February 11, 2003

Q&A With Christopher Hitchens

By: Tom Ivancie

Last year a friend of mine got Christopher Hitchens’ book Why
Orwell Matters
as a birthday gift from his mother. My friend’s mother, a
refugee from the Soviet Union, inscribed in the book: “Orwell was hated by the
conservatives because he was a socialist. He was hated by the socialists
because he told the truth.”

Almost the same thing could be said about Christopher Hitchens. Except, increasingly, many conservatives–particularly younger ones–are realizing there’s a lot to love about him.

Indeed, despite his scorn for organized religion and hatred of Mother Teresa, there may be no leftist that conservatives like to like more than Christopher Hitchens. His scorn for lowest common denominator thinking, whether from the left or the right, is as entertaining as it is jarring. A transplanted Briton, he is the scourge of the monarchy. A strident proponent of war on the “theocratic terrorism,” he has been a champion of oppressed peoples across the globe. An unabashed liberal, he was outraged by the vulgarity of the Clinton administration and gave up his column at The Nation over that magazine’s opposition to war in Iraq.

In the conclusion to Why Orwell Matters, Hitchens writes: “What [Orwell] illustrates, by his commitment to language as the partner of truth, is that ‘views’ do not really count; that it matters not what you think, but how you think; and politics are relatively unimportant, while principles have a way of
enduring, as do the few irreducible individuals who maintain allegiance to them.” America’s Future Foundation enthusiastically seconds that sentiment, as do the conservative and libertarian leaders who belong to it.

Hitchens is a widely published author and essayist, contributor to Vanity Fair, and author,
most recently, of Letters to a Young Contrarian and Why Orwell Matters. Recently, I was Christopher Hitchens’s guest for a dinner that featured perfectly grilled lamb chops and lots of wine.
We had a wide-ranging conversation about how he became “unmoored from the left.” Here are some excerpts on Israel, Iraq, religion in politics, his spat with liberal essayist Studs Terkel, what he thinks of the Bush administration and the Clintons, and why he likes Senator John Edwards but won’t vote for him.

Doublethink: You’ve been a longtime advocate for the Palestinians. But
you are also outspoken on the topic of “theocratic terrorism,” as you labeled
it. Has the war changed your views on Israel and the Palestinian question?

Hitchens: Well, no. I think there’s a flaw in Zionism. To me, it doesn’t solve the
question of international Jewish vulnerability. Go back to the Balfour
Declaration, which created Israel. The idea was, wouldn’t it be great to have a
separate ghetto for the Jews? And it has this messianic quality as well, about
bringing on the Messiah, which is why the Christian fascists like it. But when
you’ve said all that you can against the project, you have to admit a lot of
states are founded on dispossession of others. The Israelis are wrong to deny
that they’ve inflicted injustice on the Palestinians. But can we allow it to be
overborne by a revival of the Islamic empire? I wouldn’t want to see that.

Is that the ambition of Saddam Hussein?

Well, he says he wants to be remembered as the new Saladin. The consummation of that
would certainly be canceling the insult of Zionism. Bin Laden is very explicit.
These people are not, you know, doing this stuff simply for a Palestinian
homeland. No one’s going to blow themselves up for a two-stage solution.

Do you suspect there’s a link between al Qaeda and Hussein?

I don’t think there needs to be. There are several arguments for attacking Iraq. One is the violation of the convention against genocide. If you sign the genocide convention, you have to punish people who commit
genocide, and Saddam certainly has done that. I think the strongest case is the
responsibility to rescue the Iraqi people from a bastard regime. Then there’s
the threat of weapons of mass destruction. Finally, the talk is that he dabbles
in this international underworld, if you like, terrorism, though not very
conspicuously. I think there may be a sort of understanding between his people
and al Qaeda, a sort of non-aggression pact.

What do you think of the argument that an invasion will reorder the Middle East and rein in
states like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan?

I mean, here is a fascistic terrorist attack that’s been nurtured in the bosom of Saudi Arabia. What could be more clear than that? But people don’t want to see it, though some do, like Wolfowitz. He does see a root cause to September 11th. The root cause is the political slum that the U.S. has been running in the Middle East
for a long time, and the answer is to clear it out and install some friends with democratic leanings.

Isn’t there something about that notion–crusading for democracy–that’s a little utopian?

There’s a piece in a recent American Conservative–mostly a rag, I think, but some of it is quite energetically written–by J. P. Zmirak. He says that neoconservatism is basically leftist internationalism, Trotskyism. And that’s why neoconservatives like this idea of installing democratic regimes by force. It’s quite funny when he lists all the founders of neoconservatism, all those Jewish names. But at the end I thought, you know, it really would be better to just admit you’re a ruthless anti-Semite and have done with it. That’s really what the piece was about. He says neoconservatism is a Jewish heresy based on a sort of free-floating, Trotskyite internationalism. There’s probably something to that, but the way he put it was slightly shady, I think. And you get that in the magazine throughout–they do not like the ancient tribe, the Hebrews.

But wouldn’t it be better if the Administration was just honest about what the invasion of Iraq is about?

Perhaps, but they can’t. A decent respectful hypocrisy and diplomacy means you can’t say we’re doing this to put the Saudis back in that box, teach them a lesson, to change the ways of the Middle East. So they do have to
come up with arguments that aren’t as good. I just hope they don’t start believing their own propaganda.

Recently, Jack Straw, the British foreign minister, said that he thinks war has become less likely in recent weeks.

I’ll eat socks if they don’t go in. I think Straw might find out they’ve invaded
after I do–he’s unusually drippy.

Isn’t it a little naïve, though, to think that democracy is going to break out in the Middle East after an invasion?

Look, I’ve been in Northern Iraq, in the Kurdish area, where they now have something like 21 newspapers. Maybe they’re all very bad. Maybe there’s still a lot of tribalism and feudalism. But there’s something like an open society. So, no, it’s not like all you need to do is destroy Saddam and democracy will bloom. But where his rule has been removed, Kurdish Iraqis have shown that they can do better on their own, and why wouldn’t they?

Is this your view of what politics should be about–self-determination for individuals and nations?

No, it has to do with justice. But if justice is what you demand, then be prepared, because it may mean that the head of the state has to be arrested and dragged away, and then where will people be? You’re told to respect the authorities, and you find out that the authorities are criminal.

Would you have had Mr. Clinton sent to jail?

Yes, and Exhibit A would have been the bombing of that factory in the Sudan. The Republicans wouldn’t bring it up, but–

Maybe they didn’t want to compromise the office of the Presidency?

Well, when force is used overseas, it’s hard to criticize the reasons behind it. Honorable, but stupid. Second, when you accuse the President of using military force to divert attentions from his personal failings, that’s serious. You’re accusing the President of treason. You simply can’t. So they didn’t.

Why do you think Clinton survived?

He made it an issue of how grown-up people were. Everybody was determined to be on the grown-up side of this–“Oh, come on, you think I’m surprised about a blow job in the White House? I’m much too advanced and mature to care about a little thing like that.” It was genius on his part.

And he took chances, too; he was bold. I mean, it’s risky for a Southern governor to leave the New Hampshire primary to fly home and snuff out a retarded black guy on death row. I thought, how can liberals put up with this? But they did, because he was a winner. All to distract attention from Gennifer Flowers. To distract attention from the boudoir you go to the gas chamber.

You were both at Oxford at the same time. Did you meet him around campus?

Mutual friends say that we met, but I don’t think we did. He was a bit older than me. I certainly know the house he used to live in, which was the American sort of anti-war HQ. I was very involved with those people. One reason why I’m sure I didn’t know him is if he had been a real anti-war guy, I would have known him better. And I think he was a double, by the way. I think Roger Morris [author of the Clinton biography Partners in Power] is right in saying that Clinton was the informant.

You think Bill Clinton was recruited by the CIA?

Somebody was giving information to them about the anti-war draft resistors, and I think it was probably him. We had a girlfriend in common–I didn’t know then–who’s since become a very famous radical lesbian. So one of us was doing something wrong, or right [laughter]. Anyway, everyone on the left was besotted with him–Strobe Talbott, Robert Reich, Ira Magaziner, particularly. I had every reason to think that Clinton was a creep and a phony. So I tried to say to the left you’re mad if you think this guy is one of us. I guess now if I was to produce a video of him dismembering a child, it wouldn’t make any difference because they think he’s their guy. So I became unmoored from the liberal left because I thought, I’m wasting my time trying to pitch the argument to them that way. I should simply be saying the guy’s a lousy crook and shouldn’t be President, and I should stop pitching to the left. And at that point something slightly snapped.

Similar to your exchange with The Nation over the letter from Studs Terkel [regretting Hitchens’s departure from the magazine]?

Something about that annoyed me because they were using a guy who has slightly lost his faculties. They didn’t mind making a fool of him if it could hurt me. I mean, he’s an old fool in lots of ways, but he’s a noble old fool. The Nation is now just an echo chamber for every kind of moral cowardice.

Peggy Noonan wrote something recently in the Wall Street Journal saying that many on the left, because they don’t believe in God, let politics become their God to fill that void. And that makes what you’ve done a fall from grace, perhaps?

I haven’t read the piece so I shouldn’t comment directly on it. I will say, I really don’t think that Peggy Noonan could disagree that people who believe in God are capable of forgiving themselves for almost anything. If God’s on your side, anything you do is right.

This leads into a question about the President. He refers often to his religious conversion. Some people suggest that his foreign policy is guided by this belief in God. Would you agree?

What it shows is that being a man of faith is of no use when confronting something as complex as Iraq or North Korea. What help is it to be a man of faith when dealing with Kim Jong Il or Saddam Hussein? The other day, he greeted Erdogan, the new leader of Turkey, at the White House. And Bush says to him, “We understand each other, because you’re a man of faith and so am I.” Now, if a non-believer visits, what’s Bush going to do? Say, “Well, I don’t like you as much because you’re not a man of faith”? No. He’s going to say, “We’re very proud of our special relationship with the people of such-and-such.” It’s just a useless remark.

So why does he say it?

For all I know, it may give him some personal comfort to say it. But it’s a totally ridiculous remark. Certainly, Bush couldn’t deny that our most venomous enemies are people of faith. I would say that the more faith-based they are, the worse they become.

For example, he’ll say Islam is a religion of peace–

Which is nonsense. In fact, many of the remarks made by religious people are nonsensical. People say, “I think Jesus is my best friend.” No one responds as they should to that, which is to say, “You should be locked up, that’s utter crap.” For some reason, in what used to be called the Christian world, a free pass is given to anyone who makes any remark, however stupid, if it’s baptized by faith.

Is there anyone in public life who comes close to representing your views?

Most recently, I’d say it would be Jerry Brown or Ralph Nader. One is a crazed, semi-Catholic, and one is a sort of crazed health nut, safety-first fanatic. But both are people of integrity, and they’re in politics
because of conviction. And I’m very, very glad that neither of them ever had a chance of becoming President. But I’m glad that they ran. And I’m very glad that Nader stayed in to the end, because he hurt Al Gore’s chances of winning.

What disturbed you so much about Gore–the connection to Clinton?

No, it wasn’t just Clinton. I’m persuaded that personality is the question–character, if you want to call it that. Al Gore had allowed himself to become a humble, hollowed-out, humiliated figure. I didn’t want a zombie to be the president of the United States.

Is there anybody out there now with the right character to be President?

Well, maybe John Edwards. He probably wouldn’t want my endorsement, but–I wrote a piece about him–

This was in Vanity Fair?

Yes, and it was a decidedly lenient piece. He and his wife impressed me. I’m glad that people like them still want to get into politics. Right now, politics drives out everyone of any integrity. So we’re left with people who want to do politics as a career.

Well, he’s a multi-millionaire trial lawyer who says he’s for the “regular guy.” How do you read that in terms of character?

Oh, that’s all bullshit. I mean–I can’t wait for someone to say, listen, I don’t know about regular guys, I’m certainly not one myself, but I’d be a good president. You know, William Faulkner, when he was postmaster in Oxford, Mississippi, was asked what it’s like to be postmaster. And he said, “It’s okay, but you’re at the mercy of every son of a bitch who wants a ten cent stamp.” I wish Edwards would say that. You know, “I’m from a small town, but I’m not going back there, and I’ve blessed the day I left Robbins, North Carolina. But I do know quite a lot about the law, about the treasury, about health policy, and I’d be a good president.”

But you’re dreaming now, aren’t you?

No, no, no. I think people would really love it. I mean, the one thing you can’t be these days is a guy from a small town named Hope, because that doesn’t work for anyone any more. So I’m not dreaming. No, if Al Gore had said, “I was brought up in Washington, D.C., not some hog wallow in Tennessee, and I can be a decent president because I know what presidents are like,” then he might have won. Spare us the false populism.

Well, since you believe in Edwards, what is it-

I don’t believe in him. I mean, I told him I wouldn’t vote for him.

Well, why not?

Because I’d vote for Bush. The important thing is this: Is a candidate completely serious about prosecuting the war on theocratic terrorism to the fullest extent? Only Bush is.

Even though he says to the Turkish president, You believe in God, so we understand each other?

Well, he says that. But he has people around him who are absolutely determined to destroy the terrorists, and they’re smart. That’s another liberal snig that annoys me a lot these days–Bush is stupid, the administration is stupid. The fact has to be faced: The intellectual candle power of this administration is a great deal brighter than the Clinton administration.

David Frum, in his book, says there’s not much original thought in the administration.

So did John DiIulio, who is himself someone I am amazed can find his own way to work without a minder. And he took it back under pressure, which shows he’s not got much character, either. The level of intellect in the Bush administration is not stellar, but it’s higher than the Clinton administration. The level of professionalism is very much higher. But mostly they are deadly serious about winning this war and are willing to be ruthless about it. There’s no Democrat I think that can be said of.

Al Gore, when he pulled out, said the president is losing the focus on al Qaeda.

It’s not only that. The whole crowd says worse. Recently, Hillary Clinton was with Chris Matthews in Albany, doing a show, and she says, “Well, it’s clear that there are a lot of people in the Bush administration who have old scores to settle.” Does she have any idea what she’s saying? I mean, Saddam is in breach of every possible resolution, every conceivable interpretation of every international rule. What does she mean this is an old score; how dare she? Nonsense. I wouldn’t listen to a single bar of that song.

All of the groundwork on Iraq was laid a long time ago, by Saddam Hussein. It’s pointless to pretend otherwise. But there’s one thing that nobody dares mention to this day. I’ll never forget it–Clinton’s impeachment trial–he bombed Iraq the day it started and stopped the bombing when the trial was over. That action led directly to the collapse of the inspection regime. He destroyed the inspection regime, treated the UN with contempt, the Congress with contempt–everything Bush is accused of doing. And then stopped because he had no more use for it.

And now Gore and wife say that Bush is picking a fight with Iraq? Fuck them. I really mean it. I have nothing but contempt for them. We are risking people’s lives, and all they can be is flippant. There are people who are against the war, who are very serious and have offered some very good criticisms. But not Gore, and not the senator from New York, either. The thought of these people in power frightens me.

Well, Gore won’t run, but Hillary is still a wild card. She may well pounce if she sees any weakness in the field.

Well, her life is meaningless, as in a way his is.

What do you mean by that?

Well, for these people, without running for something, what’s life for? It would be like Prince Charles saying he doesn’t want to be king after all. It means you’ve wasted your life. Of course, Gore didn’t say he’d never run again, just not this time. Same mistake he made in 1992–I won’t run this cycle, because I think Bush will win; I’ll stay out and be better positioned for the next election. This is the same tactic Mrs. Clinton is taking. Well, this is despicable. I just hope they all get some sort of wasting disease before they can run.