CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS & TARIQ ALI
debate the Iraq War
Ali is author of Bush in Babylon: The Recolonization of
Iraq, and editor of the New Left Review. Christopher
Hitchens's latest book is called, Blood, Class, and Empire:
The Enduring Anglo-American Relationship. This interview
is published with the permission of
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AMY GOODMAN: We welcome
you both to Democracy Now! Why don't we start off with Christopher
Hitchens. Your assessment, Christopher, right now, of what's
happening in Iraq.
HITCHENS: I think that the United States and coalition forces
are not militarily defeatable in Iraq.
GOODMAN: Can you explain what you mean?
HITCHENS: Yes. I mean, I think it's important to know first
what can't happen. I've been mocked for saying this in an earlier
report from Iraq, but I'm reprinting it in my upcoming collection.
Military superiority is something you have to see to -- to believe.
Unless the United States chooses to be defeated in Iraq, it
cannot be. Therefore, the insurgency, so-called, will be defeated.
And all logical and moral conclusions you want to draw from
that, should be drawn.
ALI:Well, I think Christopher is right on this, that militarily,
it is virtually impossible to defeat the United States. After
all, they were not defeated militarily in Vietnam, either. It
was a big military offensive by the Vietnamese. But had there
not been a growing opposition to the war in the United States,
a big anti-war movement which penetrated and percolated into
the heart of the American army, that war could have gone on.
What brought the Vietnam War to an end was the combination of
the Vietnamese military offensive and just a refusal by the
American public, and in large sectors of the army to accept
that this war was winnable. The question is this: The United
States army cannot be defeated militarily; they're incredibly
powerful, but can the Iraqi people be defeated? Can Iraq be
anything else but a lame colony mixture of Gaza and Guantanamo
under foreign occupation? So it's -- it's a difficult one, this.
And I think a low-scale, low-level intensity guerilla war could
carry on for years; and the attrition finally could reach such
a stage that the United States would say, it's not worth it.
I mean, as it is today, many conservative people, Edward Luttwak,
the Brookings Institute are saying we should cut and run. It's
not been worth it. It's going to end extremely badly; and we
should leave before we are humiliated. They don't mean a military
humiliation. What they mean is a failure to achieve the goals
which this administration set itself. I mean, we shouldn't forget
that early on we were told it would be a cakewalk. Rumsfeld
said, maximum, this war would only last for six months. Pro-U.S.
administration Arabs in Washington said they'd be welcomed with
sweets and flowers. None of that has happened. And what has
become obvious is that the Iraqi people don't like being occupied.
They may have loathed Saddam, but they don't like being occupied
by the United States. And so one has to move to a situation
of U.S. withdrawal, and the emergence of an elected Iraqi government,
which will determine its own future, including control of its
own oil. There's no other way out.
HITCHENS: Well, I mean just as a point of honor, because this
is so often used as a taunt, you would have to call me a liar
if you said there was no greeting of American troops. I can't
actually vouch for the sweets. But I can sure vouch for the
flowers. And for mass outpouring of rejoicing and welcome. I've
seen it myself. I'm not going to be persuaded it didn't happen.
It may be an unimportant thing; but it seems to have become
a regular jeer. It did happen. I saw it myself a lot in all
parts of the country. Second, the nature of the enemy is what
defines this war, I believe, and makes all comparisons with
Vietnam ridiculous. Patrick Cockburn of The Independent,
said about Najaf, the struggle over the mosque there, that if
this was the Vietnam War, the Najaf moment would be remembered
as its Tet offensive. And I therefore presume -- I have to presume
-- he means that the ridiculous mullah involved would be, I'm
not quite sure, Ho Chi Minh? At any rate, Mr. Sadr has now been
isolated, discredited; his forces have been killed in very large
numbers, without pity or compunction, I'm glad to say, by American
and British forces. He's been broken and they've been broken
morally, too. They're rattled. They're shattered. And they're
-- Even today we read, in Sadr City itself, the heartland, so-called,
in Baghdad, they're cueing up either to sell or give away their
heavy weapons. Now that may be a bluff. That's been promised
before. But it is not where the Vietcong were six months after
the Tet offensive. So all of this is nonsense, in other words.
The United States will not break domestically. Edward Luttwak
represents nobody; I'm not sure he even represents himself in
this point. The Brookings Institution is virtually irrelevant.
People know they're looking down the gun barrel of theocracy
of a particularly violent, disorderly, cruel, sectarian, fanatical
kind, somewhat worse than the Taliban. Since this is an enemy
across the globe and in our own society, there is no possibility
of surrender with it or of negotiation with it. So that's another
respect in which the Vietnam analogy is futile.
ALI: In the first place, I think it's extremely important to
understand that the people fighting the United States in Iraq
are not exclusively religious groups. The religious groups,
in fact, are barely involved in the armed struggle. The armed
struggle in Iraq today, as any Pentagon analyst will tell you,
is being carried out by former members of the Iraqi army, many
of them dissidents even during the Saddam years, who decided
that Saddam was utterly useless, wasn't going to do anything
to defend the country, was incapable of doing so; and months
before the invasion happened had prepared that they would wage
a long, hard, scorched-earth guerilla resistance. These are
not religious people. The religious groups which Christopher
is talking about, the Shia groups, in many cases, not in the
case of Al Sadr, but in some cases were actually very pro the
United States, during the Saddam years. They were being backed
by the United States. They were being given money by the United
States. And some of these Shia groups are still allied to the
United States. Others aren't. So you can't pick and choose your
theocrats. If they're with us, they're fine; if they're against
us, they're a problem. This is a decision, unfortunately, which
does not -- or fortunately -- which does not lie in Christopher's
hands or mine. This is something the Iraqi people will decide
and determine for themselves when they are given the chance
to vote. Now what happens if, in a genuine election, not an
election carried out under occupation, the Iraqis decide to
vote the Shia parties into power. Are we going to challenge
that militarily? Are we going to crush them pitilessly? Are
we going to kill them because this is what they want? And I
think the whole point of toppling Saddam, I was told by Christopher
and others, was to liberate Iraq so that the people could determine
their own future. Now we are being told that the only people
who can determine their future is the United States army and
the Bush administration. And I disagree with Christopher that
there won't be a price to pay inside the United States if casualties
carry on, at this rate, even. There will be opposition in the
United States, as there is, which is beginning to percolate
through even to the Democratic Party.
GOODMAN: Tariq is the author of, among other books, his latest,
Bush in Babylon: The Recolonization of Iraq. Also editor
of the New Left Review. Christopher Hitchens is the
author of Blood, Class, and Empire: The Enduring Anglo-American
HITCHENS: The people I feel sorry for are those who are genuinely
anti-war, such as yourself and Tariq, who find themselves having
had to hope for team that's committed to carrying on the war,
except without the sense of
GOODMAN: I want to get your response to a comment made by Richard
Perle, former Pentagon advisor. He made this comment at a conference
organized by the American Enterprise Institute.
PERLE: And a year from now, I'll be very surprised if there
is not some grand square in Baghdad that is named after President
ALI: Well, what can one say? I mean, it's utterly ridiculous.
I would suggest, however, that when the foreign occupiers finally
are forced to leave Iraq, that a tiny public toilet in the big
square in Baghdad is named after Richard Perle in memory of
GOODMAN: Christopher Hitchens?
HITCHENS: In a way, I feel pity for -- I seem to be expressing
sympathy for everyone this morning -- it's not my usual style.
Genuine pity for Richard Perle because he does or did have quite
a good mind. He's become, as you know, a figure of ridicule
and contempt because of his endless double-dipping of consultancies
with the Turks, consultancies with the Israelis, consultancies
now with the long-lamented Lord Black, the newspaper tycoon.
I don't think it's as important a remark to detain us for long.
President Bush doesn't want a square named after himself in
GOODMAN: Would you say, Christopher, that you've joined the
ranks now of the neo-cons, the neo-conservatives?
HITCHENS: I couldn't quite say that. I mean, there is a division
within the neo-conservative movement, which is, by the way,
one of the tests of its authenticity as a tendency. I would
say I was a supporter of Paul Wolfowitz, though, if you want
that answer from me.
HITCHENS: And I feel I can illustrate what I think is the difference.
There was a lot of argument about the relationship between Iraq
and the Palestinian question. Now there are some of the neo-conservatives,
I think, thought by taking out the main rejectionist dictatorship
in the region, they would make Eretz Israel, or Greater Israel,
more secure, or more feasible, alternatively, whether you think
Greater Israel has been achieved or not. There were others of
the same kidney, if you wish, where Wolfowitz and others took
exactly the opposite feeling. If you took out the rejectionist
dictatorship, you were in a stronger position to bring the leverage
on Israel about the settlements and about expansionism, especially
at a time when the Likud party itself is beginning to abandon
the ultimate dream of Eretz Israel.
ALI: Well, I must say what Christopher said on this is undeniable.
The Democrats have over the last 20 years been completely uncritical
of every single Israeli government, which has continued to press
the Palestinians and crush and kill on a daily basis. What I
dispute is whether a Bush would be of any benefit in this particular
direction, because the whole thing has now been subsumed under
the war against terror, so-called. And Sharon became a valued
ally of the Bush administration because he was regarded as absolutely
central in the war against terror. And every single struggle
is now characterized as a struggle against terrorism. I mean,
Putin has destroyed half of Chechnya in the name of the so-called
war against terror. And Sharon continues to do that in Palestine.
And I think unless this administration abandons this whole concept
and this whole notion, we're in trouble. And that of course,
applies to Paul Wolfowitz himself. I mean, I don't know how
Christopher sees Wolfowitz as different to, for instance someone
who I know he still disagrees with violently, which is Henry
Kissinger. I mean, what makes Wolfowitz different from Henry
Kissinger in terms of projecting America power? They have different
tactics, they have, to do this. But by and large they are very
similar people, I would have thought.
HITCHENS: Can I recommend a book by James Mann, Jim Mann of
the Los Angeles Times written a very good book. It's
got the rather vulgar title of The Rise of the Vulcans.
It's an examination of the neo-conservative tendency in Washington
and within the Republican party. And actually it takes on the
question of Wolfowitz versus Kissinger very well. It's the only
book I know of that properly does do it. Wolfowitz and Kissinger
disliked each other and disagreed very strongly with each other
for a long time. I think the origin of the disagreement and
the origin of Wolfowitz's political career is that he argued
it was important to dump the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines.
Base or no base, let it go and take the chances that this would
have a ripple effect in the rest of Asia, which was just what
Kissinger didn't want. As a result, there were outbreaks of
democratic insurgency, starting with the Aquino election, in
South Korea, in Taiwan, eventuating in Tiananmen Square, in
fact, in 1989, which of course, Kissinger also opposed and took
the side of the Chinese Stalinists. On the Middle East, the
victory of the neo-conservatives is very paradoxical, because
contra Bush, Eagleburger, Bush Sr., Scowcroft -- I've just mentioned,
by the way, the two leading members of Kissinger Associates
-- and others, Colin Powell. The argument of the neo-conservatives,
or at least of the Wolfowitz wing, was, "We can't go on
like this, running the Middle East as a kind of political slum
of client states. We have to take the chance that destabilization
would be worth it in the long run." That's what, that's
still why the extreme right in the country, people like Buchanan
and others, oppose it. Precisely for that reason. They and the
pro-Saudi conservatives. To the extent I'm a neo-conservative,
it would be because they're the only ones willing to take the
radical risk of regime change.
GOODMAN: Christopher, you've written in a piece in Slate
talking about Michael Moore, Naomi Klein, Tariq Ali as "fellow
travelers" with fascism.
HITCHENS: Yes. I think that the ideology espoused by people
like Zarqawi deserves the comparisons with fascism. It's fanatical,
it's irrational, it's dictatorial, it's racist, and it's a product
of a terrible psychological and sexual repression. It gashes
me more than I can easily say, or probably even have time to
say, to hear it called a resistance or an insurgency, or to
have people call, as Tariq, I'm sorry to say did in the pages
of New Left Review some time ago, for solidarity with
it. That is something that I've never heard properly justified
or explained. Michael Moore in his film compares these people
in Iraq, who as you know are the murderers and rapists and torturers,
to the founding fathers of the American revolution. This to
me is inexplicable. Well, I'm sorry to say in the case of Michael
Moore, it's not inexplicable. But in the case of Tariq, I thought
you would offer a better explanation.
ALI: I think words like fascism shouldn't be thrown about lightly,
leave alone accusing people you disagree with of being "fellow
travelers" with fascism. I mean, Christopher, from that
point of view, is a fellow traveler with imperialism. He's a
fellow traveler with people who are carrying out tortures in
Iraq. The side he's on has killed several thousand innocent
Iraqi civilians. But he supports that war, so you take, you
know, what you get. You support a side of the war and you accept
all of this as collateral damage, including the tortures, which
are part and parcel of every single colonial war. And I would
urge Christopher, very seriously, to go back and look at the
war that was fought in Algeria. We have a mythology about this
war that it was exclusively secular. It wasn't. There was a
very strong, whether we like it or not -- and I don't like it,
because as Christopher knows full well, I'm an atheist, I'm
not a believer in any religion. But if you have countries where
a large part of the population are Muslims, obviously Islamic
groups play a part in it, as they did in Algeria. As for thinking
that Zarqawi –
HITCHENS: Which Algerian war are you talking about?
ALI: I'm talking about the war against the French.
HITCHENS: Ah. Not the Islamic insurgency against the FLN, which
was put down by people who were defending the Algerian state
from Islamic insurgency.
ALI: I know, Christopher. And the reason that that particular
insurgency started in Algeria is because the military interrupted
a democratic election halfway because they were told that their
opponents were going to win, rather than letting them win and
putting firm demands on the table that they wouldn't accept
any tampering with the constitution. That triggered off the
insurgency. That's a different story. Now, to pretend that the
entire resistance in Iraq is Zarqawi and his group is just completely
false. This is a tiny group, built up in the western media largely.
Attacked by most Iraqis, dissidents of every sort, who are opposed
to the occupation. And you've got to just accept this. And I
don't even support Zarqawi. I've never said I support him. I've
criticized him in public and in interviews with Arab television
networks, saying this is not the way. But the resistance in
Iraq is much, much broader and much deeper than that. And incidentally,
as far as talking about these people having repressive sexual
attitudes, this is, of course, absolutely true, which I have
denounced many a time, openly and publicly. But what about the
Christian majority inside the Republican party which you support,
Christopher? Whatever else you say about Bush, you can't say
his attitudes on homosexuality are particularly enlightened,
not to mention capital punishment.
HITCHENS: I actually couldn't say that I knew what the President's
attitudes on homosexuality was. I know what his attitude on
gay marriage is. I think it's slightly strange. Well then, I
should simply say this. The only really organized rebel force
in Iraq, worthy of the name insurgent force, force of people's
army, guerilla warfare, is and has been the Patriotic Union
of Kurdistan and its allies whose flag I'm happy to wear on
my lapel. They deserve the name of a true rebel people's army.
They of course are fighting for regime change, and as long as
they do, so will I.
ALI: I think the Iraqi resistance continues to grow because
a colonial occupation has that effect, that even people who
might have initially been indifferent or even halfway sympathetic,
seeing the effects of a colonial occupation, where large numbers,
several thousands of innocent civilians are being killed --
when you see the pictures from Samarra, of women fleeing with
their children -- it stokes the resistance. Zarqawi is neither
here nor there.
Ali: Letter to a Muslim
Manji: Faith Without Fear
Islam on the Rise
Hage's Long Day's Journey into Secularism
Shape of Rape in Pakistan: Muhktaran Mai
Woman in Iraq: Judy Rebick
Edward Said: Chronicle of an Infitada Foretold