or self-centred a way of saying that I attempt to write as if I did not care what reviewers said, what peers thought, or what prevailing opinions may be.[11]
To this lapidary passage we may now add: '... or what the evidence compels me to admit, or what reasoning obliges me to say'. Since Hitchens has opened the door to a review of his journalistic legacy with this objective look at his own bravery, I think I can offer a counter-reading of how his writings might be studied a few years down the line. It's plausible to envision a future in which, as in the case of the philosopher Wittgenstein, writers will find themselves having to make reference to two different people. One of them will be reified as 'the later Hitchens'. But Hitchens, unlike Wittgenstein, had it right first and then revised his position. And Wittgenstein needed no prompting to admit that he was wrong.

It's clear now from the increasing ferocity used to defend ever-weakening arguments that the pre-9/11 Hitchens is not coming back. We are already reading him posthumously.

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1 Hitchens, 'Oleaginous', Regime Change, p. 85
2 Ibid.,
3 Ibid., p.87.
4 Much of the business dealings with Saddam's Iraq took place under Cheney's watch as CEO from 1995-2000. The Libyan connection is particularly interesting. In a remarkable memory lapse, Hitchens threw Ghaddafi's opportunistic capitulation in with the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq and came up with the following: 'Not to end on too festive or seasonal a note, but the disarming of three rogue regimes in under one year isn't bad.' There's no mention of the country that armed all three regimes. ('Qaddafi Does a Deal' Slate, 22 December, 2003)
5 'Halliburton firm bribed Nigeria', The Age (Australia), 10 May, 2003.
6 Cheney continues to receive 'deferred payments' from Halliburton in the order of approximately $150,000 annually. Interestingly, Cheney's wife Lynne sat on the board of Lockheed-Martin, the US government's third-largest defense contractor. When her husband became Vice-President, she rejected conflict-of-interest arguments and remained on the board until January 2001.
7 He pilloried the French for their business dealings with Iraq and added: 'Did not France also build a nuclear reactor for Saddam Hussein, knowing what he wanted it for?' (Regime Change, p. 5)
8 Ibid., p. viii
9 It was clear anyway - long before this development - that Chalabi, who has not lived in Iraq for decades, would be no less of a stranger to the Iraqis - imposed from without by imperial forces - than Faisal I, who was handed the throne of Iraq in 1921 by the British, in what amounted to a mollifying gesture to the loyal Hashemites for their loss of Damascus (to the French) and the Hejaz (to Ibn Saud). (See Aburish, Said K., A Brutal Friendship: The West and the Arab Elite, Thomas Dunne, USA. p. 26)
10 Hitchens, Regime Change, p. viii.
11 Ibid., p. 7