The Passion of the Christopher


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.