Publisher's Note — January 18, 2012, 4:59 pm

How Christopher Hitchens Flip-flopped and Fell From Grace

John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper’s Magazine and author of the book You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America. This column originally appeared in the Providence Journal on January 18, 2012.

In the outpouring of accolades that followed the death of Christopher Hitchens, I confess I joined in, trying my best to claim some of his journalistic legacy. Because the obituaries failed to mention his service as the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine, of which I am the publisher, or that his landmark book The Trial of Henry Kissinger originated as two long pieces in the magazine, I boasted of his relationship with Harper’s on our website.

Then I read Glenn Greenwald’s online critique of Hitchens’s hasty canonization. As Greenwald noted, much of what Hitchens wrote after his post-9/11 lurch from anti-establishment left to imperialist right—cloaked though it was in the costume of liberal, humanitarian interventionism—was “repellent.” Greenwald asserted that a misapplication of “death etiquette” had given Hitchens an unmerited free pass. “Ironically,” wrote Greenwald, “Hitchens was the last person who would honor the etiquette rules being invoked on his behalf.”

My feelings about Hitchens—after he embraced the stupidity of invading Iraq—were confusion and disappointment. So disorienting was Hitchens’s conversion to war hawk that I hardly knew what to say, either in private to him or, for that matter, in public.

It was on Phil Donahue’s short-lived MSNBC TV show that I witnessed the beginning of Hitchens’s depressing decline. As a long-time critic of U.S. and Bush family policy in the Mideast, I had exposed much of both Bushes’ self-justifying and often false anti-Saddam Hussein propaganda. So I was recruited for Donahue’s September 12, 2002, segment on W.’s escalating campaign to invade Iraq. Against me were slotted, first, a Bush I P.R. man, Sig Rogich, and second, a Bush II promoter, Rich Lowry, editor of National Review. Going one on one against Rogich, with Donahue clearly on my side, was relatively easy. But I thought the second round of the show would be even easier, since Lowry and I were joined by my traditional ally Hitchens.

This was the same Hitchens who had written of the imminent first Gulf War, in Harper’s in January 1991, that George H.W. Bush’s supposedly principled enthusiasm for the “cause” of “liberating” Kuwait was merely a rebottled realpolitik—a continuation of the disastrous divide-and-rule policy initiated in 1972 by Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon. Since then, Hitchens argued, “The Kurds have been further dispossessed, further reduced in population, and made the targets of chemical experiments. Perhaps half a million Iraqi and Iranian lives have been expended [during the Iran–Iraq war] to no purpose on and around the Fao peninsula. The Iraqis have ingested… Kuwait. The Syrians, aided by anti-Iraqi subvention from Washington, have now ingested Lebanon. The Israeli millennialists are bent on ingesting the West Bank and Gaza. In every country mentioned… the forces of secularism, democracy and reform have been dealt appalling blows. And all of these blunders will necessitate future wars.”

The latest casualty, Hitchens claimed, was American democracy: “The Gulf buildup had… brought the renewal of a moribund consensus on national security, the disappearance of the… [post Cold War] ‘peace dividend,’ and re-establishment of the red alert as the preferred device for communicating between Washington and the people.” The elder Bush’s “cause was yet another move in the policy of keeping a region divided and embittered, and therefore accessible to the franchisers of weaponry and the owners of black gold.” This was Hitchens at his best, and also his most prescient, since these observations applied almost perfectly to the next Iraq buildup, eleven years later.

But by 2002, on the Donahue show, Hitchens was pushing an altogether different analysis: Suddenly the Bushes were credible and he was credulous, not to mention disingenuous, as when he called me an “isolationist” who believed “quite honorably, that what happens in the rest of the world is not our concern and we only make things worse by intervening.” The first half of his criticism of me was false, but the second half was largely true: I, like the old Hitchens, thought that America’s military interventions since World War II had been largely toxic.

I fended off Lowry’s media-trained distortions, but what could I do when my old acquaintance started spouting the same nonsense—albeit more elegantly—as the right-wing belligerent? When I challenged the view that Saddam was building atomic weapons by saying, “The Bushes just can’t help themselves; they’ve just got to keep making it up,” Hitchens responded, “I’ve met the guy who claims to have been Saddam Hussein’s nuclear technician…. I’ve interviewed him carefully. I think that most of what he says is true, and I think he’s a believable witness.”

Hitchens was referring to Khidir Hamza, whom the CIA had branded a fraud, but to the new Hitchens, this branding somehow enhanced Hamza’s reputation. Before I could say “realpolitik,” Lowry was Hitchens’s new best friend: “Liberals and progressives, with the exception of Chris Hitchens,” he said, “seem to have a soft spot for right-wing dictators when they [are] Arab right-wing dictators.”

After the Donahue show, I only saw Hitchens one more time—at the Harper’s Christmas party that year. In spite of everything, he still made me laugh with his arch, classically educated English sense of humor. At our next televised confrontation, he predicted, “we would be armed with tridents.” I wondered, briefly, if his attitude was all a pose.

I’ve heard it suggested that Hitchens switched sides for the “money”—that there’s simply more to be gained on the right than on the left and that even a deeply dedicated leftist can get lonely and tired, always out in the cold, always at a remove from power. My theory is that he went mad as he consumed huge amounts of alcohol. Booze is mind-altering and it may well have damaged his impressive powers of reasoning. But I can’t pretend to understand.

Better that Hitchens’s close friend Martin Amis have the last word on the man’s political evolution. Influenced perhaps by Hitchens, Amis himself turned nasty and narrow-minded toward Muslim political culture and “Islamofascism,” especially after the London tube bombings. But in his latest novel, The Pregnant Widow, Amis distanced himself from Hitchens’s violent, regime-changing passions through his protagonist, Keith Nearing. At one point, with the Iraq invasion looming, Keith muses about the relative horrors of old age versus war: “Actually, war was more terrifying—and just as unavoidable, it seemed, for human beings…. He sat with The Times trembling in his hands. This was avoidable (or at least postponable). Why was no one identifying the true casus belli?… American presidents, in wartime, are always reelected. There would be regime change in Baghdad, in 2003, so that there would be no regime change in Washington, in 2004.”

Meanwhile, Keith’s brother, Nicholas, “who supported [invading Iraq], tried to instill in him some courage about the Mesopotamian experiment, but Keith, just now, couldn’t begin to bear the thought of flying iron and mortal flesh, and what happened when the hard machine met the soft.”

More than 100,000 corpses later, I think Amis had it right.

Share
Single Page

More from John R. MacArthur:

Publisher's Note November 10, 2017, 5:29 pm

Industrial Tourism

NAFTA is an investment contract that protects American and Canadian goods and interests against Mexican expropriation, regulation, and pestering by local authorities.

Publisher's Note October 5, 2017, 11:31 am

A Sad Heritage

Publisher's Note August 11, 2017, 5:34 pm

Le Chagrin

“Could I not avoid Trump and his bullshit, not even by crossing the Atlantic Ocean?”

Get access to 167 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

December 2017

Document of Barbarism

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Destroyer of Worlds

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Crossing Guards

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“I am Here Only for Working”

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Dear Rose

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Year of The Frog

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Destroyer of Worlds·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In February 1947, Harper’s Magazine published Henry L. Stimson’s “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb.” As secretary of war, Stimson had served as the chief military adviser to President Truman, and recommended the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The terms of his unrepentant apologia, an excerpt of which appears on page 35, are now familiar to us: the risk of a dud made a demonstration too risky; the human cost of a land invasion would be too high; nothing short of the bomb’s awesome lethality would compel Japan to surrender. The bomb was the only option. Seventy years later, we find his reasoning unconvincing. Entirely aside from the destruction of the blasts themselves, the decision thrust the world irrevocably into a high-stakes arms race — in which, as Stimson took care to warn, the technology would proliferate, evolve, and quite possibly lead to the end of modern civilization. The first half of that forecast has long since come to pass, and the second feels as plausible as ever. Increasingly, the atmosphere seems to reflect the anxious days of the Cold War, albeit with more juvenile insults and more colorful threats. Terms once consigned to the history books — “madman theory,” “brinkmanship” — have returned to the news cycle with frightening regularity. In the pages that follow, seven writers and experts survey the current nuclear landscape. Our hope is to call attention to the bomb’s ever-present menace and point our way toward a world in which it finally ceases to exist.

Illustration by Darrel Rees. Source photographs: Kim Jong-un © ITAR-TASS Photo Agency/Alamy Stock Photo; Donald Trump © Yuri Gripas/Reuters/Newscom
Article
Crossing Guards·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Ambassador Bridge arcs over the Detroit River, connecting Detroit to Windsor, Ontario, the southernmost city in Canada. Driving in from the Canadian side, where I grew up, is like viewing a panorama of the Motor City’s rise and fall, visible on either side of the bridge’s turquoise steel stanchions. On the right are the tubular glass towers of the Renaissance Center, headquarters of General Motors, and Michigan Central Station, the rail terminal that closed in 1988. On the left is a rusted industrial corridor — fuel tanks, docks, abandoned warehouses. I have taken this route all my life, but one morning this spring, I crossed for the first time in a truck.

Illustration by Richard Mia
Article
“I am Here Only for Working”·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

But the exercise of labor is the worker’s own life-activity, the manifestation of his own life. . . . He works in order to live. He does not even reckon labor as part of his life, it is rather a sacrifice of his life.

— Karl Marx

Photograph from the United Arab Emirates by the author. This page: Ruwais Mall
Article
The Year of The Frog·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

To look at him, Sweet Macho was a beautiful horse, lean and strong with muscles that twitched beneath his shining black coat. A former racehorse, he carried himself with ceremony, prancing the field behind our house as though it were the winner’s circle. When he approached us that day at the edge of the yard, his eyes shone with what might’ve looked like intelligence but was actually a form of insanity. Not that there was any telling our mother’s boyfriend this — he fancied himself a cowboy.

“Horse 1,” by Nine Francois. Courtesy the artist and AgavePrint, Austin, Texas
Article
Dead Ball Situation·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

What We Think About When We Think About Soccer, by Simon Critchley. Penguin Books. 224 pages. $20.

Begin, as Wallace Stevens didn’t quite say, with the idea of it. I so like the idea of Simon Critchley, whose books offer philosophical takes on a variety of subjects: Stevens, David Bowie, suicide, humor, and now football — or soccer, as the US edition has it. (As a matter of principle I shall refer to this sport throughout as football.) “All of us are mysteriously affected by our names,” decides one of Milan Kundera’s characters in Immortality, and I like Critchley because his name would seem to have put him at a vocational disadvantage compared with Martin Heidegger, Søren Kierkegaard, or even, in the Anglophone world, A. J. Ayer or Richard Rorty. (How different philosophy might look today if someone called Nobby Stiles had been appointed as the Wykeham Professor of Logic.)

Tostão, No. 9, and Pelé, No. 10, celebrate Carlos Alberto’s final goal for Brazil in the World Cup final against Italy on June 21, 1970, Mexico City © Heidtmann/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Chances a loan cosigner in the United States will end up repaying some part of the loan:

2 in 5

Americans of both sexes prefer the body odors of people with similar political beliefs.

The case was assigned to a Trump-appointed judge, who ruled that, despite the 2010 legislation, the acting director was Mulvaney, who received about $475,000 in contributions from the financial, insurance, and real estate industries during his 2016 congressional campaign, including $9,200 from JPMorgan Chase, which was fined $4.6 million by the CFPB for failing to provide consumers with information about checking account denials.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Report — From the June 2013 issue

How to Make Your Own AR-15

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"Gun owners have long been the hypochondriacs of American politics. Over the past twenty years, the gun-rights movement has won just about every battle it has fought; states have passed at least a hundred laws loosening gun restrictions since President Obama took office. Yet the National Rifle Association has continued to insist that government confiscation of privately owned firearms is nigh. The NRA’s alarmism helped maintain an active membership, but the strategy was risky: sooner or later, gun guys might have realized that they’d been had. Then came the shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, followed swiftly by the nightmare the NRA had been promising for decades: a dedicated push at every level of government for new gun laws. The gun-rights movement was now that most insufferable of species: a hypochondriac taken suddenly, seriously ill."

Subscribe Today