Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Debunking Hitchens; a Statement of Leftist Principles

The invasion of Afghanistan by US troops in the aftermath of the Sept.11th atrocities, had the effect not only of invigorating the position of the Bush administration at home and consolidating its hold on power, but it also served to put the Left once again on the defensive, with regard to defining the causes which brought about the tragedy and formulating an appropriate response to manage the incumbent crisis. In the timid debate which ensued within the ranks of the American Left, few had the resolve to offer a rational assessment of the situation from a liberal, left-wing point of view, much less to resolutely oppose the bellicose stance the government was quick to adopt. The fear was too great that in the context of the jingoistic hysteria fomented by the Bush Administration, the Left might be marginalized for failing to satisfy the primeval urge for retribution felt intensely by most Americans after Sept.11th, or even run the risk of appearing unpatriotic and treacherous before a radicalized American electorate.
Christopher Hitchens is one distinguished member of the American liberal community who attempted to extend the boundaries of circumstantial and forced tolerance, which was the general attitude exhibited by the left-wing establishment towards the early phases of Bush’s militaristic campaign of global coercion, so as to transform it into an unequivocal and enthusiastic endorsement of Bush’s ‘anti-terrorist’ excesses.
The reasons why this happened can only be for outsiders like us, a subject for speculation. Perhaps it was fear that drove Mr. Hitchens. The well-founded fear that failure to support vigilant military action would condemn left-wing commentators to irrelevance in the eyes of the public. Another possibility is that Mr. Hitchens decided to take the easy root out. After all, it requires a great amount of courage for one to adopt an independent point of view in the face of overwhelming public pressure to the contrary.[i] Besides, critical reflection can be a dangerous occupation for an intellectual, particularly so in a cultural environment infested by doctrinaire fanaticism, where dissent is identified with anti-patriotism and treacherous subversion. Or maybe Mr. Hitchens’s legitimation of the imperial aspirations of Bushism represents a reflexive reaction to the prolonged ideological paralysis and the continuous tendency for introspection that has dominated leftist discourse from 1989 onwards. As he poignantly exclaimed in one of his polemics, “That might mean that one actually could do something. Surely we [of the Left] are too guilt stained for that”.[ii]
Whatever explanation we choose to admit, Mr. Hitchens’ attempt to demonstrate the inherent compatibility between his current pro-Bush ideological stance and the left-wing values and humanistic principles he was hitherto known to uphold, must be countered forcefully. For such a position represents a direct assault on the authentic definition of the Left as a distinct political force with long-standing, historical connections to the popular traditions of collective empowerment, political autonomy and the pursuit of social equality and justice.
It seems to me, that Mr. Hitchens has been concentrating his efforts in an attempt to capitalize on the ideological obfuscation of the Left in the aftermath of Sept.11th, so as to masquerade his ever-closer convergence with the political ends of Bushism, into a legitimate left-wing attitude. In what was probably meant to be a display of militant leftism, he defended his position by compiling an extensive condemnation of political Islamism, based on its irrational philosophical foundations, on the reactionary social program it seeks to advance and on the means it uses in order to achieve its political aims. True, most aspects of the Islamist movement, or more correctly of that particular sectarian wing of the international Islamist movement represented by Bin Laden, appear to be in contradiction with the fundamental values and basic political aims espoused by the mainstream of the American Left.
However, Hitchens has scarcely made any efforts to draw the equally pertinent distinction between the democratic-oriented model of political practice of the Left and the oligarchic, quasi-fascist politico economic program promoted by Bush and the extreme rightists who act in the capacity of his ministers and advisors. To put forth the proposition that the Bush administration can be regarded as the natural ally of the Left in the battle against international terrorism, is indeed to exhibit a shocking measure of ignorance regarding the social causes of terrorism and the multi-dimensional nature of the threat, which requires a response articulated on more levels than that of direct military confrontation.
The disastrous effect of such reckless official disinterest in the social aspects of the phenomenon of international terrorism can be now observed to their full extent, in the recently ‘liberated’ Afghanistan, where the Taliban are still active, regrouping and preparing to mount a counter-attack, or in the chaos which is post-Saddam Iraq. Arguably, nation building in these two formerly independent states has been a miserable political blunder, which, in my view, is a potent indication of the miscalculations of official US policy with regard to the primacy of coercion over pacification and economic development as a means of subduing terrorism.
The Bush administration has so far refrained from engaging into any such productive initiatives. It has been conspicuously inactive in the provision of funds for the benefit of international aid programs. It has reviewed and significantly curtailed President Bush’s much- publicized economic contribution to the struggle against AIDS, leading even Bono, the arm-chair activist, to issue a public statement of denunciation against him. And for those, like Hitchens, who seem prone to indulge in the comfort of convenient oversights, there is a connection between the funds committed to a multifaceted and seemingly unending military effort and the lack of availability of funds for humanist purposes. In short, one policy appears to be canceling out the other.
By refusing to point out the obvious, Hitchens not only contributes in concealing the inherent strategic deficiencies of the War on Terror, acting in the manner of a neoconservative intellectual apparatchik, but also purposefully misleads the public and mystifies its understanding concerning the gravity of the current situation.
Apart from the practical failures of the neoconservative ‘anti-terrorist’ campaign, the Left also needs to take issue with the ideological pretexts contained in neoconservative political theology, which by and large provide the war’s moral justification. Insofar as this 21st century Crusade is purportedly being conceived by its political architects, as an instrument for the world-wide expansion of democracy and freedom, these two notions should be put anew under scrutiny and contestation by those thinkers and politicians who position themselves to the left-wing of the political spectrum. After all, defining the notion of democracy and investing it with an acceptable political meaning and a concomitant social dimension, has always been the perennial point of disagreement between Left-wing and Right-wing. Indeed, it has served as the raison d’etre for the constitution of antagonistic political ideologies and the necessary logical condition for their emergence.
To refuse to engage in such an ideological struggle, as is the case with Hitchens, is to surrender control over the process of production and transmission of political meaning to the reactionary socio political conglomerate of Protestant fundamentalist groups, Jewish-American Zionists and representatives of big capital who form the main social basis of support for the Bush regime. In other words, it means that the articulation of a hegemonic definition of democracy, of the political rights and freedoms it entails, of its social trajectory and limits, is left by virtue of the tacit consent of the Left, to the discretion of those sociopolitical currents who reserve a traditional enmity towards it and have never rested from their efforts to condition and manipulate it.
On the other hand, it seems to me obvious that whoever chooses to confront and disrupt this neoconservative monopoly of political knowledge should primarily begin with disputing the notion that democracy can be imposed on a population by the force of arms. We should refrain from basing our critique on absolute ethical categories in which the concept of instrumental violence is overruled on moral grounds, for such a method could be both counter-productive in terms of the Left’s general political appeal and ideologically inconsistent with its qualified acceptance of political violence as a legitimate, albeit extreme, method of resisting authority and of bringing about social change. It is neither an obligation deriving from an eternal code of left-wing, humanist morality, nor a sign of the unconventional political wisdom of Leftists to be ready to publicly denounce all US military campaigns as a priori imperialistic ventures or as clear manifestations of US aggression, as Adam Shatz seems to imply in his preliminary comments on the war on Afghanistan.[iii] While, most pacifists are usually left-wing in their political convictions, the same rule does not, and should not, apply the other way around.
What is important, is that acceptance or rejection of a case for war, be made subject to a set of clearly-defined, preliminary ethical, political and military criteria, which would serve the three-fold purpose of adjudicating on the moral content of the war (conformity of the proposed casus belli with the provisions of international law or some notion of humanism), of determining the proper way in which the campaign should be conducted (minimization of civilian casualties, neutralization of strictly military targets) and would seek to obtain some sort of assurance that the outcome of war will be congruent with the strategic objectives which have been set in advance of the military effort (ensuring that a viable and comprehensive post-conflict strategy has been formulated with the objective of transferring political power and control of natural resources to the country’s population, eliminating the possibility of active US interference with the aim of directing or dominating the process of post-war political development). In other words, the essential unity between military means and political ends of the enterprise should be affirmed in each case.
All this implies that the principal task the Left must set itself is related to the formulation of a new ‘Just War’ doctrine, perhaps taking the principle of humanitarian intervention as its point of departure. It also suggests that the above project should be linked with a systematic and concerted effort on the part of left-wing intellectuals to achieve a renewal of their interpretation of democracy and to work out a commonly-accepted definition of a 21st century democratic framework which they may use as a point of reference in their evaluation of the moral claims contained in the theses of neoconservative militarism. The inability of Democratic candidates for the 2004 presidential election to produce a coherent alternative political and strategic assessment of the Iraqi situation, which would serve to clearly demarcate their distinct political identity and pronounce the ideological differences which set them apart from that of their Republican rivals, is a telling illustration of the urgency of the theoretical task at hand.
In the case of Iraq, Hitchens has repeatedly appealed to our humanitarian impulses in order to convince us of the moral rectitude of Bush’s imperial adventurism. To this we answer that provided we consider the criteria enumerated earlier as a blueprint for humanitarian intervention, not in the slightest characteristic does the Iraqi campaign resemble a humanitarian operation. Humanitarian intervention can be defined as a completely selfless act of compassion towards an oppressed population, in which a state commits its public wealth and troops to an emancipatory military project, in the absence of any strategic interest of its own or of a hidden political agenda which it seeks to promote. Under this light, humanitarian intervention appears to be no more than an abstract theoretical invention, since no state or coalition of states have, or indeed could have, ever embarked on a military expedition that does not serve their interests, at least in some contingent, indirect manner, nor would they, in all truthfulness, have any reason to undertake such a venture.[iv] No sooner is this pattern of behavior established, that we need to be suspect of the humanitarian incentives President Bush, and Hitchens for that matter, have invoked so as to justify the US invasion of Iraq.
True, the argument that the US has failed to act in the face of past injustices and has seldom undertaken foreign intervention for the express purpose of averting the possibility of a humanitarian crisis, has little bearing concerning the case of military intervention in Iraq. If anything, one should aspire to correct one’s past wrongdoings and failure to act in the past is all the more reason never to repeat the same mistake again. Yet, the issue here is not the prevention of a humanitarian crisis as Hitchens would have us believe.
In most cases the standard focus of Leftist criticism against the established course of US foreign policy was not that the US stood idly by, assuming the posture of a disinterested spectator when crimes against humanity were being committed. Instead the prime concern of the Left has always been with the degree of complicity of the US government in facilitating the execution of such crimes, its traditional political and economic ties to brutal oligarchic regimes that made use of the method of state terror in order to consolidate their rule at home, and the habitual policy of unqualified official endorsement by the White House of any regime, no matter how unpopular or criminal in its method of imposing its authority at home, that would vouch to defend US economic and strategic interests abroad.
It is a commonplace assumption in Leftist intellectual circles that this recurrent tendency is not so much a matter of personal preferences or the result of an objective assessment of the superpower’s global strategic interests, as it is the inevitable outcome of the internal dynamics generated by the US power structure. For the institutional theorist patterns of behavior have their roots in the basic institutional arrangements and the dominant social forms which provide the context for the formulation of US foreign policy.[v] In other words, there is an objective correlation between the normal operation of domestic institutions, which in the US are characterized by a vastly unequal distribution of political and economic power and by the subordination of the state apparatus to the interests of corporate capital, and the attitudes and outcomes of public policy. US foreign relations are no exception to this rule. Insofar as no significant modification can be shown to have taken place in the institutional balance of power, and indeed Hitchens makes no effort to offer theoretical evidence to this direction, assertions about a ‘Change of Course’ in official policy and the sudden prominence of humanitarian doctrines in the thought of US political commissars should be treated as either war-time propaganda or as sad exhibitions of political immaturity and naiveté.[vi]
While reading Hitchens’ polemics one gets the impression that he entertains some notion of humanitarian gain, which might come about as an indirect consequence, a mere by-product of military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq. This constitutes an indirect admission of defeat on his part, for it amounts to an implicit suggestion that the prime cause and main objective of US military intervention is indeed unrelated to any overarching humanitarian principle, and is rather dictated by an alternative set of economic factors and strategic priorities. Hitchens treats this discrepancy as mere formality, yet there is all the difference in the world between a purely negative conception of liberation as the absence of coercion and a positive understanding of liberation as a long-term, constructive process. The former provides the rationale behind the doctrine of regime change, which holds that the physical destruction of an oppressive regime and its removal from power (the Taliban, Baathist dictatorship) is in itself the sufficient condition that will bring about the consolidation of freedom and democratic governance, thus focusing exclusively on the military aspect of the enterprise.
On the contrary, the positive conception of liberation assumes that an adequate definition of freedom should extend beyond the one-dimensional absence of physical coercion. Under this light, the meaningful acquisition of political liberty involves the creation of an institutional framework in which a new mode of spontaneous democratic politics might develop, providing for a method of popular empowerment that will enable the newly-formed polity to make conscious and informed selections regarding their future form of rule. This plan for reconstruction also includes the generation of a corresponding structure of equitable social and economic relations, which will serve as the underlying material context facilitating the emergence of a viable culture of mental autonomy (the capacity to think for oneself) and the articulation of a realistic demand for political self-determination (the desire to govern oneself).
To the extent that no deliberation of the above type was incorporated in the strategy for nation-building of the Bush administration, one can be certain that the establishment of democracy in the newly-occupied lands of Iraq and Afghanistan will be implemented by virtue of an artificial, overnight importation of a formal democratic model, in a social environment completely unaccustomed to the practice of democratic politics, assigning to well-educated, Westernized former exiles with no genuine base of popular support the role of official political elite (Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan, Ahmed Chalabi in Iraq) . And the more these new politicians are alienated from the bulk of the indigenous population, the more will they come to rely on US moral and material resources for the maintenance and continuation of their rule. We have already seen this formula of ‘nation-building’ being implemented in Afghanistan and Iraq and in spite of Hitchens’ assurances, the results have been far from impressive. Perhaps the only lasting achievement of the Bush administration in both fronts, will be the installation of weak, dependent regimes in both Kabul and Baghdad, completely loyal to their American neoconservative patrons and subservient to their interests, along with the creation of two centers of permanent political tension, in a region which is already one of the most conflict-ridden, unstable areas in the world.
I would like to conclude by proposing the conduct of two thought-experiments that might enable us to understand the implications of Mr. Hitchens’ absolute condemnation of terrorism as a legitimate method of popular resistance, evincing from his outright rejection of claims that the attacks on the Twin Towers were in fact a spontaneous eruption of counter-violence deriving from the sociopolitical violence incorporated into the international system itself, as well as an irrational response to the subjection of Muslim populations to a regime of neocolonial exploitation, upheld by Western powers and their local associates (corrupt Arab governments, Zionist Israel).
To begin with, the position expressed by Hitchens that there can be no negotiation between the West and the representatives of radical Islamic organizations, is not only an unfounded assumption, for the tactic of negotiation has been seldom employed by Western decision-makers in their dealings with Islamist guerillas, but it is also a politically monolithic attitude, which by definition precludes the possibility for creating those conditions in which the institution of a dialogue with Islamic opposition movements would become plausible. The initiation of such a dialogue might provide for the creation of a political outlet for the expression of legitimate Muslim complaints and might even contribute in achieving a cease-fire between the countries of the West and those jihadist cells of Islamic militants, whose urban guerrilla activity has so far exacted such a heavy toll of human casualties in spite of all the security precautions.
The statement according to which Islamic radicals are opposed to the West ‘on principle’ is but an empty sophism, for the reason that such an opposition is primarily a choice dictated upon Islamists by the traditional intransigency shown by the West when dealing with the main grievances and strategic demands long entertained by Muslim states, and the indifference (Russian repression against Chechen rebels) or, in some cases, active involvement (Israeli occupation of Palestine) of Western states in the plight of Muslim populations worldwide. After all, Al-Qaeda’s terrorist campaign against the US and its Western allies was not defended by Osama Bin-Laden on the grounds of exacting just punishment for the moral transgressions of an irreverent US society, nor was it an assault directly aimed against the American ‘way of life’, as George Bush likes to claim and Hitchens willingly reiterates. On the contrary, the attacks on the WTC were, according to Al-Qaeda ideologues, an act of long overdue retribution against the ‘anti-Arab’ and ‘anti-Muslim’ campaigns of repression, launched on a global scale with the energetic political backing and military support of the US.
Even if the definitive and just settlement of these ongoing conflicts would not automatically signal the end of the global jihad, it would surely lead to the diffusion of anti-Western sentiment within the global Islamic community and would rehabilitate the collective persona of the West in the conspiratorial world outlook through which many a Muslim perceives and interprets international political developments. Thus, the ideological position of radical Islamists would be severely discredited and several central staging areas for terrorist recruitment would become subject to the process of gradual pacification.
Israel, whose heavy-handed strategy of combating Palestinian ‘terrorism’ seems to be serving as a universal model for the containment and repression of terrorist activity worldwide (Iraq, Colombia, Chechnya), by virtue of its brutal and aggressive treatment of Palestinians, can be said to have effectively marginalized and alienated from their mass base those Palestinian political forces which could have acted as interlocutors in the formulation and implementation of a peaceful program for the genuine settlement of the Palestinian question. I am speaking here not merely of the PLO-affiliated ruling elites of the Palestinian authority establishment, but also of the moderate currents within the Islamic resistance movement, namely Hamas, who do not posit the annihilation of the state of Israel as their ultimate political goal. If anything, Israel’s violent excesses have succeeded in allowing the logic of confrontation to prevail and eliminating any pragmatic political middle-ground, in the context of which a peace initiative could appear as meaningful, or indeed desirable.
Secondly, if one accepts the main thrust of Mr. Hitchens’ hypothesis regarding the legitimacy of Bush’s ‘War on Terror’, namely, that the attacks on the WTO represent a barbaric attack on global civil society which legitimizes military reprisals against Afghanistan and Iraq, for the purpose of rooting out terrorist bases of support and demolishing their infrastructure, one might be inclined to view the Palestinian conflict in similar terms. What has hitherto been viewed by left-wing commentators as a legitimate war of attrition against the Israeli forces of occupation thus becomes explainable in terms of a campaign of random and vicious acts of terrorism, while the Palestinian resistance conducting the operations is thereby classified as the local section of the Islamist terrorist International. Violence becomes de-contextualized and is dissociated from those very factors which might serve to account for it (the brutal nature of the Israeli occupation, the vast asymmetry of military strength which largely defines the nature of the conflict, the consecutive breaches of the Oslo Accords through the proliferation of Israeli settlements even at peace time, the fatal inaction of the almost defunct Israeli peace movement and so on). A further consequence of this outlook is the collective victimization of Palestinians as a nation ‘suspect for terrorism’. Under this light, retaliation against civilians becomes a regrettable, but necessary counter-measure, justified on the premise of self-defense, with an oblique reference to which Hitchens proceeds to justify the US bombardment and invasion of Afghanistan.[vii] I am not suggesting here that no distinction should be made between Al Qaeda operatives and Palestinian freedom fighters. On the contrary, I am attempting to show that the conceptual categories employed by Mr. Hitchens in his effort to identify terrorism and determine the appropriate response to it, lead us inexorably to such dangerous oversimplifications and negate the standards which make any political or moral distinction concerning the practice of political violence possible. It is hard for one to accept such beliefs and at the same time claim to subscribe, as Hitchens purportedly does, to the belief that, “An Arab child born in Nablus should have no fewer rights in his or her homeland than a Jewish child born in Flatbush”.[viii]

[i] As Susan Sontag rightly remarks, to “fall out of step with one’s tribe; to step beyond it into a world that is larger mentally but smaller numerically – if alienation or dissidence is not your habitual or gratifying posture – is a complex, difficult process”. In S. Sontag, The Power of Principle, The Guardian, 26/05/03. To this, we should add that even a past personal affinity for dissidence and disobedience can act as a catalyst for one’s adoption of intellectual conformism, insofar as one is overcome by a feeling of futility, of constantly finding oneself in the opposition, his views never breaking through to majority opinion and his practical suggestions scarcely finding any application in the policies of those in power. Such a degree of intellectual frustration can indeed be a powerful motive force for a personal ideological transformation to take place.
[ii] Ch. Hitchens, Blaming Bin-Laden First, The Nation, 04/10/01.
[iii] The remarks made by Adam Shatz in relation to the attacks on the World Trade Center, are illustrative of this frivolous, doctrinaire disposition towards war, typical of many leftists: “Standing outside my apartment on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn on Sept.11, I saw the towers on fire. As shaken and horrified as I was, I knew two things: (1) the American government – my government, for better or for worse – would respond; and (2) that despite my fear that the response would be disproportionate, I wasn’t going to be attending any peace rallies, at least not yet”. In A. Shatz, The Left and 9/11, The Nation, 05/09/02.
[iv] It is my view, that even if a particular government was indeed guided in its policies by such humanitarian impulses, it would face significant difficulties with selling such a war to the public, who are always in search of more pragmatic, down-to-earth motives. This cautious attitude towards going to war is perfectly understandable, given that the people are the ones expected to shoulder a big part of the financial burden of any military intervention through increased taxation. More importantly, the people are the ones who will be obliged to send its soldier sons and daughters into battle. Their sacrifice, in the mind of ordinary citizens, should not be made in the name of lofty ideals and abstract concepts.
[v] In S. Shalom & M. Albert, Conspiracies or Institutions: 9/11 and Beyond, ZNet, 02/06/02.
[vi] To put it more plainly we may ask, “if the US government and its agencies are chiefly responsible for nurturing these monstrous forces in Afghanistan [the Taliban], why should they be entrusted with the task of resolving the resulting disaster”? In D. Walsh, The Political Depravity of Journalist Christopher Hitchens, World Socialist Web Site.
[vii] Specifically, he writes, “No possible future government in Kabul can be worse than the Taliban, and no thinkable future government would allow the level of Al Qaeda gangsterism to recur. So the outcome is proportionate and congruent with international principles of self-defense”. In M. Hitchens, The Ends of War, The Nation, 29/11/01.
[viii] In M. Hitchens, Blaming Bin Laden First, The Nation, 04/10/01.

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