Thursday, February 26, 2009

Christopher Hitchens: "Who are the Revolutionaries in Today's Middle East?"

On not debating Christopher Hitchens
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, February 26, 2009
Much attention was paid last week to the run-in the British-American author and journalist Christopher Hitchens had with followers of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party in Hamra Street. However, a far more interesting aspect of his visit was a lecture at the American University of Beirut, which if it told us something about Hitchens himself, told us a great deal more about the university and its students.
Hitchens' talk was titled "Who are the Revolutionaries in Today's Middle East?" In fact, the author focused on historical ironies, among them the irony of seeing "the old reds" of the Iraqi Kurdish parties being welcomed at Blair House in Washington by President George W. Bush, after he had helped them overthrow Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime in Baghdad. Iraq figured prominently in Hitchens' presentation - the removal of a genocidal leadership that had, for decades, beleaguered its own people. "Could there have been any greater degradation for Iraq," he asked, "than of being under the control of a psychopathic family?"
For Hitchens, the eviction of Saddam Hussein was a revolutionary moment, one that he, as a radical, could hold up with satisfaction to express his approval of Bush's actions in Iraq. It was often those on the left, he continued, particularly the communists, who seemed to best appreciate that essential moment in modern Middle Eastern history, perhaps because they had a sense of history's contradictions, therefore its ironies. As Hitchens put it, "It seems that only those who opposed America during the Cold War could understand its liberating qualities in the post-Cold War period."
Here was a bold challenge to the left, asking what it meant to be of the left, to be an internationalist in the defense of universal liberal values. Hitchens' critics have often labeled him a "neoconservative" for his defense of the American war in Iraq - in that way showing as trivial an understanding of the man as of neoconservatism as of the broader debate inside the left on how to uphold universalist principles. The question that the left has had to grapple with in recent years, even before the Iraq war, is a simple one: If a tyrannical leader is abusing his own people, is it the duty of the left to confront him in all ways possible, including force, because that may be the only course open in defending human rights and human liberty, even if this requires depending on the United States for its success?
Hitchens is one of the few public intellectuals in the West who has rarely fallen into self-referential terms when answering that question. When he justified the Iraq war, as he continues to, he usually did so from the perspective of the victims, not to score debating points in Washington or New York. That's why the negative reaction to Hitchens' lecture at the AUB was so revealing, and so demoralizing. You could distil his argument down to one sentence: The Arab world is better off without Saddam Hussein, and the US, alongside the true "Arab revolutionaries", is responsible for this outcome. Instead of addressing that point, many in the audience resorted to the oldest of rhetorical subterfuges: When you don't like an argument, change the subject; which only tended to show how we in the region seem incapable of engaging in constructive self-doubt about our own affairs.
The dissent against Hitchens could be bunched into two broad categories: You're talking about Iraq, but we want to talk about the United States and its hypocrisy and perfidy; or, You're talking about Iraq, Hitchens, but we really want to talk about Palestine and what Israel is doing to the Palestinians. How ironic it was, since we're into historical irony, that during the 1990s, when the Clinton administration was fully engaged in mediating the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, its critics would impulsively point to Iraq, and the sanctions regime there, to illustrate America's iniquities. Once again, it was a case of shifting the goalposts to feed a cretinous form of anti-Americanism. No less ironic was that Hitchens (few in the audience bothered to learn) has long defended the Palestinian cause, and co-edited with Edward Said a book on the Palestinians titled "Blaming the Victims."
It would have been nice to be able to extract worthy nuggets from what was, at times, an acrimonious session with Hitchens. However, those objecting to his endorsement of America's regional role, in Iraq but also in Lebanon, left little to remember, except for a third irony: that their statements were offered in the confines of the American University of Beirut, a living example of the complexity of the historical American conversation with the Arab world. In its own way, the AUB was as much a consequence of America's confidence in the universalism of its liberal values as was the Iraq war, though we can endlessly debate how the results greatly differed.
Hitchens' critics failed to catch this incongruity. If you can embrace America's educational mission as a byproduct of the spread of universal liberal values, then what makes the forcible removal of a mass murderer from power in the name of those same values so condemnable? The critics would respond that the US did not remove Saddam in defense of such values, but only to advance its own interests; yet that only invites a more pressing question: Why do the Arabs so often allow themselves to be defined by America's actions? Did America's assumed insincerity in Iraq prevent the Arabs, particularly Arab liberals, from welcoming the defeat of the Baath as a historic event in and of itself for the Arab world, without their having to preoccupy themselves with the instrument of that removal? In other words, haven't too many Arabs, in getting hung up on the US, on the messenger, completely missed the message that Iraq is no longer a dictatorship, and that this can only benefit Arabs in general?
The recent death of David Dodge, a former president of the AUB, came and went with very little notice from most Lebanese. That was a poignant reminder of how marginal the university (which happens to be my own much-appreciated alma mater) has become in Lebanon's intellectual life. The AUB has been through difficult years, but the worst wounds are frequently self-inflicted. Christopher Hitchens offered his listeners an opportunity to look differently at the momentous changes in their region, but all that many of them could do was launch the most spineless and confining of ripostes, telling him it was really he who had to look at himself.
Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.

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