Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Hitchens turns to fatalism

Over at leftwrites Gary Pearce has been pondering the sombre and respectful review that pro-war gadfly Christopher Hitchens has given to Peter Galbraith's new book The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End. Galbraith is the son of that wonderfully haughty liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith, and his book drips with disdain for the crudities and inanities of George Bush's worldview and foreign policy. (Galbraith's revelation that at the beginning of 2003 Bush did not even know the meaning of the terms 'Sunni' and 'Shia' is delivered with particular contempt.)

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.


Blogger Jeff Sparrow said...

Hitchens' devolution is fascinating, in an awful way.
I reckon it works like this. As he moves from Marxism (or at least radicalism) to liberalism, he loses any sense of totality. He can see the war in Iraq as a liberation, because he's against dictators. But he refuses to make any connection between means and ends, or, indeed, between GWB's overthrow of Saddam and, say, the Republican pandering to the backwater idiocies of the Christian right.
So Hitchens' writings now are all incredibly compartmentalised. He writes obsessively, for instance, about Iraq and Islam and the defense of the enlightenment -- but says nothing about how the people he supports are campaigning against Charles Darwin in the United States.
At the same time, he hides his retreat from radicalism from himself by continuing to attack liberals in the same style he used when he was a socialist. They don't go far enough; they don't think things through; they prefer snivelling piecemeal changes rather than grand gestures. In particular, they flinch from violence, while Hitchens maintains his swaggering radical persona by an overt embrace of it. Unlike most of the cruise missile liberals, he doesn't use euphemisms. He revels in talking about killing terrorists and obliterating jihadists, in much the same way a certain kind of obnoxious young man, when he joins a Trotskyist group, takes to glorying in Kronstadt (rather than, say, accepting it as a horrible necessity).
Of course, the other people on the US political scene who love violence are the Neanderthal Right -- and this is where the Galbraith review comes in. For what does Hitchens really have in common with the kinds of people his politics have drawn him towards? He's a sophisticated Oxbridge graduate, not some hill-billy reader of the Left Behind books.
That's another reason why he spends all his time polemicising against the liberals, for fighting against them (which is pretty much all he does in his Slate columns these days) at least allows him to engage with people with whom he has something in common. I reckon he's changed his tone now because he recognises that he's starting to lose his influence in liberal circles -- and once that happens, what's he left with? He doesn't want to end up with the Bible-thumping Right and, more to the point, they have no use for a cosmopolitan literary egghead, anyway.
Hence the new respectful tone about the Galbraith book.
That's my theory anyway.

10:50 pm  

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