In the midst of gloom and doom about Iraq, Christopher Hitchens cuts through the murk and illuminates the situation with his trademark clarity:
Antaeus was able to draw strength from the earth every time an antagonist wrestled him to the ground. A reverse mythology has been permitted to take hold in the present case, where bad news is deemed to be bad news only for regime-change. Anyone with the smallest knowledge of Iraq knows that its society and infrastructure and institutions have been appallingly maimed and beggared by three decades of war and fascism (and the "divide-and-rule" tactics by which Saddam maintained his own tribal minority of the Sunni minority in power). In logic and morality, one must therefore compare the current state of the country with the likely or probable state of it had Saddam and his sons been allowed to go on ruling.
At once, one sees that all the alternatives would have been infinitely worse, and would most likely have led to an implosion--as well as opportunistic invasions from Iran and Turkey and Saudi Arabia, on behalf of their respective interests or confessional clienteles. This would in turn have necessitated a more costly and bloody intervention by some kind of coalition, much too late and on even worse terms and conditions. This is the lesson of Bosnia and Rwanda yesterday, and of Darfur today. When I have made this point in public, I have never had anyone offer an answer to it. A broken Iraq was in our future no matter what, and was a responsibility (somewhat conditioned by our past blunders) that no decent person could shirk. The only unthinkable policy was one of abstention.
Two pieces of good fortune still attend those of us who go out on the road for this urgent and worthy cause. The first is contingent: There are an astounding number of plain frauds and charlatans (to phrase it at its highest) in charge of the propaganda of the other side. Just to tell off the names is to frighten children more than Saki ever could: Michael Moore, George Galloway, Jacques Chirac, Tim Robbins, Richard Clarke, Joseph Wilson . . . a roster of gargoyles that would send Ripley himself into early retirement. Some of these characters are flippant, and make heavy jokes about Halliburton, and some disdain to conceal their sympathy for the opposite side. So that's easy enough.
The second bit of luck is a certain fiber displayed by a huge number of anonymous Americans. Faced with a constant drizzle of bad news and purposely demoralizing commentary, millions of people stick out their jaws and hang tight. I am no fan of populism, but I surmise that these citizens are clear on the main point: It is out of the question--plainly and absolutely out of the question--that we should surrender the keystone state of the Middle East to a rotten, murderous alliance between Baathists and bin Ladenists. When they hear the fatuous insinuation that this alliance has only been created by the resistance to it, voters know in their intestines that those who say so are soft on crime and soft on fascism.
In this must-read essay, Hitchens reminds us of how far we have come, and what has been accomplished, most of which would not have occurred had it not been for the determination of George W. Bush and Tony Blair:
(1) The overthrow of Talibanism and Baathism, and the exposure of many highly suggestive links between the two elements of this Hitler-Stalin pact. Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who moved from Afghanistan to Iraq before the coalition intervention, has even gone to the trouble of naming his organization al Qaeda in Mesopotamia.
(2) The subsequent capitulation of Qaddafi's Libya in point of weapons of mass destruction--a capitulation that was offered not to Kofi Annan or the E.U. but to Blair and Bush.
(3) The consequent unmasking of the A.Q. Khan network for the illicit transfer of nuclear technology to Libya, Iran, and North Korea.
(4) The agreement by the United Nations that its own reform is necessary and overdue, and the unmasking of a quasi-criminal network within its elite.
(5) The craven admission by President Chirac and Chancellor Schröder, when confronted with irrefutable evidence of cheating and concealment, respecting solemn treaties, on the part of Iran, that not even this will alter their commitment to neutralism. (One had already suspected as much in the Iraqi case.)
(6) The ability to certify Iraq as actually disarmed, rather than accept the word of a psychopathic autocrat.
(7) The immense gains made by the largest stateless minority in the region--the Kurds--and the spread of this example to other states.
(8) The related encouragement of democratic and civil society movements in Egypt, Syria, and most notably Lebanon, which has regained a version of its autonomy.
(9) The violent and ignominious death of thousands of bin Ladenist infiltrators into Iraq and Afghanistan, and the real prospect of greatly enlarging this number.
(10) The training and hardening of many thousands of American servicemen and women in a battle against the forces of nihilism and absolutism, which training and hardening will surely be of great use in future combat.
It would be admirable if the president could manage to make such a presentation. It would also be welcome if he and his deputies adopted a clear attitude toward the war within the war: in other words, stated plainly, that the secular and pluralist forces within Afghan and Iraqi society, while they are not our clients, can in no circumstance be allowed to wonder which outcome we favor.
As far as Bush being able to articulate the case as well as Hitchens -- well, let's not hold our breath, as there are few who can and communication is certainly not W's strong suit. However, Tony Blair has done an admirable job rhetorically speaking, and anyone who cares to really listen to what he says, whether addressing Parliament, our own Congress, or a querelous press, will understand perfectly well why this Labour Prime Minister threw his lot in with the most conservative American president since Ronald Reagan. Nontheless, Blair's eloquence on the reasons for overthrowing Saddam Hussein and his defense of this policy as the right course of action have not swayed his detractors. And as for being Bush's "poodle", Hitchens points out that Blair "was insisting on the importance of Iraq while George Bush was still an isolationist governor of Texas".
At this point, two years of a hard-fought campaign, with our own media leading daily with bad news and unable or unwilling to report progress on the ground or the heroism of our soldiers -- either because of their own biases or simply for fear of appearing to be jingoists or shills for the Bush White House -- have left their impact on the public's psyche. We are being lulled into the belief that perhaps we have done as much as we can, and should meddle no further in what may become a protracted and bloody civil war. As Hitchens reminds us, the forces we are fighting in Iraq are not manifestations of a local struggle we can choose to walk away from, a regional conflict we can opt out of when we've had enough. They are one arm of a global jihad that is determined to commit mass murder in every capital of the world, a fascism as virulent as any we faced during World War II. That we would have to make a stand against them was inevitable. That we are doing so in Iraq was a strategic choice, but the war itself was not.
Although the scenes from Iraq look horrific, the real battle taking place is the political reformation of the Middle East, which has been catalyzed by the fitful progress of the Iraqis towards democratic self-rule. Progress is being made, not just in Iraq but across the whole of central Asia. In the end, the rights of free people must trump the designs of theocrats and dictators. This is not a matter of altruism or idealism: in an age in which religious fanatics can gain access to the technology to murder millions of unbelievers, the survival of liberal societies everywhere depends on it.
UPDATE: Jon Stewart gets the better of Hitchens in an interview on the Daily Show. Most Stewart fans and liberals (lots of overlap between those two groups) saw it as a huge smackdown. Stewart definitely has both the momentum, and the support of the audience, and often talks over a flustered Hitchens who loses the thread more than once; his body language shows he is obviously uncomfortable that Stewart is scoring points at his expense. Hitchens is usually unflappable, but this is not one of his best moments.