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A proper account

The first requirement of intellectual debate

. . . Nor is it even half-true to say, of those who advocated an intervention in Iraq, that they concluded “that the ‘root cause’ of terrorism lay in the Middle East’s lack of democracy, that the United States had both the wisdom and the ability to fix this problem and that democracy would come quickly and painlessly to Iraq.

The first requirement of anyone engaging in an intellectual or academic debate is that he or she be able to give a proper account of the opposing position(s), and Fukuyama simply fails this test. The term “root causes” was always employed ironically (as the term “political correctness” used to be) as a weapon against those whose naive opinions about the sources of discontent were summarized in that phrase. It wasn’t that the Middle East “lacked democracy” so much that one of its keystone states was dominated by an unstable and destabilizing dictatorship led by a psychopath. And it wasn’t any illusion about the speed and ease of a transition so much as the conviction that any change would be an improvement.

Christopher Hitchens, March 2006


There will be no war, but there will be a fairly brief and ruthless military intervention to remove the Saddam Hussein regime, long overdue. […] What will happen will be this: The president will give an order, there will then occur in Iraq a show of military force like nothing probably the world has ever seen. It will be rapid and accurate and overwhelming enough to deal with an army or a country many times the size of Iraq. That will be greeted by the majority of Iraqi and Kurdish people as a moment of emancipation, which will be a pleasure to see, and then the hard work of the reconstitution of Iraqi society and the repayment of our debt – some part of our debt to them – can begin, and I say bring it on.

Christopher Hitchens, January 2003

  1. 1  bobw  October 1, 2006, 6:58 pm 

    Aside from being wrong as a predictor, Hitchens straight out lies about what the neocons and Bush did say prior to the war. He says they didn’t “conclude” that the problem of the Middle East was the absence of democracy, or that the US had the wisdom and ability to quickly install it. They may not have “concluded” that, but they sure said it, over and over.

    He says the phrase “root causes” was used ironically — by whom? He must mean the neocons. Certainly they used the word “evidence”, as applied to WMD and Al Q’aeda connections, ironically.

    What Hitchens actually illustrates here, as he always does, is that the first “requirement of an intellectual debate” is to misrepresent the position of your opponent.

  2. 2  DF  October 2, 2006, 12:21 pm 

    A small point, but one that may be worth noting if one wants to plot Hitchens’ changing views against changing events. The more recent piece which you cite (in which, I suppose, out of fairness, we should point out that Hitchens’ conceded this: “we did indeed underestimate the ferocity and ruthlessness of the jihadists in Iraq”) was posted in March 2006, rather than September.

  3. 3  Steven  October 2, 2006, 1:01 pm 

    Ah yes, for some reason I assumed it was a review of Fukuyama’s book, which just came out.

    The purpose of the juxtaposition was not merely to show Hitchens’s failure as a predictor, or even his changing views, but to solicit opinions as to how far he is actually misrepresenting his own earlier views. In the earlier quote, of course, Hitchens does refer to the “hard work of the reconstitution of Iraq society”, and so this is not to say that democracy would come “quickly and painlessly” to Iraq. However, his 2003 assertion that there would be “no war”, rather a “rapid and accurate” “intervention”, greeted as a “moment of emancipation”, does nevertheless speak of “speed and ease” of some part of the “transition”, a speed and ease that in 2006 he denied that anyone ever believed in. Never mind the opposing position; does Hitchens give a proper account of his own?

  4. 4  DF  October 2, 2006, 4:24 pm 

    It’s on the question of Hitchens’ self-misrepresentation that I thought the quotation I flagged up at #2 above was interesting. In it he seems to concede that over-optimistic assessments were made by the proponents of the war, including himself, something which, as you note, he wierldly refuses to concede elsewhere in the same piece. (The Fukuyama book was published in February, apparently.)

  5. 5  Steven  October 2, 2006, 4:31 pm 

    Recently in UK. It’s just been reviewed in the TLS as it happens.

    I agree your other quote is interesting, particularly because there weren’t many “jihadists in Iraq” before the war. You can hardly underestimate the ferocity of people who don’t exist.

  6. 6  DF  October 2, 2006, 4:38 pm 

    23rd March in the UK. But the TLS takes it own sweet time.

  7. 7  Steven  October 2, 2006, 4:45 pm 

    28th March, actually. As you admit, that is recently in the TLS’s view. (They took six months to review my book as well.) But thanks for caring.

  8. 8  Steven  October 2, 2006, 8:42 pm 

    Does no one else have any views about what Hitchens actually wrote instead of about the publication dates of books by former neocons? Because the latter is going to make for a very boring thread.

    What about his 2006 characterization of Iraq pre-2003 as “unstable”? Arguably, it was very stable indeed.

    Or what about his excited 2003 prediction of “a show of military force like nothing probably the world has ever seen”? A show? Looks to me that Hitchens was in fact confident that the US had the “ability” to “fix” at least one problem.

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