Thursday, December 22, 2011

An enemy of totalitarianism the Mideast misunderstood

In February 2009, Christopher Hitchens gave a talk at the American University of Beirut titled Who are the real revolutionaries in the Middle East? As he later wrote in his last book, Arguably, a collection of essays: "I did my best to blow on the few sparks that then seemed dimly perceptible." He praised individuals best embodying democratic change in the region, from the Egyptian academic Saad Eddin Ibrahim, to the Kurdish foes of Saddam Hussein, to the Lebanese who had overthrown Syrian hegemony in 2005.

Yet the AUB talk was a bad-tempered affair. Many in Hitchens' audience had come to castigate a man who supported the war in Iraq and whom they blamed for siding with American neoconservatives. Others accused him of ignoring Palestine. Hitchens reminded them that he had written a book with the late Edward Said on the Palestinians, and pointedly asked: "Could there have been any greater degradation for Iraq than being under the control of a psychopathic family?"

For Hitchens, who passed away last week, the episode left a bitter aftertaste. The hostility of those in attendance represented "another round in a long historic dispute … between the anti-imperialist left and the anti-totalitarian left. And in the case of any conflict, I have increasingly resolved it on the anti-totalitarian side."

Hitchens was right to frame the issue in those terms, but he was also too kind by half. He did not mention that most of those counting themselves among the anti-imperialist ranks have repeatedly evaded discussion of how one might have better dealt with the barbaric leadership of Saddam Hussein, who was directly or indirectly responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands of people.

It makes no sense to disapprove of the American invasion of Iraq on moral foundations, while offering nothing in return for how the international community might have countered the Baath regime's daily outrages against morality. That disconnect was at the heart of Hitchens' thinking on Iraq, as it is in the broader discussion of humanitarian intervention in foreign policy. Anti-imperialism has often been used by autocrats in the developing world to rebuff western disapproval of their abuses, on the grounds that such condemnation constitutes a form of neo-imperialism.

Such hypocrisy was too much for Hitchens, even as he never abandoned his roots in the political left, or for that matter his anti-imperialist impulses. Quite simply, he did not regard the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as imperial ventures, and appears to have been vindicated by the American withdrawal from Iraq last week. Hitchens believed that it was foolish to see all states as somehow morally equivalent. There were states that responded to the will of their citizens, no matter how imperfectly; and there were those that imprisoned their citizens for expressing the slightest dissent. He preferred a world shaped by the impositions of the first group.

Those affirming that Hitchens had shifted to the right showed little grasp of the subject at hand. Liberal interventionism has tended to be an exigency of the left, not the right. Conservatives have traditionally respected state sovereignty, which holds that regimes can do what they want at home, as long as they preserve stability beyond their borders.

When American neoconservatives came onto the political map in the 1970s they were better known for advocating Washington's tolerance of friendly dictators. That was the point of a much-discussed article at the time by a Georgetown academic named Jeane Kirkpatrick. She so pleased a future president, Ronald Reagan, that he made her his ambassador to the United Nations.

Ms Kirkpatrick's article understandably divided the neocons, some of whom saw the duplicity in opposing communism for its denial of freedom while also backing a multitude of despots because they happened to be anti-communist. This was a difficulty Hitchens didn't remotely face, as he was consistent in his opposition to dictatorship. That neocons embraced democratic interventionism after the 9/11 attacks showed not that Hitchens had drifted to the right, but that neoconservatives had drifted left.

Nor did Hitchens display any conservative reflexes in his controversial attitude towards religion. His atheism was well-known, and he viewed it as an extension of his anti-totalitarianism. Articulating what he called an "anti-theist" stance, Hitchens maintained that the image of God as represented in many religions was, essentially, that of an absolute ruler. This led him to transcend non-belief to assert that one could not possibly accept such a God.

Hitchens dedicated Arguably to three Arabs - a Tunisian, an Egyptian and a Libyan - people he believed had played instrumental roles in unleashing the succession of revolts this year. By then he knew that he was dying and wanted to leave readers with a sense of his priorities.

The Middle East preoccupied Hitchens more than anything else during the last decade of his life, because of 9/11. It must have been satisfying to be proven right on the intensity of the anti-totalitarian strains in the region, against all those, his AUB detractors at the forefront, who in their fixation on American perfidy utterly missed the rumblings of domestic discontent around them.

Much has been made of Hitchens' admiration for the author George Orwell. But I've always been taken by his regard for the historian and poet Robert Conquest, the great documenter of Joseph Stalin's purges. In his poem In Place, Conquest describes the memory of the First World War dead as "the shadow nothing tames". Mourn Christopher Hitchens, in death a shadow untamed.

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