Bill Steigerwald Bill Steigerwald, 1/6/2006 [Archive]

Christopher Hitchens and the War in Iraq

Hitchens on why we must win in Iraq

One of President Bush's most reliable allies when it comes to defending the war in Iraq and the global war on terrorism is writer/pundit/atheist Christopher Hitchens. The brilliant Vanity Fair columnist, recovering socialist and former intellectual hero of the American Left, whose most recent book is "Thomas Jefferson: Author of America," could almost be a card-carrying libertarian if it weren't for his hawkish interventionist foreign policy. I talked to Hitchens by phone from his home in Washington, where he said he was starting work on his next book, "God Is Not Great."

Q: What's your assessment of Iraq?

A:Well, it's a race between the idea of federalism and democracy and the ideas of partition and theocracy, and the United States is on the right side of the argument. There are only three things that can happen in Iraq:One, that it's ruled by one of its three constituent parts (Kurdish, Sunni and Shia), which in practice mean absolute rule by a minority of that minority, of a kind that was Baathism.

The other is partition, where they just separate and you get in effect three states, one of which would probably be invaded by Turkey -- the Kurdish one; one of which might well become dominated by Iran and the other, I don't know, it would probably be dominated by Saudi Arabia. What people don't understand is that if the United States and Britain had not intervened in Iraq, these three neighboring countries were going to do so as it fell apart.

The third alternative is where all agree that no one group, let alone any minority of one group, can govern the country, which means that they agree to some form of federalism and democracy. And though I don't think that's fated to happen, I think there are huge number of Iraqis who want it. And as I say, I think American policy is designed to help that emerge.

The other thing about Iraq is that it is the chosen battleground of the al-Qaida fundamentalists. They've decided, as I think they had after they were thrown out of Afghanistan, to make Iraq the next place they make a stand. So it's also a test in that war.

Q: A test for the United States or al-Qaida?

A: A test for everybody. It's a test for anyone who is not indifferent to the idea of a country of the size and importance of Iraq becoming Talibanized. That is not America's sole concern. I would like to think that no one could view that with indifference, but an amazing number of people do view it with indifference and/or take the other side -- and I spend a lot of my time trashing them.

Q: What's the biggest misconception, or myth or fallacy Americans have about what is going in Iraq?

A: The biggest mistake most Americans make is to think our engagement with Iraq began in 2003, and that we had the option of not doing anything there and presumably should have exercised that option. The beginning of wisdom is the realization of responsibility. We've inherited responsibility for Iraq starting at least from the moment when Jimmy Carter encouraged Saddam Hussein to attack Iran, but perhaps earlier than that in the '60s when the CIA most certainly did help Saddam's wing of the Baath Party to come to power.So we can't walk away.... We have to accept that a busted up and screwed up Iraq was in our future no matter what. The reason I support the president is that he in some sense seems to realize that. He couldn't do what Clinton had done and just push it on into the next administration.

Q: Does that mean you are of the 'We broke it, but we broke it a long time ago school and now we've got to fix it?'

A: When I first heard the Pottery Barn analogy put --I think by that great stateswoman Maureen Dowd -- I thought how irritating and how trivial. But then I thought, 'You know what, by accident, she's got it right.' Because, OK, 'You break it, you own it,' can be rephrased. It was broken and we did own it. And so everything has to start with that recognition....

The main criticism that the neocons have, and I take more or less their line on this, is that all of this should have been taken care of in 1991. They should not have let Saddam Hussein survive his conquest of Kuwait and his defeat there. He should have gone down then and we should never have tortured the Iraqi people with sanctions for 12 years.

Q: Has the cost to America in blood, treasure and diminished domestic liberties been worth it?

A: Well, I think in a way that's the wrong question. Again, it suggests that there was the alternative of not doing anything. But of course, doing it does not mean you have to listen to people's telephone conversations. But that is not a product of the war in Iraq, by the way. That's a product of Sept. 11.... My view is this: If an al-Qaida member knows something, I want to know it too.... The main point is that we are engaged in a just war -- on the right side.

Q: To be successful in the long run, what has to happen in Iraq. Will it only work if it's federalized?

A: I hope it's federal, not completely devolved. Obviously, what was in the front of everyone's mind when they did the constitution was we're never again going to have a centralized fascism as we had before, so all the emphasis is on devolution.... It's like the German constitution. It's designed to make sure that the strong central regime can ever merge again.

Q: When should U.S. forces start coming out?

A: When the insurgency has been convincingly military defeated. The stakes here are fantastically high. If we can prove that in a really major country, in the heart of the Arab and Muslim world, that al-Qaida can be met on the battlefield openly and isolated and discredited and defeated and destroyed, that's a prize really well-worth having. These people are our enemies. I don't believe the president is right in saying we fight them there rather than here, because that is a false antithesis. But I think we should fight them everywhere -- and we have no choice in the matter. The crucial thing is to press in on to victory and make absolutely certain that the defeat is a humiliating one for them.... When that's done, I think we should turn over the country to the Iraqis. The art and science of it is to be doing both things at the same time, because the point is, it's the Iraqis who are the victims of these people, not us.

Q: How will you measure whether the war in Iraq was a success 10 years from now?

A: Well, we've dropped a huge depth charge into what was a completely frozen and imprisoned region. It will take longer than 10 years for us to find out what the long-term effect is of millions of Iraqis suddenly getting the right to vote.... The ripple effect of things like free press, blogging, satellite dishes, rights of national minorities, all of that, in Syria, in Lebanon, in Egypt -- a lot of that's been very positive already. Years from now I hope to be meeting young Iraqis who don't really remember the war very well but who can date their own emancipation from it.

Bill Steigerwald is a columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. E-mail Bill at bsteigerwald@tribweb.com. © Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, All Rights Reserved.

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