Sunday, 28 November 2010

Christopher Hitchens is not Great.

Columnist Henry Porter has pondered upon the nature of courage and bravery in The Observer today. There are numerous people he could have used as exemplars here, often people not in the public eye and who are not vain and self promoting. Instead he chooses to write about,
My chum Christopher Hitchens is an interesting case. He has always cheerfully put himself in the way of physical danger – posing by unexploded bombs in the Middle East and nearly being lynched while lecturing a mob of fundamentalists in Lebanon – but Christopher's mettle is now seen with his reaction to terminal cancer.

He has led his life bravely, causing no end of offence to opponents, as well as dismay to those who made the mistake of assuming he was an ally and whom he then drubbed with fratricidal glee.

I cannot think of anyone who has stirred things up quite as much as Christopher, nor in the process provided so much amusement with his writing, but the important thing is that his fearlessness stimulated people to think for themselves.

It's possible to be a brave and bad man or to be foolhardy and that applies quite obviously to Christopher Hitchens. Now that he is dying, he could be brave enough to admit he was wrong to support the Iraq War and to come very close to rationalising torture in a 2005 edition of Slate magazine.

Hitchens claimed that as the USA could not be bound to the Geneva Conventions in its global "war on terror",

The forces of al-Qaida and its surrogate organizations are not signatory to the conventions and naturally express contempt for them. They have no battle order or uniform and are represented by no authority with which terms can be negotiated.

They are more like pirates, hijackers, or torturers—three categories of people who have in the past been declared outside the protection of any law.

Bear in mind that Hitchens was writing here of what could be called "terrorist suspects". That torture could be used to interrogate them in order to to prevent worse atrocities. That was clear when Hitchens went on to write,
Several detainees released from Guantanamo have reappeared in the Taliban ranks, once again burning and killing and sabotaging. The man whose story of rough interrogation has just been published in Time had planned to board a United Airlines flight and crash it into a skyscraper. I want to know who his friends and contacts were, and so do you, hypocrite lecteur.
As Iraq descended into predictable carnage it was more important to Hitchens to continue offering fallback positions. Iraq was not about WMD. It was an oil grab that was dressed up with a variety of pretexts from weapons Saddam did not have and part of a global war on terror and "Islamofascism".

Those who supported this war such as Michael Ignatieff have now admitted they got it wrong. Hitchens has now offered ex post fact rationalisations for the war, that the Bush administration dithered, that the subsequent sectarian war was proof of the surging threat of theocratic fascism everywhere.

On an edition of Breakfast with David Frost, Hitchens came on sheepishly wearing a Kurdish flag in his lapel instead of the US one he sported before. So the war was worth it despite hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis, regional destabilisation, and the US collaborating with Shite death squads because the Kurds are deemed free.

There is nothing brave about failing to admit that the decision to back Bush's war was misinformed. Yet Hitchens never based his support on an assessment of the actual facts. He simply fitted the facts to the liberationist creed in the manner described by Orwell in Inside the Whale.

That is to say, that Hitchens wanted to hitch himself to a great cause in order to have something to fight for, the convince himself he was in the vanguard of historical progress once more and to win polemical battles with anti-war activists who were secretly craving the victory of just any anti-US power.

This obviously had an element of truth with regards many such as the unprincipled demagogue Galloway. Hitchens quip that RESPECT was an anagram of SPECTRE, a sinister group in James Bond who supported any destructive elements in order to profit was funny.

Even so, to suppose that just because most anti-war leaders in Britain were moronic ideologues and hack propagandists like Andrew Murray of the CPGB or Islamist fanatics, does not mean that they were essentially part of some seamless global movement to destroy the west.

True, Galloway works as a proxy for the Iranian regime in Press TV but the invasion of Iraq was hardly going to be an opening blow in defeating Galloway, and sinister double talking British Islamists. A reckless and illegal war would only bolster the credibility of those who detest Western civilisation.

By failing to look at the facts in the Iraq War and what was really at stake, Hitchens destroyed his credibility and ended up then seeing in religion a phenomena that poisoned everything and was responsible for preventing the success of the Iraq War and the Israel-Palestine conflict-indeed all conflicts.

Religion is not the cause of war. That merely offers a form of theological justification from an atheist perspective. Politicised versions of certain religious traditions only ups the ante in what are really struggles over land and resources and conflicts with ethnic dimensions.

Irrespective of Hitchens recent self promoting debate with Blair on religion, both men shared a faith based politics in regard to Iraq, seeing only what they wanted to and being obsessed with glory and a battle of civilisation over barbarism. Not an oil grab an the opening salvo in an epoch of resource wars.

Hitchens will be remembered as a footnote in cultural history and in the same way Sidney Webb is primarily remembered for having supported Stalin so too will Hitchens be remembered for backing Bush in Iraq and being typical of a kind of radical liberal who supported credal wars without scepticism.

Hitchens' polemic God is Not Great will be remembered, if at all, as strong in rhetoric and a weak rehash of atheist arguments used to prop up the facile notion that "religion" is "the cause" of conflict when it will be obvious that the pathological struggle over diminishing oil and gas is the driving force.

George Orwell was a brave man. Hitchens can offer no comparison here despite being lauded by Hitchens in Orwell's Victory. There will be no book in future years after Hitchen's death entitled Hitchen's Victory. Hitchens attempted to emulate Orwell in some ways but failed miserably.
The reason is obvious: the conflict between Islamists and the West does not replicate anything very similar to that between the Soviet Union and the West that emerged in the 1930s and 1940s and dominated international politics during the Cold War.

By seeing the conflict in messianic terms by transposing the categories inherited from the Cold War on to the emergence after 1989-1990 of the Islamist Threat, Hitchen's willed the belief that by taking on remnant Arab dictatorships, even secular ones, that "Islamofascism" could be defeated.

By not bothering to look at the particular hisory of Iraq or the documented facts showing that Iraq was to be invaded as part of a strategy of controlling oil and using that as part of a gamble for regional and global hegemony, Hitchens showed a lack of courage in facing up to facts.


One hostile response to this dissection of Hitchen's pose was offered by one blogger thus,
Unfortunately, there are now many people.... who seem to have absorbed uncritically a one-dimensional "economic determinist" narrative of a complex geo-political conflict—and to a degree, I suspect, that would make even the vulgar Marxists of the SWP blush.

However, it would still be wrong for Mr Hitchens to cave in to such morally vacuous, populist formulations and admit that he was wrong about the Iraq war if he doesn't think he was. It my view, if he did destroy his "reputation" with such people in the cause of Kurdish freedom, it was a bargain trade.
The commenter is wrong. I have continually stressed precisely the opposite case to anything resembling "economic determinism". That Iraq was essentially an oil grab does not mean there were not other geopolitical factors at work-using oil as a lever against the Chinese, creating a democratic domino effect etc.

The point about the invasion of Iraq is that it need not have happened and was predictably going to lead to the fragmentation of the state into ethnic and sectarian warfare. The aim of the war was to control oil and not for corporations to make a profit as anti-war SWP types go on about.

The simple fact is that the west is overdependent upon oil in dangerous areas. Anyway this blogger obviously exhibits the usual shoddy line of reasoning of those who think that any mention of the oil as a documented fact in driving the Iraq War is some kind of sinister Marxist-Leninist.

And that this must mean Hitchens was "right" to support the war on the basis of the inherently sinister mindset of those who opposed the war. Again that only reinforces the case I made which is that this is not a logical position to take as it failed to look at what was at stake.

Nor is the one which rationalises the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Arab Iraqis on the basis that the war has liberated the Kurds in northern Iraq. That could be one benefit, but the question would remain whether the number of Kurds being killed on the eve of the war outnumbered those killed elsewhere since.

Yet to reduce the "moral" case for war to such an ethnically based arithmetic of death would be in line with the way the US has been willing to go against all principles in effectively collaborating with death squads and ethnic cleansing to impose authority and control.

To come back to the issue of Hitchens, it is not very brave to fail to admit that the invasion was a huge mistake and to refuse to see what was at stake was oil. And, moreover, that the West is overdependent upon it and built into the fabric of a supermarket shopping Great Car Economy.

That's something RESPECT anti-war types seldom bring up as they are populists who want to tell people what they want to hear no less than Hitchens and "pro-liberation leftists" actually do. The notion that Iraq was not about corporations enriching themselves but strategic desperation is simply too frightening.


  1. Give me his brother anyday...

    Kope Lat BTW..

  2. Great article. Christopher Hitchens is a bit of a sad figure in my opinion. I don’t think he will be remembered positively by serious historians.