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To do at least something

Hitchens’s appetite for destruction

Christopher Hitchens throws down an easily-met challenge:

Go look this up, and you will discover that those who didn’t want to confront Slobodan Milosevic or Saddam Hussein would always stress the awesome power of violence that they had at their command. If NATO bombed the Serbian positions around Sarajevo, say, it would unleash a monster of reaction that would draw a Russian intervention on the side of Belgrade, trigger a massive backlash throughout the Balkans, drown the region in bloodshed and “a wider war,” and all that. Likewise, a military move against Saddam Hussein would incite him to saturate our troops with chemical weapons, ignite the oilfields, destroy Israel, inflame the “Arab street,” and overthrow every friendly Middle Eastern government, etc., etc. Those of us who wanted to get rid of these hideous governments were bombarded with arguments that said, in effect, they are not only a threat but actually a lethal threat, and their forces are made up of people who are 10 feet tall.

Oh, I did just look it up, and it’s bullshit? Those who argued against invading Iraq in 2003 did not, in fact, “always” argue that war was undesirable because Saddam was too fearsome. But Hitchens needs to rewrite history in this way as a set-up for the self-congratulatorily contrarian logic of the rest of the piece. It goes like this:

1 Iran might not be as close to getting a nuclear weapon as we thought; therefore
2 It is all the more imperative that we attack Iran now!

Oh, did I say “attack Iran”? I paraphrase. It is not quite what Hitchens says. Instead, he muses delicately on our duty to “disarm the mullahs”, and toys with the idea of “a minor disruption or dislocation of one of the existing key Iranian sites”. There is the issue of that tedious conventional military wisdom, which holds, as Hitchens sighs, “The target sites are, anyway, too much dispersed and too deeply buried. You know how it goes.” Yet even if that’s true, Hitchens cannot bear the idea of sitting in his armchair without warlike acts being performed on his behalf, and his final way of not actually saying “Let’s attack Iran now!” has an almost plaintive desperation to it:

Against this, we are at least entitled to consider the idea that a decaying regime that is bluffing and buying (or rather stealing) time on weapons of mass destruction is in a condition that makes this the best moment to do at least something to raise the cost of the lawlessness and to slow down and sabotage the preparations.

To do at least something. Well, do what exactly? And ought we to do it even if it won’t work? Hitchens’s style of “thought” here is, it seems, a form of Politicians’ Logic, which goes:

Something must be done. This is something, therefore we must do it.

I note finally that Hitchens also has a little comic fun on the side, speaking of the “spastic missiles” made by North Korea. If it were not so amazingly crass, the phrase spastic missiles might best be employed as a description of Christopher Hitchens’s own columns these days.

  1. 1  underspecified  October 21, 2009, 8:41 am 

    While I largely agree with your conclusions, linking to a French-language article without a translation isn’t exactly conclusive evidence that Hitchen’s claims are, as you so eloquently put it, “bullshit.” Surely you can find a reference in English if his challenge is as easily met as you say.

  2. 2  Dave Weeden  October 21, 2009, 8:51 am 

    It’s hardly worth bothering with Hitchens these days. Everything he writes seems to be encoded for fellow true believers, and only makes any sense if you’re nodding along (very like an acolyte before a mullah). Note the sloppy writing here “Those of us who wanted to get rid of these hideous governments were bombarded with arguments that said, in effect, they are not only a threat but actually a lethal threat, and their forces are made up of people who are 10 feet tall.” “… _they_ are … _a_ threat…”? But I think this is how Hitchens kind of percieves all enemies of the US: several armies, but only one war. Though the word that really offends me is ‘lethal’ and Hitchens’ need to emphasise ‘lethal threat’ by repetition. What other kind of threat do bombs and guns and chemical weapons constitute? Though he may mean ‘lethal to the US/Western Civilisation’ though I don’t believe anyone ever considered that, much less argued it.

  3. 3  Steven  October 21, 2009, 9:36 am 

    #1 — I am sorry for the French. Perhaps you would prefer the resignation speech of the late Robin Cook MP?:

    The legal basis for our action in Kosovo was the need to respond to an urgent and compelling humanitarian crisis. Our difficulty in getting support this time is that neither the international community nor the British public is persuaded that there is an urgent and compelling reason for this military action in Iraq.

    The threshold for war should always be high. None of us can predict the death toll of civilians from the forthcoming bombardment of Iraq, but the US warning of a bombing campaign that will “shock and awe” makes it likely that casualties will be numbered at least in the thousands. […]

    Ironically, it is only because Iraq’s military forces are so weak that we can even contemplate its invasion.

    There are, of course, innnumerable other examples.

  4. 4  underspecified  October 21, 2009, 10:34 am 

    #3 — My thanks and apologies, Steven. Your relink made me notice that “not” and “in fact” were linked to different places; one, of course, being MP Robin Cook’s speech, which you took the time to quote in the comment.

  5. 5  Steven  October 21, 2009, 10:44 am 

    They weren’t at first, so thanks for prompting me to provide bilingual evidence!

  6. 6  underspecified  October 21, 2009, 10:46 am 

    Not all of us can be Le Monde reading French polyglots! ;-)

  7. 7  NomadUK  October 21, 2009, 11:41 am 

    Not all of us can be Le Monde reading French polyglots! ;-)

    No, but we can aspire to be so, and feel suitably chagrined and worthless that we are not.

    I know I do.

  8. 8  Barney  October 21, 2009, 2:28 pm 

    I think Hitchens has been reading ‘Unspeak’ for tips on what to say in his columns. We have:

    “a robust American attitude toward totalitarian and aggressive states”

    “a minor disruption or dislocation of one of the existing key Iranian sites” – this makes it sound as if the postal strike might be extended to the centrifuge sites. Oh, I beg your pardon, the postal strike causes major disruptions, so Hitchens wants us to think of his preferred actions as more trivial than that. A ‘dislocation’? Moving the whole site a few feet to the left so that the road doesn’t quite reach it any more? Or is this Unspeak for turning the whole site from a ‘location’ into a ‘non-location’, ie bombing it out of existence (or, to use the contentious phrases in translation associated with Iran and its attitude to Israel, “wiping it from the map”/”erasing it from the pages of history”)?

  9. 9  Steven  October 21, 2009, 6:23 pm 

    Nice job, Barney (and thanks for doing my own self-linking for me!).

  10. 10  Alex  October 22, 2009, 3:39 pm 

    Note that it seems that the Iranian nuclear programme has been disrupted to the extent that it won’t have any uranium for the next year or so, by the means of “being nice to them”.

  11. 11  karl  October 29, 2009, 10:19 pm 

    Well, Hitchens is trying to retrospectively salvage his ‘credibility’ as a commentator on world events.

    The best way to acheive that is to link the fact that the Nato bombing of Serbia in 1999 acheived peace and progress of sorts for the former nations of Yugoslavia with Iraq which has dropped out of the news recently but remains a bloodbath.

    Hitchens conflates two very different wars out of context: the ethnic cleansing ( yes, it is a legitimate term and not Unspeak ) in Yugoslavia precededed Western military involvement wheras the ethnic-faith based conflict in Iraq followed it.

    Those who were opposed to the NATO campaign against Serbia might have done so due to concern for ‘stability’ but if so they actually concurred with the architects of the war who also aimed at it.

    The difference is between those who actually care about the intensification of human suffering and those who see human casualties and deaths as part of some impersonal arithmetic which is useful for hammering home polemics.

    The same is true of left wing ‘anti-imperialists’, those like Richard Seymour, George Galloway and Seumas Milne.

    With regard the USA, I think those like Holbrooke were not particularly interested in the price of bombing which was an escalation of the war on the ground between Serbs and Kosovans and the expulsion of 250,000 Serbs and Sinti.

    The challenge is for Hitchens to prove that all those who opposed the NATO campaign against Serbia were concerned with ‘stability’,

    By which he means the kind valued by practitioners of Kissengerian style realpolitik, or whether they may have had serious doubts about the costs that the USA was willing to accept to promote order in the Balkans.

    This is a serious historical question and not something that can be reduced to trite polemics designed to salvage Hitchens reputation as a cutting edge commentator after his prediction that taking out Saddam Hussein would be easy.

    The idea that it should be done to prove how evil could be defeated if only there was the political will to do so. And prove those willing supporters worthy of praise once the results came home.

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