Last night, Cristopher Hitchens called me a fool. Considering the quality of his bedfellows on this M14 junket (or is it M15?) and the strength of his arguments, I suppose I should probably wear the distinction as a badge of honor.
The topic of the lecture was billed as “Who are the revolutionaries in today’s Middle East?” but he decided to talk about “the ironies of history” instead. One of the ironies he mentioned was schmoozing in the White House with Marxist Kurds from Iraq, including Talabani, the president of Iraq. He asked what it had taken to get to that ironic point. When it came time to ask questions, this was my query: “You asked what it had taken for you and your Kurdish friends to be hanging out at the White House, and even though it was a rhetorical question, I think it has a very concrete answer: hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis. So at the risk of confusing you with Madeleine Albright, I’d like to ask you this: Was it worth it?”
He then asked me if I was putting the responsibility of the Iraqi civil war on America, to which I said, of course, because despite intent the effect of the war has been disastrous. He then proceeded to say that the dead of Iraq since 2003 was incomparable to the number of people killed by Saddam. I said that in fact it was comparable and per annum, in any case, recent years were actually worse than the Saddam years, on average. And that’s when he said that anyone who compared the two would “look a fool, as you do now.” But counting the dead isn’t very helpful, and that’s not the point I was making. My question was actually a sincere one, because while I was against the war in Iraq, I had my doubts and have often wondered if in the (very) long-term, even with American incompetence in prosecuting the war, Iraqis would eventually decide that it had been a net win. Needless to say, I’m skeptical, and even the brutal status quo of the Saddam regime is now looked upon with nostalgia by many Iraqis I know.
But Hitchens, as he repeatedly showed with his witty but asshole-ish British public school boy debating style, was more interested in being contrarian and entertaining than he was in actual dialogue. (At one point, he told the audience, “I know 50 times more about these subjects than anyone in the room.”) He brought out one logical fallacy after another but seemed most fond of the false choice. If you were against the war, then you were for Saddam and his sons raping women. If you were against the war, then you were for Libyan nuclear weapons as well as Pakistani nuclear proliferation via Khan, despite the fact that negotiations had been moving along for years to get Tripoli to give up its nuclear program.
In order to illustrate how he knows so much more about Lebanon than anyone else in the room, when pressed, the only “true revolutionary” he could come up with was Walid Joumblatt. To this, the audience mostly just laughed out loud. I would have felt sorry for Hitchens if he hadn’t been such a pompous ass.
To my mind, the best question was asked by Rami Khoury, the director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at AUB and an editor at the Daily Star. He asked Hitchens why the choice had to be between American military intervention and the Saddam regime. Hitchens spent several minutes lauding himself for refusing to leave if someone feels like their question had gone unanswered, yet he actually answered very few of the questions put to him. So unless saying that I’m a fool qualifies as an answer, the audience never heard whether or not Hitchens thought “liberating” Iraq was worth the price. Likewise, he never responded to the idea that there might be more nuance in the world than his dichotomy of US invasion v. Saddam rapes your mother might lead us to believe.
Otherwise, the big news on the interweb from his trip is that he was beaten up by SSNP thugs for scribbling on their posters, as my friend Qifa confirmed with paparazzi flair after the lecture. I don’t really have much to say about that (in public), except that it’s shameful that the SSNP continues to run around beating people up with impunity.
Finally, for a good discussion of what this junket says about M14 lobbying, read Dave, and for a breakdown of a few of the many, many mistakes in Osborne’s ridiculously error riddled piece, check out Qifa Nabki. And last but not least, for a ridiculous picture of Totten, click here. And if you’re reading this, Totten, feel free to come to my party tomorrow night, that is if you’re not afraid of blowing your cover in this top secret undisclosed location.
UPDATE: I woke up to notice a lot of traffic from the Angry Arab, so thanks to Abu Khalil for the link and thanks to his readers for stopping by. Second, a good friend of mine who’s as smart as a whip wrote last night to describe Hitchens’s performance the other night. Her acute observation was that he was like the “ideological Simon Cowell,” and I couldn’t agree more. Would that the stakes in the region were no more serious than those on American Idol.