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Christopher Hitchens' mistake

This is the story of a really smart guy, and how even smart people can get tripped up by dumb fallacies. The smart guy is Christopher Hitchens, and the dumb fallacy is: the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Hitchens was, once, primarily known for his attempts to get Henry Kissinger convicted for war crimes. The left loved him. Now, though, he supports George W. Bush and the war in Iraq. The left doesn't love him anymore.

Hitchens is undoubtedly a smart man, if only because he's refused to surrender his thinking to an ideological autopilot that so many zealots on both the left and the right find so irresistible. In this sense, he should remain a role model for everyone who aspires to think for themselves. Ideologues of all stripes still have much to fear from Hitchens' acid pen, even those on the right with whom Hitchens seems currently to be aligned. They shouldn't assume that Hitchens will follow their ideological roadmap any more closely than he followed the roadmap of the left.

But Hitchens, like almost everyone else who supports George W. Bush, is making a mistake. He apparently agrees with the neoconservative element of the Bush administration that the best way to fight Islamic fundamentalism is with preemptive war and with the long-term military occupation of large areas of the Middle East. Like the neoconservatives, Hitchens ignores the reality that Islamic fundamentalism isn't a government that can be wiped off the face of the map with sufficient firepower and enough bombs. It is, rather, an ideology, and like all ideologies, it's very difficult to eliminate by simply killing the people who subscribe to it.

The American right wing has enjoyed great success over the past twenty years in part because they recognize the importance of the "battle of ideas." Their legions of prominent think thanks and AM-radio talk show hosts have served the conservatives well. Hitchens himself has been one of the most potent weapons in this domestic battle, although neither the left nor the right has been able to wholly appropriate his services. It's too bad that Hitchens, who might have legitimate grievances with the left's responses to terrorism, seems to have perceived the military solution offered by the neocons as the only viable alternative.

There are many other options, of course. While the military should be used to disrupt the terrorist infrastructure (which remains minimal) and to kill individuals who commit acts of terrorism, America's strongest weapon against terrorism is ideological. This is a battle of ideas far more than it is a battle of armies. If the Left hasn't offered a coherent plan for waging this war of ideas, the solution is not to resort solely to military force but to come up with a better ideological strategy. Christopher Hitchens would seem to be ideally suited to such a project. But alas, he has failed to perceive the potency of this alternative and has chosen to subscribe to Wolfowitz's confusion of the war against terrorists with the far more important war against terrorism (which would be an absurdity in any sense other than as a purely ideological war).

Islamic fundamentalism, like any other "ism," will be defeated only by another ideology. So far, the United states has chosen to oppose it with militarism. It would do better to choose something more potent, such as the ideals of civilization, human dignity, fairness, respect, and democracy. Our invasion of Iraq is none of these things. Our decision to take sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is none of these things. Our increasing contempt for civil rights and due process is none of these things. These strategies will certainly succeed at eliminating a few governments (Afghanistan and Iraq, so far) and individual terrorists, but they will most likely strengthen the fundamentalist ideology that sustained them. It's the strategy of fighting fire with gasoline.

Christopher Hitchens is an implacable opponent of fascism, and has recognized the evil of the Islamic fundamentalism that spawns terrorism and suicide bombers. For this he deserves respect. But he's made the mistake of associating himself with neoconservatives whose only respectable position is a similar hatred for Islamic fundamentalism. The enemy of Christopher Hitchens' enemy has become his friend, but it didn't have to be this way. Let's hope Hitchens' gift for independent thought leads him to recognize that there are other, better alternatives to Paul Wolfowitz and the neocons.


Let's be fair. The problem is not so much Islamic fundamentalism -- which I think is only bad in certain incarnations, and not much worse in them than some religions in the US (recall our conversation of the other night) -- but terrorism. Which is not, and need not, be synonymous with fundamentalism.

Good post. And a nice discussion on Hitch over at metafilter:


I think Hitchens is too smart and too literate to fit into a cliched behavior. He's been to Iraq and Afghanistan. He's read dozens of books on the history of Islam, and written in-depth reviews of several of them for the Atlantic. He knows and corresponds with many, many journalists and politicians.

So when he says the left isn't treating ismlamic terrorism seriously enough, when he says that equating Bush's sins with bin Laden's is nihilistic and self-defeating... well, I tend to listen to him.

It's not just that prominent leftists think modern Christian fundamentalism is as big a problem as Islamic theocracy. It's that ideology, alone, hasn't done squat to stop islamofascism, to stop Kosovo. Militarism, as flawed and inept as it is, is arguably doing something (and is Darfur's best hope at this point -- or are you waiting for the UN to fix that?).

Is Hitch immune to falling into traps, to losing perspective, to confusing enemies and friends? Of course not. But someone so literate, experienced, and connected may be more immune than you or I.

Maybe he's overreaching in aligning with the neocons. Or maybe he's disgusted that there are so few on the left who want to confront fascism. He's a scholar of Orwell and Hemingway, both great liberal writers who literally (and figuratively) took up arms against totalitarians. What has happened to this liberal legacy?