Sunday, August 28, 2005

Stewart vs. Hitchens

Surfing blogs today I came across innumerable references to a Hitchens appearance Thursday on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Realign this!, a blogpac compariot from Massachusetts, weighs in. LINK

Alex Whalen, the author of the above-linked post, rightly asks why a "the best debates about current events happen on a fake news show hosted by a comedian?" Perhaps he should ask Jon Stewart, who had Trent Lott on the show the night before and lobbed him softball questions about his new book. Stewart is great, don't get me wrong, but it'd be nice if he took someone who is actually in power to task, instead of reserving the fuller measure of his vitriol for people like Hitchens and Tucker Carlson.

And for all the bloggers who are rambling on as if Stewart laid Hitchens to waste, leaving him bloodied in the gutter, I guess we just saw a different interview. What I saw for nine minutes and ten seconds was a friendly back-and-forth between two people on different sides of a position, let's remind ourselves, on a comedy show.

Though Stewart's ending comments were an eloquent statement of his position, I was most enthralled by the first six or seven minutes of the segment, where Stewart, as he himself said, actually found his position was a lot more in common with Hitchens'.

At one point, for instance, Hitchens lost his point, and Stewart funnily said something like "You were just saying how the President is incompetent in going to war" or something like that, to which Hitchens replied he had just written an article for the Weekly Standard saying exactly that. LINK

There are a lot of great bits in the WS piece, and I'll try to quote sparingly. But among the best:
The balance sheet of the Iraq war, if it is to be seriously drawn up, must also involve a confrontation with at least this much of recent history. Was the Bush administration right to leave--actually to confirm--Saddam Hussein in power after his eviction from Kuwait in 1991? Was James Baker correct to say, in his delightfully folksy manner, that the United States did not "have a dog in the fight" that involved ethnic cleansing for the mad dream of a Greater Serbia? Was the Clinton administration prudent in its retreat from Somalia, or wise in its opposition to the U.N. resolution that called for a preemptive strengthening of the U.N. forces in Rwanda?

The only speech by any statesman that can bear reprinting from that low, dishonest decade came from Tony Blair when he spoke in Chicago in 1999. Welcoming the defeat and overthrow of Milosevic after the Kosovo intervention, he warned against any self-satisfaction and drew attention to an inescapable confrontation that was coming with Saddam Hussein. So far from being an American "poodle," as his taunting and ignorant foes like to sneer, Blair had in fact leaned on Clinton over Kosovo and was insisting on the importance of Iraq while George Bush was still an isolationist governor ofTexas.

And yes, Hitchens states in the article that he criticized the first Gulf War, and admits to being too gunshy then, but rightly mocks (see above) the U.S. for not staying in the fight when it could have been more decisively won. The piece's nut graf, if you will, poses this question:
One might have thought, therefore, that Bush and Blair's decision to put an end at last to this intolerable state of affairs would be hailed, not just as a belated vindication of long-ignored U.N. resolutions but as some corrective to the decade of shame and inaction that had just passed in Bosnia and Rwanda. But such is not the case. An apparent consensus exists, among millions of people in Europe and America, that the whole operation for the demilitarization of Iraq, and the salvage of its traumatized society, was at best a false pretense and at worst an unprovoked aggression. How can this possibly be?

Hitchens, to his credit, admits the Bush-Blair error in tactics:
Yes, it must be admitted that Bush and Blair made a hash of a good case, largely because they preferred to scare people rather than enlighten them or reason with them. Still, the only real strategy of deception has come from those who believe, or pretend, that Saddam Hussein was no problem.

He goes on, though, to make a point that I don't think is being raised enough in the Iraq debate:
So deep and bitter is the split within official Washington, most especially between the Defense Department and the CIA, that any claim made by the former has been undermined by leaks from the latter. (The latter being those who maintained, with a combination of dogmatism and cowardice not seen since Lincoln had to fire General McClellan, that Saddam Hussein was both a "secular" actor and--this is the really rich bit--a rational and calculating one.)

There's no cure for that illusion, but the resulting bureaucratic chaos and unease has cornered the president into his current fallback upon platitude and hollowness. It has also induced him to give hostages to fortune. The claim that if we fight fundamentalism "over there" we won't have to confront it "over here" is not just a standing invitation for disproof by the next suicide-maniac in London or Chicago, but a coded appeal to provincial and isolationist opinion in the United States. Surely the elementary lesson of the grim anniversary that will shortly be upon us is that American civilians are as near to the front line as American soldiers.

And if we had not gone to Iraq? Hitch's opinion:
At once, one sees that all the alternatives would have been infinitely worse, and would most likely have led to an implosion--as well as opportunistic invasions from Iran and Turkey and Saudi Arabia, on behalf of their respective interests or confessional clienteles. This would in turn have necessitated a more costly and bloody intervention by some kind of coalition, much too late and on even worse terms and conditions. This is the lesson of Bosnia and Rwanda yesterday, and of Darfur today. When I have made this point in public, I have never had anyone offer an answer to it. A broken Iraq was in our future no matter what, and was a responsibility (somewhat conditioned by our past blunders) that no decent person could shirk. The only unthinkable policy was one of abstention.

After saying that Bush should get the benefit of the doubt "only just, if at all" because of defeats of Baathism and Talibanism, the capitulation of Qaddafi in Libya, the reform undertaken within the U.N. after oil for food, etc., Hitch ends:
The great point about Blair's 1999 speech was that it asserted the obvious. Coexistence with aggressive regimes or expansionist, theocratic, and totalitarian ideologies is not in fact possible. One should welcome this conclusion for the additional reason that such coexistence is not desirable, either. If the great effort to remake Iraq as a demilitarized federal and secular democracy should fail or be defeated, I shall lose sleep for the rest of my life in reproaching myself for doing too little. But at least I shall have the comfort of not having offered, so far as I can recall, any word or deed that contributed to a defeat.

But he also damns the President for not being able to make the good case for the war, as it is so easy for Hitchens himself to do.

What is so hard for a lot of people, myself included, to do is to admit that Bush is right on principle, whether or not he's pursuing the war correctly, or dealing with dissent within the U.S. correctly. Critics can easily reduce the President to a boob, rube, or caricatured hayseed. But as Hitchens said to Stewart, paraphrasing Rumsfeld: "You go to war with the President you have." I'm probably not the only one who thinks the world would be a better place had Wesley Clark won the Democratic nomination in 2004.


Post a Comment

<< Home