WORDS OF WAR: What Kind of War Are We Fighting?

Thursday, July 18, 2002
Christopher Hitchens

What kind of war is the war on terrorism? Ordinarily wars are fought against proper nouns—against Germany during the Second World War or against the Soviet Union during the cold war, for example. Now we're being asked to fight a war against a common noun, terrorism. Just how accurate and useful is the phrase "war on terrorism"? Is this a war? And who exactly is the enemy—Al Qaeda? Al Qaeda plus all other terrorists around the world? Al Qaeda plus all other terrorists plus all the countries in which the terrorists operate? In other words, just how good a job are the president and the administration doing, not just in prosecuting the war but in defining the objectives?

Recorded on Thursday, July 18, 2002

Peter Robinson: You've heard the phrase 'war of words.' Today on Uncommon Knowledge, 'words of war.'

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


Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today: just what kind of war is the war on terrorism? War on terrorism--ever since September 11th we've all been hearing that phrase day in and day out, but just how accurate is the phrase, how useful? Ordinarily wars are fought against proper nouns--Germany during the Second World War for example, or the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Now we're being asked to fight a war against a common noun, 'terrorism.' Who exactly is the enemy--Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda plus all other terrorists around the world, Al Qaeda plus all other terrorists plus all the countries in which the terrorists operate? In other words, just how good a job is the President and the administration doing not just in prosecuting the war but in defining the objectives? Joining us, two guests. Christopher Hitchens is a journalist and author. Newt Gingrich is former Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Title: A War by Any Other Name

Peter Robinson: British historian Sir Michael Howard: "When in the immediate aftermath of the attack, Colin Powell declared that America was at war. He made a very natural but terrible error." Are we at war, Mr. Speaker?

Newt Gingrich: Yes.

Peter Robinson: Christopher?

Christopher Hitchens: Absolutely.

Peter Robinson: No doubt about it, all right. Michael Howard once again, here's what he meant, "The British in their time have fought many wars in Palestine, Cyprus, Ireland, and Malaya, but we never called them wars, we called them emergencies. This meant that the police and intelligence services were provided with exceptional powers, reinforced when necessary by the armed forces, but all continued to operate within a peace time framework and so far as possible did not interrupt the normal tenure of civilian life." Isn't that a better description of the mess in which we find ourselves than a war?

Newt Gingrich: Well, first of all there are no British emergencies which begin with three thousand people in London dying. So I think to suggest that a colonial campaign fought somewhere in the distance without the central city knowing about it is a good model for a situation in which your national capital and your financial capital have both been attacked with substantial effectiveness. But what we increasingly realize is a worldwide organization. It just seems to me that that's a mischaracterization of the current reality.

Christopher Hitchens: It's a pity that Sir Michael, who I admire in some ways, isn't here to defend himself because no one else is going do it, clearly. I mean that wouldn't exhaust the fallaciousness of what he was saying. For one thing, all of those are colonies. The United States is not fighting in its colonies. There was another word, by the way, used as well as emergency, it was police action, which was how Sir Anthony Eden described the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion--full-scale invasion of Egypt in 1956, where he told the House of Commons we are not in a state of war with Egypt, we are in a state of armed conflict. So it's at these points that such distinctions become odious I believe. It's war because it's with an idea and, as the Speaker says, with a global one. There are people now in Nigeria having to face the fact that a minority of the population wants everyone to live under Sharia Muslim law and is willing to fight to impose that by force. There's nothing in the character of Nigerian society or in American foreign policy that licenses that--these people want to do it because they think they can get away with it.

Peter Robinson: Well okay…

Christopher Hitchens: Ancient synagogues are blown up in Tunisia killing German tourists to make the same point. The distinction between this war and all previous ones is that it's a war of--very, very noticeably against the irrational. The desire of people in Cyprus to not be governed by Britain is very easy to understand whether you agree with it or not or whether you think Cyprus is too strategic to allow it or not. But it's perfectly understand--intelligible. This is in many ways not, it's irrational, it's even self-destructive. Look at what these forces have done to their own societies and so to speak their own peoples before you even imagine what they might like to do to ours. It's a war all right.

Peter Robinson: It's a war all right, okay.

Newt Gingrich: I want to pick up on this notion that what we're opposed to--I'm not sure whether it's irrational or a rationality based on a different set of values but the Wahhabi sect of Islam, which is a very reactionary sect in which the Saudi's have been exporting now for well over a decade is a sect which believes that they have the absolute moral obligation to kill you if that's the only way in which they can create the society they want. And I think that we faced opponents like this before--Nazism in that sense was a secular religion if you will.

Peter Robinson: You don't want to call Hitler rational do you?

Christopher Hitchens: No, I think National Socialism and fascism was also self-destructive…

Peter Robinson: Right, the same kind of--

Christopher Hitchens: And irrational, which makes it both easy and harder to fight, but that much more necessary.

Newt Gingrich: I'm just making the point that people can be not crazy but can operate from a set of values outside your own norms and that they can engage in very logical and very effective action. Where I think we've made a mistake in describing this conflict is it's really not, in the end, about Bin Laden. It's not even about Al Qaeda. It is about a reactionary form of Islam with a worldwide network, including elements in the United States, and that reactionary force is absolutely dedicated to violence and has been for the two hundred and some years that it's been in existence.

Peter Robinson: Let me shift to the question of how well the administration has done in defining the enemy.

Title: Terror is as Terror Does

Peter Robinson: George W. Bush, "Our war on terror will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated." Now, it takes no trouble at all to think of terrorist groups with global reach that we're not interested in finding, stopping, or defeating. We know for example that the IRA engages in fundraising and arranges arm shipments both in North America and in Latin America--that's global reach. I haven't heard Rumsfeld talk about going after the IRA or the Basque terrorists in Spain. We're really not talking about all terrorists who operate globally, are we? Have they not done a sloppy job of defining this?

Newt Gingrich: I think they're mis-defining the war, because it's a war on--it's a war with a force that's much larger than just terrorism. But I think in terms of helping defeat terrorism, which is in itself a useful next stage in civilization, that they are in fact pretty committed to using our resources, for example, to have tracked down the three IRA agents who were in Columbia. I mean I think you'd find a lot of information sharing about defeating terrorism…

Peter Robinson: Post September 11th, with a new energy and seriousness.

Newt Gingrich: New and much, much more seriousness on every side in terms of what we would think of as civilized countries.

Christopher Hitchens: Having established the word "war" as the appropriate one doesn't mean the word war is not itself subject to deconstruction as were things like police action or emergency. There's the war on drugs, a terrible idea--and not just too vague, but also too specific. And probably the thing suffering from the most awful diminishing returns of any war ever declared. The war on poverty was at least more honorable, but it gives the idea of a militant conception of a struggle over an idea. And I think war is probably the only word you can employ there. However one word that I think probably has totally exhausted its usefulness is terror or terrorism.

Peter Robinson: On account of?

Christopher Hitchens: On account of its in-definability. It's not just that you can find groups that you consider terrorists that the administration isn't combating, but you could find groups that it is combating that are not terrorists. And so I think it's a word that's practically--look to say that the killing of three thousand civilians in New York is an act of terror is very much to understate what you're talking about. You're talking about nihilism or theocratically inspired murder. Terrorism is much too weak a word to describe such a thing. It's practically a euphemism--practically a euphemism now, it's not--it used to be an overstatement or propaganda term used to describe guerillas you don't like, now it's a euphemism--we're fighting theocratic fascism.

Newt Gingrich: Let me just say, but it's also too narrow by Bush's own definition. Because the other thing that we have been awakened to from September 11th is that there are acts which can occur which were so horrifying that containment is not an adequate solution, you have to start to thinking preemption. Those acts are only tangentially related to terror organizations. His axis of evil had nothing to do with terror, it had to do with weapons of mass destruction, being terrifying in a totally different way than the killing of civilians. And I think that we have to recognize that what September 11th really did, much like Harry Truman in the 40's--Truman went through a five or six year period of coming to grips with the modern world. They didn't spring overnight to NATO and the CIA and the strategic air command, they really had to stumble forward.

Peter Robinson: He liked Joe Stalin at Potsdam, he thought Stalin was a nice man.

Newt Gingrich: And they had to stumble forward as they confronted realities. Well, this administration, I think, on September 11th got a reality check that said the world is dangerous. Some of these dangers are new and horrifying, some of them can be delivered by states, others can be delivered by non-state organizations, and one of the major alienating elements is this whole notion of reactionary Islam. But that's actually sort of a mixture of things.

Peter Robinson: One more question on defining the enemy. Wouldn't it be more useful to drop this abstract notion of terrorism and name who our enemy really is?

Title: What's in a Name?

Peter Robinson: I put it to you, Mr. Speaker and Christopher, that the best definition of what's going on right now has come from the unlikely source of Mr. Lou Dobbs of CNN, quote--this is him talking on his show one evening recently--"The term war on terror," says Lou Dobbs, "is far too politically correct to have ample meaning. It's important for us to describe our enemies honestly and with as much clarity as possible. I suggest the term war against Islamists." That's really what's going on, isn't it?

Christopher Hitchens: No.

Peter Robinson: No?

Christopher Hitchens: No, I prefer my own formulation, which is the theocratic fascism.

Peter Robinson: Theocratic fascism?

Christopher Hitchens: That distinguishes, among other things, between tendencies in Islam of which the Speaker has already identified one, well the main one, Wahhabi fundamentalism, which unfortunately has been allowed to flourish and grow under American tutelage and under the tutelage of our splendid oil industry for a long time and to be--we've incubated these people within our own bosoms…

(Talking at the same time)

Christopher Hitchens: My principal disagreement with--well not my principal, one of my many disagreements with the President's "axis of evil" invocation is it didn't include the two countries that had developed Al Qaeda and the Taliban--namely Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. And Pakistan also possesses, which it acquired illegally by means of piracy and theft, weapons of mass destruction, which are not under civilian or any kind of control.

Peter Robinson: The administration is still bending over backwards to avoid talking about the specifically Islamic roots of the dangers that we face, right? And it's understandable, a billion people on this planet are Muslim.

Newt Gingrich: But it's not understandable because ninety-nine percent of those people--I mean, the center of Islam is Bangladesh. There are as many people who are Muslim east of Bangladesh as there are west of Bangladesh. The second largest Muslim country in the world is India--there are a hundred and fifty million Muslims in India. You're talking really about a particular subset of Islam. I prefer reactionary Islam or--it's the Wahhabis and to a lesser extent it's the Ayatollah brand of Shia Islam, but those two groups together--and the Wahhabi's are far more dangerous--clearly have a worldwide confrontational goal of financing schools, creating a network of terror, and being dedicated to the destruction of their opponents by violence.

Peter Robinson: And the administration should say so.

Newt Gingrich: I couldn't agree more. I think that the--I think the world would be much healthier if we said we are totally committed to defending the rights of every Muslim who is peaceful and we are totally committed to destroying those people who are joined together in a conspiracy of hate. And that's the Nigerian problem.

Christopher Hitchens: Also by the way, it makes the war easier to fight because I think Mr. Bin Laden and his lieutenants have now declared Jihad on--all Christians, it goes without saying, all Jews, all atheists, so they got me twice, all Hindus, recently Jihad in Kashmir against the Hindus was announced--and they don't mind killing Shia Muslims at all. They tried to massacre the Hazara population in Afghanistan for example, who are Persian ethnically and Shia by confession. They're making us allies, if you like, or allies if we choose them, if we want them, everywhere. Nigeria would be a very good place I think for a test case, because that's going to decide whether people are talking about the rights of Muslims to practice their religion or the rights of their--of a sect of Muslims to impose Sharia Law, fundamentalist law, on anyone believer or non-believer. And by force.

Peter Robinson: Next topic, is it right to include the so-called 'Axis of Evil' in the war on terrorism?

Title: Six Regimes for Separation

Peter Robinson: Newt Gingrich, I quote you to yourself, "If we intend to remain a prosperous, free society, our campaign in the war on terror, must be ninety percent offense and only ten percent defense." The President in his State of the Union Address identified Iran, Iraq, and Korea, as members of the Axis of Evil. Shortly thereafter, John Bolton, under Secretary of State, added Cuba, Libya, and Syria, to the list of countries seeking weapons of mass destruction. We've got six countries, under the Gingrich Doctrine, ninety percent offense, ten percent defense, are we now obliged to take out six regimes?

Newt Gingrich: No. The fact that you want to get something done doesn't mean you have to be stupid or overly aggressive about it. I think we need to replace one regime. I think we need to replace Saddam Hussein. I think there are--the President has said he wants to replace the regime, the Vice President has said he wants to replace the regime, the Secretary of Defense has said with enthusiasm he wants to replace the regime. Even the Secretary of State has said he wants to replace the regime and he's the most cautious of the four. Now there's a point where the greatest power in the world can't have all four of its senior, international leaders, and for that matter Condi Rice has said, the National Security Advisor, she wants to replace the regime. So if all five have now told the entire planet we want to replace the regime for a variety of reasons, we should get it over with.

Peter Robinson: Well wait a minute, now you're not saying that we should replace the regime because five people have said we should replace the regime? Are their reasons sound?

Newt Gingrich: Well first of all, I think as a matter of how the United States functions on the planet, the top five American foreign policy leaders shouldn't say something unless they mean it. Because it is very dangerous…

(Talking at the same time)

Peter Robinson: I'm asking the prior question, should they have meant it?

Christopher Hitchens: That's to restate Peter's question, I agree with your restatement of it too. There's another restatement you could make would be more ominous, more critical--in other words, has the United States committed itself to doing something whether it eventually decides it's prudent to do so or not? In other words are we stuck with their statements?

Peter Robinson: Do you agree with Newt that we absolutely must remove the regime in Iraq?

Christopher Hitchens: It would be found to have been highly immoral to subject the people of Iraq to punitive sanctions for the sins of their government if the long-term aim was not to provide them with a better government, yes. The sanctions are perfectly unjustifiable without an agenda for regime change. But it would be very nice, if since the administration tells us in advance, it's almost as though it's military objectives in Iraq, if it would tell us what its political ones are. You cannot, in Washington, my hometown, get a word of sense out of anyone if you ask what kind of regime are you choosing for Iraq.

Peter Robinson: Christopher brings up the next topic, how well is the administration doing at keeping us informed?

Title: Shoot First, Answer Questions Later

Peter Robinson: Throughout the Second World War, Franklin Roosevelt uses radio talks and other speeches. If you look at those, it's quite remarkable how much substance they contain. He is informing the press and the public on strategic objectives, on military operations. Churchill goes to the Commons again and again and again to report, in considerable detail, on objectives and on military operations. Has the administration done a good job of defining our objectives and of bringing the public along? Have they done a good job of telling us what's up?

Newt Gingrich: I think they've done a very good job of emotionally rallying the country. I think they've done a remarkable job of emotionally rallying the country. I think their own policies are frankly in transition because this has turned out to be a much more complicated, much bigger project than they thought it would be in September and early October. And I also think they have a problem that Roosevelt never had. When Franklin Roosevelt addressed the country, he was the news for the entire day. The entire country listened. And remember it was a big war--it was a war in which we had fifteen million people in uniform. It was a very different setting.

Peter Robinson: So Michael Howard would say 'that was a war?'

Newt Gingrich: Yeah, that's the biggest war of the twentieth century. It's a different setting. Bush's problem is I think if you read the substance of his speeches, the West Point speech on preemption for example, the speech at the Citadel on transformation, they're actually very substantive speeches. But other than the New York Times and The Washington Post and a little blurb here and there, they don't penetrate the system right now because this is a society in which, you know, the latest murder or the latest sex scandal or the latest whatever, can dominate for thirty days and they do it for a practical reason, because people tune into it.

Peter Robinson: But doesn't it mean something that at this moment I can say--I can ask a number of reasonable questions, what exactly are we up to in the Philippines? Rumsfeld announced early on that we have evidence that the Al Qaeda is operating in sixty countries--we seem to have engaged in a--produced a victory in one, Afghanistan. What are we up to in the other fifty-nine?

Christopher Hitchens: The Philippines one is easy. There's a government that requested help in dealing with a pestilential organization that actually is only slightly related to Al Qaeda, it has similar politics--it's more like a kidnap and racketeering, mafia organization, operating under Islamic pretexts.

Peter Robinson: Where does that fit into the war?

Christopher Hitchens: It was a police action. You send a few guys to, you know, show the flag.

Peter Robinson: Let the record state that Hitchens is drifting pretty quickly in the direction of defending the administration from my attacks.

Christopher Hitchens: It's a police action that's part of a war. Look I have--Osama Bin Laden used to issue these tapes and sermons to his deluded followers saying--this was before September 11th--saying the hard war, the really tough war, was defeating the Red Army in Afghanistan and bringing down the Soviet Union--that was war, that was fighting, that was hard. This next phase, destruction of the second super power, bringing down the great Satan, the United States, that will be easy cause they won't fight--because they're corrupt and hedonistic and inward looking and they ran away from Somalia and they're all slaves of the Jewish conspiracy anyway. Everything depends really on how comprehensively you can prove Bin Laden wrong on this point. And I think, if you ask me to grade the administration, I think overseas it was very stupid to construct an axis of evil that had nothing to do with theocratic Islamism--Islamic fascism.

(Talking at the same time)

Christopher Hitchens: We keep saying September 11th changed everything. Bush reads out an old list of rogue states with which the old--the previous establishment, especially the conservative wing is very familiar. We know where we are, these are the people we've always disliked, and I couldn't think why they left out Cuba, but as you say, they managed to shoehorn it back in. And they didn't mention Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, the two states that really have been spreading, inculcating, encouraging and arming, with weapons of mass destruction potentially in Pakistan, this filthy tendency. So that was quite simply to distort the nature of the enemy. And then at home, it seems to me, insane after the colossal failure of the national security system to protect us with its gigantic budget and its hugely way, then turn around and say well, we completely betrayed you, we left you undefended, we didn't follow up any leads, we now want supreme power over every civilian. We now want the constitution rewritten so that we can do anything we like. No. Other way around, there should have been a real inquiry, a real purge, some real findings, some real firings, and then we'll see if we'll write a whole new Bill of Rights for you guys to employ.

Newt Gingrich: First of all I think that Christopher just gave you a relatively grotesque explanation of the likelihood of America becoming a police state of national security in the near future. This is still a country of extraordinary openness and extraordinary freedom.

Chistopher Hitchens: It still is, yes.

Peter Robinson: But there was an intelligence failure--three thousand people are dead and whereas F.D.R…

Christopher Hitchens: And no one resigned or offered to resign and no one was fired.

Peter Robinson: So far as I can recall, the number of days from Pearl Harbor to F.D.R. establishing a commission to investigate the failure was eighteen days. Here we are months afterwards, it's clear the administration isn't going to investigate, nobody's going to be fired…

Newt Gingrich: First of all you have a joint House/Senate Commission--Committee that is looking into this in detail. I don't know that there was a huge intelligence failure because I don't know that the likelihood of any system finding four groups of people who want to hijack is ever going to be mathematically very high. I mean, I think if we had a failure, it was a decade-long failure. And here I think I do agree with you, to be honest about and recognize that the financing of the madrassas by the Saudis, that the rise of Al Qaeda and Bin Laden as an organization, that the bombing of the World Trade Center in 93', the bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, the bombing of the two embassies in Africa, the bombing of the USS Cole were part of a pattern. And that's really a political leadership failure. I was told by the Clinton Administration at one point, we've almost got the CIA out of Afghanistan because that doesn't matter anymore. Two months later they told me, oh by the way, Bin Laden's now in Afghanistan.

Peter Robinson: Last question, can we actually win the war on terrorism?

Title: Are We There Yet?

Peter Robinson: Thirty years ago, as Christopher has already pointed out, Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs. At great expense we have not won any war, we've simply learned to contain drugs, to live with the problem, we continue to spend billions a year on this war on drugs. Second World War was a war that we won. Sir Michael Howard would have liked that war. The question is, ten years from now, twenty years from now, will we look back on a war on terror as a war that we won, defined objectives and met the objectives or will it be more like the war on poverty--something a new condition we simply learn to live with? Christopher?

Christopher Hitchens: Well if it's declared and announced and understood as a war to defend secular cosmopolitan multicultural values, as enshrined in the United States, but as a workable way for people to live together in any society, and if you know who's in that tent and who's outside it, there's every chance it will be a very enjoyable war to fight and one will never get bored with it. And also we'll never lose sight of what's essential, of why it's morally impossible to consider defeat.

Peter Robinson: But will we win it?

Christopher Hitchens: It cannot be lost.

Peter Robinson: Newt?

Newt Gingrich: I think the odds are better than even that we'll win it. I think that the--because it's a circular problem. To the degree we don't win it we'll know we're not winning it because there will be violence. If there is violence it will renew the commitment of the American people and the political elites to winning it. So, my guess is…

Peter Robinson: That's the good news in a way.

Newt Gingrich: My guess is that--but this is much more like the Cold War than it is like the Second World War. This is much more like Truman going through the reappraisal of '47 to '52 where they gradually came to the realization…

Christopher Hitchens: I think it's been more like the Second World War because of the irrational. Because there is something mad, deluded, and self-destructive about the other side. I think they will start to make--the Jihadists will start fighting among themselves.

Newt Gingrich: I would apply that to the Soviet Union.

Peter Robinson: I'm gonna ask the last question and I'm sorry but it's going to be for the Speaker only because we're running out of--you've made the point several times that Truman had to fumble his way through, he was groping with a new kind of reality. Let me ask you--let me put it this way, is this administration doing a good job of fumbling with the new reality?

Newt Gingrich: I don't use fumbling as a bad term. When you're dealing with brand new problems, you sort them out, you do the best you can, and you keep learning. I mean if you look at the campaign in Afghanistan, Rumsfeld did a brilliant job of changing every day as they learned, working directly with General Franks in the military to keep changing. They didn't wage the campaign they set out to wage, they waged a vastly better campaign and they're going to have to learn every day for a long time because I agree with Christopher, this is a bigger challenge than we have yet talked to ourselves about.

Peter Robinson: But we've already established that we're good fumblers. Mr. Speaker, Christopher Hitchens, thank you very much. I'm Peter Robinson for Uncommon Knowledge, thanks for joining us.