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A Few More (Tangential) Reflections on Hitchens

2010 August 20
I am generally sympathetic to many of the conclusions reached by  Jesse Myerson in “Reflections on Hitchens”, where he responded to the arguments Christopher Hitchens made to justify his support for the Iraq invasion in his recent memoir. Never one to leave well enough alone, unless I truly couldn’t be bothered, the convoluted flurry which follows serves as an attempt to explore some of the issues raised, and arguments made, by Jesse. Particular attention will be paid to the tension between the doctrine of non (military) interventionism and the human rights , as well as the various attempts at reconciliations within -and between- Neoconservatism and the Left.
During the conflict in Kosovo, Tony Judt wondered in the New York Review of Books:

“If a sovereign state can’t make multinational companies conform to its tax laws, can’t ignore international regulations on air traffic safety or food manufacture, and can’t block the cross-border flow of money and goods without facing the wrath of various international agencies and banking authorities, why are we so quick to acknowledge its right to rape and murder its citizens?”

Nearly a year later, Christoper Hitchens wrote in the Nation:

“The American right was generally against the rescue of Kosovo in any case, while much of the left–including myself for a time–consoled and continues to console itself with the half-truth that intervention only made matters worse. In fact, the Kosovo war marked the first and only time in the twentieth century that ethno-fascism was stopped, and reversed, while it was still in progress.”

Seven years after Kosovo, in the London Review of Books, Judt lamented the post-Cold War formulation in which “‘human rights’ displaced conventional political allegiances as the basis for collective action.”  He now argued,  “A commitment to the abstract universalism of ‘rights’ – and uncompromising ethical stands taken against malign regimes in their name – can lead all too readily to the habit of casting every political choice in binary moral terms. ” He stole a line from Trotsky and dubbed the liberal supporters of the Iraq War “Bush’s useful idiots.”  Prominently placed among this illustrious group, was one Christopher Hitchens.

Why did these intellectuals with broadly similar political backgrounds – Oxbridge educated, left-wing, soixante huitards – diverge so greatly on Iraq? Judt put forth an explanation of sorts in a recent interview:  “I recognize and always recognized the limitations. Politics, especially international politics, is about what is possible. You can intervene in Rwanda or Bosnia, you can’t in Chechnya.” Hitchens, betraying a romantic disposition which tended to the heroic during l’affaire Rushdie,  found the notion of a war with Islamofascism “exhilarating” and explicitly stated his support for the invasion came out of solidarity with with the Iraqi left, particularly those in Kurdistan.

In his memoir, Hitchens referred to “…the pseudo-Left new style,” I would add not exclusively, nor even these days primarily, practiced by the Left, “…whereby if your opponent thought he had identified your lowest possible motive, he was quite certain that he had isolated the only real one.” While it requires little sophistication to oppose instances of naked imperialism, the projection of a human rights angle demands a more nuanced , approach, particularly from those trying to have it both ways: firmly noninterventionist while still committed to an expansive view of global justice. The danger is that an unrealistic, un-ironic, attempt to reconcile these commitments may lead to the pretense that there are no trade-offs; often the only choices are imperialism and barbarism. One shouldn’t assume there is always a fat-free substitute which tastes just as good, and we should be wary of those who insist there is.


One of the great difficulties of this discourse is that few within the corridors of power, including the think tanks , have shown sustained, principled interest in human rights, outside of being a useful bargaining chip in geopolitical power  plays. (As Robert Caro has suggested, power doesn’t corrupt as much as it reveals.) One of the few presidents to make human rights a central part of his administration’s foreign policy was Jimmy Carter. However, this policy was considered by many to be at  ineffectual at best and a distraction from the wider goals of the Cold War. Jeanne Kirkpatrick famously critiqued the Carter Administration in her seminal essay Dictatorships and Double Standards, which was most notable the formulation of what became known as the Kirkpatrick Doctrine: “Although there is no instance of a revolutionary ‘socialist’ or Communist society being democratized, right-wing autocracies do sometimes evolve into democracies–given time, propitious economic, social, and political circumstances, talented leaders, and a strong indigenous demand for representative government.” Her idea was that the Carter Administration should sublimate the human rights agenda, less it impair the United States’ ability to support key allies/clients in the ongoing Cold War.

Now let’s not get carried away: Kirkpatrick was guilty of exaggeration and the essence of her doctrine would soon be undermined by events on the Gdańsk Shipyard, though to be fair, given the democratization of the Iberian Peninsula after the deaths of Franco and Salazar, she was more or less correct up to that point.

One of the problems with her critique, and that of the other ascendant neoconservatives, was that Jimmy Carter’s commitment to human rights was more complex than is usually portrayed.  Due to a combination of domestic pressure and arguably naiveté, the Carter Administration retreated from pushing human rights in the USSR and ignored human rights violations in Cambodia, China and South Korea. The Administration also ignored the atrocities in East Timor and supported the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines. Furthermore, the Carter Administration initially did provide for support for the Shah of Iran and Somoza in Nicaragua, the withdrawal of which provided the impetus for Kirkpatrick to compose the essay in the first place. (The essay did have the effect of hastening Kirkpatrick’s move from left to right when Reagan used it as the basis for appointing her U.N. Ambassador by which in turn lead to her becoming a Republican in 1985.)

Despite its reputation as the  seminal text of neoconservative foreign policy, many of the arguments in Dictatorships and Double Standards could be marshaled in opposition to the Bush Doctrine, at least the one from his Second Inaugural: “… no idea holds greater sway in the mind of educated Americans than the belief that it is possible to democratize governments, anytime, anywhere, under any circumstances. This notion is belied by an enormous body of evidence based on the experience of dozens of countries which have attempted with more or less (usually less) success to move from autocratic to democratic government. Many of the wisest political scientists of this and previous centuries agree that democratic institutions are especially difficult to establish and maintain-because they make heavy demands on all portions of a population and because they depend on complex social, cultural, and economic conditions.” Hitchens argued that one of the justifications for the Iraq invasion was the possibility of  Iraq becoming a base for Al Queda after, according to his prognostications,  the imminent collapse of the regime.

Now think of this paragraph in connection with the Iraq War: “The speed with which armies collapse, bureaucracies abdicate, and social structures dissolve once the autocrat is removed frequently surprises American policymakers and journalists accustomed to public institutions based on universalistic norms rather than particularistic relations.”

Despite continuing to be critical of the idea that democracy could be exported, Kirkpatrick supported the Iraq invasion. One possible explanation for this is the evolution of the nature,though not goals, of neoconservative foreign policy ; unlike the braintrust during the Bush Administration, Kirkpatrick was essentially a realist. The great reason for the change of direction in neoconservative foreign policy was the collapse of the Soviet Union, which they didn’t see coming, perhaps as a result of believing all the bad intelligence provided by the CIA.

Once this path has been taken, we are opening ourselves to other questions, the most topical probably being related to sanctions: when, if ever, are they permissible and if so, to what extent? Many of those who support boycotting South Africa during Apartheid (and are calling for the same against Israel) condemned sanctions against Iraq, arguing that it lead to the starvation of children. Is there a non-arbitrary way of making these decisions? Kirkpatrick made similar arguments thirty years ago: “Something very odd is going on here. How does an administration that desires to let people work out their own destinies get involved in determined efforts at reform in South Africa, Zaire, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and elsewhere? …What should be made of an administration that sees the U.S. interest as identical with economic modernization and political independence and yet heedlessly endangers the political independence of Taiwan, a country whose success in economic modernization and egalitarian distribution of wealth is unequaled in Asia?”

Kirkpatrick’s answer? : “One reason that some modern Americans prefer “socialist” to traditional autocracies is that the former have embraced modernity and have adopted modern modes and perspectives, including an instrumental, manipulative, functional orientation toward most social, cultural, and personal affairs; a profession of universalistic norms; an emphasis on reason, science, education, and progress; a deemphasis of the sacred; and “rational,” bureaucratic organizations. They speak our language.”


When Jesse writes “…and it’s a real pity too, because we could use so eloquent a defender of freedom on the side of opposition to this gross imperialism” one must ask who was exactly free in this equation?  Would it be more prudent for Hitchens to advocate for the sovereignty of the regime or for its people? It makes little sense to assume that the two are that same. Indeed, Hitchens made it very clear in his memoir that, for better or worse, he was on the side on the people, seeing his position on Iraq as primarily stemming from his solidarity with the Kurds in particular. Conversely, when he writes “… if democracy in Iraq is so tenuous that it requires indefinite military occupation…perhaps there were better means by which to bring it about,” one wonders what the people in South Korea would think of that. When Saudi Arabia is described as “the least free country in the world, a contest it wins by miles, despite the steep competition”, one has to question what the good people of North Korea would have to say about that! (Further, if the argument is that we shouldn’t and can’t impose our values on other countries, I suppose we might as well get along with them right?)

While military must be the absolute last option, indeed a serious commitment to Just War Theory would eliminate most wars, much to the chagrin of many of its soi disant adherents, if the option of forced is dismissed a priori, what leverage is there for diplomacy? It would be useful to draw a distinction between military intervention to overthrow regimes and intervention to prevent genocide. While I believe it is possible for military force to prevent genocide, I have little confidence in its ability to create democracy.  And even in the case of perceived genocide, the situation may be delicate since the roles of oppressor and oppressed can quickly be reversed, as we saw in the Balkans, Iraq and even Rwanda. Particularly in the case of Iraq, the if the Conservatives were serious about most of all seeking stability in the global order, it would have made more sense to not remove Saddam, since his removal merely brought back the old ethnic tensions which were merely subdued. Even if the regime imploded, as Hitchens maintains, it isn’t entirely clear to what extent the underlying situation on the ground would differ, except for the investment of American blood and treasure.

The question of whether “a democratic revolution of the type Hitchens has admired in Czechoslovakia and elsewhere could be fermented and brought to a boil by acts of international (intellectual, pedagogical, dissident) subterfuge?” is actually addressed briefly in a recent Washington Post op-ed by Fareed Zakaria: “The comparison of Iran’s Green Revolution to the velvet revolutions of Eastern Europe is mistaken. In 1989 dissidents had three forces on their side: nationalism (because communism had been imposed by force by a foreign power), religion (because communism repressed the church) and democracy. The Green Movement has only one: democracy. The regime has always used the religiosity of the people to its advantage, but it has also become skilled at manipulating nationalism.” This further shows how Kirkpatrick’s misread the underlying conditions of communist countries.

The concept of non-military intervention, particularly with regard to support for dissidents is vague and  subject to abuse; intervention of any kind is still intervention and will bear the scent to charges of imperialism, whether military action is used. David Rieff, a great influence on my thinking in this area, wrote just prior to the Iraq invasion: “… once you say that sovereignty is not the principle absolute, that the criteria are not that a state is sovereign, but rather what crimes it commits (that will be the human rights view) or what threat it poses (that would be kind of the Rumsfeld view) and that those threats and/or crimes, if you like, trump sovereignty, I think you’ve entered the logic of intervention.”

Jesse, in examining the Civil War analogy, wrote that “The repulsiveness of Dixie’s racism forfeited its states’ sovereignty.” It is important to the justification for the war on the Union side was the act of secession and not necessarily abolition; the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t come until 1863 and only applied to the Confederacy.  To transfer the analogy into a global setting, the war was cause by a breach of of an international treaty, not necessarily the  conduct within it’s borders. Of course the reason for secession itself was slavery but Lincoln’s primary goal was to preserve the Union. On the civil liberties front, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the conduct of the war and much like the Japanese-American interment, this casts a pale of moral ambiguity onto an otherwise ‘righteous’ action. I should also note that the overthrow of apartheid wasn’t quite as tidy as the popular narrative portrays. In any case, South Africa is more the exception than the rule in this case. (There is a reason Mandela is still so venerated, unlike some of his counterparts.)

To continue with the analogy, comparing the United Nations to the U. S. Federal Government is flawed due to the limited  supranational authority of the former. (Perhaps a better comparison would be the European Union.) In addition, the illiberal bent of some of the Security Council members, like China and Russia, and the tendency for of prominent members of the Non-Aligned Movement / Third World, like Brazil and India, to support nearly make it unlikely that the UN would make any substantive, consistent efforts to intervene for the benefit of human rights. (It should be noted that none of the aforementioned countries has recognized the independence of Kosovo.)  The irony is that many of the most ardent opponents of intervention often point, with good reason, to the UN Charter as being the greatest embodiment of international human rights.

In a correspondence with Robert Skidelsky also during the Kosovo Conflict, Michael Ignatieff wrote: “You are a Westphalian: for you the only relevant actors in the international system are states; their inviolability is all but absolute; and there are no agreed norms to regulate their conduct other than the obligation not to commit genocide or wage aggressive war. I am an internationalist: states have rights and immunities but so do individuals.” Skidelsky would later conclude “Perhaps you rate justice higher than peace. If so, this is a disagreement between us.” Indeed. Rieff wrote in 2005: “… human-rights ideology – and it is an ideology, every bit as much as Communism was or neo-liberalism is today – is profoundly legalist, claiming legitimacy from treaties and other international and national instruments … The modern human-rights movement was born out of the UN, and in many ways it has never entirely left home.”

Hendrik Hertzberg touched on some of the issues related to the international order in Manifesto, published in October 2002:

“A huge opportunity was lost at the end of the Cold War, especially during the Clinton Administration, when a long interlude of relative calm, combined with the rapid spread of democracy and market economics, opened up a chance for deep, thoroughgoing reform of the international system, including the United Nations itself, to make international organizations more energetic and more responsible and to create an international military capability that could be strong, flexible, and quick enough to, yes, police the world. Were these—are these—impossible goals? Why should they be?”

Despite, or perhaps because of this, the U.N. is in many places seen as a tool of Western Imperialism, undermining its legitimacy to act as global police. Given the limitations on one side and the moral ambiguities on the other, one is forced to not only re-examine the strategies used to protect human rights but the efficacy of the whole project. If we aren’t willing to get our hands even a little dirty, there is only so much we can do; the more important question is whether we’re willing to accept that and whether it’s worth it.

I’ll close with this excerpt from Hans Morgenthau’s essay The Limit’s of Historical Justice (1969):

“[The political actor] must put himself into the other man’s shoes, look at the world and judge it as he does, anticipate in thought the way he will feel and act under certain circumstances. Seeking to deprive the other of his worth as a person by using, diminishing, or destroying him, the political actor must assess him exactly as a person in his own right. Paradoxically, he must be just in judgment in order to be effectively unjust in action. If indeed the actor is always unjust in action while he must be just in judgment, what must we say of the corollary that nobody has justice but the one who observes? Mark that Goethe does not say that he who observes is (ital.) just, but that he is the only one who can be just.”

And maybe, not even him.

One Response
  1. August 23, 2010

    Judt has died, and Hitchens is close behind him. Good grief. Also, pity no two people can ever write one another’s obituaries.

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