Christopher Hitchens is a British-born author and journalist now residing in Washington, D.C., where he became a naturalized citizen on his 58th birthday on April 13 of this year. A former Trotskyist, Hitchens broke with the left as he grew increasingly concerned with the threat of Islamic terrorism and disenchanted with what he called the left’s excuse-making in responding to it. Hitchens has since referred to himself as a temporary ally of neoconservatives because of their aggressive approach to foreign policy. He has been outspoken about what he sees as the dangerous rise of radical theocracies in the Middle East, most recently in his book, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, in which he argues his case for antitheism and secular societies. Hitchens spoke on the subject at Iowa State University on October 31. Afterward, he discussed foreign policy, the state of the American evangelical movement, and his break from the left with Ames Progressive co-editor Gavin Aronsen and contributor Ryan Gerdes.
Gavin Aronsen: You’ve criticized the George H. W. Bush administration in 1991 for not finishing the job in Iraq and removing Saddam Hussein from power. So you were an advocate for the removal of Saddam in the latter Bush administration but a strong critic of some of the strategy of the warfare on the ground and in the war room. Is the United States headed down a similar path with regards to Iran?
Christopher Hitchens: Not precisely, no, because the evidence against the Iranian government has been accumulated by the European Union, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and other authorities. It’s not an indictment that comes from our CIA or anyone in the U.S. administration who could be accused of exaggeration. And we already have troops on the Iranian border. Of course, that goes both ways; our forces in Iraq are hostage to anything we might do with Iran, but they should know that our army is already on their doorstep, as it is in Afghanistan.
So it seems to be very unwise of the Mullahs to be looking for a fight. Whether it’s trying to subvert the government of Lebanon through backing Syria, whether it’s supporting Hezbollah among the Palestinians, whether it’s making trouble in Iraq, or whether it’s financing terrorist actions around the world, from trying to kill Salman Rushdie to blowing up the Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires, [these] are the crimes for which many of the members of their governments are wanted.
The worry must be that they wouldn’t be doing this very rash series of things if they didn’t feel they had some messianic capacity. Maybe the Twelfth Imam is coming back or the prophecies of the Messiah are about to be fulfilled. That’s the loop back to the beginning, which is that really it is completely rational to say that we can’t allow a messianic theocracy to get its hands upon apocalyptic weaponry because the combination is too dangerous for us to consider. That’s the problem to begin with. Anyone who worries about the risks of confrontation has to have an answer to the question, Isn’t it more risky to imagine coexisting with a theocratic regime that had Armageddon weapons?
GA: If confrontation is the best course of action, what specifically do you believe the best course of action would be for the U.S. to take with regard to Iran, and do you believe that our government is aware of this and is prepared to take what’s in its best interest in fighting this theocratic movement in the Middle East?
CH: Well, before we get to confrontation, which I say it seems that the Mullahs want and are seeking, there are a number of things we’re obliged to try. We should offer to re-open our stolen embassy in Tehran and have an embassy for Iran in Washington in exchange for mutual recognition, unfreezing of assets, more exchanges of Iranian students and journalists going to America.
All of this on the grounds that we have several common enemies: the Taliban, Saddam Hussein, Slobodan MiloÅ¡evic, just in the last few years. Common interests. Also, there is a big, very prosperous Iranian diaspora within the United States. We have a lot of things to discuss. As long as they will agree to submit to the relevant inspections – disciplines – to guarantee that they are not trying to acquire nuclear weapons, and as long as they give up the use of force against our allies, that’s a bargain from which they would hugely profit, enormously benefit. Only a suicidal regime would reject an offer like that.
And then there’s a second point that’s almost never made: Iran in the next five or ten years is going to suffer a catastrophic earthquake. It quite possibly will occur in its capital city, which is built on a cobweb of earthquake faults, Tehran. The last few earthquakes in Iran have been so frightening that the government has considered moving the capital city because the damage and the destruction could be so terrifying. That is the most important thing to know about Iran, eclipsing everything else – a disaster is waiting to happen to it. It’s coming like Christmas; it’s coming like a heart attack.
The United States knows a great deal about seismology: how to protect against an earthquake and how to recover from one. Our teams of earthquake people have been very popular in Iran after the last two earthquakes. We should be making them an offer in public that their voters can hear, saying, “Your government hasn’t been preparing you for this crisis. We can help.” Instead, it’s been spending all its money on a vain pursuit of nuclear weapons. “Incidentally,” we say to these neighboring countries, “what’s going to happen to these underground nuclear facilities when there’s a disastrous earthquake? We can help and we’re willing to do it. Now, can we talk or not?”
Only when we’ve tried everything and shown everyone that we’ve tried everything can we say, “Well, the Mullahs seem determined on a course of collision, alright, but we did offer them every alternative.” Now, the depressing thing is that there’s no one in Washington who has anything like the imagination to do this, and there’s no one in the opposition party who’s proposed anything remotely like it, either.
GA: You seem to frame this as a clash between civilizations – between a secular West and a radically theocratic East. Is the evangelical movement in America a risk to the secularism of the United States militarism or is it on the decline?
CH: I think those people are, politically, as near irrelevant as they could be.
GA: And why is that?
CH: Nothing makes it plainer than at the present moment. They don’t have a candidate, not even in the Republican Party. They’re thinking of having to run a candidate of their own and have said they will in the case that the nominee will be Mr. Giuliani. They’ve failed to persuade the president in eight years to enact any of their agenda. They feel themselves to have been used, as I think they have been. They’re ridiculed and disliked by a majority of the population. Their movement for intelligent design – so-called teaching of nonsense about evolution in the schools – has been conclusively crushed in the courts, in Kansas and Oklahoma, in Pennsylvania, in Texas. And I don’t think it can possibly recover now. And I don’t think they can try it again. They’re isolated and discredited, as they should be.
GA: A recent Gallop survey indicated that less than 50 percent of the American population would be willing to vote for an atheist for president.
CH: A nothing poll by a nothing organization.
GA: That aside, do you believe that atheists will be in the future – or are they now – more accepted in the political arena, and will that give rise to a return to a secular society?
CH: Well we’d better hope so, because if unbelievers were not allowed we would just have to have had skipped Mr. Jefferson and Mr. Lincoln. More seriously, perhaps, if you had asked a Republican voter in 1975 would he vote for a divorced, second-rate Hollywood movie actor to be president he might very well have said no. The point being [that] we haven’t met the relevant person yet to make that allowance for. So if there were a presentable, believable candidate of any integrity who would add that he wasn’t supported by any faith, or a supporter of any faith, then we’de have a fair test.
Until then, both the question that Gallop purports to ask and the answers it thinks it got are stupid and meaningless.
Ryan Gerdes: I have a question from [a friend of mine]. He’s an Iranian citizen – Iranian American now – he left in ‘79 to come to university here at Iowa State.
CH: Very wisely.
RG: In fact, he cannot go back because of his leftist connections. You know, they’ve all been exterminated, put on TV.
CH: Yes, I used to know quite a lot of those guys.
RG: You knew members of the Tudeh, then?
CH: Not so much of the Tudeh, no. That was essentially a Moscow party, a communist party. No, but of groups to the left of that, and at different times I’ve surely known members of the [Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization – an Islamic socialist organization advocating the overthrow of Iran’s present government] – though I’ve never been a fan of the [Maryam] Rajavi cult.
RG: So, [my friend’s] question is, in a fight between Hezbollah and the Zionists, whose side do you take? He’s framing it, whose side do you take when Germany invades Communist Russia. Do you take a side in any of that?
CH: No. I don’t. I couldn’t say I took a view. For the Nazi invasion of Russia, I take the view that the Soviet Union has to be defended, even if the Soviet Union under Stalin has invited and colluded with the attack. That doesn’t make any difference to me.
RG: Even though they’ve engaged in imperial division?
CH: As I say, even if they had invited – and I would add colluded – with the attack, nonetheless the Soviet people need to be defended against Nazism. The Russian people do, to be exact. And if you want to extend the analogy of the one you gave, I don’t want to see the Israeli state destroyed by Hezbollah, nor its population indiscriminately attacked by Hezbollah, nor do I want the population of Lebanon to be subjected to air raids or occupation by Israel. I’d be opposed in both cases to that.
RG: Now, was it right or necessary to found the state of Israel?
CH: I think not. I think it was a mistake to begin with. I’ve always thought so, because I think Zionism is a false answer to a genuine question. But, that doesn’t mean I would see it replaced or destroyed by Islamic jihad.
RG: So is it one state or two for you, then?
CH: Well, I would prefer Palestine not to be partitioned, because partition is usually a forced solution that only presents the appearance of a solution. In other words, the apparently logical conclusion that with two peoples in one land it should be half each – sounds reasonable but isn’t. It usually provides only the grounds for another war and another partition. But in this case, of the four available alternatives, this seems to be the least bad. The other three being the complete destruction by one side of the other, the continuation of the occupation status quo, or another form of Apartheid. Those are the only alternatives to two states. And I think two states are preferable to the other three [alternatives].
RG: I think you’ve been clear about the Hezbollah, but for completeness, what do you think then of Professor [Norman] Finkelstein’s proclamation that we are all Hezbollah now?
CH: Ridiculous. If I remember him saying that, I also remember him saying that the justification for this preposterous remark was because Hezbollah is being targeted by the United States. In that case, what about al Qaeda now? Because al Qaeda’s been targeted by the United States. Norman Finkelstein is a moral idiot. He recently called for my death, so I can’t expect to be that nice about it.
RG: He did?
CH: Yes. He took it off the Web site apparently, maybe out of embarassment or maybe out of cowardice, I don’t know, but he can’t have expected me not to notice.
RG: He’s left the “Fraternally yours, Chris” piece up there.
CH: Maybe he has, but it no longer matters what he thinks, if it ever did.
RG: Back when you were arguing in defense of the Bosnian struggle, did you foresee then your split with what most people would consider the left?
CH: Well, it was prefigured in some respects, yes, particularly with [Noam] Chomsky and [Edward] Herman, particularly, actually, with Herman even more than with Chomsky. It became very obvious to me that these people were willing to make excuses for, and in Herman’s case even alliances with, the so-called Serbian Socialist Party – the Milosovic national socialist faction – rather than the justice of international intervention.
So yes, I could see it coming, and with other people like Michael Parenti and Michael Moore and others who referred to the bombing of Serbia as the bombing of Yugoslavia: a dead giveaway. I could see that a split would come, and the last time I had a civilized e-mail exchange with Noam was on this point, and I realized at the end of it that he had essentially adopted the nihilistic position that he was going to keep expounding through 9/11 and beyond.
So yes, Bosnia was very much a dress rehearsal for this. It was also a dress rehearsal for something else; namely, I noticed that there were people whose names I hitherto had not much admired, such as Paul Wolfowitz … and others, who were willing to sign petitions saying that Bosnia should not be obliterated as Serbia had been attempting. So a re-alignment was therefore, in some sense, a progress, at least in my case.
RG: What you said about Bosnia and what you wrote about Henry Kissinger brought me back to, after I was reflexively against the war in Iraq – and it took some time – after the debate you had with Mark Danner … was when I started to go back. And I hadn’t remembered you before that point, but then I noticed you were the one who had written The Trial of Henry Kissinger and you along with Paul Berman and George Packer brought me over to what I guess was the right side on Iraq.
CH: Oh, well I’m very thrilled to hear that. I don’t see there was any other side one could really have taken, except for a sort of abstentionist one.
RG: What else could [have been] done in Iraq?
CH: Nothing. No, it was understandable, unavoidable, I think, but one took the position with extreme regret and many reservations. But all the alternatives seemed to be very cheap and evasive.
RG: Looking back, do you think you argued the moral case strongly enough for Iraq? It was internationalism; it wasn’t so much the weapons of mass destruction.
CH: Yes, either one would do it. I also think there’s much more strength in the case about weapons of terrorism than most people allow.
I think there’s also a realpolitik position to be argued, which I didn’t say at the time. Oil is not an unmentionable subject. We have every right to try and recuperate the Iraqi oil industry, help it to incubate a democracy, because we can share the oil between the different Iraqi regions and factions and in that way challenge the exisiting duopoly of Saudi Arabia and Iran in the oil business. I think that’s a perfectly good definition of our national interests, and that it cuts with the grain of democratization.
GA: Do you see any end to this conflict, the clash of civilizations as we’ve been referring to it as, besides the complete destruction of the theocratic—
CH: Defeat, I’d rather say. They have to realize they cannot hope to actualize the world for Islam. They have to give up the idea of doing that and realize that it’ll never happen. The attempts to do it will be resisted with great vigor.
GA: Is this something that’s foreseeable in our lifetimes?
CH: It’s up to you, isn’t it? It’s up to you. Are you going to be one to say it will never happen, or are you going to be one to say they’re only doing this because we’ve been mean to them? You’ll be the one who decides this, not me.
But I can tell you which of those two positions I take, in case you didn’t guess. You are able to supply the answer to you own question, so I beseech you to do so, to furnish the answer to your own question. … Give it some thought. I would recommend really earnestly that you decide which of those things you think is the case and what you would like to happen. You’re not a commentator or a spectator in this, you’re a participant, and you have responsibilities.
RG: Getting back to the days gone past, do you think there’s anything left in socialism that’s redeemable, that’s useful? Don’t we need something to fight the reactionaries? Don’t we need a framework like socialism to offer?
CH: There are some socialist values of solidarity that I think are worth preserving, yes, and there are some principles. For example, children shouldn’t suffer for the failures, or crimes, or shortcomings, or bad luck of their parents. Essentially socialistic principles at least, yes, and internationalism, very important. But the idea of the, so to say, planned economy, I think has to be admitted to be a failure and very, very unlikely to revive, it seems to me. I can’t see that being retrieved or redone, somehow.
RG: Is the path forward, then, social democracy? Is that the terminus?
CH: That’s the furthest you could stretch it, no matter whom you ask. The furthest you could stretch it.
RG: You weren’t won over by neoclassical arguments, were you?
CH: I’ve become very pragmatic, by they way. The thing that impressed me the most was the ability of, whatever you want to call it, capitalism, laissez-faire, free enterprise – those things are not the same, they’re not co-terminates – to generate innovation and another, and then another, and then industrial revolution, and to break down national boundaries to create supernational organizations, to spread wealth, that had to impress me. And the opposition to it took a very primitive … form, such as, for example, Serbian socialism [or] one might say now North Korea, Iraqi Baathism: innately backward and reactionary. Pretty dramatic contrast. Striking contrast.
RG: It heartens me that we can help raise certain populations up in foreign countries through things like neoliberalism, globalization, whatever you’d like to call it, but isn’t the end of that eventually merely a race to the bottom? Ireland gets rid of its corporate taxes so everybody moves there, then Romania’s doing it so they’re all going to leave Ireland.
CH: Ireland is still being transformed, and Romania could hardly be any more torpid that it had been before.
RG: That’s true, but when everyone leaves Ireland—
CH: They’re not all going to leave Ireland.
RG: You don’t think so? There is no race to the bottom anymore?
CH: No, I don’t think so. There hasn’t been so far. No, if you wanted to ask what the forbidding element of this was – the downside, so to say – it would be more something like the rampant, untrammeled, polluting, aggressive, undercutting, national, nationalist, capitalism of China, say. The unleashing of all that and its combination with the aggressive, arrogant, xenophobic, nationalist agenda, and militarization. That worries me a lot, but one doesn’t have the ability to say, “Well, wouldn’t it have been better if they would have remained Maoist?” because that wasn’t an option.
RG: So how then do we fight the nationalists, the reactionaries, the nationalist capitalists?
CH: Well, if it wasn’t for this terrible confrontation that we’ve been forced into with the barbarous Islamists, the China question would be the one that was utmost for us, without a doubt. Absolutely utmost.
RG: Can we do anything about China?
CH: Well, we’re going to have to.
RG: Militarily we can’t do anything.
CH: Oh yes, we can.
RG: Hasn’t atomic weaponry nullified war? Isn’t that the constant threat?
CH: Well, it has with governments that are capable of rational calculation.
RG: Are you assuming that China is?
CH: Yes, I think we can still make that assumption about the Chinese. They understand deterrence and self-preservation. That’s exactly what I don’t think we can assume with the Iranians. Though, I think [the Chinese] are sufficiently corrupt and greedy, venal for it to be thinkable; they’re not absolutely off the wall. The threat of that kind of behaviour still exists. No, I think with China you could pull this, though there’s something very, very hysterical sometimes in their nationalist propaganda, it has to be said. A real note of aggressive hysteria. I’m very worried about it.