Christopher Hitchens is one of the most prolific and controversial writers in the English-speaking world. A prominent atheist, he is the author of ” God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything,” which became an international best-seller in 2007. He has also written books on topics ranging from the partition of Cyprus to Thomas Jefferson and the Anglo-American relationship; his most recent is the memoir “Hitch-22,” which was released earlier this year shortly before he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer.
RFE/RL writer at large James Kirchick recently interviewed Hitchens at his home in Washington, D.C., about his left-wing revolutionary past, his views on America, Iran’s nuclear program, Turkey’s Islamist turn, Putin’s Russia, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and on a variety of international figures.
RFE/RL: What was it that attracted you to revolutionary politics?
Christopher Hitchens: What drew me to revolutionary politics was, I’d have to say, the sheer fact that they were revolutionary. That I could feel — I was born in 1949, so I was almost the perfect age to be at university in 1968. And to have become very outraged by a number of things — principally the Vietnam war, but not alone that — and to be very discontented, as many people were for different reasons, with the boring, postwar, partly social-democratic, partly conservative consensus. So, in a sense, the sheer promiscuity of the word revolution, I’d have to say, had some attraction to me.
I think it’s worth remembering that in 1968 — at the height of what we thought of as, and I still do think of as, the appalling aggression accompanied by chemical destruction of its environment and people and other appalling things in Vietnam — in the United States, the Democrats were in power. In some ways, quite liberal Democrats. In Great Britain, the Labour Party was in power. In what was then still Western Federal Germany, there was a grand coalition of social democrats. In other words, if you wanted to oppose from the left, you had to go quite a long way to the left because the sort of official left was already there. I think that context might be, might be important.
But it was more than anything else that actually — with what I think of still as a sense of history that I sometimes call up — I actually felt that we were entering a revolutionary period. I’ll say it quickly: the rejection of black America — often violent rejection — of its long condition of servitude. Very dramatic. The takeover in the middle of Mediterranean democratic Europe — Greece, with all its metaphors of democracy and so forth — by a right-wing military dictatorship protected by NATO. The war in Indo-China. The way in which white Rhodesia was allowed to get away with a rebellion against the crown by what seemed to us a spineless regime. The extraordinary stirrings in Latin America, which had for long been a kind of backyard of American empire. A number of other things. And then, as the year rolled by and mounted — a social rebellion nearly put an end to De Gaulle’s Fifth Republic, which was long overdue to be put to sleep anyway. And in Poland and in Czechoslovakia, the very, very interesting stirrings — very intelligible to those who thought we were Trotskyists, supported the left opposition tradition — of intellectual and working-class opposition to Stalinism.
One would hear speakers saying we might be living through another 1848, or even another 1917 or 18, and it didn’t seem that much of an exaggeration. It took a long time, one had to live a while to realize that what I was actually seeing was the end of the long stretch of the European left.
RFE/RL: Today when people talk about revolution, what do you — what do you think the revolution is now? Or is there still one to be had?
Hitchens: I was asked to give a talk at the American University of Beirut a couple of years ago — in fact, you were there — about who were the revolutionaries in the Middle East now. And I had to do it in the teeth of some rather unappetizing audience members who were sympathizers of either Hezbollah, or more likely on that count was the Syrian National Socialist party, who are equally — not equally but a comparably disgusting group and so on. And also against — speaking against a kind of culture of anti-Americanism on that campus.
So to me the revolutionaries in the Middle East now are the people who are trying to replace the Islamic Republic of Iran, putting their own lives right onto the street against a very ruthless regime to transform a theocracy into something that is more appropriate to govern an ancient civilization like Persia — that’s defamed and befouled by this clerical fascist regime. And [the revolutionaries now are] the people who’ve striven with increasing success to create an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq, or an autonomous Kurdistan that might lead to stirrings — has already led to stirrings — in Syria, Turkey, Iran, and elsewhere, among the oldest oppressed minority in the Middle East and the largest people in the world that don’t have a state of their own — a cause much longer and in some ways more venerable than the Palestinian one.
And I went on in that vein. Those are the revolutionaries to me. And it’s been — by extension I would have said before then [that they are] the people who asked for so little in Eastern Europe up to 1989. It was revolutionary to demand something like a bill of rights modeled on the American constitution. That was a revolutionary demand. And my conclusion roughly was — and is, if you want to shorthand it — that the American Revolution is probably — with its separation of powers, separation of church and state, guarantee of free expression, and other celebrated triumphs of the Enlightenment — is the only revolution the model of which is still there.
RFE/RL: When did you realize that the Soviet Union was irredeemable as a political force in the world?
Hitchens: Actually I was born in 1949 and I grew up thinking of the Soviet Union as irredeemable. I had read “Darkness at Noon,” Arthur Koestler’s masterpiece novel about Stalin’s show trials, on my own and I’d been given “1984” to read — I would have read it anyway — in my school curriculum. And when I was 7, it’s one of the first times I remember watching the news. In 1956, the two great international events were the doomed British invasion of Egypt with France and Israel, and the Hungarian revolution, and the repression by the Red Army of a popular revolt within a European capital city — with tanks, you could see it on the TV. So I was one of those fortunate people, I suppose, who didn’t have any illusions to lose in the Soviet Union and had regarded it with plain horror as a ramshackle, corrupt, dangerous empire — but one that wouldn’t last very long. I never believed that it could survive. But that would be easy to do. Any fool could do that who could read a book against Stalinism. But in experience as well as theory.
I was in Cuba in 1968 in the run-up to the invasion of Czechoslovakia, as it then was. And I knew quite a number of the Czech student leaders and others who were trying to declare their own independence from the Warsaw Pact, from Russian domination in Eastern Europe — because the Russian empire was slightly different to the Soviet Union but coextensive with it. And I thought the Russians were going to invade. I didn’t see what choice they had. They couldn’t let it go. Nor did I think they could invade without completely losing their credit. That would be the end of it. And I took part in various arguments that took place in Cuba, in Havana, during that week in August, including Fidel Castro’s endorsement.
And then you could still meet people, reasonable people, who were still members of the Communist party in Western Europe; I knew quite a lot of them. Their whole expression changed from then on. It was as if their main spring had broken. It often took them a long time actually to leave, but I can’t remember anyone joining after that, for example. I just remember thinking, “I’ve seen the end of it. I don’t know how long it’s going to take — it took 20 years — but it’s over.” That was more demonstration than one needed what the situation was.
RFE/RL: There’s a part in your memoir where you talk about your experience with Leszek Kolakowski where you disagree on whether or not Communism can be reformed.
RFE/RL: He was right, in the end, wasn’t he?
Hitchens: And wrong. Yeah, I was very fortunate when I was young to meet Leszek Kolakowski, a national hero in Poland still. He died, I think now, only two years ago. [He] had been a so-called reform communist of the 50s generation, had eventually been forced out of Poland by the repression in 1968, came to Oxford where I then was. [He] wrote a magisterial history not just of communism in practice but of Marxism as a theory. Still the best, most exhaustive critique of Marxist theory of history ever written. And Leszek, having been through these experiences, would tend to pooh-pooh any news of stirrings of reform or protest, saying, “Don’t bring me any more news of reformed communism, hopeful shoots, here and there,” he said, “It’s an irredeemable system; it’s beyond reform.” Well, I thought that was true, but there still could be reformed communists — which there were, of whom Mikhail Gorbachev was obviously the most salient example. And precisely because it was beyond reform. Even a fairly tentative attempt to reform it would do the job, would bring in the roof. So it’s a nuance of a difference, but Leszek was too much unimpressed by developments like that by the end of his life. He was too wedded to pessimism. I hope I don’t offend anyone watching who admired him as I did.
Rudolph Barrow, for example. East German Marxist who went to jail after the invasion of Czechoslovakia and wrote a critique of the East German state, almost perfectly predicting the date on which it would collapse. When I showed Leszek this book, Barrow’s book in the late ’70s, he said basically, “Don’t bother me with this. Barrow is still a Marxist, he can’t have anything interesting to say on these questions.” And I was sure he was wrong. And I don’t think I was wrong to point that out.
RFE/RL: So your views on America have changed, I would say, over the years.
Hitchens: Well, of course the biggest single revision, this — excuse me — certainly the biggest single revision that all of this has involved for me — and has a part in all the other ones — is revisiting one’s view of the United States. I was having a discussion the other day in London during a debate over the liberation of Iraq where I was speaking against some American liberals, and with a friend of mine who until quite recently had been a member of the British Communist Party. And we had taken the side of Jalal Talabani and Barham Salih and Kanan Makiya and the other Iraqi left and secular revolutionary intellectuals that the Saddam Hussein regime had to go, that no policy was conceivable that allowed it to retain private ownership of Iraq. I would have thought a pretty easy case to make. And my friend, my recently ex-communist friend in the debate said, “Look, I know what all the criticisms of American imperialism are, and I’ve made them myself, and I could add the same with my book on Henry Kissinger’s crimes and so forth. But if there’s going to be a superpower, or a hyperpower, in global affairs, I’m very glad,” he went on, “that it’s the United States and not any of the possible rivals.” Well that’s common sense to me, too.
RFE/RL: Well, you wrote a book 20 years ago about the Anglo-sphere which was more critical than perhaps you would be today. What’s changed that makes the concept more palatable to you?
Hitchens: Well I still think, which was what my book was about, that the more or less direct succession by American policy and institutions after 1945 of British imperialist policies wasn’t a good thing for the United States, and not that good a thing for the territories that it inherited either. I’d mentioned the disputed territories that were still there at the end of the Empire — Palestine, Cyprus, Kashmir — on the borderlines which we’re still fighting over, as a matter of fact. Well, I don’t think it was an admirable or fortunate thing that that happened, nor in fact the American succession in other parts of the world to the empires of Portugal in Africa, Belgium in Africa, Holland in Indonesia, and elsewhere. That these are very, very spotty periods indeed and deserve, I think, more criticism than they got.
But everything has to do with the alternative. And now that there isn’t what you would call an idealist, internationalist, secular, leftist opposition to this — there’s nothing of the kind — it becomes much plainer who the real rivals are. So I would say, for example, that certainly the cruelest master Zimbabwe has ever had — a country where I was very much involved at one point, when it was still Rhodesia — is not just [Robert] Mugabe locally but his imperial boss; China is by far the cruelest master that Zimbabwe’s ever had. And if you make that extension — which is unhappily very easy to do, Darfur, Burma, North Korea, there’s quite a long list, I may have left something out; everywhere where human rights are not just denied but literally negated — the superpower China is behind it. And blood for oil is the simplest way — for once simplicity works in this case — of encapsulating it, and one misses the idea that there is an American willingness to resist this. Though there is some, it feels faint, and one wishes it to be stronger.
RFE/RL: You’ve written a lot about the Eastern sin of communism, but also the Western sin of imperialism. Do you think it’s easy to lump these together? Are there distinctions that need to be made between the two, and also within imperialism? Was the British Empire as bad or nasty as the Belgian Empire was?
Hitchens: Well, if you ask me to compare and contrast progress made by imperialisms as opposed to retrogressive things done by them or what. My favorite writings on this always was, and is, Karl Marx’s brilliant essays on India, where he said it’s absurd to go on about the British oppression or occupation of India because it’s not as if India would be unoccupied without the British. It would be now dominated either by Russia, possibly Turkey, conceivably Persia…
Hitchens: Not then, I think. But that doesn’t invalidate the same point. And he said the British Empire is undoubtedly using India for what I would call extractive reasons — converting its people and raw materials into capital, without very much concern, in order to finance the British industrial revolution. Nonetheless, this has brought to India — he enumerates them — the railway, the printing press — he thought that was of the highest importance –, the telegraph, and steamship communication with other cultures, which ended the millennial stagnation and isolation of India. That all of this is to the benefit of the people of India and means in the end that they will be able to have their own modern — relatively modern — prosperous, post-British state. Not only was it the correct analysis at the time — he left out nothing by way of a critique of the way the British treated their subjects. But, objectively, it was quite a good predictor of what India is now.
The British record in Ireland doesn’t strike me that way at all. And parts of West Africa, and elsewhere. I don’t think one can say that it harnessed the energies, emancipated the labor force and savings, or any of this sort of thing, as it did in India. And I hope my accent doesn’t betray me or compromise me, but I still think there’s a good case to be made that if you have to be colonized, don’t be colonized by the Belgians. For one thing, it’s a terrible thing to be colonized by a country that’s already practically a colony itself and backward and impoverished and narrow. And best of all is to have your own free economy and free institutions and an alliance with other countries that have the same. The Anglo-sphere is a prefiguration of that, I suppose — rather imperfect, rather inexact, but not bad.
RFE/RL: The least bad of…
Hitchens: And just to give you an example of how the promptings of the left and believe me, can’t be left out of this either. South Africa wasn’t in fact English-speaking entirely, it was an Afrikaner-dominated and Dutch-run totalitarian system, in my opinion, because I think racism is totalitarian by definition, run by people whose party leadership had actually been on the other side in the Second World War; and, I would say if I’d been asked as late as the 1970s, the worst place to live in and a worse disgrace to human values than, say, Cuba was or even is now.
RFE/RL: South Africa was?
Hitchens: Yes. So the separations aren’t that easy to make, but they’re not that difficult either. And then I would have added, and I should have said it already, I always thought and I still think that a nuclear war would be worse than any possible political outcome. It would be totalitarianism defined for the survivors. Go back to the most appalling tyranny of scarcity and famine and want and ruin — that’s self evident. But it would also be the end not just of our generation but of all the generations that have come before us to build civilization. And so my anxiety to avoid anything that could lead to what was pathetically, wickedly — I thought — euphemistically called a “nuclear exchange,” was very strong and still is. And one would, in the “better dead than Red” calculus, have no difficulty at all deciding. Don’t forget, there were people at that time who honestly did think that the risk of that was worth running — for Cuba, for heaven’s sake, even for Vietnam in the 50s! And then I thought — that, I thought, was the spirit of fascism transmuted into the discourse of the West, and I was very much against it and I don’t regret that one bit.
Iran And Iraq
RFE/RL: Since we’re on that topic, do you think a nuclear Iran can be contained?
Hitchens: No. I don’t think actually a theocratic Iran can be contained, even without nuclear weapons. I think there’s a confrontation in our future between civilization — I’ll say that without embarrassment, the world that at least respects, if it doesn’t always practice, the rule of law, and has devised certain forms of diplomacy and certain systems of arms control to which the Iranians are legally signatories — and a regime that has the clearly expressed ambition to break out of and to trample all those conventions. We already see it in the threats to their Arab Sunni neighbors in countries like Bahrain; in their export of violence, as far away as murdering Jewish community leaders in Argentina or Kurdish exiles in Berlin and Vienna for heaven’s sake, or a novelist friend of mine living in London writing fiction. I think they’ve asked for a fight and should know that on those conditions they certainly will get one.
I was at a Hezbollah rally — well, so were you — in Beirut a little while ago, and I couldn’t but notice the party symbol of Iran’s main client in that country, Hezbollah, is now a nuclear mushroom cloud — in cartoon form. The cartoon is made up of words which when decoded constitutes a threat to the Jewish state, the Jewish people. Well, I wouldn’t want to look back and think, “I wonder if I should have paid attention to a threat like that.” You may say one is alarmist. I could give you also all the reasons why that could be a bluff. “They don’t have it, they just wanted you to think they do. It’s a way of aggrandizing themselves.” I know that’s all partly true too. But behind it there’s a reality, and the reality would be the emergence of a thermonuclear theocracy.
The one thing we’ve — since I was at school lying awake worrying what happens when apocalyptic weaponry is grabbed hold of, laid hold of, by messianic totalitarian forces. Well, we are about to find out. If we want to run that experiment, they’re ready to do it for us.
RFE/RL: So that’s the worst — there are no consequences of an attack…
Hitchens: No consequences could possibly be worse than that. Because, I’m not one of those who thinks they would immediately use it on the Israelis, let alone on the United States. I think they want it for purposes of blackmail, principally against other Muslims and non-Persians in the region, or at least initially. The mullahs have a great racket bleeding their country dry and running it into the ground and sucking out the surplus; most of them don’t want to give it up. But that doesn’t mean that a later regime wouldn’t be much more extreme and they’d have the same weapons, so we’d have to take that into account. But in the meanwhile, we’d have to live in a world where, per force, we were polite and accommodating and agreeable to these characters and I decline to live on those terms. I won’t do it.
The best speech made by [Winston] Churchill and the most overused example, of course, of this kind of compromise, but still I think the best and one of the least known is he finally said in one speech, he said, “It’s not that one objects particularly to one policy, internal or external, of the Hitlerite regime. It’s that you don’t want to live on the same continent as them. You don’t want to be breathing the same air.” In the long run, in fact, you aren’t going to be able to. One of you is going to have to yield. There is, and I think should be, so I’m glad there is — a radical incompatibility between the civilized world order, which aspires at any rate to democracy and free exchange, and totalitarian, expansionist, fanatical regimes.
RFE/RL: Did the overthrow of Saddam Hussein strengthen the Iranian regime, or is that question moot if they’re simply next on the list?
Hitchens: If I was asked if the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime had the effect of strengthening the Iranian one, I think I’d have at least two or three replies. One would have to be: yes, in the short term. It gives it access to an audience of coalitionists within Iraq, who are by no means its puppets, but over whose leadership it does exert influence — not all of it financial, but some of it. On the other hand, it gives them the knowledge that on their near-abroad frontier, as with their Afghan one, there are forces that are keeping an eye on them — namely us. And we are as near to them as they are to us, if you see what I mean. Bear that in mind, too.
I have some reason to think from talking to Iranian dissidents both in Iran, where I’ve been, and in the Diaspora, that when the Iranian people see free elections taking place in which Shi’a voters — they’re not at all as sectarian as that, but let’s just keep it to that — and Shi’a parties compete against one another, they’re not completely unimpressed. They don’t want anyone to think of course that they would take an Arab country as a model; no Persian would ever allow that. But the free press, the satellite dishes and cell phones, and the rest of it — these are unquantifiable and that’s harder to judge than the immediate influence exerted by Ahmadinejad on some Iraqi client. But they deserve to be mentioned too, and I think could equally be — not more equally be — could be more influential in the long run.
Second, do we wish to go back to the time when Jimmy Carter was encouraging Saddam Hussein to rearm in order that he could invade Iran, apparently to do the United States a favor, in a war that failed to bring down the Khomeini regime, did strengthen the Saddam Hussein regime, did strengthen dictatorial tendencies in Iran, and not incidentally took the lives of perhaps a million and a half people and beggared the [unintelligible]? No, this playing off of Iran against Iraq is one of the foulest parts of the recent statecraft. What one wants it to end it by putting both countries in the control of their own people. And that might sound simplistic, but it could not possibly be worse than the competing dictatorship calculus which we operated on before.
RFE/RL: So there’s no point at which the consequences of the Iraq war would outweigh the benefits?
Hitchens: No, certainly not. Because apart from everything else it’s invariably a good thing to see Caligula on trial in front of his own people — with [Slobodan] Milosevic, with Charles Taylor of Liberia, the invader and attempted genocider in Sierra Leone, where we prevented another Rwanda from taking place, Tony Blair I think getting particular credit for that in West Africa. And with the humiliation, I would happily call it, of Saddam Hussein in front of the people who he tortured and murdered and ruined for so long, and others too. No, one can’t wish that undone of course. And furthermore, not a small thing, we can now certify Iraq as in compliance with UN resolutions on weapons of mass destruction, which you couldn’t before. By the way, that’s a gain. Not knowing, not being able to certify is a great source of insecurity and instability, by the way, as well as an outrageous breach of international law.
RFE/RL: In that neighborhood — Turkey. Do you think they’ll ever be ready to join the EU?
Hitchens: No, I don’t now. Sorry, I would have once said that I look forward, not without misgivings, to Turkish membership in the European Union and certainly was against some of the reasons given for opposing it — such as by his holiness the pope at one stage, who said that, openly, that a country that had Muslim culture was by definition not European. That’s not true, or we better hope it’s not true, say of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, which we liberated from an attempt at their extirpation by Christian fascists and something I’m very proud of having advocated.
But the problem with Turkey I think is a somewhat different one. At least under its new leadership, it’s already becoming the originator of unusual demands on the European family of nations. For example, at a NATO meeting held not very long ago where it had been decided that all the members of NATO wanted as their next spokesman Anders Rasmussen of Denmark — it had been agreed — at the last minute the Turks vetoed it and said we cannot have as head of NATO someone who isn’t willing to censor his own press, something Danish law forbids, in the matter of some cartoons in a paper in Jutland. Well, this is unacceptable. That’s how they behave before they’re in Europe. I don’t like to think how they’ll behave when in.
A friend of mine has a very rough way of putting this, but once I’ve said it you won’t be able to forget it either. He said, “When did you last read a report from Istanbul that didn’t describe Turkey as a bridge between East and West?” You can’t not read it. Especially if it’s about Istanbul. Orhan Pamuk does it. His novels are all about it. Turkish intellectuals and journalists begin their addresses to Western think tanks that way. Said my friend, “It’s not a bridge, it’s a tunnel.” Now forget that. The European Union’s borders will be with Iran. And Iraq; actually with some of the better bits of Iraq — northern Kurdish autonomous Iraq — but we don’t know for sure what could be imposed or inflicted on that area in the future. It’s not inspiring.
RFE/RL: There’s sort of an irony though because in many ways the party in power now is more democratic. The Kemalists are more illiberal in many ways, yet they’re also secular. So where do you find your place to plant your flag in Turkey?
Hitchens: Well, in some respects the Kemalist secularists were more chauvinistic than Mr. [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan’s party, which at least in its early days showed signs of being somewhat more flexible, especially on the Kurdish question. Very important. There is another people, non-Turkish, who dwell in Anatolia. It’s taken the Turks a long time to admit it. They have begun to, and some strides of that kind have been made. But it may just be the personality of Mr. Erdogan himself. But he’s a bully, and I’m not sure how tightly wrapped he is. By that I mean he goes into tantrums. He picked — no one dislikes Shimon Peres perhaps more than I do — but the fight that was picked in public with him by Mr. Erdogan at Davos was purely vulgar and thuggish and opportunist. The remarks he made on the commemoration of the Armenian genocide in April earlier this year were scandalous. He said that if the United States Congress didn’t cease troubling him on the matter, which they are obliged to do…he would deport the remaining Armenians, the ones who still do live in Turkey or who have come there as workers from the Armenian Republic. Extraordinary. Imagine any other European leader saying that about a national minority.
RFE/RL: He denied that Bashir is a mass murderer. He said no Muslim could commit…
Hitchens: His relations with Iran are far too sickly and warm, as with China. And it is possible that the Ergenekon trial — this massive show trial that is now being brought nearer to a court in Turkey — is the unmasking of a reactionary military Kemalist plot. There have been plots to overthrow the elected government in Turkey before from that court. It’s possible that’s it. It’s also possible that it’s an occasion to shut down all dissent. And I would not want to say that I was confident it wasn’t the latter. And certainly a man who has openly said, while running for office, that democracy is like getting on a bus or a train — you ride it until you get to where you want to go then you get off. Some form of coded reassurance, I suppose, to some of the more unreconstructed Islamists in his electorate. Well, I don’t like the sound of that either. So, for now — I think I mentioned this concept before — since one is always going to regret one outcome, there’s no possibility of not having a regret, I think I’d rather regret keeping Turkey out of the European Union than regret having it in — with veto power.
Russia And Its Neighbors
RFE/RL: So we’re two years now into the Obama Administration. Has there been any reset with Russia? Do you see any benefits from this policy so far?
Hitchens: The Obama Administration prefers to explain its policy towards [Vladimir] Putin and his Russia, which is what it is, as a reset. And I would be more impressed if there was a little bit more to show for this. For example, it’s said that Russia has become recently a little more cooperative in the matter, say, of the Iranian sanctions. Not very much more. And those gestures of cooperation are more than compensated for on the other side by Russian overtures, directly actually, to the Iranian nuclear program and offers to help them with that. And I regard that as the crucial test of Russian resetting, if you like. On the arms control agreement, well that’s more the price of it than the policy itself. With the arms control agreement, I’ve seen persuasive argument, might be worth having for its own sake. But if it isn’t, it’s not worth having for the good behavior that Mr. Putin’s displayed so far, either at home or abroad.
RFE/RL: Do you still believe in the notion of a nuclear-free world? I mean, this has been articulated by the president as a policy. Do you think that’s feasible or desirable?
Hitchens: When the president got his good behavior Nobel Prize — in other words, the prize that you get in the hope that you will do something for peace rather than — a whole new concept. An Oscar in the hope that you’ll make a decent film one day. Maybe a good idea, actually; better than the rewards for the terrible films that have been released. One of the soggy and regrettable things he said was that he looked forward to a nuclear-free world. At any rate, it’s the sort of thing people do say when they go to Stockholm, and I feel sure he did that and has on other occasions.
There are two distinctions to be made here. One is that of, if you like, un-inventing the idea of thermonuclear weapons. Some people who talk about a nuclear-free world almost seem to wish that that could be done — in fact seem explicitly to wish that there weren’t even nuclear reactors. Bizarre. And come up with a lot of Green talk — expressions of nostalgia for a pre-industrial, pre-modern society: agrarian relations were more simple then, more warm and human — for which I’ve no nostalgia at all. I don’t take any stock in any of that, but I think the bullets can be taken out of the gun and the gun put in a drawer. I mean, we are still in a condition not very far from launch on warning — a war that could break out for no reason. A misunderstanding, or a panic, or even a [unintelligible]. I find that an appalling way to be living, and I can’t believe we can’t improve on that. And it would be much better, therefore, much superior to say specifically how one could live without the curse and the fear of nuclear annihilation than to talk in arm-waving terms about — that involve just throwing the word “nuclear” with the word “free” together in a sentence.
RFE/RL: On this question of Russia, do you think that some societies are not suited — or at least for the foreseeable future — to have democracy, or is this the soft bigotry of low expectations?
Hitchens: Well, again to refer to my favorite 19th-century analyst and journalist and columnist, Karl Marx, and his devoted sidekick Friedrich Engels — I published essays about both these aspects — that when they weren’t being brilliant about the future of British India, they were unusually shrewd about the future of the United States, which they thought to be the great country for free labor, untrammeled social mobility, innovation, and many other positively charged things — in contrast to the frightful millennial backwardness and despotism of Russia that seemed almost impervious to human effort. It’s the view that many great Russian writers have taken of their culture. I simply don’t feel entitled to pronounce on that.
But one reason — and I haven’t been to Russia enough, I’ve only been there once; I’ve read a lot of its writers and writing, and I can understand the idea of the pessimistic Russian soul readily enough, given their history — but I think the reason I’d want to resist it, is because it makes it seem something like the current Putin regime seem like the best they can do. Well that’s plainly not the case. I mean, a country in far worse straits materially than Russia could do a great deal better than the regime of personal power in which, for some reason — there seems to me a law that says it must be true — but anyone who criticizes the regime goes missing or is mutilated or silenced in some form or another; in which there’s what I consider to be a very dangerous alliance between Russian nationalism and chauvinism revived under various pretexts of humiliation that I think are very dubious; and a very dogmatic and reactionary Russian Orthodox Church, which has now become the clerical garb in which in all public ceremonies Putinism is draped. Very reminiscent, in fact, of pre-1917 tsarism. And for that reason to be deplored as a terrible outcome for the Russian people and for the people who live within Russian borders who are non-Russian. But also for Russian neighbors, because this expresses a clear nostalgia for days of Russian glory and domination and empire.
RFE/RL: Do you think the United States or its allies should make security — contingent security arrangements — with the small countries in Russia’s periphery, or is that not worth the trouble? Like Georgia or the Baltics?
Hitchens: If I’m asked what responsibility this gives us, the menace of a recrudescent, nationalist, expansionist reactionary Russia with its periphery — or its near abroad, as it’s sometimes called — well, I think certainly in the case of the Baltic republics that were annexed by the Soviet Union as part of the Hitler-Stalin pact and finally pried loose from that only in the last days of Gorbachev and confirmed as independent states very recently — I think that’s a clear responsibility on our part to prevent any bullying in that case. I think that the Poles can certainly claim to be able to look after themselves, and they look as if they probably can. There’s a lot of Russian meddling in Czecho-, in the Czech Republic — I was about to say Czechoslovakia — which I don’t like the sound of. And then of course there’s the very outstanding case of Georgia, which wants to — keeps describing itself, or its present leadership does, as more Western than we are, more committed to our values than we seem to be, clearly with the hope that we will take that literally, as David Cameron did during the recent conflict, and sort of fly to Tbilisi and declare for Georgia. I’d want to know a lot more about Georgian internal dynamics before I’d commit to that.
Is Afghanistan Worth The Price?
RFE/RL: Just one question on Afghanistan. Have you lost hope on that?
RFE/RL: Is that intractable?
Hitchens: Again, look. There are countries where we are responsible, whether we wish to be or not, where we have incurred responsibility. And there are countries where we haven’t. I think that’s a good distinction to make at the outset.
What happened in Rwanda, I believe we could have done more to prevent through the United Nations. But it wasn’t something — it wasn’t a crisis or a misery or a potential catastrophe that we had created. It was our job to do more than we did. We shouldn’t have vetoed the Czech resolution at the United Nations that called just for the strengthening of the UN protective force in Kigali. We even opposed that. But, as I say, it wasn’t something where you had to say to every American: Look, whether you know it or not, this is our responsibility.
Well, with Afghanistan you can’t say that. Or rather, if you like, you can. I mean, we involved ourselves in the Afghan war against the Soviet Union very deeply. We picked some not-very-desirable allies at that point, for good reasons of realpolitik — or bad, if you want. Then we walked away from the country and let it collapse in civil war and factionalism and, worse, the worst possible promulgation of both chaos and tyranny. An Islamic republic manages to get the worst of both worlds: Hobbesian state with iron rules. [This] means we have, we have to — we’ve got more reasons than the Taliban to have to undo this and repay some of what we owe to the Afghan people. And that would be true, I think, even if it was not in our interests.
Again, with Iraq we have an ineffaceable responsibility there. The CIA has boasted in the past of helping Saddam Hussein get to power. I have reason to think that boast is probably partly true. We certainly encouraged Saddam Hussein to attack Iran. We declared ourselves neutral in advance when he said he wanted to have a border dispute with Kuwait. This can’t be walked away from. Americans like to say, “What do we have to do with this place on the other side of the world?” Well, this is what we have to do with that. So Afghanistan certainly belongs on that list of countries where we have a responsibility whether we like it or not.
There was once a moment in the 1950s in the British Parliament when the British government had said, very unwisely, that it wanted to hold on to the island of Cyprus — the whole island of Cyprus — as a colony because of its strategic importance and because of the bases that the British empire had there which command the approaches to the Suez Canal and to Palestine. And there was a national rebellion against this by the Greek majority, and a large British garrison had to be kept there to keep them down. And Aneurin Bevin, the great socialist orator of the Labour Party left opposition at that time, got up and asked the government at question time: “Has Her Majesty’s” — I can’t do his Welsh voice — “Has Her Majesty’s government considered whether it wants a base in Cyprus or Cyprus as a base?” And I’m told the people who saw that could see the expressions change on the face of the government. They realized: We don’t have to run and own the whole place in order to have a presence there. And within actually a very short time they had withdrawn, written a constitution, given Cyprus independence, and the condition for it was that two bases remain permanently part of — under British control. Not perfect, but a huge improvement.
Well, we don’t have to appoint the government of Afghanistan or be responsible for its writ running. There’s never been a government of Afghanistan whose writ has run all across the country, and I very much doubt there ever will be one. It certainly won’t be with the Karzai regime. But it’s entirely possible to make life unbearable for the Taliban if we fight more as guerrillas. If they take over an area, we let them run it for a bit. You know what will happen. Apart from everything else, anyone who can leave, will, and in our direction. Make their lives impossible. Fight them with subversive tactics.
We, among other things, have a very strong interest in continuing to train a cadre of people — as does every other NATO country — who are used to this kind of fighting in these kind of conditions, and be able to conduct it very ruthlessly. Because we’re going to need it again. A lot. And I think it’s important to keep engaged and, if you like — it sounds heartless — keep bloodied. Because this war is not going to end until one or the other of us has given up. So to use it as a training ground for the smashing and massacre of jihad, to use it as an example of how Afghans could live — especially their women folk but also their national minorities and British minorities like the Hazara Shia, and others, compared to what is offered to them by the supporters of the Caliphate. So make that a permanent example. Which part of Afghanistan would you rather live in? And to interdict and destroy their remoter bases by aerial bombardment. Yes, that’s something we have to keep on doing.
Look, this is a NATO responsibility backed up by a series of United Nations resolutions. If the Taliban are allowed to declare victory in Afghanistan, it means what? It means they beat the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the United States and the United Nations in open warfare, and can boast about it. Well, that’s an outcome that’s not thinkable. And we can certainly prevent them from doing that. I doubt even now they could take the cities on their own, let alone hold them; I think that’s already probably impossible. There are large tracts of Afghanistan populated by peoples who would never submit to Taliban rule. All we have to do is make sure those people don’t lose. And it means the Taliban cannot win.
RFE/RL: What role does economics play in this? The British government’s — you know — all these austerity measures, cutting the defense budget, our own budget here in the United States.
Hitchens: Well, the cost of it is negligible, in any case. As soon as you mention economics — it’s negligible. It’s actually — again, to risk sounding callous, it’s negligible on the point of casualties. It’s not a war. These are not warfare casualties; these are attrition casualties. These are the sort of numbers an army loses by being in existence. From training accidents — not much worse than that. It doesn’t cost a great deal. What does cost a lot is keeping some of the Karzai government going. Perhaps not money well spent.
Since you mention the economy, the main product of the Afghan economy, which is opium poppies, we insist belongs to the Taliban. Why we do this I do not know. Why we say “We insist that you have a monopoly on the production and sale of Afghan’s only product” is beyond me. It’s the last human sacrifice we make to the Nixon doctrine of the war on drugs. And it may be the end of the enterprise. I think it’s of the greatest importance that we stop saying to the Afghans, “We’ve come to liberate you. Now if you’d just now stand still while we burn your only cash crop.” [Instead we should say that] “And since we’ve noticed that all over the world [that] there’s a shortage of pain killers, we’ll buy the stuff from you while you learn to grow other things” — of course we should encourage diversity — “and make it into analgesics,” which we need to do. We already pay the Turks to do this as it is. Why don’t we give the Afghans the contract? There’s such a shortage of imagination, considering this is a war of liberation and social transformation and that’s what it could be. As well as what it is, and that’s a test of will — that we can’t lose.
On Margaret Thatcher
Hitchens: “Thank God for Mrs. Thatcher,” they used to say. As if she was, if you like, a deliverer. A deus ex machina. I don’t think she ever — not until her very last days did she show slight signs of queenliness — not queeniness, queenliness. Did she seem to think that? I think she just thought that the British people had it in them to do better than the fantastic mediocrity of the ’70s. The sort of grim, dirty, rude, low-productivity, resign.
On Colin Powell
Hitchens: He used to be the most overrated man in America and running for the position of most overrated man in the world. He’s now, I think, lost both simply by being himself. He’s a nullity. He’s a hole in the air.
On Jimmy Carter
Hitchens: The triumph of Baptist rectitude. The most you’d ever want to see of how perfect it could be.
On Leon Trotsky
Hitchens: A great man of ideas and of action, but very rarely met in combination. A man who could write about Freud, about Surrealism, about literature and art. Wrote a wonderful article called “The Struggle for Cultured Speech,” saying the thing that was wrong with Russian was how full of cursing and slave talk it was. A person of heroic proportions and qualities. And for one brief time — which makes him imperishable in history — the leading rhetorical opponent and warner against both Hitler and Stalin in Europe at the same time, and a martyr to that struggle. Someone whose place in history hasn’t yet been established, but the only one of the early 20th-century Bolsheviks who is still worth considering in the 21st.
On Vaclav Havel
Hitchens: Vaclav Havel — perfect for my profession and yours. Ironic, understated, nonfanatical, nonviolent. By folding his arms and putting a smile, a knowing smile, on his face was able to ridicule a whole edifice of totalitarianism….
When the invasion of Czechoslovakia occurred in 1968, W.H. Auden was living just across the border in Austria, and he wrote a very short poem called “The Ogre,” which I can recite. And it goes, I think:
The Ogre does what ogres can,
Deeds quite impossible for Man,
But one prize is beyond his reach,
The Ogre cannot master speech;
About a subjugated plain,
Amid the suffering and the slain [sic],
The Ogre stalks with hands on hips,
While drivel gushes from his lips.
And that’s 20 years before, in Prague, the Civic Forum Movement and its allies — by putting on plays, by writing poems, by publishing essays, by making jokes, by demonstrating the value of the written word and a life lived in truth and by nothing else; no car bombs, no bullying, no fanaticism — just brought the Ogre to a halt and let the air completely out of the bag. No one who had anything to do with it or lived through that will ever, ever forget it. And the personal symbol of it will always be Vaclav Havel.
RFE/RL: Well I think that’s a fitting end.
RFE/RL: Thank you.
Hitchens: Thank you. Yes, I think it probably is too.