May 24, 2013
Christopher Hitchens: A Jingo in Every Essential Way
Posted on Jan 24, 2013
But it was Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq, whose protest reanimated a seemingly moribund antiwar movement after the calamitous 2004 presidential election, that really aroused Hitchens’s spleen. Here was a “shifty fantasist”, “spouting sinister piffle”, blaming the Iraq war on a Jewish conspiracy. The ground for this accusation was a statement attributed to Sheehan which said that her son “was killed for lies and for a PNAC Neo-Con agenda to benefit Israel. My son joined the army to protect America, not Israel.”
Sheehan denied saying these words, but even allowing that she may have done, there is not a word about a ‘Jewish cabal’ in Sheehan’s statement, far less anything “LaRouche-like” in her argument. But Hitchens persisted, accusing Sheehan of “echoing the Bin-Ladenist line that the president is the real ‘terrorist’ and that he is the tool of a Jewish cabal”. Not just a LaRouchie, then, but also an Al Qaeda co-ideologue. Challenged about this by his former ally, Alexander Cockburn, he retreated on the “LaRouchie” defamation, and insisted that he had not characterised Sheehan as anti-Jewish. Yet, several years on, when asked about the same incident by Brian Lamb, he again asserted that Sheehan had described the Iraq war as one fought for “the Jewish people”. Hitchens was certainly not ignorant of the way in which such innuendo and outright slander has been used to stifle debate, and not just on the question of Israel. As he wrote to Alexander Cockburn, this “slander” was “often used” against those who defended the Palestinians including himself.
It may be that, by this point, Hitchens was simply incapable of rationality. The more likely diagnosis is that he had no interest in rational political conduct. In every essential way, he had become a jingo.
Having decided that he could have a patriotism that was both universalist and cosmopolitan, Hitchens also fancied that he could have imperialism without divide-and-rule, without client-states, and without the vicious massacres of the colonial era. With this in mind, he set about the search for an intellectual and moral lineage, and alighted on Jefferson and Paine. Had not Paine wanted America to be a superpower for democracy? Had not Jefferson fought the Barbary pirates to stop Muslim slavery?
Thus was Hitchens’s new dispensation confected, as he vaunted a “new imperialism” whose aim would be to “enable local populations to govern themselves”. No more client-states, no more divide-and-rule, just the spread of liberal institutions as the last best hope for mankind. “If the United States will dare to declare out loud for empire, it had better be in its capacity as a Thomas Paine arsenal, or at the very least a Jeffersonian one.” The sotto voce subtext here was that, as capitalism was a revolutionary system, the only revolution left standing in fact, the freeing up of markets coupled with the spread of liberal, pluralist institutions was itself the most progressive step available. Jeffersonian imperialism was thus neoliberal imperialism with a faint left patina.
Hitchens had not initially favoured an outright invasion of Iraq, but increasingly he argued there would be no war but simply a bounteous liberation, almost blood-free. Soldiers would be high-fiving liberated Iraqis, distributing laptop computers and humanitarian aid to the needful subjects of Saddam. The attack would be “dazzling”, he fancied, and would be greeted as an “emancipation” – “bring it on”. Not only was Jeffersonian imperialism exceptionally light on its feet, however: it was restless, expansionist, constantly looking for new destinations. So, Hitchens told his friend James Fenton privately that he expected Iraq to become both a protectorate of the United States and simultaneously a base from which democracy would be exported to Saudi Arabia and other regional dictatorships.
But, as the occupation unravelled, seemingly disclosing new depths of depravity every day, the paeans to liberation gave way to a savage rhetoric of conquest. There had always been a great deal of scaremongering in Hitchens’s pro-war arguments. Saddam was Hitler and Stalin combined, he said. What have we been waiting for, he wondered? Saddam has both weapons and underground chambers - just you wait. When “just you wait” became “never mind”, Hitchens purported to have been dispirited by the Bush administration choosing to “frighten people” rather than “enlightening them”. But he had been unmistakeably implicated in the administration’s propaganda, not just as a member of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, a friend of Paul Wolfowitz and an ally of Ahmed Chalabi, but as a journalist.
The most telling aspect of this was Hitchens’s discovery of the menace of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Hitchens’s first mention of Zarqawi was in February 2003, after Colin Powell had brought him up. The “presence of al-Qaeda under the Iraqi umbrella is suggested chiefly by Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, a senior bin-Laden aide and an enthusiast for chemical and biological tactics,” he claimed. Meanwhile, “most US intelligence officials now agree that it is unlikely to be a coincidence that the pro-al-Qaeda gang, Ansar al-Islam, is fighting to destroy the independent Kurdish leadership in the northern part of Iraq that has been freed from Saddam Hussein’s control.”
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