A Good Cheap Book: Christopher Hitchens, A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq
(New York: Plume/Penguin, 2003), vi + 104 pp., paperback, $8.99.
Christopher Hitchens’s A Long Short War (ALSW) is a chronicle and justification of “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” consisting of twenty-four brief essays written (mostly) for the online magazine Slate between November 2002 and April 2003. The idea behind the book, Hitchens writes in the Preface, “was to test short-term analyses against longer-term ones, while simultaneously subjecting long-term positions or convictions to shorter-term challenges” (v). Having set this task for himself, Hitchens brings a characteristic ferocity and rigor while delivering on it—managing, in about a hundred breezy pages, to rebut virtually every argument against the war, assemble the arguments for it, and raise some interesting philosophical questions along the way.
More nonsense has been written about the Iraq war than on almost any subject since the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, and it’s merely stating a fact that the bulk of this nonsense has come from the Left, even when the Left’s lapdogs on the Right have slurped it up and regurgitated it. Self-contradiction, defamation, disinformation and evasion: seek and ye shall find it all in the pages of Cairo’s Al Ahram Weekly, Counterpunch, The Nation, or for that matter the Op-Ed pages of The Washington Post and The New York Times. Never have so many obscured so much by saying so little—and by saying it so badly. Hitchens, no stranger to polemical dust-ups, lets loose here with an impressive barrage of munitions, hitting the right targets without much collateral damage.
The Introduction, written on the eve of the war (March 18, 2003) is practically worth the price of the book in this respect, compressing into sixteen pages a deft riposte to virtually every anti-war cliché or slogan you’ve heard in the last year or so. I, for one, would like to hear those who condemn the war on behalf of “the Arab world” deal intelligently with widespread Iraqi-American support for it (1-3). And it would be interesting to hear the “Israel-is-behind-everything” conspiracy-mongers confront Hitchens’s terse annihilation of their insinuations (6-7). “It’s that Straussian-Jewish neo-conservative cabal that’s hijacked U.S. policy,” we’re told. How that accounts for the support of a nominally Jewish Marxist like Hitchens is anybody’s guess, not that it does very much to explain why the Straussian-Jewish neo-conservative Paul Wolfowitz took a stubbornly anti-Saddam line right through the Reagan Administration (2, 17-18), when Jewish neo-conservatives like Daniel Pipes were counseling a tilt toward Saddam, and big-name Straussians (Bloom, Jaffa, Pangle, etc.) were obsessively focused not on Baghdad, but on “the closing of the American mind.” “We have to give the inspectors more time.” And how much more time would be sufficient—another twelve years, say, with a four-year vacation stuck in the middle of it? Or how about just waiting until May 2003, when Iraq had had “enough time” to assume chairmanship of the U.N. Committee on Disarmament (10)? “But Saddam can be deterred.” Aha—so that must be why he responded to our dire military threats by blowing up the Kuwaiti oilfields (9)….
I’ll mention without belaboring some of the other polemical triumphs of ALSW, many them focused on the Left’s propensity for specifically lexicographical obscurantism. “Most of Long Short War is given over to parsing words,” writes one of Hitchens’s critics with no small insinuation of contempt. Indeed it is, and in ways that don’t exactly flatter those who use words without being able to parse or define them. A fair bit of Left discourse proceeds by the mindless repetition of mantras based on undefined and indefinable terms which, while denoting nothing in particular, gradually come to acquire moral resonance that serves to shock and awe the careless, the craven, and the gullible. It takes a certain self-consciousness and self-confidence to see through the semantic confidence games here (intelligence helps, too) and more often than not, Hitchens has what it takes to do the job. His essays on “multilateralism and unilateralism” (34-36), “evil” (40-42), Bush as “cowboy” (57-59), the “drumbeat to war” (69-72), and the “no war for oil” mantra (85-88) are particularly astute.
Though I found Hitchens’s critique of the anti-warriors persuasive, I was less satisfied by the way he put the case for war. In a cantankerous essay called “Chew on This,” he lists three reasons: “The first is the flouting by Saddam Hussein of every known law on genocide and human rights….The second is the persistent effort by Saddam’s dictatorship to acquire weapons of genocide….The third is the continuous involvement by the Iraqi secret police in the international underworld of terror and destabilization”(54-5). The second and third reasons, I think, combine to produce a fourth reason more compelling than either of the two on their own: if Saddam’s Iraq had acquired WMDs, it’s entirely plausible to think that those weapons could have been used against Americans with massive and lethal effect via terrorist and secret service channels. Think, in this context, of the March 1995 sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway (11 dead, 5500 injured), or the as-yet unresolved anthrax murders of the fall of 2001; what, besides a full accounting of Iraq’s WMD programs, would have precluded an Iraqi version of these attacks, perhaps on a larger scale?
It’s worth bearing in mind that Hans Blix & Co. repeatedly and explicitly stressed—in hundreds of pages of otherwise cautiously bureaucratic prose—that they could provide no certain accounting of Iraq’s weapons. On dozens of issues discussed in the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission’s (UNMOVIC) 173-page “Cluster Document” of March 2003, the UN inspectors candidly confessed their “uncertainty” regarding this or that issue—where the “issues” in question included Iraq’s possession or non-possession of anthrax, ricin, botulinium toxin, VX nerve gas, sarin, tabun, and the like. A typical sentence from an UNMOVIC report (one of hundreds like it) tells us that the inspectors could not “reduce uncertainty” about Iraq’s possession or non-possession of WMDs until they began interviews, unorganized as of February 2003, of possible Iraqi personnel possibly involved in the alleged unilateral destruction of the weapons—gleaned from a list of personnel given to inspectors by…Iraq, which admittedly, had provided a fraudulent 12,000-page list of its weapons programs to the inspectors just three months earlier (paragraph 70[e] of UNMOVIC Twelfth Quarterly Report). Not exactly what I’d call a truth-conducive research program. We might fairly ask, then, how we were supposed to make provision for our national security if the best we were going to get from UNMOVIC was certainty of uncertainty. The only way to approximate certainty on these issues was armed intervention, a fact that Blix himself obliquely and grudgingly conceded in an interview with the Toronto Star (Sept. 21, 2003).
In this light, one trouble I have with Hitchens’s argument is the priority he gives to the liberationist as opposed to disarmament rationale for war, a priority loudly trumpeted by the book’s subtitle. The liberation of the Iraqi people, Hitchens suggests, was the only genuinely “moral” justification for war (18, 51); national self-interest, by contrast, has no specifically moral standing (14). He indulges in some grating anti-isolationist rhetoric in this connection. It was “naïve,” he remonstrates, for Americans to want to enjoy their “peace dividend” after the Cold War (3): “there is a self-satisfied isolationism to be found,” he continues, wagging his finger at us, “which seems to desire mainly a quiet life for Americans” (56).
Oh come now. Is there really something so shameful about not wanting to go around invading foreign countries, occupying them, reconstructing them at a cost of $87 billion, and incurring a daily-mounting toll of dead and mangled bodies? It is after all Hitchens who bears the burden of explaining why the desire for a quiet life must yield to the duty to place that life at risk, and his specifically liberationist argument is not the most compelling reason I’ve ever heard for wanting to spend time in the Sunni Triangle. The question is: why, exactly, was the liberation of Iraq for Iraqis a good enough reason to throw away our peace dividend and our quiet lives? I don’t see that it was, and I’m simply not convinced by Hitchens’s table-thumpings on the matter. Hitchens is on his strongest grounds, and is at his best argumentatively, when he explicitly ties the aims of the Iraq war to the imperatives of American national security, and I hope he’ll focus on this issue in more detail in future writings. (His three best essays on this theme are “Inspecting ‘Inspections’” in ALSW, along with “Saddahmer Hussein” [July 7, 2003] and “Restating the Case for War” [Nov. 5, 2003], both of the latter published in Slate.)
Having made these criticisms, however, let me add that there is a good deal more to cheer in this book than to criticize. And it’s a measure of the inverted priorities of our political culture that the book will undoubtedly be criticized more than it’s cheered. That, in fact, is less a prediction than a description: one doesn’t have to go far to encounter the abuse that’s been flung at Hitchens for the stance he’s taken in this book, or for that matter for his views on terrorism, Islamism and the malfeasances of the Left. “Racist,” “gunboat militarist,” “Orientalist,” “drunk,” “snitch,” and “sell-out,” are the standard accusations, made in the first two cases by people whose reputations Hitchens went out on a limb to defend (Noam Chomsky and Edward Said respectively) and in the last case by a scholar whose career he promoted when it wasn’t exactly a fashion statement to do so (Norman Finkelstein).
It’s somehow unsurprising in this light that Chomsky and Said have been invited to deliver the Eqbal Ahmad Lectures in Pakistan despite not having written very much about the place—while Hitchens has gone uninvited, despite the brilliance of what he’s written about both India and Pakistan. Nor should it surprise anyone that Finkelstein is glorified by partisans of the Palestinian cause for his avowedly self-immolating “solidarity” with Hezbullah, while Hitchens’s defenses of Palestinian secularism and moderation have gone ignored by people who accuse him of being a “Zionist neoconservative.” (Never mind what the Zionist neoconservatives think of him.) As Shakespeare put it, wisdom and goodness to the vile seem vile, but filth savors but itself (King Lear, IV.2). A look at Hitchens’s critics, especially but not exclusively on the Left, suggests the extent to which filth has now become the currency of the discursive realm.
A hundred years from now, “Operation Iraqi Freedom” will most probably be ancient history, covered, I suspect, in layers of falsehood perceptible only to the conceptual equivalent of an archaeologist. I can’t predict the future, but I’d like to think that Hitchens’s little book will serve as a sort of Rosetta Stone for the archaeologists of the future—the indispensable tool for translating the hieroglyphs of 2003 to the puzzled inquirers of the twenty-second century. I don’t have the highest hopes that those inquirers will make sense of what this war was about, but if they do—and one hopes they will-- they will no doubt have Christopher Hitchens to thank for it.
UNMOVIC Cluster Document and Reports:
Christopher Hitchens Web:
Hitchens, “Restating the Case for War”:
Hitchens, “Saddahmer Hussein”:
Hitchens on Pakistan:
Norman Finkelstein’s “avowedly self-immolating solidarity” with Hezbullah:
Irfan Khawaja is Lecturer in Politics at Princeton University and adjunct professor of philosophy at The College of New Jersey. This is a much-abridged version of an essay to appear in the journal Reason Papers, vol. 27, January 2004. For ordering information, go to https://webhost.bridgew.edu/askoble/RPad.htm. Do not reprint without permission. Irfan Khawaja, (c) 2003.