HITCH-COCKED: A Conversation with Christopher Hitchens

Friday, March 25, 2005

Journalist Christopher Hitchens discusses neoconservatives and the left, his break with The Nation magazine over his support of the war in Iraq, and his tour of the three members of the "axis of evil."

Recorded on Friday, March 25, 2005

Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge: Christopher Hitchens, neat.

Announcer: Funding for this program is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation.


Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today: a conversation. Christopher Hitchens, for decades a dedicated leftist and a contributor to the left wing journal, The Nation. Hitchens broke with the magazine in a very public dispute over the war in Iraq and he is now a firm supporter of conservative President George W. Bush's foreign policy. During the war on terror, Hitchens has reported extensively from Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq. Some of his reporting is collected in his newest book: Love, Poverty and War.

Today then, the evolution of Christopher Hitchens.

Title: Time May Change Me…

Peter Robinson: American Heritage Dictionary. Trotskyist: a radical who adheres to the theories of communism advocated by Leon Trotsky, usually including the principle of worldwide revolution. Neo-conservative: a member of the political movement in favor of political, economic and social conservatism that arose in opposition to the liberalism of the 1960s. Christopher Hitchens, a radical in your youth, have you now joined the conservative reaction against the values of the 1960s that you, yourself, once celebrated?

Christopher Hitchens: Someone asked me the other day if I'd become a neo-con. And I thought well, I don't consider myself any kind of a conservative and I think that the problem may be originally in the definition. It was Michael Harrington who was a famous American socialist invented the term neo-con, I believe.

Peter Robinson: Did he? That I wasn't aware of.

Christopher Hitchens: To describe those of his former Trotskiest friends such as Irving Kristol who had evolved out of socialism altogether and towards a kind of market-based anti-communist liberalism, sometimes inflected by the writing of Leo Strauss. There were several Trotskyists who made that transition.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Christopher Hitchens: Well, if you look at what the neo-conservatives have been doing and saying in the last couple of years, you'd have to say they were the most radical faction in American politics it seems to me. I mean…

Peter Robinson: On account of?

Christopher Hitchens: …I mean, I've lived to see not just some of the triumphs of the sixties undergo diminishing returns but it--I've lived to see people on the supposed left say but if we removed Saddam Hussein it would destabilize the Middle East. Now whatever you want to call that position, you can't call it a radical one. You'd have to call that conservative or actually I would characterize it as a reactionary position. People who will take the bet on revolution and democracy and on the release of repressed political forces are not conservative.

Peter Robinson: Not conservatives.

Christopher Hitchens: Not by any definition known to me.

Peter Robinson: You in the sixties versus you today. Again, I want to--let me quote you to yourself. "I attended many rallies in favor of the victory of the Vietcong. We--we on the left--objected to Washington's imperialist war." All right. Why should you oppose totalitarianism in the Middle Ea--which is what you call the--one of the words you've used for the Islamist approach in the Middle East. Why would you oppose totalitarianism in the Middle East but support the totalitarian intentions of the Vietcong toward the South Vietnamese? Why should you have considered American involvement in Vietnam imperialist when you consider the American involvement in Iraq liberationist?

Christopher Hitchens: Well, that's easy.

Peter Robinson: Okay. Happy to hear it.

Christopher Hitchens: But for one thing the Vietcong in many ways were the South Vietnamese. There was no--there is no doubt in my mind now. There wasn't then that the revolution in South Vietnam was--well part of a North Vietnamese revolution. I don't think there were ever two states in Vietnam. There's not official partition imposed by the superpowers.

Peter Robinson: So this is the argument…

Christopher Hitchens: And the Vietnamese revolution, among other things, cut with the grain. First with the reunification of the country.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Christopher Hitchens: And second the expulsion of foreign colonial forces. It was the continuation of a struggle that began…

Peter Robinson: But the problem is…

Christopher Hitchens: …before the Second World War.

Peter Robinson: …there were also quite a few Vietnamese who got expelled as well. How do you handle the boat people in that argument?

Christopher Hitchens: Well, I believe myself that if there hadn't been--if Vietnam had not been subjected to a quarter of a century of imperialist war, that there wouldn't have been a large amount of this terrible suffering in Vietnam.

Peter Robinson: So your argument then is that the…

Christopher Hitchens: But I would say--you still force me to say and I will say…

Peter Robinson: Go ahead.

Christopher Hitchens: …with--I mean, with great reluctance but so as not to seem to be avoiding your question--that the--terrible though the sufferings of the boat people were and I've been in Vietnam and talked to many of them, many of whom have come back by now. It's nothing to the near destruction of the whole ecology and society, of Vietnam--the planned destruction of it by American imperialism that could have in the 1960s.

Peter Robinson: All right. So that's the second part of the question. Why is that…

Christopher Hitchens: That was a very serious war crime and a very serious political crime too.

Peter Robinson: Why is that imperialism?

Christopher Hitchens: Well, because it's the direct descendant of the French colonial enterprise. I mean, the American intervention, invasion actually, of Vietnam is designed to rescue the French position which is a disgrace, or certainly indefensible after it's already been proven wrong at Dien Bien Phu.

Peter Robinson: No, certainly not. Roosevelt leans on Churchill. Part of the reason that they are cold toward each other or much less warm than they were originally by the end of the Second World War is that Roosevelt will have nothing to do with colonialism…

Christopher Hitchens: How right you are.

Peter Robinson: Eisenhower refused to permit the Suez invasion to go forward. And by the time it comes to Vietnam, they're not trying to prop up any imperialist French Colonialist venture. They're trying to stop the communists in China and the Soviet Union.

Christopher Hitchens: The only thing you say there that's right is that Roosevelt was very much opposed--not just to colonialism in general--but very opposed to French colonialism in Indo-China. It's fascinating to speculate what might have happened if Roosevelt had been around for the post-war certainly. But there is--the facts cannot be other than what they are. The United States offered at one point to use nuclear weapons to defend the French position in Vietnam. It was paying for the cost of the French War until the shattering defeat at Dien Bien Phu for which it did not learn and it then took over the French colonial role including the imperialist partition of the country was an operation that deserved to be defeated.

Peter Robinson: Now Christopher Hitchens on the Axis of Evil, beginning with North Korea.

Title: Mad Dogs and an Englishman

Peter Robinson: As far as I know, you're the only journalist who in recent years has traveled to all three members of George W. Bush's Axis of Evil: North Korea, Iraq and Iran. And I'd like to talk about each. North Korea--when were you last there and how did you get in in the first place?

Christopher Hitchens: Well, you can't get into North Korea as a journalist. So I went under my other professional capacity of being university veteran. I got the new school to write a letter. It was kosher too. I mean, I wasn't faking an identity but I was concealing the fact that I was a reporter. And you have to go on an organized trip.

Peter Robinson: What year was this?

Christopher Hitchens: This was just before the election of President Bush actually.

Peter Robinson: So '99 or late 2000?

Christopher Hitchens: Yeah it was--Clinton was hoping to go to North Korea before his term was up but he messed things up so badly by then he didn't have time. Madeleine Albright arrived a week after I had left.

Peter Robinson: I see.

Christopher Hitchens: And that was, I think, the last trip she made. And so we're talking about the cusp of the…

Peter Robinson: Right.

Christopher Hitchens: …well of the millennium among other things. And…

Peter Robinson: You write of North Korea, it is exactly as if it was modeled on 1984, Orwell's novel--the leader worship, the terror, the uniformity, the misery, the squalor, all true. Still?

Christopher Hitchens: Yes, it was--the state was founded actually I think the year that 1984 was published and it's as if they sort of took the book and thought I wonder if we could make this work?

Peter Robinson: Right.

Christopher Hitchens: One tries to avoid cliché. I remember I went to Prague during the old days, the bad old days of the communist regime to attend a dissident meeting. I thought whatever happens to me, I'm not going to mention the name Kafka in what I write. I'm going to be the first reporter who doesn't--who goes to Prague and doesn't bring up Kafka.

Peter Robinson: Does not say Kafka?

Christopher Hitchens: Anyway the policemen came in--the secret police broke into the meeting I was at and slammed me up against the wall and said you're under arrest. And I said what for? And they said we're not telling you what for. And I thought damn, now I have to resort to cliché. I have to mention Kafka.

Peter Robinson: You have to say Kafka.

Christopher Hitchens: Well if you go to North Korea, determined not to mention Orwell, Orwellianism or 1984, you will--I'm sorry--you'll be forced to. They make you do it.

Peter Robinson: Clinton Administration engaged in bilateral negotiations with North Korea and brought the nuclear program to a halt. The Bush Administration has refused bilateral negotiations with the result that every informed expert of whom I'm aware says that North Korea now has two, three four--some low number--but they have nuclear weapons. Who was better, Clinton or Bush?

Christopher Hitchens: Well, I think your two questions pull apart on each other.

Peter Robinson: You may rewrite the question…

Christopher Hitchens: If they do have nuclear weapons, now with the capacity to make them which I've no reason to doubt then that program can't ever have been brought to a halt can it?

Peter Robinson: Well no, as I understand it…

Christopher Hitchens: I think the halt was illusory. I think it was faint. The North Koreans have never abandoned the abolition…

Peter Robinson: They put things up--they were pretty close under Clinton but they did set things up on the shelf. And under Bush, they brought them back down.

Christopher Hitchens: That for them is a mere tactic.

Peter Robinson: What I'm probing at here is has Bush messed this one up?

Christopher Hitchens: Well, we don't know yet whether his strategy of working with China is going to be a success or not. Objectively it could work out for this reason. If the North Koreans go out on this now, do you remember the way they tested the first missile was to fire it across Japan without warning.

Peter Robinson: Yes, yes.

Christopher Hitchens: Japanese think Christ, there's a missile on the other side of us not from North Korea bang! If the North Koreans go on in this way, Japan which can make a nuclear weapon in no time will do so. It is not in the interest of China that Japan becomes a nuclear power. And they must understand that the North Koreans are forcing--this continuously a problem. So it seems to me there's a reasonable chance of triangulating the diplomacy in the region.

Peter Robinson: But you don't feel any--you're not willing to protest outside the White House and say you must do something! You're quite to content to…

Christopher Hitchens: Where I think we should be protesting is this North Korea is a slave state. Its people are state property. And they're not--they used to be fed in return for being slaves--now they're starved in return for being slaves. This is intolerable. We should be hoping to open an underground railway for these slaves into China and forcing the Chinese to take these refugees and then allow them to transit to South Korea. We don't want that the Chinese should have to take them all.

Peter Robinson: So we should be pushing much harder on humanitarian grounds?

Christopher Hitchens: We certainly should.

Peter Robinson: Next, Christopher Hitchens justifies the war in Iraq.

Title: The Long and Short of It

Peter Robinson: Katha Pollitt, your former colleague at The Nation, talking about you, "You set up the equation so that there is no way to oppose invading Iraq except to be a coward or a covert admirer of dictatorship and theocracy. Well, I don't think it's cowardly to be extremely wary of war especially preemptive war." Now no matter how well things may seem to be going in Iraq after the election of January 31st, the war was optional. The war was optional and nobody ought to engage in a war when he has other choices. Correct?

Christopher Hitchens: No, false.

Peter Robinson: All right.

Christopher Hitchens: I wrote a short book about Iraq…

Peter Robinson: The title of which…

Christopher Hitchens: Which is The Long Short War. I could have called it A Short Long War but I thought the long short was better. Been at war with Saddam Hussein since the day that he crossed the border of Kuwait, not to invade it remember but or even to occupy it but to annex it, to make it cease to exist, an unprecedented level of aggression. Destruction of a member state of United Nation, not invasion of it. And a member of the Arab League of the Islamic Summit countries.

Peter Robinson: He declared it a new province.

Christopher Hitchens: A province of Iraq.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Christopher Hitchens: His withdrawal from there was negotiated under various conditions that--not all of which he agreed to meet. So he had to be monitored by international sanctions which meant that Iraq had lost its sovereignty and enforced by no fly zones which meant that 2/3 of its air space no longer belonged to him and he fired at those coalition planes every day for ten years. So we were in a state of armed truce at the very best. At some point, someone was going to make a decisive move to end this state of suspended animation. On past form, we would have left it to Saddam to decide what the next crisis was going to be. We always had. I thought it was time to say no, we will end it and this time it'll be on our terms. You will find out when it's going to be. We're not going to wait for you to take initiative. And that's not preemption.

Peter Robinson: Did the Bush Administration make a mistake in using that word preempt--did Bush in which--in one state of the union or the other used the word preemption, preemptive? They used that several times and everybody--was that an error?

Christopher Hitchens: Yes, because it was an attempt to make the analogy with Afghanistan.

Peter Robinson: Now what about the talk about weapons of mass destruction. Was that also an error? That is to say, you've just laid out an argument. I myself consider it not only plausible but compelling. In fact, I consider it decisive. However, the Bush Administration did not make quite that same argument. They could have but they didn't. Was that just hand-fistedness?

Christopher Hitchens: Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair, I'm sorry to say, both decided that it was a little easier to frighten people than to persuade them. This is a common political temptation. It's that way--I wouldn't--what I just described to you would make it possible to define Saddam Hussein as a permanent threat, seems to me.

Peter Robinson: Yes.

Christopher Hitchens: Because he had done the four things that mean that a country can lose its sovereignty and be invaded--invade other countries, Persia, Iran, Kuwait--commit genocide. In this case in Kurdistan. Fool around with weapons of mass destruction which he used on his own soil. I will not say on his own people because they were not his own people but it's all the same. His own soil and in Iran and harbor international terrorists. Now he'd done all of these four things and was addicted to all four activities as a matter of fact. Amazing, really extraordinary. He was not as Ms. Pollitt said that we picked a fight with him but that we allowed this to go on for so long.

Peter Robinson: And had Blair and Bush simply relied on that...

Christopher Hitchens: Now permanent threat, yes, but the eminent threat is scare tactics. Now…

Peter Robinson: You're not willing to cut them a little bit of slack because they did have intelligence saying there are weapons of mass destruction.

Christopher Hitchens: Well there were weapons of mass destruction. I'll go further than that. I mean, the common view now was--is that the weapons of mass destruction pull up an empty net--did nothing of the kind. Didn't find stockpiles on a shelf but they found a very well organized program for the making of nuclear and chemical and biological weapons and for the concealment of that program.

Peter Robinson: As indeed The New York Times has in a rather hand-fisted way confirmed for us now.

Christopher Hitchens: Yes. And that is confirmed in a brilliant book by Saddam Hussein's chief nuclear physicist, Dr. Obeidi, who wasn't just making claims of this kind which would help someone would survive the regime might be expected to do but was able to lead people to the ingredients, I'm sorry, the elements of a nuclear centrifuge buried in his own back garden under the orders of Qusay Hussein, whose job it was to run weapons concealment for the Ba'ath party.

Peter Robinson: Christopher Hitchens has visited Iraq since the fall of Baghdad. Let me ask him what Iraqis think of Americans now.

Title: Fear and Loathing in Baghdad

Peter Robinson: Explain to me the psychological state on the ground which Americans--which I--find so difficult to understand. The population did indeed hate Saddam Hussein. Nobody doubts that. Correct? And the population at the very minimum is intensely resentful of Americans. True? True? Explain that conundrum.

Christopher Hitchens: The welcome that I've seen American and British forces get in parts of Iraq is something I want to start--I want to mention first because there are people who say that that never happened. It is commonly said by political philosophers like Maureen Dowd say that the--where were the suites and where were the flowers. Well I saw it happen with my own eyes and no one's going to tell me that I didn't. I saw it with--months after the invasion, people still lining the roads, especially in the south.

Peter Robinson: In the south?

Christopher Hitchens: Especially in the south--still lining the roads and waving and the children waving which is always the sign because if the parents don't want them to, they don't. For miles, it was like going--it was like this is the nearest I'll get to taking part in the liberation of the country, to ride in with the liberating army. I'll never forget, you know, I will not allow it not to be said that that did not happen. And in the marshes too--the marsh area of the country which was drained and burned out by poison by Saddam Hussein. Again, almost hysterical welcome and in Kurdistan in the north. So extraordinary. But remember when you said the population hating Saddam Hussein, that's true, really true. But more than anything, they feared him. They were terrified of him. These are people who not just forced to obey under terrible and believable threat but made to applaud, made to participate, made to come out and vote, made to come out and demonstrate that they loved him, made to applaud when their relatives were executed. If your kids were going to be shot, you had to attend and you had to applaud, okay. A pornographic regime in other words. Now people who have been through that are humiliated. They're disgusted with themselves and depraved to some extent. Well when they get a chance to show their courage, they very often will even if it takes a somewhat ignoble form. So now that Mr. Muqtada Al Sadr for example, who was as quiet as a mouse when there was real--now he knows there isn't going to be a reprisal, he can throw a bit of a chest.

Peter Robinson: So in some sense, all this is healthy.

Christopher Hitchens: Yes, it's purging--yeah, it's--and as we show--saw in the elections, the way the people actually hung together and were developing more of a sense of a communal solidarity.

Peter Robinson: I have heard Paul Wolfowitz say that one mistake that the United States made was that we didn't hold the elections a year earlier.

Christopher Hitchens: He's absolutely right.

Peter Robinson: Absolutely right.

Christopher Hitchens: Well the despised Ahmad Chalabi, who's still a friend of mine and who I still admire, would--was arguing that at the time. Many a chance was missed to transfer sovereignty and to have an election. Nor will we get back the months that we wasted not doing that, behaving like occupiers instead.

Peter Robinson: But you're generally optimistic now about Iraq?

Christopher Hitchens: Well, it's been moved into the post Saddam era and it's helping other--helping neighboring countries to…

Peter Robinson: It's not going to fall--it's not going to break into three pieces.

Christopher Hitchens: This is the flag of Kurdistan in my lapel but my Kurdish comrades say that the--their main responsibility is for the new Iraq now. And they who would have every right to say we want to get out of this prison house of the state are willing to still cooperate to help to emancipate the rest of it. I think that's an extraordinary sacrifice on their part. Deserves more recognition than it's had.

Peter Robinson: Finally, the last member of the axis of evil, Iran.

Title: Shah Boom, Shah Boom

Peter Robinson: Like North Korea a year or two ago, Iran is embarked on a nuclear program. The Bush strategy, let the Europeans negotiate with the Iranians while the Americans make threatening noises, a policy that--it could well be argued has so far proven one hundred percent ineffective. Sir?

Christopher Hitchens: How right that is. Let's remember, by the way, that the nuclear program in Iran was started by the Shah. The Bushehr reactor for example, was built by him in megalomaniac days and if he'd been a little faster, he might have been able to hand over an entire fully finished nuclear program to Ayatollah Khomeini. Remember any nuclear--any state that goes nuclear in a sense makes its successors and sometimes its enemies nuclear powers as well who runs that risk. So there are differences however I think. One is we had every reason to think if Saddam Hussein had a thermonuclear weapon, he'd have found an early occasion to use it, either use it or use it for blackmail. I don't have that fear actually about the Iranians. There's no one they can go to war with. And incidentally we've just done them the rather large favor of removing their two greatest enemies, the Taliban and the Iraqi Ba'ath Party. They're not going to have a nuclear war with Israel because they would lose it.

Peter Robinson: Yes.

Christopher Hitchens: And furthermore nuclear weapons aren't usable even by the most fanatical Islamist in Palestine because you'd have to blow up the Al-Aqsa mosque in the Dome of the Rock as well as the Wailing Wall and kill the Palestinians as well as the Jews in other words. So the immediate danger isn't that terrifying I think. The problem is that one doesn't want to award the cheating and concealment and theft and smuggling and black market acquisition, the open contempt for international law that's involved but the regime might also give way in time to a successor regime that would be more internationalist and more democratic. That option was not going to occur naturally in Iraq and it certainly isn't going to occur naturally in North Korea.

Peter Robinson: You've said that in North Korea the Bush Administration, the United States, ought to be pushing much harder on the humanitarian line.

Christopher Hitchens: Yes.

Peter Robinson: Now my colleague at the Hoover Institution, Abbas Milani himself an Iranian who spent some time in the Shah's jails, points out or argues that the young people in Iran and the population--well over half the population is twenty-five or younger--is immensely favorably disposed with the United States, that what we ought to be doing is engaging in a kind of rhetorical comradeship with the democracy movement and waiting. That the principal job of the Bush Administration is to show its friendship toward the young people of Iran and not mess it up. Do you agree?

Christopher Hitchens: I'm very much of your friend's opinion. I grew this beard on the advice of a graduate student of mine, an Iranian, who was my guide. He said if you want to go to the Friday prayers and the death to America events, you better look as scruffy as you can. So I did and so did he. But--and it seemed to work but also it made life very difficult. Often taxis wouldn't stop for us because they thought we were Hezbollah. And relatives of his would say, you know, we went to dinner with them--can't you shave that off? You look like some Islamic republic nightmare. You could get spat on, you know. It's--the hatred for the regime among the young is a delightful thing to see as is the friendship towards the United States. And I have a word for it--it's the baby boomerang. You see, the Mullahs threw away so many of their young people in the suicide wave, war with Saddam Hussein--which people I think still remember the throwing away of handfuls of the younger generation. You know, it turned into a pointless war. They had to give Iranian women incentives to make up the deficit.

Peter Robinson: To produce. Right.

Christopher Hitchens: Now there is a baby boom but it's a baby boomerang because this younger generation despises the Mullahs and the state that they run, wants to live in America, wants--if it can't do that, wants to live an American life. The regime meanwhile is becoming visibly senile. It's not reproducing itself or palpably senile. And so even the revolutionary guards are getting a bit long in the tooth.

Peter Robinson: So you're quite confident…

Christopher Hitchens: Oh give it ten years and yes it will metamorphose into something like a secular Middle Eastern democracy but the timeline of Hezbollah and of the nukes isn't a ten year timeline.

Peter Robinson: So Bush…

Christopher Hitchens: So we--well it would be very--if you were the President of the United States and said oh I think let's just relax about Iran for about ten years, I can see people saying well Mr. President, do you want it later to be said that you ignored the building of a secret tunnel in Isfahan for the concealment.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Christopher Hitchens: It would be a tough call.

Peter Robinson: So Bush is--he needs to make his threatening noises and he needs not to mess it up. He's doing all right?

Christopher Hitchens: There's no settled policy though in the administration. They're doing this not as a policy because they do it because they haven't got a policy, not because they have. So I can't praise it.

Peter Robinson: But it's not doing too much harm.

Christopher Hitchens: It doesn't make me want to go and demonstrate, no.

Peter Robinson: Thank you very much. One last…

Christopher Hitchens: Cross the White House gates test.

Peter Robinson: Final couple of questions, describe the Arab world as you believe it will exist a decade from now. Alas I need--what I'm after here is is the Wolfowitz vision and Bush vision of democracy blossoming? Let me just ask you a couple of questions. Iraq will be a functioning democracy a decade from now?

Christopher Hitchens: There's every reason to think that it could be, yes.

Peter Robinson: Lebanon?

Christopher Hitchens: In some ways, Lebanon already is a functioning democracy. It's a…

Peter Robinson: Will there be a Palestinian state?

Christopher Hitchens: Yes, there certainly will be a Palestinian state.

Peter Robinson: A decade from now?

Christopher Hitchens: There should have been one two decades ago. There will be one a decade from now.

Peter Robinson: But that's in prospect?

Christopher Hitchens: Yes.

Peter Robinson: Good. Happy to hear it. Describe the reputation of George W. Bush a decade from now. Last question.

Christopher Hitchens: I'm going to a debate in England in a few weeks, sponsored by the Economist, where I was asked to go come and take the side of the motion that said thank God for George Bush. And I wrote and said since I'll be at the same festival saying there's no God to thank, could we not rephrase the motion. And I said what--I would prefer to have it said that history will be kinder, much kinder, to Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair than to Mr. Schroeder or Mr. Chirac or Mr. Kofi Annan. And I think if I phrase it like that, I've answered your question.

Peter Robinson: You have indeed. Christopher Hitchens, thank you very much.

Peter Robinson: I'm Peter Robinson for Uncommon Knowledge. Thanks for joining us.