Posted by: sean | February 19, 2009

Hitchens in Beirut

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.



  1. Sean, fix the link to his picture. :)

  2. I am bewildered. Has any other Arab dictator been replaced with a democracy not by force?
    What other option is there between Saddam in power and removing him by force (US invasion)?

    I am not talking about a meteor hitting his palace. What REALISTIC method is there of changing an Arab regime without using military force? What is Khoury talking about? Please give an example where “nuance” worked in bringing democracy to the Arab world.

  3. AIG

    Rami Khoury addressed this issue. He told Hitchens that many people in the room (and in the region) would agree with him about the moral bankruptcy of the dictatorial regimes, the failure of Arab nationalism, the oppressiveness of the various theocratic movements, etc. But the question then becomes: what is the alternative? Does the alternative have to be a rushed and bungled war effort by an incompetent American president resulting in hundreds of thousands of needless deaths?

    You are right: force is the only way. But there are intelligent applications of force and bone-headed applications of force.

  4. QN,
    I of course agree with you that there are smart ways and stupid ways to take down Saddam.

    But the alternative is not to ask: What is the alternative? Why doesn’t Khoury propose an alternative? Why don’t you propose an alternative? How about Sean?

    Khoury did not say to Bush: Hey, here is the smart way to topple Saddam. No, he recommended not using force at all.

    Did you predict that suicide bombers would attack mainly CIVILLIAN targets? I was sure they would attack the Americans, but I never dreamed that suicide bombers would attack Iraqis with the support of Syria and other Arab countries. I find laying the blame for this at Bush’s doorstep unfair.

    There are many things that could have been done better in Iraq. Most importantly, the dissolution of the army was stupid.

    But what kind of namby-pamby criticism is Khoury pushing? Let’s hear how HE would have done it if at all. What was the ALTERNATIVE PLAN to taking out Saddam and his regime? Sitting back, doing nothing about Saddam and criticizing someone else’s effort is very easy, but also very shallow.

  5. Dearest Sean,

    Little do you know it now, but the label of a ‘fool’ will haunt you for the rest of your life knowing, deep down, that Hitchens was accurate in sizing you up.

    I truly do feel sorry for you: the gods chose such a public forum to humiliate you, and with such wit too!

  6. A way to overthrow the Iraqi regime without force:

    First, they could have ended the sanctions that killed over a million Iraqis. Their rationale for the sanctions were, let the people suffer and then they will target their anger at the regime. This policy has failed every single time it has ever been implemented in the middle east. See any of Israel’s policy.

    The western world was able to moderate post cold war china without a single shot fired, this was done through economic opportunity. Instead of just investing in oil fields, they could have invested in other sectors in the Iraqi economy creating a new middle class, just as they did in China. China is no beacon of freedom, but the world is much more comfortable with them today then they were say, in the 70s.

    This concept is impossible for westerners in the mold of Hitchens and Totten to understand, because they truly believe in their heart of hearts that the Arab individual doesn’t deserve to be an equal and if they were treated as equals the first thing they would do is go into blind rages committing “terrorist acts”. Westerners like Hitchens and Totten believe that every Arab/Muslim in the world wake up every morning thinking about ways how to destroy Western civilization. These types of westerners believe that they are the sun of the Arab universe and that is all we know and think about, (i.e. destroying western civilization and their “freedoms”). It can never sink through their heads that the majority of the Arabs have hopes, dreams and want to provide the best life possible for their families, the irony of all this is that the people who want to destroy and attack the west, used to be on the payrolls of western governments.

    Nothing will ever change with isolationist policies. These policies have been in place for decades and the situation becomes worse and worse. They don’t want solutions or our opinions, they just want obedience to their nefarious plans in the region.

    As far as the US invasion goes, The insurgency did not start until 1 year after George Bush declared Mission Accomplished in Iraq. They disbanded the Army and forsaken a whole swath of Iraqi society (Sunnis). This was disastrous, instead of reforming the structures they had in place, they decided to start from scratch with a half hearted effort and with people who were put in place not because of merit, but their level of obedience to their new occupiers.

    There are tons of ways to isolate dictators of the world: freeze bank accounts, deny visas to them and their family members and deny them any type of personal economic opportunity outside their country, but of course, these ideas will only fall on deaf ears.

  7. Actually: Kan`an Makiya himself compared the numbers of Saddam’s victims with those of the invasion and its aftermath. That was quoted by Ajami in a 2008 article about his visit to Iraq, Makiya said “they’re getting close” or something to that effect.

    In reality, the number is probably far higher, especially if you add the victims of the sanctions (unless we assume that the sanctions’ regime was some form of natural disaster.)

    But that matters little, neither action justifies the other; and we should all be able to agree that both Saddam’s despotism and the brutality of the US were pretty damn hard on the Iraqis!

    What if Saddam had killed “only” 40,000 of his people? Would that have made him a defensible character because his tally pales in comparison to what the US invasion has wrought? I imagine that 40,000 innocent killed is always a pretty horrible crime anywhere, under any circumstances.

    It must take a certain amount of disregard for human life (or the life of certain humans) to be able to proudly support a project that caused such human tragedy – either Saddam or the US. I know many who supported both.

  8. “If you were against the war, then you were for Saddam and his sons raping women.”

    About the Sadaam’s sons raping women allegation.

    The story that Uday Hussein was a rapist got international currency, and was of course believed by the likes of Christopher Hitchens.

    Few people realise that this story rests upon the word of just one person. Jumama Hanna, a Christian Iraqi refugee, claimed that she had been imprisoned and subjected to sexual torture by Uday Hussein, she also claimed to have known him personally.

    Her story was vividly told and widely believed.

    Later investigations showed that Jumama Hanna had never met Uday Hussein in her life, and had never been a political prisoner in Iraq. She had, however, been imprisoned briefly for prostitution. She was a fraudster, who swindled the life savings of several Iraqis, promising them visas abroad.

  9. Force isn’t the only way. It doesn’t have to be done right now, you know. All we have to do now is avoid the catastrophe. In the end, history is on the side of choice, of more freedom. That’s why Bush’s war was such a bad idea. It gave relevance to the apocalyptic mindset that was the only armed alternative.

  10. The thing is, AIG, many people like Khoury in the State Department and even the intelligence agencies were either: (a) deliberately shut out of all consultations on these matters so that the DoD could plan the entire war effort; or (b) consulted but ignored.

    This is part of the established record. So you can’t blame people for not doing enough beforehand. There was ENORMOUS opposition to this war. And behind the scenes, people were ennumerating the reasons why it was a terrible idea. Bush and the inner circle just did not want to listen.

  11. I don’t understand this civilizing mission of America and the need to spread democracy. the problem in the Middle East, is the complete hypocricy of the US in all of its dealings. Support Saudis and Egyptians and jordanians? Now these are progressive regimes, and even revolutionary as I imagine Hitchens believes, just for their support to the states. Wait…and ofcourse there is Israel a racist apartheid state with nuclear weapons run by a group of war criminals…but america shuts up!
    for me, I still believe in international law. America cannot and shouldn’t go making wars as she pleases because of this sick notion of ‘spreading democracy’ while experimenting with internationaly banned weapons and opening torture centers across the world….this mutant america is a danger to world peace and stability. America needs soul searching to find out the difference between being an ass and being a leader!!

  12. For those of you whose comments were only just now approved, I apologize for taking so much time. I went to bed early and didn’t see them.

    I started to respond to some of the questions posed here, but my answer got kind of long, so I’m posting it as a stand-alone entry.

  13. […] with tanks: Robbing Peter to pay Paul To answer some questions asked in the comments of the previous post about Hitchens and Iraq, there are  plenty of policies that can help promote democratic rule of law that don’t […]

  14. Bravo Nizar at 11:09 am that was Brilliant .

  15. Gee, Nizar, it’d be nice to hear something a little more unexpected. I mean, yes, America has a terrible track record in the region, but what exactly do you expect? That we’ll play footsie with Takfir w’al-Hegira instead of Hosni Mubarak? Not likely. I could go on and on about how we’re buying long-term disasters with short-term stability, but I suspect most statesmen are willing to take that deal. After all, what’s your alternative? Please don’t say “U.S. out of the Middle East!” because we both know that isn’t happening.

  16. […] I mention it, because Sean has a good post on Hitchens in Beirut. My only personal experience with Mr. Hitchens involved a lecture by Dr. […]

  17. “You are right: force is the only way. But there are intelligent applications of force and bone-headed applications of force.”

    With all due respect, sir, that is not true. We are talking about strategy vs. tactics, long-term plays vs. short band-aid remedies. In the long run, the force lies with soft power. If you look at the demographic medium-age in the Middle East, if we flood the new generation with Barbie dolls it will be much cheaper and cost-effective. In 20-30 years, all the bad old folks will have died from natural causes.

  18. James said:

    Please don’t say “U.S. out of the Middle East!” because we both know that isn’t happening.

    Oh, OK, let’s eliminate the only correct and viable answer and instead discuss more ways to further mire the US in unwinable and intractable disputes with countries we have no business meddling in. Because, you know, shaking the hornet’s nest didn’t work the first ten times but maybe if we do it just one more time…

  19. […] Walid Jumblatt a ‘true revolutionary’ – the collective Lebanese audience nearly died laughing… Hitchens is a former leftist turned ardent neocon, which is a shame becaues it discredits […]

  20. […] criticism of the SSNP comes from The Human Province, who writes: The big news on the interweb from his trip is that he was beaten up by SSNP thugs for […]

  21. About the SSNP incident, it was reported on some blogs, you can read more details:

    and for the interpretation (very funny):

  22. […] Hitchens in Beirut « the human province "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." (tags: blog middleeast rightwing) […]

  23. […] Sometimes it seems like you can’t please anybody. Recently, I was publicly called a fool by Christopher Hitchens, and now I’ve been smeared by As’ad AbuKhalil, a.k.a. The Angry Arab, who ironically […]

  24. […] haven’t known really what to say about the passing of Christopher Hitchens. There have been hagiographies coming in from the left and the right, as well as those who take a […]

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