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May 31, 2005

Christopher Hitchens and others debate Iraq on Start the Week 30 May 2005

Start the Week was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 - Mon 30 May at 09:00. The programme can still be heard in full here. The following extract covers the first 15 minutes when the guests discussed Iraq (transcript by Karen Whitehead, LFIQ Intern).


Writer and commentator CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS discusses his collected essays which he titles Love, Poverty and War - themes which he examines from his own experience of literature, religion and conflict. Love, Poverty and War is published by Atlantic Books.

Journalist WILLIAM SHAWCROSS, who covered the war out in Vietnam for The Sunday Times, reflects on the thirtieth anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War and its legacy. He explains what made him change his mind about his original opposition to American intervention in South East Asia.

Writer, academic and broadcaster GERMAINE GREER presents a programme which looks at the history of feminism and looks forward to new emerging approaches to women's liberation. Big Ideas that Changed the World: Germaine Greer on Feminism is broadcast on Five on 7 June at 7.15pm.

PATRICK DIAMOND was an adviser in the Number 10 policy unit until the election. He argues that New Labour has done more to reduce inequality than old Labour ever did, and explains why it should be doing more. The New Egalitarianism is edited by Anthony Giddens and Patrick Diamond and published by Polity Press.

Andrew Marr – But first though, another ornament of radical Britain who moved to America, Christopher Hitchens, writer, critic, polemicist, whose latest collection is called ‘Love, Poverty and War’. He was rare on the left, being an enthusiast for the Iraq war, someone who defended George Bush over that. He confronted George Galloway at his Senate hearing recently which resulted in the Respect MP branding him, rather curiously, a ‘wine soaked former Trotskyist popinjay’. Though I think, George Galloway not that long ago also thought he was ‘the greatest polemicist in the world’. Christopher, you’re fairly good in the verbal whacking department yourself - Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky and so on - but, just in a technical sense: ‘popinjay’ - that’s not bad is it? It’s an interesting abuse.

Christopher Hitchens – Nor is ‘former Trotskyist’ as bad as all that either. Unless you are, like Mr Galloway, someone who said the worst day of his life was the end of the Soviet Union. What can one say about him that he hasn’t said for himself that would cover him in the contempt that he deserves? Being praised by him was much worse I have to say. When he said I was ‘a great man of letters’ and that ‘the best polemicist of our age’, I thought, how disgusting! I mean, being praised by him is like being force fed chocolate creams or something. It’s more nauseating than abuse.

Andrew Marr – But he did, I mean, he did do remarkably well up against that Senate.

Christopher Hitchens – No, he did not. That is the result of his being given megaphone facilities by what it seems to me now the entire British press. If it’s considered clever to answer a direct question with a storm of gutter-snipe abuse, I suppose he did do very well. The Labour Friends of Iraq - that’s by the way, - has issued a challenge to me, and to him, to appear in a public debate with a proper Chair and some rules of order and I can’t wait to see how he would do in those circumstances.

Andrew Marr – That’s very similar to what you also feel about Michael Moore and Chomsky. George Galloway, it is said, would quite like to be sort of the British Michael Moore.

Christopher Hitchens – Well, he’s certainly not going to be the British Noam Chomsky. Professor Chomsky would indeed know how to conduct himself in a proper debate but though I think he would have a hard time now because of the extraordinarily weird positions that he has started to take. Michael Moore is another big mouth demagogue who stays one news cycle ahead of the way the questions catch up with him.

Andrew Marr – I want to talk more about Iraq later, but this collection of essays [Love, Poverty and War: Journeys and Essays, Atlantic Books, 2005] starts of with some of your great enthusiasms. In literature, you go back to a clutch of absolutely peerless writers such as Graham Greene and Proust. Do you find as you get older that literature is an essential consolation and a relatively small number of writers to boot?

Christopher Hitchens – Yes, to both, and a gift that keeps on giving itself. I didn’t decide to tackle Proust properly till I was well over forty. Everyone’s tried once when they were too young and many people never go back again. I swear that when I came to the end I wished it was longer.

Andrew Marr – He does make you see things, the world differently, doesn’t he?

Christopher Hitchens – Yes.

Andrew Marr - Really everything looks different afterwards.

Christopher Hitchens – Totally and completely. One must experience a certain number of disappointments as well as pleasant delusions in order to appreciate it. I forget what age he was when he wrote it but you must be roughly his age to appreciate it. I didn’t realise that, yes, it is possible to get back some of the time you wasted. We can in some way recover it and make use of it. That is an extraordinary consolation that I never expected to have.

Andrew Marr – Which is s a relief to many of us. Of the various, you could almost call them love letters in this book, one of the angriest and most poignant is actually a love letter to a city, to New York, which you discovered and feel has changed not only (obviously) since 9/11 but as a place to live, as a culture.

Christopher Hitchens – You mean the petty bourgeois tyranny of Mayor Bloomberg?

Andrew Marr – Exactly.

Christopher Hitchens – Yes. No, I think it’s awful the way in which New York has become bland. I never expected that it was possible that such a thing would happen, but now it’s run by this terrible little control freak who thinks that everyone should basically pull their socks up and put their fag out and get on with it, and has turned Times Square which used to be wonderfully funky and in some ways nasty and a bit risky, into a sort of horrible plastic Disney Land. He would like everyone in the city to live that way and I think would have a curfew if he could…People don’t go to New York in order to live as if they were in Des Moines, Iowa. I’ve nothing against Des Moines, Iowa, but if you see what I mean?

Andrew Marr – I do.

Christopher Hitchens - It’s missing the point of what was a Latin Quarter for the whole world and a bohemia for the whole world. I can’t bear to see it being made into a white bread sandwich.

Andrew Marr – You, I suppose fell out with quite a lot of people on the left over your support for Iraq and that’s the thing that probably dominates this collection more than anything else…

Christopher Hitchens – …I made a lot of friends on the Iraqi and Kurdish left on the other hand which more than made up for it.

Andrew Marr – But did all of this start with 9/11? Is that the moment of, sort of...

Christopher Hitchens – …Oh, by no means, no. It starts for me at the end of the first Gulf War, the one in 1991, which I was very critical of until the closing stages, when I was in Northern Iraq bouncing around in a jeep with some Kurdish guerrillas. They taped a picture of George Bush senior to their windshield, on my side, so that I couldn’t see out. And after a bit I complained. I said “look do we have to have this, I can’t see” (and also it would be awfully embarrassing if I ran into anyone I knew). I remember that the Iran-Contra business was very vivid in my mind. They said “the fact of the matter is we can move it to a side window if you like, but we think that without his intervention, without the umbrella in Northern Iraq, that we, and all our families, would be dead”. And I realised that I didn’t have a clever answer to that. And I began to re-work back to the origins of the war and realised that co-existence with the Saddam Hussein regime was no longer possible. And that was in 1991. Anyway, if you hadn’t concluded it by then you were obviously not going to be persuaded - as since we have found out.

Andrew Marr – And you’re still cast-iron certain, that despite the large numbers of deaths in the post war Iraq, and despite all the problems of putting together that democracy, that we will end up with a much more tolerable, decent and peaceable country?

Christopher Hitchens – Well, it doesn’t take much of a cast-iron certainty, Andrew, to do that because we know that it could not possibly have been worse and that proposition was given a very solid test. I would say that the possibility of defeat of this enterprise exists in Iraq, partly because we left it so long and the country became so beggared and ruined. But it’s not the kind of defeat that it would have been if we’d left it to be deeded to the Uday-Qusay succession and that was the alternative offer that was being made by the peaceniks.

More than that I think Iraq will be remarkable. We’re going to live to see great things. We already have in Lebanon. We’re about to I think in Egypt, with the reopening of the Egyptian democracy. The Ba’ath party in Syria in my judgement will not be there in two years time And there will be extraordinary, are already extraordinary developments in Iran which I have just come back from. And so the essential point of the Blair-Bush policy, which is to change the balance of power in the Middle East, that has already been conclusively vindicated.

Andrew Marr – Germaine, are you in any way persuaded?

Germaine Greer – No, I’m not really. Partly because I think it looks now, from the slot that we’re looking through, as if the Ba'ath Party was in a process of self-destruction anyway. And the problem of the Sunnis, the Shiites, the Kurds isn’t going to go away. The British couldn’t deal with it under the British mandate. They started bombing Iraq, in what, the 1920’s. And Iraq is such a made-up sort of a country. It’s such an odd idea and I just can’t see that there wasn’t another way around this, I mean a way of inventing an alternative power structure something even like the European Union.

William Shawcross (laughing) That is a nice idea!

Germaine Greer – Well, the Arab Union if you like.

William Shawcross (still laughing) The Arab League has been an appalling group of impostors and frauds and dictators for the last thirty years!

Andrew Marr – Though it could be said that if you go right back to the post First World War period, there was a possibility for Pan-Arabism in that area but it was never allowed to..

William Shawcross - What is the point of going back to the post first world war period? We’re now in the 21st century.

Andrew Marr – Merely intellectual curiosity, that was all.

Germaine Greer – The thing is, it seems to me that invoking war it always brings unintended consequences.

William Shawcross - Of course.

Germaine Greer – What you’re actually doing is resorting to chaos because you can’t find a logical answer to a question. The thing about the dead, is that people forget them. They are auxiliaries to the main thrust so that you look at what you think is an improvement, without considering the devastation that it took you to get there. And, I just think that in a 21st century war will eventually be seen to be barbarous [and] an impossible way of dealing with political problems.

Andrew Marr – Patrick Diamond, you were in No. 10 during a lot of this time. Do you see things - the way Christopher has laid it out - is that really how it was seen in No. 10 from the beginning?

Patrick Diamond – Well I can’t talk for others in No.10 but what I would say is that one of the important things that we have to recognise is that, I mean, I myself was profoundly moved by the extent to which the Iraqi people were able to embrace democracy, when the elections took place in the January of this year. Nearly 9 million Iraqi’s went out to vote despite the dangers that were posed from bombs and guns and bullets. I think that was a magnificent thing and should be welcomed. I think that there are important questions for the future. But I think the difficulty that the left has, is in a sense distinguishing between America and distinguishing between democracy, because sometimes the condemnation of America appears to be a condemnation of the entire principle that the country should be ruled democratically. I think that is a question which the left has to engage with now.

Andrew Marr – There is a soppy-mindedness of the left, a wooliness about this?

Patrick Diamond – I think there is something of a wooliness and I think it’s important to distinguish between what we object to. If we object to American power that is fine, but we should surely embrace the principle that countries are best ruled through the democratic principle.

Christopher Hitchens – Absolutely, but until a short time ago, Iraq was the private property of a psychopathic crime family. People were dying everyday as a consequence of that and it was a concentration camp above and a mass grave underneath and four million of it’s people would have been lucky enough to be able to flee…There isn’t a single Iraqi who can’t tell you a horror story. So one doesn’t want to seem like a Utilitarian but I don’t think in point of death and violence that it could have got any worse than it was, except if it had been allowed to go on and implode which would have meant opportunist interventions from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran to try and divvy up. There would have been another First World War kind of chaos. A black hole. It would have become the Rwanda of the Middle East.

Now we’ve stopped that, too late, perhaps only just in time, but now, the President of Iraq is a Kurd, highly educated, literate, life long democrat whose party is a member in good standing of the Socialist International along with the Labour Party. And I don’t know anyone on the left who wouldn’t rather have Saddam back. This is psychopathically crazy, it seems to me. I simply do not get it. People say, why have I turned on the left? I say, why have people that I used to know, who are Democratic Socialists become open sympathisers of fascism?

Germaine Greer – Hang on a second! I mean I don’t know if I’m on the left really. I don’t know where we put anarchists these days, we’ve probably gone right round to the ultra right. But if you ask yourself the historical question of how the psychopathic crime family got there in the first place, this was the product I seem to recall of some international gerrymandering, there was a different system in Iraq. Iraq was a much more sophisticated country.

William Shawcross – Until the Ba’ath party took over at the end of the 1970’s.

Germaine Greer – But the Bath party took over with assistance, as I recall.

William Shawcross – Well, I don’t think so. It was a coup.

Germaine Greer – But the other extraordinary thing, is that it’s always our notion of democracy and you can’t invent a Party system which is recruited from the bottom up in a situation where it’s being imposed the way it is at present in Iraq.

William Shawcross – Oh come on! Nine million people, as Patrick said, have embraced this notion of democracy. It’s absurd to say ‘Oh it’s all relative and we can’t impose our version’.

Germaine Greer – Now hang on a minute, I’m not even saying that. I’m saying that the thing is, we have no notion of whether this is viable in the circumstances or not, and neither do the people who voted. The vote is one thing. What they had to vote for is quite another.

Christopher Hitchens – Germaine, can I just say very quickly, to the extent that you are right that there was international collusion in the rule of the Ba’ath party- and you are right to some extent - doesn’t that double our responsibility to cancel that debt to the Iraqis?

Germaine Greer – Oh! That’s a tricky way of thinking about it.

CH – What’s tricky about it?

Germaine Greer - I thought we agreed that this war wasn’t fought for regime change but now it turns out that it was and you knew all along. Well, the rest of us are a bit surprised.

Christopher Hitchens – Well, the rest of you should have been paying more attention.

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