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 3, 2018, 12:02 am

All Bets Are Off

“I recommend neither the assertions of journalists and pollsters nor big headlines about terror attacks, murders, or caravans of desperate people as a basis for predicting the outcome of the midterm elections.”

Publisher's Note October 9, 2018, 11:53 am

Trading on Resentment

“The ‘free trade’ policies championed by US leaders from Reagan to Obama, most definitely including the Clintons, have produced many victims.”

Publisher's Note August 21, 2018, 1:53 pm

The Illusion Train

“French ‘solidarity’ was looking decidedly less solid than it had the previous day.”

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

December 2018

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Combustion Engines·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On any given day last summer, the smoke-choked skies over Missoula, Montana, swarmed with an average of twenty-eight helicopters and eighteen fixed-wing craft, a blitz waged against Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge, and ninety-six other wildfires in the Lolo National Forest. On the ground, forty or fifty twenty-person handcrews were deployed, alongside hundreds of fire engines and bulldozers. In the battle against Rice Ridge alone, the Air Force, handcrews, loggers, dozers, parachutists, flacks, forecasters, and cooks amounted to some nine hundred people.

Rice Ridge was what is known as a mega-fire, a recently coined term for blazes that cover more than 100,000 acres. The West has always known forest fires, of course, but for much of the past century, they rarely got any bigger than 10,000 acres. No more. In 1988, a 250,000-acre anomaly, Canyon Creek, burned for months, roaring across a forty-mile stretch of Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness in a single night. A few decades on, that anomaly is becoming the norm. Rice Ridge, for its part, swept through 160,000 acres.

At this scale, the firefighting operation is run by an incident management team, a group of about thirty specialists drawn from a mix of state and federal agencies and trained in fields ranging from aviation to weather forecasting and accounting to public information. The management teams are ranked according to experience and ability, from type 3 (the least skilled) to type 1 (the most). The fiercest fires are assigned to type 1s. Teams take the name of their incident commander, the field general, and some of those names become recognizable, even illustrious, in the wildfire-fighting community. One such name is that of Greg Poncin, who is to fire commanders what Wyatt Earp was to federal marshals.

Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
Article
Rebirth of a Nation·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Donald Trump’s presidency signals a profound but inchoate realignment of American politics. On the one hand, his administration may represent the consolidation of minority control by a Republican-dominated Senate under the leadership of a president who came to office after losing the popular vote by almost 3 million ballots. Such an imbalance of power could lead to a second civil war—indeed, the nation’s first and only great fraternal conflagration was sparked off in part for precisely this reason. On the other hand, Trump’s reign may be merely an interregnum, in which the old white power structure of the Republican Party is dying and a new oppositional coalition struggles to be born.

Illustration by Taylor Callery (detail)
Article
Blood Money·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Over the past three years, the city of South Tucson, Arizona, a largely Latino enclave nestled inside metropolitan Tucson, came close to abolishing its fire and police departments. It did sell off the library and cut back fire-truck crews from four to three people—whereupon two thirds of the fire department quit—and slashed the police force to just sixteen employees. “We’re a small city, just one square mile, surrounded by a larger city,” the finance director, Lourdes Aguirre, explained to me. “We have small-town dollars and big-city problems.”

Illustration by John Ritter (detail)
Article
The Tragedy of Ted Cruz·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

When I saw Ted Cruz speak, in early August, it was at Underwood’s Cafeteria in Brownwood. He was on a weeklong swing through rural central Texas, hitting small towns and military bases that ensured him friendly, if not always entirely enthusiastic, crowds. In Brownwood, some in the audience of two hundred were still nibbling on peach cobbler as Cruz began with an anecdote about his win in a charity basketball game against ABC’s late-night host Jimmy Kimmel. They rewarded him with smug chuckles when he pointed out that “Hollywood celebrities” would be hurting over the defeat “for the next fifty years.” His pitch for votes was still an off-the-rack Tea Party platform, complete with warnings about the menace of creeping progressivism, delivered at a slightly mechanical pace but with lots of punch. The woman next to me remarked, “This is the fire in the gut! Like he had the first time!” referring to Cruz’s successful long-shot run in the 2011 Texas Republican Senate primary. And it’s true—the speech was exactly like one Cruz would have delivered in 2011, right down to one specific detail: he never mentioned Donald Trump by name.

Cruz recited almost verbatim the same things Trump lists as the administration’s accomplishments: the new tax legislation, reduced African-American unemployment, repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, and Neil Gorsuch’s appointment to the Supreme Court. But, in a mirror image of those in the #Resistance who refuse to ennoble Trump with the title “president,” Cruz only called him that.

Photograph of Ted Cruz © Ben Helton (detail)
Article
Wrong Object·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

H

e is a nondescript man.

I’d never used that adjective about a client. Not until this one. My seventeenth. He’d requested an evening time and came Tuesdays at six-thirty. For months he didn’t tell me what he did.

The first session I said what I often said to begin: How can I help you?

I still think of what I do as a helping profession. And I liked the way the phrase echoed down my years; in my first job I’d been a salesgirl at a department store counter.

I want to work on my marriage, he said. I’m the problem.

His complaint was familiar. But I preferred a self-critical patient to a blamer.

It’s me, he said. My wife is a thoroughly good person.

Yawn, I thought, but said, Tell me more.

I don’t feel what I should for her.

What do you feel?

Photograph © Joseph S. Giacalone (detail)

Chance that a homeless-shelter resident in a major U.S. city holds a full- or part-time job:

1 in 5

Turkey hunting was deemed most dangerous for hunters, though deer hunting is more deadly.

The unresolved midterms; Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III replaced; the debut of the world’s first AI television anchor

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

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today