Monthly Archives: December 2011

Christopher Hitchens: Just the Man

A friend of mine observed upon news of the sudden death of North Korean despot Kim Jong-Il how unfortunate it was that Christopher Hitchens did not at least live long-enough to witness his demise an ironic 2 days after his own.  I both agreed and felt it wasn’t so inherently-tragic: While Hitchens’ own tireless passion for the liberation of peoples suggests he is among those who believe that nothing is providential or inevitable about the struggle against despotism, both his prose and his public speech suggest the quality of a champion of enlightenment and liberation who suspects he will not have to contend with his adversaries for long–at least not in historical terms.

In an age of vulgar peddlers of fruitless confrontation and eloquent pleaders for civil accommodation, Christopher Hitchens was neither.  His was an eloquent plea for vitalizing confrontation.  He was a fine Nietzschean agonist, allowing that a mostly-conventional Democratic Socialist can be a Nietzschean agonist.  He was a mid-20th century leftist-populist all his life, inspired by George Orwell both in his embrace of the traditional movement for Social Democracy and in always volunteering his prose for the offensive against those who seek to close down debate through assertions of authority.  His particular revulsion towards religion led him to the enthusiastic (though not unqualified) embrace of President George W. Bush’s War on Terrorism and Iraq War, making the otherwise-unreconstructed Social Democrat into a Neoconservative for the rest of his life.  In 1 of his last publications before his death, Hitchens defended—with visible trepidation—our government’s intentional killing of a US citizen working with al-Qaeda in Yemen earlier this year.

Given this strange combination of influences and motions, each of which simultaneously made Hitchens “cool” and “not cool” to the more-dogmatic partisans of the left and the right, eulogies for the British reporter, author and polemicist have focused on his integrity.  This is considerable, for while many of Hitchens’ views were in substance more-moderate than those of the associations he made by them, his brilliance in expressing condemnation, contempt and counter-intuitive provocation meant that he would often sound like a committed partisan when he was in fact a studies recruit—and to stretch the military metaphor, an officer at that.  His reasons were at times thoughtful, at times less-so, but always clear.  While his passions were always substantively-political, he might still be best-understood as a writer.  No one can express himself so well without that very fact affecting everything he does.

Somehow I’m still skirting the subject of Christopher Hitchens the polemicist.  This would be the time to note that Hitchens’ success as a public intellectual is about the presence of a particular vice among his obligatorily-recited virtues: Hitchens could be as expressively-shrill as he was substantively-rational.  In short, he developed his talent for drawing blood with prose because he was a hothead.

If you have any doubt of this, consider that Hitchens was beaten and almost kidnapped by the Syrian Social Nationalist Party—a Lebanese Facist faction—after he defaced one of their publicly-displayed swastikas with the Mother of All Curse Words.  Was he in the right?  Of course.  Was he doing something impulsive at great personal risk, with naught but a personal sense of satisfaction to be gained?  Of course.

What are we to say in response when, at the outset of the War on Terror, Hitchens’ opening remark is simply “You want to be a martyr? I’m game.”?  William F. Buckley Jr., that part-Paleoconservative, pre-New Right founder of the National Review, expressed himself similarly though more-mutedly, in “So You Want a Holy War?”  Hitchens’ enthusiasm for a war against zealots, I suspect, was motivated not by the exact character or identity of those on whom we would make war, or by their intention or capability to do us harm.  Hitchens seemed as eager as anything simply to rinse the World of religious fundamentalism, as if this conflict really were of the same nature as 1 immense war against Fascism, or perhaps like many large wars against Communism fought across 2 generations.  Now, as domestic protest movements topple long-ruling dictatorships and amidst the transitions we frantically try to sort-out the “good Islamists” from the “bad Islamists”—there is a difference and we had better develop an eye for it—everything begins to look more-complex than it did in Hitchens’ Enlightenment typology.

Still, if “we” (I leave it to the reader to imagine the faction) could laud all of Hitchens’ judgments in matters political, would he have had his integrity?  He threw in like a partisan but thought for himself–and thus across party lines–and he would write prose as beautiful or as ugly as the point he wanted to make required.  As much as a journalist can be, he was an exemplary public intellectual, unconcerned with silly conceits like “objectivity” or standing “above the fray.”  He never crowed loudly, and he would stay with a cause, like the Iraq War, after it had become unpopular if he still judged that it was right.  He presented himself as a man possessed of few delusions, and as he was when he ridiculed the propaganda of dictators or the public censure of makers of respectable opinion, he was telling us the truth.

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George W. Bush’s Legacy in Iraq

Happy Hanukkah, Happy Winter Solstice.  Now that that’s out of the way, I’m in a bad mood–on account of a reflection.  If any confusion remains about this, George W. Bush wasn’t just a poor manager of our nation’s resources, good will and foreign relationships, he was uselessly so to boot.  While the Arab Spring uprising has trivialized the purported democratization mission of the Iraq War at so far a comparably minimal cost of blood and treasure, Iraq’s current political leadership has found it in its interest to make a mockery of the enterprise itself.  The political news coming out of Iraq right now is decidedly bad: Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of the ruling Shi’a-Arab Islamic Dawa Party waited until the withdrawal of the last US forces from Iraq–withdrawn because we could not work-out an agreement with his government on terms of basing and training of Iraqi troops that wouldn’t leave our soldiers open to Iraqi arrest and prosecution–to charge Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi with running a death squad.  He has fled to Iraqi Kurdistan–the autonomous northern mountain region populated by Iraq’s large ethnic-minority Kurds; their Peshmerga militia is comparable in size to the Iraqi Army itself, so they may not feel compelled to obey the Prime Minister’s demand that al-Hashemi be extradited–er, remanded to Baghdad to stand trial on these charges.

The Iraqi Prime Minister said in 2009 that he didn't want to run for another term as Prime Minister. He won that new term he didn't want in the controversial spring 2010 national elections. Now, in response to the Arab Spring protests, al-Maliki says he won't run for a 3rd term in 2014 in the interest of the movement for Arab democracy. Maybe he means it, and maybe we should bear in mind that President Hosni Mubarak kept Egypt in a "state of emergency" for 30 years, and that Ali Abdullah Saleh promised several times to relinquish power in Yemen this year, and yet he is still contending to regain control after a wounding attempt on his life this summer. Just sayin'. Photo courtesy of REUTERS.

Prime Minister al-Maliki seems to be able to run the modern Iraq; the question is whether the question is whether this is actually a fact that commends him.  David Ignatius made this point precisely in a column 1 week ago in which he rightly identified Maliki’s ethical failures as his tactical merits: Nouri al-Maliki is “a man of the shadows,” the sort of man who rises to the top of a consensual government in Iraq following years of extreme authoritarianism.  He is also a perfect specimen of the sort of public figure it must be able to overcome in the future: Iraq labors for want of good intellectuals, reformers, and public servants; of those tolerated or able to endure Saddam’s regime, many were demoralized and fled the new Iraq while others were killed in its apparent chaos of contending factions.  The survivors, Ignatius reasons, were the schemers.  1 of  them was good-enough (and lucky-enough) to become Prime Minister.  Now he is casting stones, seeking to do away with political opponents whom the country’s constitutional structure and democratic procedures have granted a share of power.

The Iraqi Prime Minister may face sufficient institutional constraints and insufficient resources to become a dictator on the Cold War Arab state model, but a combination of national paranoia, a combination of ethnic clientelism and ethnic triumphalism, politically-convenient security charges against the Sunni political opposition and patronage fed through oil money could render the new Iraq about as corrupt and unaccountable as any Gulf state. Given its geo-strategic situation, demographics, resource endowments and peculiar ethnic divisions and history of oligarchic institutions, Iraq if anything appears to have been a poor choice for President W. Bush’s presumptuous social experiment.

The new Iraq will probably welcome alliance with the United States even if the government was hostile to US basing (as it appears it will be eager for the material assistance to balance against Iranian influence). Iraqi oil will be open to international markets, which will be good for us and a positive improvement, whatever the details, over Iraqi isolation and starvation. But this is a shamefully-meager result considering the money we spent, the bridges we burned, and the blood we both lost and spilt in the 8 1/2-years of war in Iraq. The most-remarkable thing about the Arab Spring protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Syria and even the Palestinian Territories is how trivial and peripheral our invasion and reconstruction of Iraq was to all of that.

Thanks to this ill-conceived attempt to seize control of History or whatever, there is now a fair prospect of a succession of ethnic and sectarian disputes roiling every country from Lebanon to Iran, including Turkey. I know counterfactuals always presume too much, and previous repression and clientelism by Saddam’s regime might have made some level of violent social dysfunction during a democratic transition unavoidable. But I don’t see how the arrival of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia or the ethnic cleansing work of the Shi’a militias enters into the picture on that account.

All we’ve got for our trouble is no Army bases, another felonious oil ministry to deal with, larger budget deficits, a raised Iranian profile in the region, and a religiously- and ethnically-segregated Iraq enjoying the kind of nominal republican government currently being overthrown in other Arab countries by young people organized principally by telecommunications. George W. Bush deserves our contempt now that we’ve seen such an absurd end come to such a needless war.

I GUESS WE HAVE YOU TO THANK FOR THIS: Outgoing President George W. Bush shakes hands with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who it seems brooks no opposition, just over 3 years ago. Photo by Thaier al-Sudani-Pool/Getty Images