The Contrarian in Combat

Christopher Hitchens, the controversial author of Love, Poverty, and War, talks about Iraq, Mother Teresa, and his efforts to inconvenience Henry Kissinger

book cover

Love, Poverty, and War : Journeys and Essays
[Click the title
to buy this book]

by Christopher Hitchens
Thunder's Mouth, Nation Books
432 pages, $16.95

The hostility toward Christopher Hitchens from certain members of the political left is presently immeasurable. The writer and activist Tariq Ali has called him a "vile replica" of his former self. Alexander Cockburn, a columnist for The Nation—a position Hitchens himself held until he quit in 2002—has accused him of "frothing crudity." The writer Dennis Perrin has published an "obituary" of his former mentor in radical politics. And the leftist critic George Scialabba has written that Hitchens has been making an "egregious ass of himself."

What has made Hitchens—the journalist, critic, lecturer, and self-proclaimed "contrarian"—into the object of such vociferous scorn is his muscular support for the war in Iraq. Soon after September 11, with the Pentagon (not far from his Washington home) in ruins, Hitchens became arguably the most prominent American journalistic opponent of Saddam's regime. And since that time he has focused the bulk of his famously voluminous energy on making the legal, moral, and political case for war. Coming from a mainstay of the radical press, this turn has been perceived by some as apostasy and by others as symbolic of the ideological differences that currently divide the American left—and gallons of ink have therefore been spilled in an attempt to analyze the political "defection" of Christopher Hitchens.

In one sense, the Hitchens-watchers see a great deal more discontinuity than actually exists. In 1989, when the Ayatollah Khomeini sentenced Hitchens's close friend Salman Rushdie to death, Hitchens became finely attuned to, and repulsed by, Islamic fundamentalism. He was a supporter of the American bombing of Serbia, in 1999, when many on the left opposed it, and of the idea that the United States military could be a force for positive change. Most fundamentally, Hitchens has had a long-stated and intense hatred for organized religion—and for unorganized religion as well—an aspect of his personality that many commentators miss, but one that plays a central part in his political worldview. September 11 gave focus to these already present convictions.

In another sense, however, there has been an obvious shift in the nature of Hitchens's discourse. Though his work remains as biting, as committed to Enlightenment ideals, and as elegant as ever, it has also become decidedly and self-consciously single-minded. During the run-up to the 2004 election, Hitchens proudly declared himself a "one-issue" voter. That issue was Iraq, and his obvious scorn for those who opposed military intervention. Very little has seeped through this new scrim—not critiques of economic globalization, nor of American imperialism, nor of the Bush Administration's evasiveness and mendacity. And these conspicuous absences have lent critics of Hitchens's work a great deal of fuel, and their criticisms a noticeable, often condescending, anger.

If the Hitchens backlash and Hitchens's own combativeness are in part emblematic of the riven state of leftist politics, they have also served to drown out a great deal of Hitchens's other work. Though he is first and foremost a political writer—well-known for his polemics on Henry Kissinger, Bill Clinton, and Mother Teresa—Hitchens is also an accomplished literary critic (he is a reviewer for this magazine, among other publications). It is a role the eclipse of which he sometimes laments. But not too loudly. With Hitchens there are always more pressing things to shout about, and very little into which politics does not enter.

I spoke with Hitchens by phone on December 20 on the occasion of the publication of his latest book, a collection of essays and reviews titled Love, Poverty, and War.

Daniel Smith

Christopher Hitchens
Christopher Hitchens   

I have several subjects I want to ask you about—for example, Mayor Bloomberg, politics, God. But first I want to ask you about Mayor Bloomberg playing God. In a Vanity Fair essay that's reprinted in this volume, you call New York a "nanny state." More pointedly you call Bloomberg a "picknose control freak." Are your complaints regarding New York politics rooted in the city's recent smoking ban, or are they based on a broader complaint about mayoral policies?

In the essay you're talking about I accuse Bloomberg of "penis envy" for Rudy Giuliani and the former New York police chief William Bratton, both of whom made a point about zero tolerance in the matter of crime and delinquency. Bloomberg hoping, I think, to gain some reputation, applied that attitude to behaviors that are not really antisocial—old people feeding pigeons, for example, or people sitting on milk crates on the sidewalk, or standing outside their own place of employment. Those policies demonstrate a mentality of insecurity and ambition and pseudo-zeal. But undoubtedly you're right. The thing that more than symbolizes Bloomberg for me is the ban on smoking. It's moved a sensible aim—namely, the protection of nonsmokers from smoke—into behavior modification.

At one point, for instance, Bloomberg actually sent police around to the Vanity Fair offices, on what must have been a tip-off from someone in the building, to stop [Editor-in-chief] Graydon Carter and I from having a cigarette. At a later time they came when Graydon was on vacation because on his unoccupied desk, in his empty office, was a receptacle that might have been usable for an ashtray. Now, this is the sort of thing one laughs about. But if they'd had cops to spare for this sort of thing, and if they're going to rely on anonymous informers and do this to people who aren't even present, then it doesn't take much alteration to that anecdote to make it sound rather nasty. You tip things just a little further and you're living in a very unpleasant country.

A lesser objection I have is simply that it makes bar owners and bartenders and waiters into de facto enforcers of the law. The law inverts the relationship between host and guest. It's a small thing, but it has kind of spoiled New York for me. I went out to a restaurant recently in Union Square—it was a very cold day, but my friends and I decided we would sit outside anyway so that we could have a smoke and not bother anybody. They said, "You can't do that." Why not? "Because you're underneath an awning. We have a table that's completely unprotected from the weather, just outside the awning. You can sit there if you like." And this all occurred before they told us what the specials were! Now, if you can't put up a shingle that says, "This is McShane's Old Irish Lodge, and if you don't like cigarette smoke you can stay the fuck out of my bar," then something essential about the whole idea of New York is gone.

But wasn't it Mayor Giuliani who introduced that authoritarian atmosphere into the city?

Yes, but he had the justification of law and order. Or at least what he did had an aura of defensibility. Bloomberg's is simply state-enforced behavior modification. I'm appalled by that. The whole point of moving to New York used to be that there wasn't anyone saying, "Don't wear this," or "Don't smoke that." It was nobody's business.

In general I've found that over the past few years what you might call libertarian issues mean more to me. Something has gone wrong with the liberal mentality. What used to be diversity, or could claim to be, has mutated into conformism in a rather sinister way.

The way you're speaking about the New York smoking ban as government-sponsored behavior modification seems very much in line with your writings about totalitarian states. But I'm tempted first to ask whether you think the Bush Administration has anything to do with a wider undercutting of libertarian concerns.

The Republican coalition appears to have created a new political constituency that's made up of quite a number of free-market libertarian types. Many of those people were anti-authoritarian types in the sixties, and they now make up part of the new right. Another part of the new right is made up of moralists, and another—as always—is made up of law-and-order types. (Some members of that third category have been attracted to it as a result of jihadism.) But there the problem is the willingness of people to surrender their rights rather than the state's eagerness to take them away.

So you don't put any stock in the contention that the Bush Administration has watered down civil rights in the name of protecting America?

The antiwar left made a huge thing about saying that Bush ignored too many warnings before September 11. But from the way they've reacted since, one would presume that they would have protested if he had taken the steps necessary to forestall the problem. I think what everyone ought to do at the basic minimum here is admit that there are contradictions in their position.

I recently wrote a review in The New York Times of professor Geoffrey Stone's book, Perilous Times, about free speech in wartime. His book shows, among other things, that a lot of the liberal panic is just that, because wartime incursions into free speech never last very long. Very often they are repealed in such a way that one has more freedoms than one had before, not less. There hasn't been a speech prosecution in a time of war in the U.S. for a very long time now, and not one since September 11. The precedents that were established in the sixties with the antiwar movement would be very, very hard to overturn. The presumption now is that you can say whatever you like in wartime. That was not the case at all, for example, in the thirties.

But there is no foreseeable end to this particular war.

Once it's defined as terrorism that's true. But I'm against defining it as a war on terrorism. And I also insist that the most oppressive piece of legislation, the one under which most of the more arbitrary prosecutions have occurred, is the Clinton Administration's so-called Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which, among other things, put capital punishment on the fast track so as to shorten the appeals procedure. It led to a terrible speedup of executions. That very oppressive piece of legislation was done merely in response to the Oklahoma City bombing. So what I said in my review of the Stone book is that it ought to be a principle that no legislation should be passed within six months of any atrocity.

Staying with Iraq and your support of the war there, what about other regimes that clearly pose a risk to the United States? North Korea, for one. How do you apply the logic of regime change in Iraq to the rest of the world?

North Korea has threatened the invasion of South Korea; it's starving its own people to death; it's repeatedly caught sponsoring international terrorism; and it's obviously violating the Non-Proliferation Treaty. But North Korea has us in a stranglehold that Saddam didn't. We've let things get to the point where North Korea can—and might, given what we know of the nature of its regime—destroy the capital city of South Korea if we make a move against it. If we were an imperialist state we wouldn't give a shit about that. We'd just say, It's in our interest if the North Korean regime ceases to exist—too bad if South Korea ends up getting blown up. But we can't do that.

So essentially it's a military calculation?

Yes. The calculation made by the Administration—in my opinion, quite rightly—was that we're not going to let Saddam Hussein get to the point where he could say, like Kim Jong Il, "Come and get me if you'd like, but look what I've got." Of course, Saddam was continually trying to get into that position.

Does your belief in the validity of the military effort in Iraq pose any problem to your belief in the importance of the military effort in Afghanistan? Do you think, as many people argue, that the war in Iraq has distracted from the military effort in Afghanistan?

I've simply never heard anyone say that the job in Afghanistan needs more people. And it doesn't look as if it does. I mean, the Taliban and al-Qaeda forces in Afghanistan are totally negligible militarily. It's a police operation. Afghanistan is now run by NATO. It's the strongest military alliance in the history of the world. That's the first thing. The second is that it would have been very unwise to say in advance that, "Given our engagement in Afghanistan, alas we are unable to do anything about Iraq." I don't think that's exactly what one should have been telling Saddam Hussein. Many people seem to think now that there was no threat of weaponry or terrorism from that quarter. I regard that belief as utterly fantastic. Because I'm an old left-sectarian street fighter, I happen to remember that most of the people who are saying this are the same people who were not in favor of invading Afghanistan either. They said it would be a quagmire like Vietnam and a graveyard of ambition as it was for Russia and Britain. I remember thinking that was nonsense at the time. Everyone now says that of course they thought all along that military action in Afghanistan would be great. No, they didn't! They hope that people will forget. They hope in vain in my case. I will never let them forget what they said.

I know you won't. But setting aside whatever one believes about the military rectitude of the war in Iraq, what about the argument, which seems well-founded, that it has increased opportunities for terrorism in Iraq?

Well, that's based on the assumption that al-Qaeda is in itself a response to the sins of omission or commission by the West. That's not true. The Administration had to find a legal and international justification for kicking out a keystone regime in the Middle East in order to alter the balance of power in the Muslim world. It needed to be done. But one couldn't just say, "Well, after an attack like September 11 we're going to have to alter the balance of power in the region." I wouldn't have minded if they had said that, but if you're going to go to the UN, you have to phrase it as if you're talking about something else. But let's just recognize, without being too Straussian or Machiavellian, that all politics is a bit like that. I do not believe, for example, that the First World War was declared because of the British belief that Belgian neutrality should be guaranteed. I don't think so.

But my question was about the success of the occupation, about the so-called liberation of Iraq. In recent weeks, the attacks on the Administration have been growing in this regard. Do you think the occupation is working?

The forces are in a position where they could withdraw if they wished, which is an unusual position for an occupier. They could say to the Iraqis and their neighbors, "We don't have to be here if we don't want to. It's not absolutely essential to us. We can leave. Do you really want this to happen? If you unanimously say that you do, and you want it to happen now, we could accommodate you. Are you sure that's what you want?" I think the same should be said to those who characterize this as a debacle. I think they should be forced to ask themselves very carefully, Do we in any way secretly hope that the occupation fails? Are we aware of what that would mean?

One thing we definitely know is what would happen to Iraq if the coalition withdrew or were defeated. I don't believe I would get any argument from anyone about that. And it would not just be a defeat for Bush and Cheney. It would not just be a defeat for the neoconservatives. I think it should be taken a lot more seriously than it is.

You're referring to the possibility of defeat?

Yes, and the wish on the part of many people who claim to be antiwar—and who therefore presumably are also humanitarians—that the occupation fail.

I was quite shocked by the number of people in mainstream Democratic politics who said to me, "I don't mind what happens in Iraq so long as Bush is defeated" without any ambivalence. I find that very objectionable. I spend a good deal of my life at the moment fighting that mentality. It's very common here—it's extremely common in Europe.

I suppose we should move on to other issues. A lot of the book—

I can see we haven't gotten past the "War" section yet.

No, I had a feeling that was going to happen. I probably shouldn't have started with "War."

I'm used to it, but it makes me slightly sad.

What does?

That most of my interviewers want to do this, though I realize I can't really complain. I have advertised a certain view of the situation, and banged on about it a lot.

I'd hoped to avoid that trap. This book, after all, is only partially about Iraq.

Well, what I hope I was telling you was not what I thought, but how I thought, which is more important.

Well, that's a good segue into one of the big subjects of this collection, which is religion. You've been trying to argue against the dangers of religious belief for many years. But reading this book, it strikes me that your critique of religion is based much more on the hypocrisy of its adherents—and perhaps on a sort of Enlightenment desire for evidence—than on the experience of faith. Do you have any respect for the individual who professes a more personal faith based on, say, the "oceanic feeling"?

Well, first off, I'm not, as people sometimes claim me to be, an atheist. I'm an anti-theist. I think the influence of religious belief is horrible. Take Garry Wills, for example. I have read him with great profit on many subjects (and have learned from reading him and from disagreeing with him on quite a number of topics). But when he gets into writing about, say, the spirituality of St. Augustine, it becomes white noise. All his standards completely collapse. He's not scholarly about it, and he's not even expected to be. How could he know about St. Augustine's spirituality? But there he is writing about it, as though it were something we all agreed about. And what's true of him is true of our species in general—we are only partly rational. We do have the reasoning faculty, but when we abandon it for a second, the result is something like Garry Wills's driveling on about St. Augustine.

Your basic objection to religion, however, seems less experiential than it is political. You object in this book not to individual belief, but to the politicization of belief.

Listen, if a child tells me he's seen a ghost, I'll say, "Well, I'm sure you did, but I don't think I'll be able to see it myself, and I don't think it's really there, though I do think you must have a very vivid imagination." However, if a grown-up says "I've just a heard a voice telling me what to do," what they really mean is "I can now tell you what to do." That's what I don't like. What I noticed when I was a kid wasn't just that what the headmaster was preaching at sermon time was rubbish (which was easy to see), it was also that it seemed very important that the headmaster be able to invest his otherwise rather feeble authority with religious authority. In other words, I could see already when I was eight that religion is used to say, "You better listen to what I say. My power is not just of this world. I have divine right." That's where you have to say, "Say that again and I'll burn your church." That's fascism. I loathe it. And I tend to loathe the people who believe it, because they are making a claim on me.

This is how I explained your so-called defection from the left to a friend recently—that in order to understand your political views one has to understand your views of religion.

Actually, it makes my day to hear you say that. The thought that someone else was there to say it for me cheers me up. It means that I haven't wasted my time completely. I don't see how anyone who reads me could miss that. But they do.

It seems hard to miss. You refer in the introduction to this book, for example, to your "cold, steely hatred" for religion.

It's the root of my whole existence as a writer—to destroy the illusions that arise from faith. And only some of those illusions are religious, which means that I'll never be out of business. There'll always be work to do.

And yet, in an exchange with Jim Fallows elsewhere on this Web site you complain about being called an "attack dog." Is that an epithet that continues to bother you?

I guess I shouldn't really complain, because at least it means I have a reputation for something. It must be the same if you're a politician—you make one remark and it ends up being the thing that people remember about you. I suppose Dan Quayle must have to force himself to laugh along with all those people who make potato jokes. When people introduce me by saying something like, "This is the guy who said Mother Teresa is no good," I just have to suppress a sigh.

I just thought one day, after I'd run into Mother Teresa in Calcutta, Has anyone ever taken a second look at this woman? Is it possible that what we believe about her isn't in fact true? And then it was just too easy. I couldn't believe that people had left this field to me.

My book about Clinton was another case. I was writing strictly as a left polemicist, trying to point out to liberals, If you think this guy is your friend, you're setting yourself up for a terrible beating. I wrote that book essentially as an appeal to the left to see that this guy is a reactionary and a thug and that in the end he would do immense, lasting damage to what was left of the American liberal and democratic constituency. And I think I will be vindicated on that if I haven't been already.

And Henry Kissinger ... I mean, good grief! The idea of his tolerability has long been—intolerable. It was right when I finally decided to write a book about him that I found out by accident that he was afraid of being prosecuted in the course of the Pinochet investigation. And I thought, Well, now I know how I can write it—as a trial document.

Any closer to prosecutorial success?

Oh, yes, all the time. I can say this for myself: I know that I have slightly inconvenienced Henry Kissinger and caused some changes in his schedule. And I think I may also have changed how his obituary will be written. He will die realizing that the obits he was once certain of will not be written in that way anymore. Judge Le Loire, the magistrate who summoned him to Paris in 2001, did so as a result of my book being translated into French. The authorities decided to try to get a hold of him for questioning, and he had to run for it. And I know further that he was very upset when I sued him.

For calling you an anti-Semite.

Yes. He actually apologized with amazing alacrity on that. It was a very grudging apology, but it was enough. He was made to retract his statement. First, through his lawyer, he said, "Okay, I promise never to say it again." And I said, "That's not good enough; you have to say you shouldn't have said it the first time."


Well, I published the correspondence. It's on my Web site. I didn't put an ad in The New York Times. Maybe I should have. The truth was that I was hoping he wouldn't apologize, that he'd say, "I'll see you in court." Because in court I could have produced witnesses from Cambodia and Cyprus and Chile and asked, "Well isn't it true that you're a habitual liar, a falsifier of documents, and so on?" I've actually been to Chile to testify in front of the judge who has just lifted the immunity of General Pinochet: Judge Guzman, who's a heroic magistrate—an ultra conservative, by the way; a member of the hard right in Chile, but an absolutely honest gentleman. He's lifted the immunity of Pinochet now and he's on the trail of the Condor cases and I think he also has jurisdiction in the case of the murder of Charles Horman. [Operation Condor was a campaign of political assassinations sponsored by South American governments in the 1970s; Horman was an American journalist murdered by the Chilean regime in 1973.] He knows very well that this will lead—can lead, should lead, appears to lead—into an inquiry into Mr. Kissinger. I've testified before this judge, and it's a very proud moment of my life. The second proudest was appearing at the request of the Vatican against the sainthood of Teresa.

You describe that in the book. How remarkable an experience was it?

It could have been more remarkable, if for example they had invited me to Rome and had me testify in some wonderful old building. They made it as banal and as grudging as they could, but they did know that they had to do it and that they had to listen to me. And I thought, Well, okay, it means that I haven't been completely wasting my time. I have lived to be taken seriously. These were not just balloon-puncturing, publicity-seeking operations, which is what's implied in the idea that I'm an attack dog. They were fairly well-organized reconsiderations of what these people have really been responsible for—such that it has forced several quite important review bodies to seek my testimony. That's not a bad thing. And I'm hoping I have a few more such opportunities. It would be nice to be able to go to the trials of Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic, too.

Do you find yourself channeling your energies into less polemical work at all as the years move on? I'm thinking especially of your review work for The Atlantic.

From the archives:

"The Accutest Ear in Paris" (January 2004)
To be so perceptive and yet so innocent—that, in a phrase, is the achievement of Proust. By Christopher Hitchens

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "The Power of Facing" (October 23, 2002)
Christopher Hitchens, the author of Why Orwell Matters, depicts George Orwell as a nonconformist who resolutely faced up to unpleasant truths.

Well, after the Clinton book, I realized that I'd failed to persuade the majority of the left. And I thought, If you argue on their terms and they say, "No, we don't agree," maybe you're wrong in assuming that you do share a point of view. I'd wondered even before that whether maybe I belonged in the libertarian camp. Then I did the Kissinger thing, which obviously a lot of people on the left liked—though a lot of conservatives liked it as well. And then I went off to write the Orwell book, which I had been wanting to do all my life and was finally asked to do for the centennial. When that was over I sort of sat down and felt very tired. Politics was losing its flavor for me. I decided I would take on a reading project—pick up something serious to read. So I decided that it was really time I read Marcel Proust properly. I made that my work for the whole of 2001. I finished it in September, wishing it had been longer. I had a vague idea of writing a reply to Alain de Botton's How Proust Can Change Your Life—as if to take him up on it and say, "Here's how it has changed mine." But then my wife woke me up one morning—I was on the West Coast and she was in Washington—and told me to turn on the TV. And of course I saw what everyone else saw. And I realized that politics was back in my life. It was stupid to think I could avoid it. I had always been telling people you can't get out of politics—it will come and find you, and here's the absolute proof. And I've been doing that ever since.

But the rest of the time I'd far rather be writing about Joyce.