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Christopher Hitchens closes the case on Joe Wilson, and Hugh tries to reopen the case on Israel.

Thursday, July 27, 2006
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HH: We begin, as we do many Wednesdays, with Vanity Fair columnist, Christopher Hitchens. May I call you Christopher, after all these weeks and months?

CH: Why not, sir.

HH: Wonderful. Christopher, you’ve written about Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame today extensively over at Slate. And you’ve destroyed his many myths. The question is, I’m going to have his lawyer on later in the show. What question should I ask Joe Wilson’s lawyer?

CH: Well, give me an e-mail in the meanwhile, or I’ll send it to your man. There’s a list which will take too long for me to read out, the contradictions that he’s given in his various public evidences, either claiming too much, such as he exposed forged documents in Niger that hadn’t even come to light when he returned from the country, and he didn’t expose them, that he, his wife didn’t send him, which we know she did, all these things. There’s a long list, about five or six. I’d just love to see how he gets out of that.

HH: All right.

CH: And the second thing is why does he refuse to mention the name Wisam al Zatawi…excuse me. I’m very sorry, Zahawie. Wissam al-Zahawi, that’s Saddam’s chief nuclear envoy, negotiator, and general goon, who was the man who went to Niger, just after the inspectors had been thrown out of Iraq, in February, 1999. The importance of his story is the core of the case.

HH: Well, I agree with that. When I read your column, I realized you don’t take the envoy to the Vatican, who is your senior guy, who’s also been to a number of the other international bodies, and send him to the backwaters of Niger, unless you have a very important mission in mind. It just doesn’t make any sense, absent the hunt for Uranium.

CH: No…he was the envoy of Iraq to the International Atomic Energy Authority meetings in Geneva, to the non-proliferation nuclear…I mean to say, non-proliferation talks in New York. He was an acknowledged senior member of the Saddam leadership on this point, but he may be correct in claiming he was never a member of the Baath party, but that seems to me irrelevant. After all, he’s also claimed that he didn’t know that Niger made yellowcake Uranium ore, which as everybody knows, is the only thing it does make. So he’s not a trustworthy person, but he can be definitely found in the right place at the right time. And then, there’s a follow-up meeting between a Nigerian minister connected with the Uranium business, and the man we know as Baghdad Bob, who was at the time, the Iraqi foreign minister in Algiers, the same year. So there’s nothing else they could conceivably have been talking about. Niger used to be Iraq’s source of yellowcake in the 80’s. They already had an understood relationship. And what this means is that the remark made by the President quoting British intelligence in the State of the Union was correct. If anything, it was an understatement. And Wilson’s attempt to discredit it are shot full of what I would call lies. There are certainly extraordinary contradictions. And that his claim to have been put upon and persecuted by the members of the administration, who had barely got time for him, have been shown by his friend, Robert Novak, to be nothing but the silliest kind of persecution mania. It’s paranoia.

HH: Well, that’s where Erwin always goes back to…

CH: It’s finita la comedia. That’s the end of the Joseph Wilson interlude, thank God.

HH: No, but there is this lawsuit, and Valerie Plame says that she would still have her career, but for the actions of senior Bush administration officials. What’s the single best argument against that assertion, Christopher Hitchens?

CH: It’s very simple, and it’s made by Robert Novak, who’s just come from testifying under oath on the point several times to the grand jury, to the special prosecutor, and to the FBI, that nobody approached him, that he approached members of the administration. The best guess of which member, important member of the administration vendimus that spoke to him is…I can’t materialize this…I can’t prove it, but it is the best guess of every journalist who’s covered this, and every lawyer involved in it is that it was Richard Armitage…

HH: Yes.

CH: …who as you well know, is on the other side in the regime change. He was a bitter critic of the administration’s line in Iraq.

HH: Yes.

CH: So there’s nothing to this at all. And if they think that by bringing a frivolous civil lawsuit, if the courts allow it, which I doubt, they’re going to get more access to the inner circles of the administration that Patrick Fitzgerald got with waivers and subpoenas. They’re dreaming again. It’s just the last bit of they’re running on empty.

HH: Now let’s turn to the current events of today. Malaki addresses the Congress. Here are some reactions. First of all, did you think it’s significant that the prime minister of the new Iraq asserts to the assembled elected representatives of the United States that Iraq is the front line in the war on terror, Christopher Hitchens?

CH: I don’t think he’s a maleable enough person, on other evidence, to have been put to saying that. He says no more than is in any case the truth. It is the country that’s been chosen, was selected some time ago, by an alliance of Baathist and bin Ladenists to be the battleground, the place of arms for this war. And it’s just the beginning of wisdom to notice that.

HH: Well now, after his remarks, a number of people made comments. I’d like you to hear and respond to some of them. Senator Charles Schumer of New York, cut number three, please, Adam:

CS: The whole thing is befuddling, and I think this sort of shows that all of this, all of the flag-waving when the new government was put together may not be very, very valuable at the end of the day.

HH: Was flag-waving for the new government valuable in Iraq, or important, Christopoher Hitchens?

CH: Well, first, the key word there is befuddling. We were just listening to a man who is indeed very befuddled, and was befuddled, as you could tell as he spoke. And he’s befuddled, generally, on the subject, and determined to remain so. I forget who said if presidents…was it Coolidge?…a hard man to bamboozle, but once bamboozled, impossible to unbamboozle? That would be Schumer.

HH: Cut number two…

CH: I don’t remember any flag-waving at all at the inauguration of the new government.

HH: Neither do I.

CH: To the contrary, everyone was determined, I think correctly, to lowball the possibility that it did have, or could produce a national reconciliation plan. There are good people on my side of the argument, notably Peter Galbraith, whose new book, The End Of Iraq, I’d strongly recommend to you and your listeners, who think that as a country, as a state, if not a society, but as a country, it’s probably beyond saving. I’m reluctant to concede that, but the case has been made that one should go with what appear to be the country people tendencies, and make the best of them one can, is a strong one.

HH: You know, and Christopher Hitchens, I’ve been reading Peter Galbraith’s call to cut up and run since he began making it less than a year after the invasion of Iraq. And I’m never persuaded, and I’m less persuaded after the people of Iraq vote at great personal peril for a federal system. For American authors to argue that it ought to be set aside, because they don’t think it can work, strikes me as imperialism of the worst sort.

CH: Well, I mean, that is my own opinion, also, my own conviction, too, that there are many, many Iraqis, millions of them, who don’t have a militia, who don’t cut their neighbor’s throat, who don’t engage in sectarian and racist polemics and so forth. Currently, we are the only militia that they’ve got. And it would be a betrayal of them, and it would involve the ethnic cleansing and deportation of a lot of them, if we were to accede to partitions. So I’ve disagreed with Peter in public and private about this, but his answer is as follows. That’s all very well, but it’s already happened, and it effectually happened once the Kurds, with whom he’s very close, and also whom he’s very supportive, decided on a semi-autonomous, if not actually quasi-independent republic of their own. It’s a matter not just of what you want, it’s a matter of the facts being faced. I would add, though, that…and I’m very much against all post-colonial partitions, and I’ve written about it, and especially in former British territories like Cypress and India and Ireland and so forth.

HH: Well, it also strikes me as a little bit as I was saying, the United States could not have perservered after the evacuation of Washington of New York. Yes, there are defeats, and there are bad times. But unless they want to throw in the towel, the spectacle of Peter Galbraith particularly, and 180ers, generally, wanting to throw in the towel for people who’ve sacrificed so much is wrong.

CH: Well, it isn’t…for Peter, it’s certainly not 180. In point of General Washington’s retreat to Trenton and so forth, I mean, to make the analogy correct, you’d have to assume, say, that only the English speaking inhabitants of the colonies, and only…by the way, it was only a small majority of them, and none of the Germans supported independence. And there was this tremendous division between Catholics and Protestants, so that’s in fact, only one half of them signed, as far as I know, the Declaration of Independence, and gentlemen from Baltimore. And that there were…as it happened, the leadership was mainly deist, the population was largely Protestant at one time. The most difficult religious minority were the Quakers, who continued to keep owning…

HH: Oh, but there were slave owners and abolitionists. John Adams was there with Jefferson, and you cannot overlook the deepness of that divide, Christopher Hitchens. By the way, your Eminent Lives series to which you contribute, you cover this ground, but there were deep, deep divisions in the early states.

CH: Yes, but not ones that were going to lead to fratricide. Jefferson…

HH: Well, they did. They led to the civil war.

CH: Jefferson made the civil war inevitable by allowing slavery in Louisiana after the 30’s, but that’s a long way down the road.

HH: Okay.

HH: Christopher Hitchens, your friend, Andrew Sullivan, wrote not long ago that I fear the cycle of civil war in Iraq is now beyond our control. And so, one of the biggest military fiascos in American history lurches towards another downdraft. Do you agree with either of those sentiments, both beyond our control and a biggest fiasco in American history?

CH: To the first one, it would be a very bold person who said that there was nothing to it. I mean, the…to see Stephen Hadley saying yesterday…how this guy’s national security advisor in any case completely beats me. He said it’s not a problem of the insurgency now, it’s a problem of sectarian warfare. The task of the insurgency was to…the proclaimed objective of it was to ignite sectarian warfare, in which it seems to have been depressingly successful. I mean, that is extremely evil, what is beyond doubt, and that it was very deliberated is beyond doubt, and that it tells us who we’re up against is beyond doubt. But that it’s been a success is also beyond doubt. Every Iraqi is now suspicious and worried on the point. And it’s quite easy for a facist movement to damage society irreparably in this way. That’s an area that there are millions of Iraqis who don’t buy into, who don’t think or feel in this way, but they don’t have guns. We have to hold the guns for them. No, it wouldn’t be a huge military catastrophe, because we intervened to forestall what would undoubtedly have been a much worse meltdown of Iraqi society, which would have gone successively through the states of the Fedayeen Saddam becoming the largest paramilitary force in the state, ruling by divide and rule, operating on that principle. The Uday/Qusay succession, the collapse of Iraq’s economy and society and state, would be in a much worse way than it has now. But the operation still bears the marks of how we conducted too little, too late.

HH: Do you believe that the front…

CH: And you won’t have to be favorable about this, I feel.

HH: Oh, I agree. I just don’t think it’s beyond salvaging, or even that it is as bad as one would say, as he suggested, or that it’s a…

CH: Well, yeah. It’s not…it isn’t possible it’s underimplied. It is not possible, I repeat, to inflict a military defeat upon the United States of America.

HH: Exactly.

CH: It’s less..out of the question. There isn’t a force within thousands of miles, combined and doubled, that could even consider doing that. As long as the U.S. decides it won’t be defeated there, it will not be. And it could get to the point, as it has done with some forces, where they would say, they would ask the questions that we are made to ask ourselves. How long can we sustain this? How long can we put up with these casualties? How long can we go on with no prospect of immediate victory? And they’ve started to ask themselves that. Most notably, you’ll have to have observed…and for once, on the front page of the New York Times a couple of Mondays ago, the way that the Sunni parties, and many of their leaders, are rallying to the United States and saying don’t go. Don’t leave us to this.

HH: This question’s particularly appropriate for you, Christopher Hitchens. There’s a war. There’s a war against the war, and now there’s a war against the war against the war, in which I think you…

CH: And a war within the war, as well.

HH: And I think you and I are engaged in the war against the war against the war. And part of what bothers me is…I don’t figure you for a Tolkien fan, but there is that figure of Denethor in the great epic, who goes into despair, and is really a tragic and somewhat sinister figure. And I sense a lot of American and international commentators going Denethor among us, and just giving up and washing their hands, and saying woe is us, we can’t win.

CH: You’re right about the Tolkien. I almost prefer Lewis to Tolkien. I mean, that’s how bad off I think he is.

HH: (laughing) I’m glad. That would be…either of them will do you good.

CH: Look…no, a flood of nauseous toxin in my system.

HH: (laughing)

CH: It’s the war within the war, actually, that preoccupies me. I mean, there are people who were on our side against Saddam Husssein in Iraq, a very large number of them Shiia, and some of whom have feelings of envy and admiration for the Islamic republic of Iran, which is as you know and I know, a collapsing, corrupt, dead-end theocracy. And as a matter of fact, I think some of that stuff in Basra is overstated. I don’t think that the Iranians are going to automatically win there, but they have made inroads, and they’ve tried to step up local fields to teach this in. That’s depressing, On the other side, there are forces like the Kurdish people’s Army, which fight with absolute conviction against theocracy and against Baathism, and have created a very thriving and prosperous and hopeful area of the country all of their own, where there are about 100 American soldiers. It’s an extraordinary success. But the war within the war still goes on, and I think one is obliged to take sides on that, too, and be honest about it.

HH: Now there’s also a second front in that very same war, which is between Hezbollah and Israel.

CH: Yes.

HH: And I think one of the great developments of the last two weeks is that Arab states as well as fans of Israel have recognized that Hezbollah’s just the long arm, to quote the Israeli foreign minister of Iran. And that corrupt regime you referred to, is trying to pull off one of the most incredible coups, both in Iraq and Israel, at the same time that it’s tottering at home.

CH: Yes, well this is the revenge, in a way, of the horrible things that Zarqawi and his gang of bin Ladenists did to us and our friends in Iraq, was by saying all right, we will maximize the hatred between the two branches of Islam, and we’ll do it with real cruelty and without conscience. Well, what this has meant across the region has replicated itself, that it was an open secret to all of us, long before the Levin amendment occurred, that the Gulf States were basically imploring the United States, do not let Iraq…excuse me, I’m terribly sorry, do not let Iran acquire nuclear weapons. They do not want to live in a Gulf that has an Iranian nuclear capacity at the other end. That’s already been played. They didn’t say it very publicly, but they made it very plain. Now, they’re very worried that Hezbollah’s becoming the client of the same regime on their own doorstep.

HH: Right.

CH: And so, we do not want to profit from the consequences of divide and rule, or of the incitement of religious sectarianism within Islam, but we didn’t start this. And Hezbollah has brought this on itself. And there are many signs, also Lebanese opinion is furious with them for what they’ve done in bringing this, I think, very clumsy and ill-considered Israeli vendetta on them.

HH: Vendetta? Or justified counter-attack, Christopher Hitchens? Nine Israeli soldiers died today, 27 hurt in South Lebanon. But that battle, I think, is the same battle that’s going on in Sadr City, and is going on wherever Hezbollah opeatives around the world, and where that regime intends to go. Israel is fighting our war right now.

CH: Well, you can indeed say that it is an aspect of that, but it doesn’t mean that Israel is entitled to do anything it likes, or that it has only one option out of a large many from which to choose.

HH: Do you want them to keep killing Hezbollah guerillas in Lebanon, Christopher Hitchens?

CH: Well, I think they have no choice but to do that.

HH: But is it good for…

CH: Especially the ones that cross the border into Israel. But they’re also obliged to bear in mind that where the United States, whose weapons they’re using, and the diplomatic support they’re imploring, has its own interests, in particular, in the recent political emancipation of Lebanon. And that that continues, which has been I think gravely retarded, and also in the very awkward balance of forces within Iraq. The Israelis are acting as if that’s none of their business, that all they care about is their northern frontier.

HH: I don’t thing they are doing that, no. But do you agree…we’ve got 45 seconds. Do you agree that their fight is just and good for the war that we are currently engaged in?

CH: I really don’t think it’s time enough to say that yet. I think they’re invoking principles that are defensible, but I’m not sure that they’re employing methods that illustrate, or reinforce those principles.

HH: You’re not buying into the silly…

CH: By the way, I’ve sent you the e-mail of the seven questions Joseph Wilson’s lawyer has to answer.

HH: All right. We’ll get it.

CH: So if your…it’s with Duane.

HH: Christopher Hitchens, always a pleasure. I look forward to talking to you again soon.

End of interview.

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