Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Hitchens's Iraq Problem

Christopher Hitchens, ambitious pretender to Orwell's crown, is a great asset to American journalism. Contrarian that he is, he is a European who has established himself on the stage of American letters at a time when most Europeans have simply lost track of us in their own projection of the Other. He also does politics, history, literature, and even a bit of philosophy here and there, and thus shows our public writers how things should be done, an erudite polymath sitting on the panel with the cable-news weenies like a hatched cuckoo bird in a nest of starlings. Unfortunately he has a problem with the Bush invasion of Iraq: he supports it. Present tense. This requires a degree of gymnastics too outlandish to preserve his credibility. Currently he has a column in Slate that illustrates the problem ("Fighting Words: A Wartime Lexicon." Doesn't get any more Orwellian than that). Everyone else, he says, must accept responsibility for their own parts in the debacle. More finely: coverage of said debacle ought not refer to the US as the sole intentional agent of "determined action." Sunnis are not just "caught up" in sectarian strife, there are intelligent strategists and ruthless tacticians operating to shape policies, including suicide-bombing policy, for example. And he adds the standard line that the alternative was leaving the "Saddam Hussein dynasty" in power. All true, all missing the point. The lesson here is that global security cannot be insured by a lone power (there are no "super" men or "super" powers), operating outside what meagre facility for international due process we have (said meagreness also being largely a consequence of American resistance to community standards). Europe must at a minimum develop the capacity to maintain security on the European continent; Arabs must match economic development with social and political development; Israelis must do what is necessary to acheive real peace with their neighbors; Latin Americans must accept the economic and social consequences of cultural conservatism; Africans must confront corruption, and so on and on. As things now stand, none of this will occur until the American behemoth topples over, but it doesn't have to be that way. The behemoth could get out of the way. Right, there's the energy problem. And this administration has done worse than nothing to deal with that problem. Integrity has two components. The first is that one must stick by what one sincerely believes to be true, no small order, and I bother to refer directly to Mr. Hitchens because he sets such a fine example there. But the second essential component of integrity is the capacity to change one's mind, not to identify with one's own past positions too much. How many scientists have fallen off the virtuous path on that one? It's that getting out of the way thing again.

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