Sunday, October 08, 2006

Our public intellectuals at work

Many people, myself included, have been eager to hear what Christopher Hitchens has to say about Bob Woodward's revelation that Henry Kissinger has been advising President Bush on Iraq. I read Hitchens' book The Trial of Henry Kissinger over the summer, and I recommend it to anyone who wants to know about the Nixon (Kissinger) government's complicity in a staggering number of human rights violations (Bangladesh, Cyprus, East Timor, and of course, Vietnam). It's also a good way to see the old, pre-9/11 Hitchens in action, as he's completely different now (all the while claiming that his views haven't changed).

Well, Hitchens' new column is out, and it's a doozy. One can only imagine the extreme mental gymnastics that had to be carried out in order for Hitchens to square the circle of his arch-nemesis acting in collusion with his neocon heroes. His column basically amounts to this: there is some obligatory name-calling ("bungling old war criminal," "his usual standard of depraved politics and world-class disaster-mongering," "the malign effect of this little gargoyle"), a truly specious argument that attempts to separate Kissingerian aims from neoconservative ones while at the same time blaming everything that's gone wrong in Iraq on Kissinger and his associate Paul Bremer, and an astonishingly dishonest analysis of Kissinger's influence on Bush.

The ad hominem elements are largely a smokescreen. Hitchens has no new things to say about Kissinger, and the onus is entirely on him to show how he can continue to support Bush in good faith, so he falls back on some of his typically venomous polemics. The problem is that at the end of the day, even if Kissinger is a troll he's now Bush's troll, and he seems to have been for quite some time.

In order to counter this potentially fatal fact, Hitchens tries to say that Kissinger has never been a good regime-changer the way Bush, Wolfowitz & co. have. "Nonetheless, in the debate on whether to actually intervene in Iraq in the first place, it was noticeable that the proponents of 'regime change' generally defined themselves as anti-Kissingerian." In other words, we good, noble people have always held to the path of truth and justice, promoting freedom and liberation for the Iraqis, while Kissinger & associates skulked in the background, doing nothing, propping up evil dictatorships like they always do. Unfortunately for Hitchens, he links to an article by Kissinger that absolutely dashes this thesis to pieces. In it Kissinger presents himself as an even more hardcore neoconservative than those selling the war strictly on the "self-defense" basis: "The issue is not whether Iraq was involved in the terrorist attack on the United States. The challenge of Iraq is essentially geopolitical...The remaining regimes flirting with terrorist fundamentalism or acquiescing in its exactions would be driven to shut down their support of terrorism." If this is not the "painful birthpangs of a new Middle East" rhetoric of the Bush administration, I don't know what is. Hitchens zeroes in on a few stupid statements tossed off by Kissinger about China and the "Sunni majority," as if these gaffes nullified Kissinger's greater argument, which states very plainly that the United States should overthrow unfriendly regimes in order to further our interests and those of our friends.

Then there's this gem by Hitchens:

"During the Bremer period of governance in Baghdad, both the transfer of sovereignty to Iraqis and the calling of elections were fatally postponed (perhaps when it was hastily discovered that a combined Kurdish and Shiite list could win a vote). It has proved difficult, if not impossible, to regain the political ground that was lost in that time. Shall we never be free of the malign effect of this little gargoyle and his ideas?"

As if it was only through the machinations of Kissinger and his stooge Bremer that the elections were postponed! The truth, as these news articles make clear, and as this Juan Cole analysis nicely summarizes, is that the American provisional government, with the approval of the Bush administration (who else??), had no intention of allowing elections until Sistani's fatwas brought thousands of protesters to the streets. It's possible, but highly unlikely, that Bush, Bremer et al. really did think that the country was too unstable for elections; what's more probable is that they wanted to hand the government over to a strongman of their choosing, namely Ahmad Chalabi or someone else once he was disgraced. When Hitchens says "it has proved difficult, if not impossible, to regain the political ground that was lost in that time," he is ironically correct: if not for the pesky democratic tendences of Iraqi citizens, we might have had a puppet government we could count on by now.

Hitchens' final paragraph is just too rich:

"If Kissinger really does have anything to do with the conduct of Iraq policy, then what we should fear is not just another attempt at moral blackmail of those who call for withdrawal. For the analogy to hold, we should have to find that while this militant rhetoric was being deployed in public a sellout, and a scuttle was being prepared behind the scenes. We are not fighting the Viet Cong in Iraq but the Khmer Rouge. A bungled withdrawal would lead to another Cambodia, not another Vietnam. It would be too horrible for Kissinger to live to see two such triumphs."

Now, every news story about Woodward's book has pointed out that Kissinger's advice to Bush has been that "victory is the only meaningful exit strategy." As Woodward rightly notes, "This is so fascinating. Kissinger's fighting the Vietnam War again because, in his view, the problem in Vietnam was we lost our will." There is no reason whatsoever to assume that Kissinger is saying these things to Bush while "secretly" preparing a "scuttle" behind the scenes. Hitchens simply has to make this stuff up in order to save his own ass. This is the lie that will allow him to rest easy at night, thinking that he and Kissinger are still mortal enemies, locked in hand-to-hand combat, when in fact they are, have been, and will continue to be part of the same team on the Iraq War. There is no way to know Hitchens' true motives, whether he honestly favors regime-change as a way to promote democracy or simply signed on to promote a war that would win him friends and influence. I dunno, maybe both. But it's been fascinating to watch this extremely intelligent and highly talented polemicist abdicate virtually all principle in his apologetics of the war. And now the former Trotskyite has met his strangest bedfellow by far.


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