The Passion of the Christopher

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Christopher Hitchens has written a typically interesting, but also disturbing, piece for Slate asking: ?Are war correspondents betting on failure in Iraq?? While he addresses the subject, he soon takes off on an unexpected tangent and comments on whether the U.S. is doing the right thing in Falluja and Najaf. He concludes that if the choice is between armed intimidation and the emergence of a fairly secular Iraqi democracy, then ?coalition forces are not only right to repress so-called ?insurgents? but delinquent if they do not do so.?

Indeed, but I have two observations: Hitchens misses a golden opportunity to delve more deeply into the truly irritating phenomenon described in his subtitle. There are many people who have a stake in seeing the U.S. fail in Iraq simply because their own credibility is tied in to that prediction. I have spoken in recent months to not a few prominent journalists and former government types who recited the worst sort of hogwash on Iraq, based on mercifully little evidence?largely, it seemed to me, because they could not retreat from their prior positions.

One celebrated Washington reporter, who really should have known better, even said the administration was ?on the run? in Iraq and was looking for a way out. Is that so?

Second observation: Hitchens will have trouble living down this passage, describing the Algerian government?s vicious war against its Islamists during the 1990s:

They [the Algerian military] showed themselves willing to kill on an unprecedented scale, employing measures that the U.S. Marines would never be permitted. Repulsive though many of the tactics were, I think the FLN [the former ruling party in Algeria] was broadly right. Certainly, Algeria today is a far better society for the outcome, and so is the whole of North Africa and therefore Southern Europe. These are the stakes. It is impossible to lose sight of them for a moment and irresponsible to confer the noble title of rebel or revolutionary on those who showed no courage at all when there was a real tyranny in the land.

I disagree that the ?FLN was broadly right? to initiate a gruesome civil war that led to many tens of thousands of deaths and whose impact is still felt today. Nor could I in all good faith identify Islamist tyranny without pointing an accusing finger at the behavior of the Algerian junta, which made the Islamists so popular in the first place. Tyranny is tyranny, and hopefully the Bush administration?s actions in Iraq, if successful, will do as much damage to the despots in Khartoum and Riyadh as to those in Damascus and Cairo.

I agree that I would have dreaded to see the Islamist FIS take over power in Algeria, but in the end the question at the core of U.S. efforts to ?democratize? the Middle East is: Does true democracy mean allowing even Islamists to come to power, assuming that the ?red line? they must avoid transgressing is respect for the rules of the democratic game?therefore the possibility of their own removal? I think yes, and the Algerian army (you do need to rely on the thugs for a time) may have been able to play the role of regulator, much as the Turkish military did against the Islamist-leaning Erbakan government in the 1990s.

If the only alternative to Islamists taking power peacefully through an election is government-induced war, as Christopher suggests in the Algerian case, then we shouldn?t be surprised if all Islamists reject democracy in its entirety. Many do, but as is being shown in Turkey under the present ?post-Islamist? Erdogan government, not all do, and there may be a middle ground to play on.

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  1. The point is that they did have some experience with it, which is more than can be said for Iraq, which simply gravitated from one type of authoritarian system to another during the course of the 20th century. And I think my other points, regarding the nature of the populace and the extent to which we eradicated its most belligerent elements, are equally important in relation to Iraq.

    Quick question: Can you name one sizable country that progressed during the 20th century from a status of poverty to a middle-income or higher level of socioeconomic development purely as a democracy? I can’t. But I can name a number of countries that became more democratic towards the latter stages of their development.

  2. “The poll was the latest in a series which this overwhelmingly Shia province has held in the past six weeks, and the results have been surprising. Seventeen towns have voted, and in almost every case secular independents and representatives of non-religious parties did better than the Islamists.”

    Very good news indeed.

  3. “How many more lives would ten years of a free Iraq be worth? How many more American lives?”

    If a free Iraq does emerge, how many american lives will be saved?

  4. 2,845,600

  5. Eric, let’s just count this as Iraq’s transition…to liberality and economic progress. Oh and Eric, any of those non-democratic nations, did they prosper economically, or rather, is the Spain of Aznar/Zapatero richer or poorer on a GDP/Capita bais than Franco’s Spain or more tellingly, which had higher economic growth rates?

    And are you advancing the argument that authoritarian governments are OK? “Oh everyone needs to have a Caudillo some time in their national history.”

    I think Iraq has suffered enough under authoritarian governments, so I think it’s a good idea to try to bring some form of representative democracy to Iraq.

  6. Don, something gives me pause about this: “Seventeen towns have voted, and in almost every case secular independents and representatives of non-religious parties did better than the Islamists.”

    Baath Party forcibly disbanded. A few months later, the people herded into lines by police vote for…secular independents. Raises a few questions, at least.

  7. “Drunken louts” are now bad to the left… time to demand Kerry stop marching Kennedy out on the campaign trail. Hey, I hear he’s going to the South. Already done then.

  8. “Drunken louts” are now bad to the left… time to demand Kerry stop marching Kennedy out on the campaign trail. Hey, I hear he’s going to the South. Already done then.

  9. “Drunken louts” are now bad to the left… time to demand Kerry stop marching Kennedy out on the campaign trail. Hey, I hear he’s going to the South. Already done then.

  10. Spain wasn’t on my list of countries. Though not as wealthy as its Northern European peers, it wasn’t mired in poverty either at the time that Franco assumed power. I was thinking more along the lines of Taiwan, Malaysia, South Korea, Mexico, Chile, and Brazil, along with a few others. When you look at the big picture, Japan could be on this list as well.

    My point wasn’t that democracies are less prosperous than authoritarian governments, but that quite often, depending on the culture, authoritarian or semi-authoritarian systems wind up being needed to lift a country of poverty, after which a move to democracy can occur without damaging (and perhaps improving) economic development.

    Looking at the Middle East, the one successful Muslim democracy, Turkey, got there by heading down the aforementioned path. Iran appeared to be going on a similar trajectory before the Shah was toppled in a popular revolution. And the most prosperous Muslim state in the region that can attribute its wealth to something other than oil, the Emirate of Dubai, doesn’t have much in the way of democracy at this time. I’d be quite surprised if Iraq wound up being the exception to this rule.

  11. Uh Eric, I’m trying to point out that Iraq has BEEN THERE DONE THAT, for at least the last 30 years. So, mayhap it’s their time to move past the Authoritarian model…

  12. Joe L:

    I wasn’t saying that, “Arabs can’t “Do democracy”. (limited government and liberty are much more important) I’m asking what are the realistic expectations for success, especially given that it’s the very hypocritical US government doing the pushing. There has been relative freedom in Lebanon, (it used to be freer) and Dubai of the UAE has a great deal of economic freedom.

    Our government should not be financing the brutal Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. It’s not a question of us “giving them a state”, it’s a question of not financing their theft. Also, remember that Arafat was elected. They can elect kleptocrats as well as we can in the US. The Israeli government supports the PA’s restrictive repression of free enterprise among the Palestinian people. I’m more confident for the prospects in a free society in Palestine since there are more Palestinian advocates of liberalism than any are among any other Arab population.

    “Turn it around, Saddam and NON-DEMOCRATIC Iraq cost the US lives and money, too”

    What?? Only because our government invaded Iraq!

    ” Germany didn’t have a history of democracy pre-1945.
    “Weimar… it lasted from 1919 to 1933. Fourteen years, that’s certainly a tradition.”

    DOUBLE WHAT?? The electoral law of the North German Confederation was enacted on 17 April 1867, the electoral law for the Reichstag of 31 May 1869, and the law on elections for the German Reich on 16 April 1871!

  13. “Plus, neither Japan nor Germany in 1945 had a history of democracy.”

    A flatly inaccurate statement; even without counting Weimar Germany (on the Federal level) had long history of democratic institutions during the imperial period. Furthermore, the various states came to make up of the German state after 1870 each had lesser or greater degrees of democratic involvement. To say that there is no democratic tradition is plead total ignorance of German history in the 19th century.

  14. Eric, Senator Kennedy saw his two big brothers slaughtered in public for their efforts on behalf of liberal politics, and followed in their footsteps anyway. In doing so, he has made himself one of the biggest targets in America.

    Say what you want about his political ideas and history of drinking, he has displayed considerable personal courage by leading the public life he has chosen.

  15. joe,

    The arrogance of Christians is best illustrated by the work of Bunyan. One of his titles – “The Chief Among All Sinners” – is especially illustrative of this. I also found it evident in the “Frontline” documentary on Bush last night – his notion that he cannot explain how is “heart” was changed, and that he was picked by God to be President are primary examples. The most pious Christians are almost invariably the most arrogant and conceited people one will encounter.

  16. joe,

    That he could not explain is also illustrative of how Christianity springs from the 1st century CE “mystery cults” like the Isis worshippers and others.

  17. “It is impossible to lose sight of them for a moment and irresponsible to confer the noble title of rebel or revolutionary on those who showed no courage at all when there was a real tyranny in the land.’

    Because Lord knows no Shiites took up arms against Saddam, and paid with their lives, in 1991.

    How much courage has this drunken lout ever shown? He seems to fancy himself a rebel.

  18. I think you’re assuming that journalists care when their predictions turn out false, or feel that false predictions have an effect on their credibility. They tend to have the amazing ability to change their arguments from day to day without any recognition of past statements whatsoever.

  19. “How much courage has this drunken lout ever shown? He seems to fancy himself a rebel.”

    That’s no way to talk about the senior Senator from Massachusetts. Show a little respect.

  20. There are many people who have a stake in seeing the U.S. fail in Iraq simply because their own credibility is tied in to that prediction.

    Not that this phenomenon is limited to those who predicted disaster.

  21. Joe,

    You are correct to point out those that tried to fight Saddam in ’91, only to be slaughtered when Bush Sr and the UN decided not to help them out after encouraging them. That said, I’m not sure the Madr army in Najaf were those involved in the fight (and I’m certain the Sunni fighters in Fallujah weren’t involved in the uprising). While it’s convenient to lump all of the Shiites together, I think the ’91 uprising involved the Shiites from the marshland further south (along with a separate uprising by the Kurds in the North).

    As for Hitchens, I think he would prefer the contrarian moniker to that of rebel. It is true that he has likely only displayed courage of the liquid variety anyplace where the bombs were dropping. However, in a different realm, he did show a fair bit of courage in taking the trajectory he did while working for Nation after 9-11. Most journalists wouldn’t be willing to make such a move and lose their steady paycheck of the previous two decades.

  22. Well, hell, political correspondents are betting on failure in the 2004 campaign, by somebody.

    And business correspondents love betting on failure by some “beleaguered” company or other.

    It’s what makes reporting fun!

    I guess.

  23. As much as I want to continue to respect Hitchens as a rare progressive with balls, he’s really lost me with the new world order rhetoric.

    He has just as much a confirmational bias when it comes to the “successes” of the blood and fire democratization he endorses and those who oppose it.

  24. In re: Hitchens. I’ve never really liked “The Hitch”. His works alternate, Attack a Leftist Icon/Attack A Rightist icon. As a Conservative Republican I noted some failures in his “Trial of henry Kissinger” which made me think, “He probably made the same sort of errors in his ‘No One Left to Lie To'” A man prone to stretching the truth in one place is wont to do it again. I read and liked his work on Orwell, but I think he thinks Orwell is so important because Hitchens thinks of himself as the new Orwell.
    As far as Algeria goes, one is confronted with a real world moral dilemma, here. It’s irrelevant WHY GIS was so popular. The fact was it WAS and the GIS offered “One Man, One Vote, One Time.” Given that, what is the best course open to the Algerian military and the West? A corrupt authoritarian state or a new Iran on the doorstep of Europe? If one supports the FLN one is supporting the suppression of an election, but if one supports GIS one is supporting the democratic introduction of tyranny? tough call.

    The FLN has fought a damned dirty war against the insurgents, though. In Walzerian terms, they might have been in a “just war” but they have chosen “unjust” methods to prosecute it.

  25. …people who have a stake in seeing the U.S. fail in Iraq…

    So lets say the government, in spite of all the obstacles, many self-imposed, such as the glaring hypocrisy in financing and now sanctioning the Israeli occupation…lets imagine that they achieve “success” in Iraq.

    What is success? What might a “free Iraq” look like for the Iraqi people. It would have to be much better than the situation of the Egyptian people where the US government gives billions every year to their very anti-liberty ruling regime. It would have to be much better than Jordan…same situation, just not as much US tax money to that thug regime.

    But lets imagine that some how, limited government and the rule of law was actually the result of the US government’s occupation in Iraq. How long might we expect that condition to endure there, in that part of the world? What is a realistic estimate? 0ne year? Five Years? Let us be very optimistic and imagine that a free Iraq endures for ten years.

    How many more lives would ten years of a free Iraq be worth? How many more American lives?

  26. Rick, for a guy that worries about the Palestinians so much your last posting seems odd… Are you saying Arabs can’t “Do” democracy? And if they can’t why ought we give the Palestinaians a state? And if Arabs can’t do democracy why ought Palestinians and their supporters object to their oppression, after all they’re going to be oppressed any way, Arabs don’t do democracy, so who cares who’se boot heel is on their necks, Sharon’s or Arafat’s?

    Plus, neither Japan nor Germany in 1945 had a history of democracy. Or did they not turn out successful? How much is democracy in Iraq worth or how many lives ought we expend. Turn it around, Saddam and NON-DEMOCRATIC Iraq cost the US lives and money, too and the lives of MILLIONS of Iraqi’s and neighbors. Can we afford to NOT TRY to create a new Iraq?

  27. “Plus, neither Japan nor Germany in 1945 had a history of democracy.”

    You’re kidding, right? Does the Weimar Republic ring a bell? Japan also had parliamentary elections in the ’20s. In addition, both Germany and Japan had well-educated populaces capable of working with such an advanced political system. Not to mention the fact that we killed off more than 5% of each of their populations, a 5% that included a disproportionate number of able-bodied men with fascist/warlike tendencies.

    Regarding the Palestinians: the obvious solution to this problem is for the Israelis to simultaneously uproot their non-contiguous settlements and end their occupation while taking out Arafat and any other PA thug who continues to support the Intifada. But American foreign aid guarantees that they won’t carry out either of these actions.

  28. Regarding Germany and Japan:

    “Not to mention the fact that we killed off more than 5% of each of their populations, a 5% that included a disproportionate number of able-bodied men with fascist/warlike tendencies.”

    This is what Hitchens is advocating. If the Islamic radicals had won in Algeria, it would have ended up like Iran, Saudi Arabia, or the Taliban’s Afghanistan and spread the relgious shit north into Europe. But you’re right to criticize the FLN’s brutality. (But how about Russia in Grozny, etc.?)

    I don’t know how significant it is, but as Hitchens reports, some elections have been going to the secularists:

    “Here’s another byline I know of old: Jonathan Steele of the Guardian in London. His is a reliably anti-Bush voice, normally couched in elegant prose. The following is from a report he filed April 5:

    “Herded into lines by inexperienced police officers, hundreds of would-be Iraqi voters pushed into a sparsely equipped school at the weekend to cast their ballots for the local council of Tar.

    Deep in the marshes of the Euphrates, the town of 15,000 people was the first to rise against Saddam Hussein in the abortive intifada of 1991. Now it was holding the first genuine election in its history.

    The poll was the latest in a series which this overwhelmingly Shia province has held in the past six weeks, and the results have been surprising. Seventeen towns have voted, and in almost every case secular independents and representatives of non-religious parties did better than the Islamists.””

  29. Regarding Germany and Japan:

    “Not to mention the fact that we killed off more than 5% of each of their populations, a 5% that included a disproportionate number of able-bodied men with fascist/warlike tendencies.”

    This is what Hitchens is advocating. If the Islamic radicals had won in Algeria, it would have ended up like Iran, Saudi Arabia, or the Taliban’s Afghanistan and spread the relgious shit north into Europe. But you’re right to criticize the FLN’s brutality. (But how about Russia in Grozny, etc.?)

    I don’t know how significant it is, but as Hitchens reports, some elections have been going to the secularists:

    “Here’s another byline I know of old: Jonathan Steele of the Guardian in London. His is a reliably anti-Bush voice, normally couched in elegant prose. The following is from a report he filed April 5:

    “Herded into lines by inexperienced police officers, hundreds of would-be Iraqi voters pushed into a sparsely equipped school at the weekend to cast their ballots for the local council of Tar.

    Deep in the marshes of the Euphrates, the town of 15,000 people was the first to rise against Saddam Hussein in the abortive intifada of 1991. Now it was holding the first genuine election in its history.

    The poll was the latest in a series which this overwhelmingly Shia province has held in the past six weeks, and the results have been surprising. Seventeen towns have voted, and in almost every case secular independents and representatives of non-religious parties did better than the Islamists.””

  30. Aaaaaahhhhhh, Weimar… yes it lasted from 1919 to 1933. Fourteen years, that’s certainly a tradition. Of course 1923 to 1924 was a disaster and 1929-1933 were disasters, too, and there was the run-up to stablity with the Freikorps and the Communists in Bavaria. I’d give Weimar about 6 good years and 8 really bad years, years that embittered the middle classes and suggested that Liberal Democracy was an utter failure.

    Japan, yes they had elections and democracy, until the Army assissinated a number of Prime Ministers and staged a couple of near-coups. that’s all pretty much until the Kwantung Army just stopped obeying Tokyo and did what it thought “necessary” in Manchuria and then in China.

    So, no I’d disagree with the belief that Germany or Japan had an a lot of experience with democracy prior to 1945.

  31. Jean Bart: I suppose you’d be comfortable making the same blanket statements about pious Muslims, right? Or is there something uniquely arrogant and conceited about Christians and Christianity?

    And what’s any of that got to do with Hitchens’ piece?

    And why didn’t the Euros piss themselves silly over Clinton’s religiosity like they do over Bush’s?

  32. stubby,

    I will readily admit that Europeans as a rule find American political religiosity frightening.

    No, there is nothing particularly arrogant about the piety of Christianity; the pious as a rule are arrogant.

  33. Jean Bart, I think you have confused me with Joe L.

    I’m very (case) sensitive about that sort of thing 😉

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