The Left and 9/11
The war on terror, though far more controversial than the war in Afghanistan, has found some impassioned liberal supporters, particularly the circle around Dissent, the magazine Walzer edits. Dissent emerged during the cold war as a journal of the social democratic left, and it has long maintained commitments to social justice and labor rights. But historically it has been identified (albeit critically) with American foreign policy, in opposition to Communism and to Third World and especially Arab militancy--a threat to Israel, the journal's special object of concern. Communism is dead, but Arab militancy is perceived as more virulent than ever. A new enemy, together with a new war that, like the cold war, not all leftists support, gave Dissent a renewed sense of purpose at a time when it seemed rudderless. The journal has thus devoted much of its critical energy since 9/11 to castigating the sins of the left. At Dissent's first editorial board meeting after the attacks, the liveliest topic of conversation was reportedly Chomsky, whom Walzer appears to regard as an even greater menace to society than Osama himself.
The bellicosity of Christopher Hitchens is more surprising. It's true that Hitchens also supported American military interventions in the Balkans and in Haiti. Even so, it's hard not to be taken aback by his zealous embrace of the war on terrorism, his conditional support for a pre-emptive strike against Iraq and by the ferocious invective he has poured on antiwar critics. Hitchens, a self-described "root-and-branch anti-Zionist," once disdained the very notion of a foreign policy premised on antiterrorism. In an essay published in The Nation on December 5, 1981, he wrote about The New Republic: "The cult of 'anti-terrorism'"--notice the quotes--"has taken a sturdy hold on that once-proud magazine, and has spilled over from gung-ho attitudes on Israel to a pastiche of Reaganism in general--at least in the area of foreign policy."
It's true that the world, and not just Hitchens, has changed since 1981. When Reaganites referred to "terrorism" in those days, they meant violent resistance of any kind by radical nationalists, whether the PLO, the ANC or Central American insurgents. And while this violence was sometimes directed at innocent civilians, it often wasn't--it merited the quotes around it in a way that Al Qaeda's religiously inspired and vastly more lethal attacks do not. Even so, the war against terror seems to have taken a sturdy hold on the left's most gifted polemicist, and has spilled over from gung-ho attitudes on American power into a pastiche of Bushism--at least in the area of foreign policy.
In the first couple of weeks after 9/11, as radicals flashed peace buttons and denounced America's war before a shot was fired, Hitchens's voice was a tonic. You didn't have to agree with his overheated (and now overused) analogy between radical Islam and fascism to appreciate his candor about the evil that occurred on September 11, and about the need to prevent similar attacks in the future. In the bombers of Manhattan, he declared, "we have met an enemy, and...he is not us, but someone else." While radicals noted that the United States had armed and trained Islamic militants in Afghanistan throughout the 1980s, as if "blowback" were reason enough not to do anything about them now, Hitchens asked the obvious question: "Does this not double or triple our responsibility to remove them from power?"
"All that made sense to me," Guttenplan says of Hitchens's early responses to 9/11. "What didn't make sense to me was saying we're getting on the bus with George Bush." Which, in effect, is what Hitchens has been saying for the past several months. "There may be some stupid and...self-righteous ways of being in favor of this war or of the Bush foreign policy, but there is no intelligent and no principled way of being against it," Hitchens thundered in a recent debate with Tariq Ali. At that debate, Hitchens traced the war back to February 14, 1989, when Khomeini declared a fatwa against his friend the novelist Salman Rushdie. Never mind that the radical Shiites of Iran are sworn enemies of the Sunni fundamentalists of Al Qaeda. For Hitchens, the war on terror is a religious war, or rather an anticlerical war--even though it is led by a born-again Christian. In a fairly laudatory assessment of Bush's first year in office, published last January in the British Observer, Hitchens praised the President for knowing his place ("He has not sought to outgrow his limited stature.... In general, he has eschewed the temptations of posturing or grandstanding") and for his tolerant stance vis-à-vis the Muslim world ("he was, if anything, too immaculate in his deference to Muslim sensitivities at home and abroad"). The contrast with his verbal assaults on the Chomsky left, whom Hitchens calls "soft on crime and soft on fascism," is stark and telling.
Hitchens's enthusiasm for the war on terror has led him to adopt some strange positions. You would think that, as a longstanding champion of Palestinian rights, he would be disturbed by Rumsfeld's cavalier talk of the "so-called occupied territories" and Bush's crude ultimatum to the Palestinians to either vote out Arafat or continue living under occupation. But Hitchens told me that while he objects to "that whole tone of voice," he prefers Bush's "tough love" to the "patronization" of Clinton's peace negotiators. Nor is he troubled by the mounting civilian toll exacted by America's crusade in Afghanistan. "I don't think the war in Afghanistan was ruthlessly enough waged," he says. What about the use of cluster bombs?
If you're actually certain that you're hitting only a concentration of enemy troops...then it's pretty good because those steel pellets will go straight through somebody and out the other side and through somebody else. And if they're bearing a Koran over their heart, it'll go straight through that, too. So they won't be able to say, 'Ah, I was bearing a Koran over my heart and guess what, the missile stopped halfway through.' No way, 'cause it'll go straight through that as well. They'll be dead, in other words.
"It pains me to hear that," says Edward Said, a friend of many years. "He's gone back to nineteenth-century gunboat diplomacy--go hit the wogs."