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Christopher Hitchens’ assessment of Israel v. Hamas and Obama’s mounting Clinton appointments.

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HH: Joined now for the first time in 2009 by Vanity Fair columnist and author of God Is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens. Mr. Hitchens, a Happy New Year to you.

CH: And to you, sir.

HH: Now I am curious as to your reaction. Today, the old band is getting back together in Washington, D.C. Richard Haas, we’ve got Dennis Ross, we’ve got Richard Holbrooke, all going to be various special envoys of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to various parts of the world. What do you expect from the new boss, same as the old boss as The Who? Are you acquainted with The Who, Mr. Hitchens? Are you a Who listener?

CH: I used to be, I have to confess, yes.

HH: Okay. So is it the same boss…

CH: I even went to see the movie Quadrophenia.

HH: Okay, there you go, so you’ve got your cred. What do you think about this?

CH: Well, it’s the status quo we can’t believe in.

HH: (laughing)

CH: I mean, I think it’s very unwise for the President-elect to have farmed out such a big area of his policy to people who are thinking about the next election rather than about him. I’ve specifically, particularly think that about his choice of secretary of state, or nominee, I should say. I mean, ask yourself a simple question. Faced with some dilemma in foreign policy, who is she going to talk to first, her husband or her President? The question answers itself.

HH: Yes, it does.

CH: And we know from other sources, some of them very recent, in fact as recent as yesterday’s or the day before’s New York Times, that there isn’t a hustler in the world with any money on him who doesn’t know how to contact that husband, and who doesn’t know perfectly well that husband understands certain ground rules for dealing with hostile to us oligarchs, tycoons and influence peddlers. So it really is a national disgrace that at a time as critical as this, our foreign policy should be in a sort of banana republic mode.

HH: Now the deputies I’ve just rattled off, though, most people think that Haas, Ross & Holbrooke, sounds like a bad law firm, are respectable, experienced diplomats of a sort of hard-nosed vein and variety. Do you share that opinion?

CH: Up to a point. I mean, I’ve met two of them. Maybe briefly I’ve even met Mr. Ross. And true, they are very serious people, and they do have a certain amount of experience. There’s no question about that. It’s just they have a certain mindset that goes with, you know, the United Nations, the Council On Foreign Relations, the Carnegie Endowment. I mean, I think they really do believe that a great deal of the enmity shown by our enemies to the United States arises from misunderstandings that can be corrected. And you probably know, I don’t share that view.

HH: Do you believe that the Obama administration will lose Iraq?

CH: No, I don’t. I mean, I think that there was no choice but for the Bush administration to do the very risky thing that it is now doing, which is drawing down on a timetable roughly set by Iraqi internal affairs. I don’t see how one could have resisted that, and said to the Iraqis actually, we’ll decide on this, not your parliament, not you and so forth. We really couldn’t have, I think that would have been even a riskier course than the present one is. And so if you’ve noticed, the argument about how many months is this going to take has become not even moot. It’s become ethereal. It will be, as it will be, it can be adjusted up and down. There’s no longer any traction to the argument about when, or the setting of a deadline. It just, it’s a chance we simply have got to take.

HH: There’s a lot of argument, though, about what will remain at the end of that timeline, no matter what we call it. Will we reserve a residual force there capable of assisting the Iraqi Defense Forces in rapid reaction, training them in the use of our technology, supplying them with armaments? That’s what Bush III would have done. That’s what John McCain would have done.

CH: Yes.

HH: Do you think Obama will do that?

CH: Well, I’ll tell you something I think I’m free to say, it’s not particularly off the record. I mean, I know actually, let’s just say I know that General Petraeus was particularly keen before the election that Robert Gates be kept on as secretary of defense, and that he made that to anyone who he could get within hearing. That would be the test of the seriousness of the Obama administration. And it was almost the first thing that Obama did was to sort of say I hear you on this point. And that’s one indication, one earnest, I think a firm commitment to seeing it through, more or less. Hope I don’t sound naïve when I say that.

HH: When you see the appointment…

CH: And I’ll add one other thing that a lot of people often forget. The head of the Kurdistan regional government, President Barzani, sorry, I should call him Prime Minister Barzani, was in Washington not long ago, and you know, that’s a large and strongly held and organized and well defended chunk of northern Iraq, autonomous by constitution. And he said at the end of the reception we had for him in Washington, by the way, we have the right to say this, American forces are welcome on our soil anytime, and for as long as they want. So they can, if you want to go over the horizon and to say oh we’ll come back if we need to strike al Qaeda, or if anyone asks us to help in any town might happen to be, we won’t be that far away. That option also exists.

HH: What do your friends in Kurdistan think about the mullahs of Iran and the stability of their regime?

CH: Well, it’s a very tricky question. I mean, the Kurds of Iraq are mainly Sunni. But incidentally, there’s one reason why when people Iraq is divided between Sunni, Shia and Kurd, they talk nonsense. The people that talk like this usually don’t know at all what they’re talking about, because to say Sunni is also to say Kurdish, though the Kurds tend to be much more secular. So there isn’t any particular sympathy for an Islamic theocracy. On the other hand, there was a time when they were caught in the middle, which in a war, between Saddam Hussein and that Iranian theocracy, which of course was a very terrifying time for them, and eventuated almost in a genocide. So they are very interested in keeping the peace on that stretch of the frontier, even though their hearts are with the Kurdish rebels who are fighting in the mountains in Iran against the Islamic theocracy.

HH: And who’s your heart with, Mr. Hitchens, between Hamas and Israel?

CH: (laughing) Well, I can’t say I’m neutral, because I think that Hamas is the local branch, the Gaza branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is a regional-wide organization essentially dedicated to the theocratization and stifling and stultification of a whole region by an Islamist dictatorship. So the most, for me, for many years, the greatest priority is the defeat and the discredit, the humiliation, the exposure of that force. I can’t praise the Israelis for the way they’ve behaved in Gaza down the years. One of the many criticisms I’ve had of them, in fact, was that in the early years, they encouraged the growth of Hamas as a weapon against the more socialist and secular al Fatah and PLO forces. I think they now hugely regret having played that card, as they should.

HH: Is there a way out of this current battle, this current war that doesn’t involve the defeat of Hamas?

CH: No…oh no, just…sorry, I spoke too soon. Not that doesn’t involve the defeat of Hamas. No, that’s a separate imperative.

HH: Yup.

CH: Is there a way out in general? I think actually, I think no. I think the time when there could have been a settlement along the two state line, for example, is in the past. I think it died when Rabin was murdered by the Jewish right wing.

HH: So what does that mean?

CH: It means a very long and very bitter apocalyptic war. This is now I think the fifth generation of…

HH: Happy New Year to you as well. That’s a…

CH: No, no, and if you think this is bad, you haven’t seen anything yet. This is, I think, the fifth generation now of Palestinians who have known either dispossession or exile or occupation. And what they’re taught by their mullahs, and what a huge number of them appear now to believe is that there’s no need for a settlement, because demographically, they will outbreed the Israelis and in point of violence, they will outkill them. They’re more willing to die than Israelis are to kill.

HH: Given your understanding…

CH: And they’re being told give it another generation or so, the Jewish state will be destroyed or disappear. There’s nothing to negotiate about. And the Messianic settlers of the Jewish persuasion rather like this idea, because it brings closer the idea of the Apocalypse and the return of the Messiah.

HH: Given…

CH: And of course, they have Christian friends in America who also think this is super scheme.

HH: And you know, I do…

CH: That we’re all going to go to hell on a sled to please the parties of God.

HH: Well, I do understand that’s your vision, and I think there is a huge confrontation coming. The administration, the election of which you supported, do you think they have clarity about this?

CH: Well, if you think the Bush administration has been uncritically pro-Israeli…

HH: I didn’t say that, didn’t ask that.

CH: No, no, but suppose that someone who is listening did think that, it’s nothing to how uncritically pro-Israeli the Democratic leadership is.

HH: But do you think Obama and crowd have clarity about what’s ahead in the region?

CH: No, no, no, no. Of course they don’t. No one has any idea how bad the situation is.

HH: You and I do.

CH: But I mean, I don’t think there’s anyone in the incoming administration who is as stupid as Condoleezza Rice was, who’s last communiqué before people stopped listening to her altogether was about four months ago saying it now looked to her quite possible, if rather regrettable, that there wouldn’t be a final peace agreement between Israel and Palestinians by the end of 2008. I read that and I thought I can’t believe she said this. This is an official statement by the secretary of state. It could be we won’t get to final status peace agreement by the end of the year. No, I don’t think so, either.

HH: (laughing)

CH: I really don’t. (laughing) But I was glad to see that she didn’t, she had not thought so as well, but that she had once thought that that was on just made me gasp.

HH: Christopher Hitchens of Vanity Fair, a Happy New Year to you. I hope we have many more new years to discuss. We go out with The Who.

End of interview.


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