Few social commentators are as notorious and prolific as Christopher Hitchens. Formerly of The New Statesman, a foreign correspondent for Harper’s, a columnist for The Nation, Vanity Fair, and the London Review of Books, Hitchens editorializes with biting wit and unremitting scrutiny. Whether indicting Henry Kissinger, doubting Elie Wiesel, or deconstructing Mother Theresa, Hitchens offers readers unanticipated insights. Without fail, Hitchens shocks, delights, and provokes, as he recently did in an interview with the HPR, after a debate at Harvard’s ARCO forum on the possibility of a just war with Iraq.
HPR: I imagine you think the new commission investigating the intelligence failures of Sept. 11 is dangerous, in that it tries to exculpate the U.S. from any blame.
Christopher Hitchens: Let me just say, I don’t believe that the attack was invited, provoked, or deserved. Any declension of any word of that kind, I reject thoroughly and energetically. It’s true, though, that the subsequent level of incompetence that’s been discovered of foreknowledge not shared, is so grave and so widespread that it has allowed some people to conclude that there might have been collusion. I’d call it the “Oliver Stone” read on it. I wondered when that argument would turn up—now it finally has. I’m completely sure it’s not true.
Now people are asking whether the administration just appointed the world’s best-known cover up artist to do the investigation. What were they thinking? I know what they were thinking, which is that the president said he didn’t want an inquiry. Ultimately, he changed his line, but only slightly: well, okay, we’ll have a commission and Henry Kissinger will chair it. Of course, that’s saying the same thing in a different way.
It’s obvious that there’s no kind of confidence in Kissinger, nor in George Mitchell, who was also a contender for chairmanship. He may be a good mediator—he certainly did some good work in Northern Ireland but he’s not at all a good investigator. The book he wrote with former Senator Cohen of Main tells about their failures as Senators to investigate the Iran-Contra matter. Mitchell is also convicted in my view as someone who is abnormally incurious, and relies too much on the presumption of innocence when it comes to the authorities, a presumption I don’t make myself.
HPR: What do you make of the mystique surrounding Kissinger?
CH: Well this is a country that, strangely, given how strong it is, and how many reasons it might have to be confident, is very insecure. Something about the demeanor of Mr. Kissinger convinces people that he is a sort of European intellectual of gravitas. Now, this really does show there is a crisis in our higher education system.
Kissinger’s three volumes of memoirs, if he had published them in the academy, would have led to the requirement that he resign because they are falsifications. It doesn’t matter whether you agree with me morally about what he did in Angola or China or Vietnam or East Timor, conclusive declassified documents have subsequently shown that the account he gives is fabrication. This scandal, therefore, involves the publishing industry, the academy, and the press. My own profession has colluded in this fabrication of his reputation. Really, it’s a cultural crisis.
HPR: Have you ever spoken with him?
CH: No, he declines. I’ve often given him a chance, but under no circumstances will he talk to me. I sued him for defamation and made him retract a remark he made in response to my book. But since this is an investigation of the ramifications of international gangsterism—we call it terrorism, nihilism—Mr. Kissinger is being sought in the courts of many countries now, not as someone who could be indicted yet, but by merely as a witness: for his knowledge of U.S. diplomatic channels being used as a means of smuggling, laundering money, and carrying out hit jobs against named individuals in democratic countries. Among other things, this means he can’t travel without consulting lawyers, though in some countries he can’t travel at all. Despite all of these defamations, he still chooses not to publish his client list, suggesting he has other interests in the Gulf.
The last major investigation using the American intelligence community was that of Senator Church. Its mandate was that it had been put in possessions of all the known facts, and he withheld crucial sections.
HPR: I’m curious about your own political development from socialism to now, kind of a Neo-Orwelliamism. That’s a pretty broad range.
CH: Yes. It would be conceited if I said I put you and myself in the safekeeping only of what I’ve written. That is the real answer. But it took me a long time to come to the point where I don’t identify with anything, any politics, let alone any political faction. In some ways I feel better for it. In other ways I miss some of my old allegiances, like an amputated limb. But working with the Iraqi exiles and the revolutionaries and the Kurdish rebels and the opposition—which I have been doing now for several years—reminds me a lot more of the better bits of my past. It feels like it. Most of the people I’m working with have similar backgrounds; I find that oddly confirming. It feels much more like being a revolutionary. I think it is more like being one than carrying a placard that says, “Hands off Saddam Hussein.” That’s a wannabe anti.
I like to think I didn’t waste my time on the Marxist idea. I learned quite a bit from it and would only be too proud to say I still had to consult it. But I can’t say it’s my guide. Eugene Debs, the only great socialist leader the United States ever produced, put it very well in a speech he delivered just before he was locked up, when it was clear to him that he had a big following. He said, “I wouldn’t lead you to the promise land even if I could, or if you knew where it was, because if you could be led in, you could be led out, or led anywhere.” In other words, you can’t ask for guides. That’s an extremely important principle for radicalism.
HPR: Do you think this war has been less or more politicized than those in the past, in Vietnam for instance?
CH: Well, in the case of the war in Indochina, the government seems to have thought that it could not risk telling the truth. So a huge campaign of falsification and lies had to be mounted, including very elaborate deceptions to get the war under way. It had to be kept secret. It was too disgusting to be admitted.
Now we have more information than we need. What’s very striking about this situation is that there isn’t anything the government is not telling us. Or that citizens can’t find out for themselves. Or that the government hopes you don’t know. The policy of this administration is to corner Saddam Hussein on the basis of resolutions that he’s signed, and to make it clear that his survival as a dictator is incompatible with those resolutions. The goal is to change his regime, making the promise that the Iraqi people will have more say in how Iraq is run. It’s worth arguing about whether this policy should prevail. With the Indochina war you couldn’t do that, because the whole war was a lie and in any case the cause was a bad one: the prolonging of French colonialism in Indochina. To a remarkable extent the administration says what it means or intends.
HPR: Some people anticipate that a war with Iraq would recapitulate the Gulf War of 1990. Do you see such a parallel playing out?
CH: I didn’t know what President Bush wanted from the first Gulf War. It was not clear to anybody, it was not clear to his own cabinet, and it wasn’t clear to me how it had got started. There was something very shady about the way you suddenly woke up and found that a former ally of ours had invaded another ally of ours. Apparently, Saddam had notified Washington in advance of his intentions, and was told, “We don’t care.”
HPR: Most people claim the reverse, of course, that the Gulf War was a legitimate campaign, and that now, George W. lacks a clear mandate.
CH: Well, yes, a member state of the United Nations had been taken off the map, even if you think, which I do, that ultimately, Kuwait is part of Iraq. I mean the original partition isn’t sacred. No one was consulted about making it a separate colonial state. Ultimately, many of the borders in the Middle East will change, especially in and around Palestine. But they’re not going to be changed by Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein, just for their own purposes, by violence.
Christine A. Telyan ’04, a Social Studies Concentrator, is the Features Editor.
This interview was originally featured in the Winter 2003 edition of the Harvard Political Review. January 16, 2003.