Friday, May 27, 2011

Christopher Hitchens' Shameful Silence on Syria

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.


  1. Thanks for posting. What's the update on American concern, activism or media coverage in Syria besides the possibly ambiguous threats by the UN I read about in the news? And are you aware of any American humanitarian efforts(like assisting rebels a of fascist rule)done that wasnt done for reward? And do you know a good word for ' not done for reward'?

    1. The US has been hugely disappointing on Syria; consistently refusing to take any meaningful initiative and even discouraging others from doing so themselves (see 'US tells Turkey to back off Syria' here They have explicitly distanced themselves from all efforts to assist the rebels, and effectively legitimised Assad by their endorsement of the Kofi Annan plan, which does not call for regime change.

      As for the last question, I'm a fan of 'disinterested'.

    2. Thank you for the information.
      Have you infered any interests Turkey and/or Saudi Arabia may have in arming the Syrian rebels that an american Humanist/Secularist islamophobe would object with? I'm also very curious about the window available to international media into Syria, and whether you think its possible for the US to intimidate and moderate Syria's current abusive regime while being able to deny it as a priority of American foreign policy?

      And not to be ostentatious but that would be a misuse of 'disinterested'.

    3. Well, clearly Saudi Arabia and Qatar haven't adopted their muscular anti-Assad stance out of any ideological commitment to democracy (see Bahrain). Their goals are to side with their Sunni co-religionists and also secure a strategic/hegemonic victory over the loathed Shiite Persians on the other side of the Gulf, for whom Assad is a crucial regional ally. Turkey is also surely thinking along sectarian lines, though this is balanced by its anxieties about its own Kurdish and other minorities.

      So when it comes to the rebels, conventional wisdom has it that if the Gulf states are in fact arming them - which has yet to be proven - they'll favour the more Islamist-minded among them, who certainly exist but who do not, in my opinion, represent a majority. This is one of the many arguments in favour of the US arming the secular rebel elements as soon as possible.

      International journalists are still effectively banned from Syria, and it remains dangerous to even approach the border, as the Lebanese cameraman Ali Shaaban tragically discovered two days ago.

      I don't think "moderation" of the Assad regime is or has ever been possible, certainly not by the USA. The one country that could potentially bend Assad's arm - Russia - has little incentive to do so even if it were inclined to do so, which all signs suggest it is not.

      As for 'disinterested', I quote from "unbiased by personal interest or advantage; not influenced by selfish motives".

    4. Thank you, I have much information to research and ponder tonight.

      According to 100 Words Almost Everyone Confuses and Misuses written by the editors of the American Heritage Dictionaries, 'disinterested' is defined: "free of bias and self interest; impartial" (page 27). The point being it should not be interchangeable with 'uninterested' but my point is that a soley humanitarian practice of foreign policy (by any country) could not be unbiased or impartial.

      If you enjoy criticizing literature as I do perhaps you'd like to read a short story of mine when it's drafted and email me your utmost honest, hopefully scathing review (my knowledge of history on said subject is lacking and also your apparent preference of journalistic focus). I'd like nothing more than to exchange the favor but I fear much of our political agendas overlap, though I've yet to read through your site and confirm this.

    5. Does the UN claim any form of shared concern (discussion of united action) for Syria with Saudi Arabia or Qatar? Or any other countries looking to intervene in Syria with jihadist priorities? What's your evidence based opinion on Turkey's interest in this context? And does the United States distinguish between assisting the secular and non-secular rebels of Syria? I'm ignorant enought to assume almost all the Sryian rebels are secularists.

    6. Well, the UN has been unanimous in its opposition to Assad, with the notable (and sadly decisive) exceptions of Russia and China. See eg

      Turkey's Prime Minister Erdogan has been very forthright in his condemnation of the regime, more or less from the beginning. I recall he compared Assad to Hitler quite early on. And now that the Syrian army has started violating Turkish sovereignty and actually shooting Turks, Erdogan is angrier than ever. If there is to be any kind of military intervention in Syria, it seems likely that Turkey will be at the forefront of it.

      The US as far as I can see isn't interested in assisting any rebels in Syria, secular or not.

      Would be happy to read your short story, especially since you've given me carte blanche to scathe it!

  2. Maybe Alex, just maybe, it is because, all the elements that Hitchens so despised in life, is crawling out of the aftermath of foreign interventions. Try not to feel too betrayed, you mistook a jester and a performer for a guru. It was probably about time you and Tunisia grew up.

  3. An article by Hitchens about Syria from 2008

    1. Thanks for that, haven't read it in years. What a cracking opener.

  4. Apparently Christopher Hitchens has commented on the situation in Syria, from beyond the grave, with Johnathan Kay as his medium:

    "Syria war hawks already have forgotten Christopher Hitchens’ lessons on Iraq", National Post (May 3, 2013)

    From what I gather, Mr. Hitchens is reported to concede the errors of his earlier support regarding Afghanistan and Iraq, and is now against any Western action against the Assad regime. Curious, as this seems to be quite a reversal from Hitchens' less than unequivocal praise for Bashar Assad and his "Nazi regime" in the past.

    Given Hitchens' notable irrepressibility and tireless nature, it's only a matter of time before he recovers from his demise and is at his old vocation once more. We can soon expect new essays, describing Hitchens' miraculous conversion to Christianity, his praise for Henry Kissinger and Mother Teresa, and his new found regard for the works of female comediennes. One can only await these articles to come with breathless anticipation.

    1. I certainly take your point. At the same time, I once asked Michael Weiss (a former student of Hitchens' once described by him as "my brilliant comrade") what he thought Hitchens would have made of Syria, and he suggested I carefully re-read this Vanity Fair piece Hitchens wrote in April 2011

      We have every reason to believe he loathed Assad to the core, and this (in my opinion) would probably have been enough on its own to compel him to support intervention. But the VF article also suggests he would have had serious misgivings about the opposition, particularly once it started to take on an overtly jihadist character in late 2012.

  5. He had cancer at the time and was going through chemo, he had less energy and time and said that he was for the most part turning towards what he really loved which was literature. You try writing about the Syrian crisis (which is much more complex than the Libyan crisis was) in an in depth manner whilst having esophageal cancer. And I don't think we needed Hitchens to condemn or report Assad's war crimes when there were plenty of people already doing so.
    "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!" I don't see how it had any relevance to the situation at the time either and writers do have word limits.
    For what your saying to have been really tested he would have to have beaten the cancer, recovered and then not have said or done anything about Syria.