Hitchens Confessions

In another simply brilliant piece, Christopher Hitchens joins the current stampede of pro-war pundits confessing their sins now that things are looking a bit difficult. Sort of.

Colin Powell, who has never been wise before any event (he was for letting Bosnia slide and didn’t want even to move an aircraft carrier on the warning—which he didn’t believe—that Saddam was about to invade Kuwait), always has Bob Woodward at his elbow when he wants to be wise afterwards. Richard Clarke has never been asked any questions about his insistence that the United States stay away from Rwanda. Many of those who were opposed to any military intervention now tell us that they always thought it should have been at least twice as big.

Heh’s and Indeed’s all around. (It is true, though, that there were a number of anti-war folks–and indeed, pro-war folks–who were calling for a bigger force from the beginning. It’s not contradictory to be both opposed to a war and in favor of not doing it half-assed if overruled on the first point.)

Now we hear on all sides, including Lakhdar Brahimi of the United Nations, that de-Baathification was also a mistake. Can you imagine what the antiwar critics, and many Iraqis, would now be saying if the Baathists had been kept on? This point extends to Paul Bremer’s decision to dissolve the Baathist armed forces. That could perhaps have been carried out with more tact, and in easier stages. But it was surely right to say that a) Iraq was the victim of a huge and parasitic military, which invaded externally and repressed internally; and b) that young Iraqi men need no longer waste years of their lives on nasty and stultifying conscription. Moreover, by making it impossible for any big-mouth brigadier or general to declare himself the savior of Iraq in a military coup, the United States also signaled that it would not wish to rule through military proxies (incidentally, this is yet another gross failure of any analogy to Vietnam, El Salvador, Chile, and all the rest of it).

A fair point. As a theoretical matter, I’d have preferred to have kept as much of the rank-and-file Iraqi army and police force as possible around for the manpower and to have an Iraqi face on the security operation. But there were some practical (most ripped off their uniforms and headed for the proverbial hills before our forces actually had control) and political (as Hitch notes) obstacles in that course.

Turning to his confession, Hitchens concedes,

The thing that I most underestimated is the thing that least undermines the case. And it’s not something that I overlooked, either. But the extent of lumpen Islamization in Iraq, on both the Khomeinist and Wahhabi ends (call them Shiite and Sunni if you want a euphemism that insults the majority), was worse than I had guessed.

And this is also why I partly think that Colin Powell, as reported by Woodward, was right. He apparently asked the president if he was willing to assume, or to accept, responsibility for the Iraqi state and society. The only possible answer, morally and politically, would have been “yes.” The United States had already made itself co-responsible for Iraqi life, first by imposing the sanctions, second by imposing the no-fly zones, and third by co-existing with the regime. (Three more factors, by the way, that make the Vietnam comparison utterly meaningless.) This half-slave/half-free compromise could not long have endured.

Agreed. I still fear that our rush to turn things over to somebody may undermine that. A longer occupation and more time to train up a professional indigineous force would have been my armchair preference, although I recognize that there are problems with that approach as well.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. melvin toast says:

    Why is foreign policy colored by how easy something is? It’s easiest to do nothing. It’s easier for a parent not to discipline his child. It’s hard to invade Iwo Jima and Normandy. It’s hard to go toe to toe with the Soviet Union. You have to focus on the consequences.

    A lot of the time I think pundits live on some Star Trek planet where everyone is happy and no one ever fights. They can’t conceive of a world where everything doesn’t slot into some well known model. Go watch Rummy news conferences and look at how stupid the reporters sound!

    Should we have cancelled the second World War because things didn’t turn out so well at the Bulge? You can be critical of the execution but how can you be anti? Surely a poorly executed campaign against terrorism is better than none at all.

    P.S. By you I don’t mean James. I mean the anti-wars who used to be pro-war…like edwards and kerry and gebhard.

  2. James Joyner says:

    Honestly, I think Kerry, Edwards, and Gephardt are just playing partisan politics–taking advantage of the opportunity to bring down Bush’s poll numbers.

  3. Mark Mecca says:

    I agree with you. I think the bar is being raised so high that no one can meet it. It is nice to have a standard of perfection but with all the variables involved I don’t see how it can be met. With 24/7 news and commentary, it is real easy to become terrified everytime something goes wrong.

    I’m still someone amused about people saying we didn’t have a plan. I’m sure we had plenty of plans but the longer things go on the harder and harder it is to stick with the plan. I’d rather have a good vision and be flexible based on what happens on the ground.


  4. Boyd says:

    Another example of “Perfection is the enemy of good-enough.”

  5. Hal says:

    <heh> So, the bar is being lowered such that even an ant can jump over it.

    Our plan was Chalabi, a known fraud BEFORE the war. After that fell apart, we looked for a committee of Chalabis. When that fell apart, we started looking for a way out.

    It isn’t flexibility. It’s poor compensation for any realistic planning that didn’t rely on a complete fraud.

    Anyone who doesn’t tell you their plan before the fact either doesn’t have one or the one that they have is laughable. As we can see in hindsight, it was the latter.

    This is precisely the reason why our congress was pushing the Administration to reveal their plans about the occupation. And since they refused to be critisized on the laughable one they had, our troops are now paying the price.

    What’s more pathetic (if I may use that highly charged term) is that you guys are enablers and apologists for this horrendous behavior.

    Really. You should be ashamed of yourselves.

  6. Boyd says:

    Thanks for the advice, Hal. Curiously, though, I’m not ashamed.

    I wonder, does that make me stupid, a right wing ditto-head, or an oil baron? Given a choice, I’d go with the oil baron thing.