Tawfiq Chahbourne

It was the first mistake of the night. An omen, perhaps. "Popinjay", said Christopher Hitchens, is a "bull's-eye you aim at with an arrow". I felt a bit like Norman Mailer in The Armies of the Night. "It means conceited person," I wanted to shout - and yes, I had to look it up. No matter. Francis Wheen read from the latest edition of Private Eye: "17 May 2005: A drink-sodden ex-Trotskyist popinjay and useful idiot. 17 August 2001: Hitchens's invective, at once forensic and brimming with righteous indignation, marks him as the greatest polemicist of our age." Was I the only one who could see that Wheen's usually redoubtable logic wasn't up to scratch? If Galloway is a fool now, maybe he was also a fool when he lauded praise on Hitchens? (Or as Norman Finkelstein, with characteristic brilliance, noted, "A member of the Flat-Earth Society who suddenly discovers the world is round doesn't get to keynote an astronomers' convention.") Anyway, is it not possible, as a letter to the Eye put it in the following edition, that one could well be a "great polemicist…" and some time later to become a "useful idiot". It's hardly a logical absurdity. Unexpectedly, however, Hitchens intervenes and says that everything GG said was accurate. The conciliatory tone would end there. How long, I wondered, before he would utter the self-serving words "moral relativism"? Not long, as it happens. Hitchens is in dire need of a hefty dose of Martin Amis's war against cliché.

Predictably enough, the UCL lecture theatre hosting Wheen and Hitchens was full: two of journalism's finest prose stylists and wits in conversation (their views on Iraq and the "war on terror" are another matter). Some famous faces in the audience, including the novelist Ian McEwan. The topic for discussion (Thursday 26 May) was Hitchens's new book, a collection of essays, entitled "Love, Poverty and War". Some minutes discussing Borges, Amis (K, not M), Proust, Mother Teresa, the reactionary Peter Hitchens (frere's description), before moving to what the audience all awaited: the broadsides, the denunciations of the anti-war movement as soft on fascism, the anti-imperialism of fools - "the fascism of fools", Hitchens called it - "insurgency" equals fascism. Not unexpected. A slight twist, though, was on its way. The anti-war movement had morphed from being "soft on fascism" to outright support for bin Laden: "vicarious support" and even "a vicarious secret thrill". If it's a secret, how would he know? Hitchens carries on in the same silly manner: If the horror of 9/11 was the sigh of the oppressed masses, surely Mandela would have sent a squad of suicidal maniacs to wreak havoc on New York. Reductio ad absurdum. Yelps from the starry-eyed at the power of "The Hitch's! analysis. One can of course look like a supernova in the firmament if one chooses inane questions to answer. This doesn't even rise the level of straw man. In future, perhaps, Hitchens can devastate the feeble-minded with how stars are not God's daisy chain.

Who would raise Hitchens's ire? Wheen, perhaps unintentionally, did the groundwork: Was it not indicative of the Left that someone like John Pilger can campaign for twenty-five years on East Timor, and when the United States finally brings Indonesia to heel, Pilger claims that this is further proof of American imperialism (the damned if we do and damned if we don't plea)? "An idea will take twenty-five years to cross John Pilger's brain," Hitchens harrumphed. "The Hitch" must be talking about some other chap called Pilger! Guffaws from the huge Hitchens fan club (few contrarians in the audience). Surely Hitchens was a little surprised that even some of his poor jokes (Wheen cringing is the telltale sign), though some were undeniably funny, had the assembled multitude roaring like demented hyenas? Groupies are incapable of appreciating when their hero really is on form - by definition, he's always on form. Wheen seems to be a very nice chap (I've "inherited", if that is the mot juste, a bit of a soft spot for him from the inimitably great Paul Foot, and one eagerly awaits Wheen's new book on Das Kapital), but his Indonesian history needs correcting. On Indonesia, someone points out that Hitchens's new ally, Paul Wolfowitz, was a supporter of Suharto, someone Hitchens now conveniently refers to as a "pseudo-democrat". Hitchens denies the Wolfowitz allegation. In fact, Hitchens thunders that Wolfowitz hated Suharto. I feel like shouting again. This is manifestly untrue. Wolfowitz was one of Suharto's biggest fans, taking cheerleading to new heights of lunacy. In any case, one can hate Suharto (which isn't the case here) yet support him. His answer is a very Clintonian one.

Hitchens still waxes lyrical about Trotsky. The Kronstadt sailors, heroes of the Russian Revolution, murdered by a heavily-armed "prophet" are an irrelevance, as are the workers' councils snuffed out by the sociopath. Wheen took this as an opportunity to press Hitchens on whether he is still a socialist. Hitchens replied that he couldn't in all honesty continue to describe himself as such. Socialism wasn't an answer, not even a critique. Wheen flinched. Seconds later: "But I wouldn't deny being a Marxist." A Marxist but not a socialist? Novel. He tells us how much he hates liberals and liberalism. But finds that "liberal" may be the best way to describe himself these days. Self-hatred, eh? Hitchens still bangs on about how September 11 is also the day in 1683 that the "armies of Islam" were defeated outside the gates of Vienna. Except that it was September 12. Unbelievably, he states "Marx never says that 'religion is the opium of the people'." Except, of course, he does: "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people." Source? The best biography of Marx, Francis Wheen's Karl Marx. Hearing this, Wheen nearly breaks Bertram Wooster's record for the sitting high jump.

To prove the "strange bedfellows" argument that Baathist Iraq supported "Islamo-fascism", Hitchens had the historical analogy: "The Hitler-Stalin pact was impossible. Stalin was a communist; Hitler was a fascist." QED. To the retort that Saddam's "a secularist, so he couldn't have had anything to do with Islamic terror", there was the audacious evidence that Saddam had "Allahu akbar added to the flag" and the stupendous "building of mosques". Doubleplusgood QED. Is this the best the mighty Hitchens can do? The fan club nodded - the soma had kicked in.

I was brooding on whether to ask him whether he himself had been "soft on fascism" when he vociferously denounced the first Gulf War as an imperialist war. He beat me to it with the strange admission that in 1991 he dearly hoped that Iraq would give the US, or at least Bush Snr, "a bloody nose". Something, he says, that he now feels ashamed of. Hitchens has the gall to bring up that tired denunciation of "anti-Americanism" at the antiwar movement, but I suspect, however, that none have ached, unlike him, to see Americans die just so as to see a Commander in Chief wince (and it wouldn't even be a genuine, heartfelt wince at that, before retiring in comfort and the adulation that comes from national amnesia). Best to start emailing the neocon websites with this anti-American hatred. Be careful, Christopher, you'll find yourself out of work with such talk.

Time for questions. A Hitchenista can't wait to apply brown nose factor ten: Since we are partly to blame for the present crisis, we have a duty to rectify it, the smitten apostle asks. Hitchens can't believe his luck. ("If only I had said that," Saddam must be musing.) Next question. Does it not undermine the United States' self-proclaimed aim of spreading democracy by supporting dictatorships? Good question. Bad answer: "Consistency is not undermined by inconsistency," Hitchens eerily replies, echoing Nick Cohen's answer to me on the same subject. I duly broke Bertie Wooster's record for the sitting high jump: being inconsistent does not mean that you are not being consistent! Well, well! This really is contrarian stuff.

I catch Wheen's eye. Next question will be mine. I query this original approach to consistency and inconsistency. I anticipated his Kissingerian answer that there is a greater whole, and one should not be distracted by the component features (Saddam should try the same argument: murdering Kurds is not proof of a dislike of Kurds. It is part of the greater plan of liking Kurds). I ask: "Given that there are no 'Islamo-fascists' to fight in Venezuela, the United States can't be serious about democracy by supporting a coup." Hitchens replies, "I don't understand the point you're making. What's your point?" Wheen looks sympathetically on me and impatiently explains the question to his chum. I try again: "My point is that the United States has imperial designs on the Middle East, as it has with Venezuela." No luck. Presumably, he believes that the war on fanatical jihadists involves the murder of socialists and the attempted overthrow of a secular, progressive democracy in South America. Or, too embarrassed, he ducks it. In any case, his argument is unfalsifiable: no matter what crime we commit - some beyond description - it is for the greater good. The argument could have been used, as indeed it has, every time the US flexes its military muscles. The argument, however, can only be used by a select few (one, to be precise: the US). Imagine the disgust in the self-described enlightened community had bin Laden or Saddam or the Ayatollahs or the Taliban used the same argument (naughty me, succumbing so easily to "moral relativism"). What is the test by which it breaks down?

Anyway, I press on: "You say that 'The war started on our soil, not anyone else's.' Surely the 'war' started when the United States overthrew democracies, armed despots, supplied WMD to Baathist Iraq, helped destroy secular society, helped murder the leftist opposition. This is a 'war' that has been inflicted by the United States for five decades or more." Hitchens: "I have made that case! You're not telling me anything I don't know. You need a personal clinic. I'll give you one. And the war did start on our soil." One will notice that answer came there none. A wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command did, however, come to mind. (If he has already "made that case", why attack someone who repeats it?) He was nonetheless as good as his word: a "personal clinic" was on its way. Like private or "personal" healthcare the "clinic" would prove over-rated.

Hitchens has four requirements by which a country loses its sovereignty and ought to be invaded: "1. Involvement in genocide. 2. Involvement in international gangsterism. 3. Violating the conventions on weapons of mass destruction. 4. Invading one's neighbours." Hence his support for the invasion of Iraq, or the "liberation" of Iraq, as he was at pains to constantly reiterate. No matter that Iraqis want their "liberators" to liberate themselves of Iraq. (An aside. Genocide can in no way be said to have been carried out in Iraq. Not even an attempted genocide or genocidal behavious. Like "fascism", genocide is a word used far too readily. There have been very few genocides: the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews, the Turkish genocide of the Armenians, the genocide of the Native Americans, and the British genocide of Aboriginals in Tasmania, are the ones which come readily to mind. Additionally, there are also "genocidal" acts like Indonesia's slaughter of the East Timorese. One should use the word extremely carefully. After all, as terrible as Srebrenica or the Anfal campaign against Iraqi Kurds were, they are not Auschwitz.) The obvious question arose from a member of the audience: The UK and US, probably more so the US, to varying degrees, have violated all four of those requirements. What should happen to us? Hitchens thought this true but nonetheless absurd because it is "nihilistic" and "moral relativism" (Go Directly To Jail. Do Not Pass Go) to set the same standards for the US and UK as for everyone else.

James Connolly and George Orwell - two great men "The Hitch" claims would support the empire in this war against "Islamo-fascism" - would be embarrassed by, and mad with rage at, this chauvinism. The very idea that Connolly and Orwell would not see through the imperial fictions is preposterous: they observed it at close quarters and understood the lies on which it is based. The very idea that Connolly and Orwell would not recognise the brutal fist of imperialism behind the overthrow of a democratically elected, and ostensibly socialist, government in South America is preposterous. That they would not recognise the mendacity behind the continuing support and arming of dictators against the progressive forces whose demise fuels further extremism - Afghanistan and Indonesia are but two painfully instructive examples, and Morocco and Tunisia, for example, are two possibly yet to come - yet claim to be fighting terror and spreading freedom slanders not only them but their honourable tradition. Indeed, Connolly and Orwell would have recognised that it is Hitchens who is "soft on fascism". "The Hitch" ought to reread Orwell on India.

Before the evening's fun began, I heard: "If he smokes, I'm off." He lit up; blondie legged it. She missed a treat, and good value at only a fiver. I waited to corner him at the end of the night. Whatever may be said of Hitchens - and a lot is - he isn't one to scarper at the end of an evening. He will stay and answer every question. An admirable trait, I must say. Something very few "stars" can be bothered with; some tell you to get lost. I was ready to cash my "personal clinic" dues. Happily signing books, Hitchens looks up and spots me: "I've got to talk to that guy."

Hardly anyone left. "Right, your Chavez question," he said, at last taking it seriously. Something dawns upon me, perhaps unfairly: in public Hitchens will grandstand and try to cow the opposition by ridicule; mano a mano, as it were, he's very different, especially if one stands one's ground: my left hook for every one of his right crosses, to paraphrase the title of one of his books, demands respect. "Chavez is a thug. He'll be gone within two years, as will the Iranian regime. And Bush will be landing in Havana within two years. Then the last two uniformed leaders [in the Americas] will be gone." I ask: "So supporting a coup isn't a sign of being antidemocratic?" Well, I never thought I'd see a mute Hitchens. He smiles (how to answer?), stammers (he must be in trouble), smiles again (got him), stammers again (crikey!). I was expecting "the greater whole" argument. Finally, "There's a short answer and a long answer. The short answer is that ten years ago he'd be gone. They would have done him. That's all there is to it. I can already see what you're going to say…" Incidentally, "done him" is exactly what Nick Cohen said to me. I say exactly what he expects: "Is that meant to be progress [not murdering a democratically elected president]?" The reply has Hitchens laughing. He knows he's in a fight (ego versus superego). And if I may be so bold, one he's losing on points (the ego wins). Long silence. I never did get to hear the long answer.

I pester him as he walks out of the lecture theatre and out onto Gower Street. My "foolish fascism" must be entertaining: he's willing to continue the argument.

"What happens if you're wrong, as you certainly are," I ask, "and that the United States isn't interested in democracy and freedom, and is redesigning the Middle East for imperial advantage? You know about Congressman Pike's findings. Isn't it obvious that this is the same thing all over again? And the only difference is that you've fallen for it?" Hitchens weakly replies: "No, no. I just know." Only a fascist, presumably, wouldn't be convinced by that.

I press home the advantage: "What, you know that it's different this time? How do you know? There is no evidence for what you're saying. The opposite is the case. Some insiders have told you this, and you believe it? And because you buy it, everyone else has to?" His previous answer may have been weak, but the following is decidedly feeble: "I just know. I can't say any more than that." He can't say any more that that. And that's that. So there. Take that. As much as I disagree with him, I find that Hitchens is an endearing sort of fellow. Orwell was right: stay away from political opponents - you might find that they're not quite as bad as you had hoped, and then it'll be impossible to criticise them. I summon up the Orwell spirit and go for what, to me, is his Achilles, the fact that he's always debating the witless: "You're always ready to debate the likes of Michael Moore. Well, this guy's the liberal equivalent, the mirror equivalent, of an Ann Coulter. Really, what's the point? Naturally, you refuse to debate those who'll run rings round you. I've not seen you debate Alexander Cockburn, for example. He'd humiliate you. Or Chomsky. Or…" Unfortunately, this has Hitchens cock-a-hoop: "Cockburn won't debate me. He won't do it. He refuses to," he says with a steely glare. "In fact, I'll probably debate Galloway. We'll see if Galloway will."

I've never quite gotten over Galloway's insistence that Zarqawi is part of the Iraqi resistance, and not just a complete psycho. Zarqawi does, however, have a purpose - yet another bogeyman for the empire to fight, as if Zarqawi and his merry band of sociopaths have the ability to take over Iraq if the US were to withdraw (Iraqis would send him to his grave). How preposterous, and yet certain segments of the left are crass enough to label anyone who fights the empire with the honourable appellation "resistance". Iraqis differentiate between the terrorists, like Zarqawi, and what they themselves refer to as "the honourable resistance". Galloway's insistence that there would never be any elections in Iraq had me fuming: he would make the antiwar movement look like fools. Did he not realise that leading Shiites had forced the US to hold elections? (Something Madeleine Albright has admitted.) Did he not realise that it was only the counsel of leading Shiites, like Grand Ayatollah Sistani, that had thus far restrained the majority of Shiites from joining the resistance? My disenchantment with the witless wing of the antiwar movement comes through: "Because you know you'll kill him. You'll murder him. You'll debate him because he's useless." Hitchens retorts: "I'll debate him because he's the face of the anti-war movement. Who should I debate?" I say: "Me [I laugh]. I'll debate you [Hitchens laughs]. Anyway, you say that Al Qaeda didn't target the imperial dimension…" Hitchens replies: "Did I say that?" For a second I think, "Ha! He's going to make a fool of himself." But I control my excitement: "I've got it somewhere. Can't remember if it was in print or a recording off your website." My excitement was short-lived. He answers: "I don't have a website. Well, it's not mine. Do I look vain enough to have a website? Don't answer that. I am vain enough. Well, OK, it's the kind of thing I would say."

His use of "targeting the imperial dimension" has been bothering me. It's a strange choice of words. Would he like to see the "imperial dimension" attacked? Does he think it's legitimate to attack the US, so long as civilians aren't harmed? What does he mean by this? And does it matter who does the targeting (supposing it was by those he has political sympathy for, like the Kurds during the eighties when US-backed Saddam was gassing them with WMD provided by the US), for what reason and who the targets are? So I put it to him: "Would you welcome the targeting of the imperial dimension? And not by Al Qaeda, in case you're wondering. Say, during the eighties, the Sandinistas blew up the Pentagon. Would you have welcomed that as…" He's quick off the mark: "Of course not." I muse to myself, "Then why say it in those terms?" To see what he's trying to get at, I try a slightly different question: "What is acceptable, then? You make the point that after the US bombed Sudan, the Sudanese had every moral right to take military action against the US." Nifty footwork coming up by "The Hitch": "Yes. But let's not forget that the Sudanese had links with bin Laden."

The question isn't really answered satisfactorily. I decide to follow his strange Sudan answer, especially given that his excoriating book on Clinton has Sudan doing the US a favour: "But the Sudanese offered to hand him over to the US?" Again, fine footwork as he shifts position: "What does that tell you?" It's a bizarre question by him because it destroys his own argument: "It tells me that the United States…" There's only one answer he wishes to hear. And I don't know what he wants me to say. He keeps prodding for the answer: "Come on. What does that tell you?" I reply: "It tells me that the United States doesn't take terrorism seriously. Within its own terms, the US doesn't take terrorism seriously. The Sudanese offer to hand over on a plate someone who is apparently considered the top terror target, and the United States says, 'Oh, don't bother.' It's all just a cover. It's just an excuse. Terrorism cloaks the real reasons. I mean, does that sound like a country that takes terrorism seriously?" Hitchens, again to my astonishment, is feeble in his answer: "That was Clinton. He demanded that he go to Afghanistan. But what it tells you is that these countries do have links with Islamo-fascism."

I find this too much. Is he trying to convince me that the Pentagon, State Department, CIA, National Security Council sat back and allowed Slick Willy to give the go-ahead for Public Enemy Number One to pack his bags for Afghanistan? An utterly ludicrous suggestion. And with not a murmur of disapproval from these powerful institutions? This is not how an industrially advanced democracy works, as he well knows. Hitchens's hatred for Clinton has led him to believe almost anything about Bubba - some of it utterly irrational. Clinton is a war criminal and has committed grave crimes against humanity. Clinton, however, can't get away with undermining national security (giving safe passage to their most wanted terrorist enemy) without the acquiescence of the US political establishment. To do something like this requires having a larger strategic, political or economic interest. More likely is the strong rumour that the Saudis intervened, for undisclosed reasons, to move bin Laden on from Sudan to somewhere less close to home and somewhere where the fanatic can rave in the wilderness. A cave in Afghanistan would be perfect to ensure that the religious maniac, who has a limited but determined base within the Saudi Wahhabi freak show, has less opportunity to cause trouble for the Saudi despotism. And, of course, the US acquiesced to this oily, and oil-drenched, deal. Why exacerbate the internal problems for this most favoured of tyrannies?

Before I can respond, Hitchens's next interjection pushes the matter on: "It was a mistake. Like Rwanda." The following thought hits me like a sledgehammer: "And he calls himself a Marxist? As talented a writer as he is, this analysis of international politics, courtesy of a neoconservative mindset, is woeful." I try to correct him: "Rwanda wasn't a 'mistake'. Leaks have the White House saying, 'There's a genocide in Rwanda. Who gives a fuck?' It wasn't a mistake; it was complicity." My thought was slightly ill-judged, and his analysis is still sharp on certain matters: "Don't take leaks so seriously. It was worse than complicity. They let the French carve it up. They let the French carve up all of West Africa." This is demonstrably the case. The UK, like France, is involved in a new race for Africa. And anyway, it directly contradicts his own argument about the empire wanting to spread democracy (this may have been Clinton's policy, as it has been general US policy since 1945 for the shattered British and French economies to "exploit" Africa, the apparently different Bush administration has been just as complicit, and so Hitchens is undermining his own argument): "It's Africa re-scrambled. Proof of imperialism, and I would suggest that this proves you wrong." His assistant, who has been trying to pry Hitchens away from me for some time now, is telling Hitchens that he's already late and should end this discussion. I ask one final question: "You say that Saddam Hussein was involved with Zarqawi. Your reasoning is that Zarqawi was in Iraq. But Zarqawi was in northern Iraq - in Iraqi Kurdistan. That's a part of Iraq Saddam had no control over. The US forces and their allies, the Peshmerga, who controlled northern Iraq, could have marched in and arrested him at any time." Hitchens's answer is baffling: "That was the Ansar al-Islam, not Zarqawi. It's not clear where he was in Iraq. He travelled to Baghdad. That's not a place you can get in to without being found. Trust me on this."

And with that, and before I could challenge him on this, his assistant stopped any further harassing. He bounded into a taxi and was off.

I've always been under the impression that Ansar al-Islam was Zarqawi's group. Was I wrong? Although I'm absolutely sure that Ansar is Zarqawi's group, perhaps Hitchens is right and I've made a stupid error. So I look it up as soon as I get home. I was right. The source for this? Well, there are many. Here's one - Hitchens's Mirror column. The quote from his column, entitled "The New Enemy of Humanity", is: "His [Zarqawi's] organisation was then called Ansar al-Islam, or fighters for Islam." Why on earth would he say or imply to me that Ansar al-Islam is not Zarqawi's group? Or was Zarqawi the head of a group he never actually visited? And yet Zarqawi apparently visited Baghdad but not northern Iraq? The expert view is that Zarqawi left Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, was not yet associated with Al Qaeda (apparently, he was vehemently opposed to bin Laden's jihadi strategy of attacking the US), and departed to Kurdish Iraq, where he and his gang of psychos would be safe from aerial attack in the "no-fly-zone", as a route into the Sunni triangle to recruit like-minded jihadis, having accurately predicted that the US would invade Iraq. This reminds me of a criticism levelled against Hitchens. His modus operandi is said to be, use whatever helps win the argument. For instance, sometimes it is helpful to claim that Zarqawi's group is Ansar al-Islam, and sometimes it is helpful to claim otherwise. By then, however, the victorious "Hitch" would have moved on to fight another battle. The M.O. seems to fit.

Postscript. Although no dictionary in my possession has popinjay as anything but a conceited person, I have heard that the word turns up in one of Shakespeare's plays, where it is described as a bull's-eye for an archer to hit. Hitchens may yet be right about something. In fact, this would be appropriate. He now uses definitions no one else uses. He twitters on about occupation being democracy, and imperialism being liberation. Only a matter of time before he claims that:





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