Sunday, December 18, 2011

Christopher Hitchens and the Iraq War

I've been reading all of the obituaries and encomia of Christopher Hitchens, and realizing when I started paying attention to him - after the September 11 attacks. Terry Glavin writes -
“OK, that’s a confrontation between everything I like and everything I don’t like,” he remembered saying to himself. Writing in the Boston Globe a year later, he put it this way: “On one side, the ethics of the multicultural, the secular, the skeptical, and the cosmopolitan ... on the other, the arid monochrome of dull and vicious theocratic fascism.”
But Hitchens quickly noticed that something else had happened that day, and he’d resolved that he wasn’t going to shut up about it. The bloody spectacle had opened up a deep rot down in the structural foundations of the political culture that had nurtured him, first as a young Luxemburgist pamphleteer at Oxford, then as an acid-witted chronicler for obscure Trotskyist journals, and later, as something extraordinary in American culture: a popular, prize-winning, hard-left public intellectual.
By the morning of Sept. 11, Hitchens had established himself as an essayist, literary critic and a formidable Washington correspondent for such venerable liberal American journals as the Nation, Harper’s, the Atlantic Monthly and Vanity Fair. What he saw in the meaning of Sept. 11 was not just this: “You couldn’t really have wanted a better and more dynamic and radical confrontation.” It was this: “And the American left decides: ‘Let’s sit this one out.’ That’s historical condemnation. To be neutral or indifferent about that, it’s just giving up.”
This is as close as you can get to any paradigmatic truth about any of the important political debates and controversies that were to rage and churn through the first few years of the 21st century, a decade of vile hatreds and hysterics that consumed the Left and rendered much of the liberal American mainstream an ugly caricature of itself.
I agree with Hitchens that the "American left decides to sit this one out," something that I experienced in futile arguments here in Ithaca, New York, a bastion of reflexively left-wing thinking (Ithaca is home to Cornell University and Ithaca College, where I work). I remember in the summer of 2002, being told by a local left-wing political activist that a local candidate for the New York Assembly should be voted for because she had opposed the NATO intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo (as if this had anything to do with whether she would be a good member of the Assembly!). He said this as if it was universally accepted that this was the only proper way to think - to leave the people of Kosovo to the tender mercies of the Serbian nationalists. I was in Israel during this time (spring of 1999), following the news, and came to the conclusion then that it was better for NATO to intervene than to stand idly by. I couldn't imagine why someone who purported to be on the left and on the side of oppressed people would oppose the NATO bombing. I realized slowly that this was part of the idiotic "anti-imperialism" of fools that had overtaken the left - the assumption being that everything that the US does outside of its borders is wrong, to be condemned, and is part of American imperialism, leading to the truly disgraceful sight of people on the left consorting with vile dictators. But that was okay, since they were opposing American imperialism!

Today is also the day when the last American troops leave Iraq. I was a supporter of the Iraq War at the beginning - I believed the claim that Iraq had WMDs and was prepared to use them (being persuaded by among other things Colin Powell's presentation at the UN). Once it became clear that Iraq in fact did not have WMDs I began to have my doubts - and then more so when it also became clear that the US had no plan for what to do once we succeeded in conquering Iraq - remember the unrestrained looting and destruction after the invasion? Remember Rumsfield saying, "Stuff happens," and doing nothing? And then there came the horrible scandal of Abu Ghraib and the other prisons in Iraq where American soldiers tortured and humiliated Iraqi prisoners, and the feeble defenses of torture by the Bush administration. I am glad that we have finally withdrawn all of our soldiers. We have left behind us a devastated nation - although we are certainly not responsible for all of that devastation, since Saddam Hussein did his level best before the US invasion to destroy his own country, first by invading Iran and fighting with it for eight years, and then invading Kuwait and being defeated by the allied coalition in 1991. But even then we had a role in helping him to kill his own people - the first president Bush, after encouraging the people of Iraq to rebel against Saddam, stood idly by as Saddam's troops brutally killed thousands of Shi'ites and Kurds who began to do what he had urged them to do.

So should I have opposed the Iraq War at the beginning? In hindsight, yes, although if we had not invaded Iraq in 2003, would we still be imposing sanctions on the country which were strangling it economically and further impoverishing its people? I remember the bitter protests against the sanctions by people on the left-wing before the invasion. The sanctions were denounced as evil, as child-killing, and there were people who went to Iraq then, while Saddam was still ruling the country, to stand in solidarity with the people of Iraq. I was also dumbfounded by this response - how could western leftists act in such a way as to put themselves on the same side as Saddam Hussein, who by this point had probably killed about 300,000 of his own people (remember the hundreds or thousands of mass graves discovered after the conquest of Iraq?). It could be argued that they went in to support the people, not Saddam - but do you think that if they had openly opposed him, they would have been allowed into Iraq? No, of course not.

The situation of Iraq long before the war in 2003 was a real challenge to the leftist assumption that everything the US did was wrong and that any foreign ruler who opposed the US was an anti-imperialist. Saddam Hussein *was* an imperialist - he invaded two of the countries neighboring Iraq in order to gain benefits for Iraq.

One of the strengths of Christopher Hitchens is that he did in fact stand with the people of Iraq against Saddam - he was a long time supporter of the Kurds. Surprisingly, when I tried to argue that the invasion of Iraq did in fact help the Kurds, this did not move the people I knew who opposed the war - they could not admit that perhaps the war, for all of its cruelty and stupidity, had actually benefited some of the people of Iraq, who had been the victims of attempted genocide.

I don't know how to end this essay. My thoughts and feelings about Iraq are still very mixed - I can't come to a single, unambivalent statement about the war and what we should have done. Certainly what we did do was horrible, cruel, and bloody - but on the other side, Iraq is no longer ruled by Saddam Hussein.

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