As anybody who has had the dubious pleasure of conversing with me for more than fifteen minutes can tell you, if you hazard to steer the topic of discussion even vaguely in the directions of religion, politics, literature, travel, drink, or even sex, I cannot be relied on to make it as far as the end of my next sentence without bringing up Christopher Hitchens. I beg your pardon, did you just speak favourably of Mother Teresa? Please refer to The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, esp. pp. 41-42; p. 57. There isn’t an argument with a religious believer of any kind that can’t be triumphantly closed with his dictum that “what may be asserted without evidence may be dismissed without evidence”. And every time I hear another fitness freak or health bore pontificating about the perils of the true and blushful Hippocrene, I give them Hitchens’ considered and learned medical advice: “Not just the occasional drink – the daily drink. Not just red wine – any alcohol is better than none”. Like “a mother discussing her new child”, to steal another one, I am “unboreable on the subject”. I haven’t quite read all of the books, but his hundreds of articles on the Slate, Vanity Fair, Atlantic, Nation and of course Guardian websites (inter multa alia) have seen me through incalculable hours of what would otherwise have been chronic workplace tedium, and I confess that more than once have I cut short my evening at the club or house party to return home and watch him on YouTube, utterly alone but for the bottle of Johnnie Walker Black (did you know it’s his favourite?).
But just as the first step into adulthood is realising the faults and limitations of one’s parents, so one cannot claim intellectual maturity without subjecting one’s seniors to sustained and dispassionate criticism. I have in the past found occasion for minor disagreement with Hitchens – perhaps most substantially on the French burqa ban, which he welcomed – but not once until now would I have described any aspect of his work as truly shameful. That, however, is precisely the word that must be used for his total silence on the massacres currently taking place in Syria.
Hitchens is justly renowned for the prolificacy of his output, and his ongoing entanglement with his particularly malicious cocktail of cancers has had no apparent diminishing effect on the “thousand words of printable copy” a day of which he believably boasted in Hitch-22. Nor has he exactly been reticent about the Arab Spring. On January 17th, three days after Ben Ali’s departure from Tunisia, his ‘Fighting Words’ column on Slate featured an entry entitled ‘Tunisia Grows Up’, wherein he wrote warmly, albeit cautiously, about the enticing possibility of “grass-roots movements in other states of the region”. Two weeks later came his note of approbation for the kindling Egyptian uprisings, again in a Slate piece, which was sub-titled ‘When will dictators learn not to treat their people like fools?’ On February 25th, he decried Obama’s “pathetic, dithering response to the Arab uprisings”, and made the beginnings of what was to become his case for regime change in Libya, a case that was to be refined and reiterated in subsequent columns on March 7th (‘American Inaction Favours Qaddafi’, Slate) and March 14th (‘Don’t Let Qaddafi Win’, Slate) and was to escalate into a direct call for Qaddafi’s assassination by April 25th (‘Go After Qaddafi’, Slate).
Yet this Thursday will mark four months since Hasan Ali Akleh emulated the Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi by setting himself on fire in Al-Hasakah, triggering a once-unthinkable chain of events that has seen the Assad crime family murder more than 1,000 of its ‘own’ civilians, many of them children, many of them killed for the mere act of burying and mourning those already killed, or even trying to retrieve their leaking corpses from the streets. Despite the ban on foreign journalists, the internet abounds with amateur video footage of thousands of protestors being pitilessly repressed with methods so uncannily similar to those used in Tehran in 2009 that Iranian involvement in the matter is no longer seriously disputed. And Hitchens apparently deems all this to be of less import than the banal discovery that a second-rate politician may or may not have sexually assaulted a housekeeper (‘Beaucoup B.S.’, May 18th, Slate).
This is at least as incomprehensible to me as it must be to those ‘leftists’ who indolently label Hitchens a neoconservative. After all, his contempt for the Syrian regime is long-established. Indeed, in the aforementioned article of January 31st, he referred to it as one of the two “most conspicuously authoritarian despotisms” in the region (the other, of course, being Saudi Arabia), and added that he hoped it would no longer be “spared the challenge of insurrection”. That challenge has now arrived with more determination than he could possibly have dreamt of in January, yet with every passing week, he continues to write as though there isn’t a thing going on in the country worth mentioning. Astonishingly, in this week’s Slate column he actually manages to bring up Syria - citing an Israeli strike on a Syrian military site in 2007 “confirmed by the IAEA as a nuclear facility” – without, apparently, deciding that this has any relevance to the present situation!
Those readers who remember his arguments in favour of the Iraq intervention will find this doubly confusing. For those who missed them at the time, they were as follows: i) Saddam had committed genocide against rival sects both in Iraq proper and in Kurdistan; ii) Saddam had repeatedly threatened and then violated the sovereignty of neighbouring states; iii) Saddam had blatantly financed Islamist terrorism outside his ‘own’ borders (by, for instance, doling out $25,000 cheques to the families of suicide-murderers in Gaza) and harboured distinguished foreign jihadists such as the Jordanian al-Zarqawi within them; and iv) Saddam was attempting to acquire a nuclear arsenal. How many of these points, if any, don’t apply in Syria? The Israeli hit in 2007 takes care of the fourth point straight away. Assad’s open alliance with and sponsorship of Hizbullah in Lebanon ticks off point three. A case could certainly be made that the slaughtering by the exclusively Alawite Presidential Guard (led by Bashar’s psychopathic brother, Maher) of predominantly Sunni citizens constitutes a form of genocide. And as for the remaining second point, Syrian interference in Lebanese affairs has been a constant since independence, and the current chaos now endangers Lebanon in fresh ways. As many as 5,000 Syrian refugees have fled into the northern Lebanese town of Wadi Khaled, and while they have largely been welcomed for now, huge questions will naturally surround their fate if Assad is able to hold on to power. Meanwhile on Hamra St in west Beirut on Monday, the Lebanese Army had to be called in to protect anti-Assad demonstrators from the very same Syrian fascists who attacked and nearly abducted Hitchens himself two years ago (see ‘The Swastika and the Cedar’, Vanity Fair, May 2009). And this is to say nothing of the threat that Assad and his friends in Hamas pose against his other neighbours across the Golan Heights.
I bring this up not because I think troops ought to be sent to Damascus, but because it so palpably exposes an inconsistency in Hitchens’ politics. For about the last eight years, he’s spent much of his professional life trying to convince people that the cases for regime change in Afghanistan and Iraq (and now Libya) can be made on essentially liberal and progressive grounds. Living in Dubai, with a good number of Gulf and Levant Arab friends, I too have tried to sell the argument that the war on terror was not a war for oil. This becomes a lot harder to do when a premier advocate of that war watches Assad’s death squads slaughtering children – an example of terrorism if ever there was one - with arms indifferently folded.