Hitchens turns to fatalism
Since his conversion to a 'left-wing' brand of neo-conservatism in the aftermath of 9/11, Christopher Hitchens has made himself one of the most aggressive attack dogs of the US ruling class. In scores of articles for right-wing publications like the Wall Street Journal Hitchens has denounced opponents of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq as fellow travellers of fascism and deadly enemies of the Iraqi people. For Hitchens, the Western anti-war movement has been little better than a fifth column threatening to undermine the revolutionary struggle for democracy and the free market being waged by those well-known heroes of the people George Bush and Dick Cheney.
Faced with Galbraith's meticulously unsympathetic take on Bush foreign policy, though, Hitchens has adopted a tone which contrasts strikingly with the aggression and gung ho optimism of his recent journalism. He talks of the 'misery and sectarianism' being suffered by Iraqis, and calls life in Baghdad 'hellish'.
I've discussed the ideological tendency Hitchens represents several times before on this blog, and suggested that this tendency fell into deep crisis as soon as the US adventure in Iraq began to turn into a disaster. Some of Hitchens' friends in the neo-con movement have also been at a low ebb, but they now appear to be enjoying a second wind, as Israel's attacks on Lebanon give them a new war to rally around.
But Hitchens and most of the rest of the 'pro-war left' appear unwilling or unable to hitch their wagon to the new war, and this is perhaps not surprising: even commentators as shameless as Hitchens and his mate Norm Geras would find it rather hard to present Israel's bombing of power stations and dairy factories as part as some sort of crusade for social democracy in Lebanon. Hitchens' response to the Middle East's newest crisis has been glumly and no doubt reluctantly critical of the Bush administration and its puppets in Israel.
Hitchens' hopes for Iraq now seem to rest on the prospect of some sort of partition of the country, and on the development of an oasis of democracy in Kurdistan. His optimism about the situation in Kurdistan isn't shared by the Kurdish left, which complains of persecution by peshmerga militias and even of a creeping fascism.
What is perhaps most notable about Hitchens' review of Galbraith's book, though, is the explanation it offers for the disaster which has befallen Iraq since its 'liberation' three and a quarter years ago. While Hitchens accepts that the liberators have been monumnetally incompetent, he uses Galbraith to argue that Iraq was always doomed to disaster, invoking a strange sort of cartographic determinism to make his point:
Iraq was a bad idea as a state to begin with, and has been falling apart for a very long time. Given this, it is difficult to imagine any American statecraft that could (or even should) have held it together.
It's true that the borders of Iraq are quite arbitrary, and that Iraqi nationalism did not exist even a hundred years ago, but similar points could be made about most countries in the Middle East, and indeed in the Third World as a whole. European colonists drew boundaries that suited them, not the peoples they oppressed for so long. Why doesn't most of the post-colonial world look like Baghdad? Galbraith knows, but Hitchens apparently doesn't.
But it's difficult to believe Hitchens takes the details of his own argument too seriously. He seems concerned not to give a coherent explanation of the disaster that has befallen Iraq, but rather to accept some of the reality of the situation in Iraq without also accepting any of the anti-war left's arguments about the malign nature of US imperialism. To this end he seems happy to borrow the crudely racist argument of those sections of the US right that have turned anti-war - namely, the view that the Iraqis were too primitive to 'handle' their 'liberation' - and tinker with it to make it slightly less offensive.
Where the likes of William Buckley jr baldly state that Iraqis are not civilised enough to build a democratic society, Hitchens fetishises Iraqi history, arguing that the boundaries and ethnic mix British colonialism bequeathed to the country made disaster inevitable. Hitchens' earlier ebullient aggression has been replaced by a weary fatalism. A more honest man would have fallen into an embarrassed silence.