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Vanity Fair’s Chrisopher Hitchens on Iraq, Iran, four years of the war, and Valerie Plame.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

HH: We begin as we do on those Wednesdays when we are lucky with Christopher Hitchens. He is the contributing editor to Vanity Fair. And Christopher Hitchens, thank you again for your hospitality last Wednesday evening. It was really a joy.

CH: It was a pleasure, and my Iraqi friends were very pleased to meet you.

HH: Well, it was a couple things that were surprising about that evening in your home, was that 1) it turns out upon return to the West Coast, that you live in the building where my mother-in-law lived after the loss of her husband at the Battle of Okinawa for a number of years, and 2) the next morning on Bill Bennett’s show, he told me that you had actually housed Salman Rushdie there during the time that the fatwa had been entered against him. Tell us the details of that.

CH: Gosh, did Bill tell you that? Well, yes, I mean, he’s an old friend of mine, and he needed a place to stay when he was on the run. And in particular, he came to stay, it was Thanksgiving, I think ’93. It was just not long after my second daughter was born. When he came to Washington, and we managed, thanks to George Stephanopoulos, actually, to get him in to see Bill Clinton, who hadn’t been keen on the idea, as a gesture of solidarity. It involved a lot of security and a lot of nightmarish precautions, but we were proud to do it.

HH: Now given what has happened since, does the fatwa against him remain in effect?

CH: The Iranian government was forced to withdraw it, by the way, which shows that a lot of what people believe about Islamism isn’t as true as it may appear, when they say these things are holy and can’t be rescinded, and Koranic, and absolute and so forth. You know, if you face them down, they turn out to be human made policies. The Iranian government, after a lot of pressure and protest, announced publicly at the United Nations it no longer endorsed, and would not allow any of its embassies to be used by people trying to kill a novelist who wasn’t an Iranian, which they had been allowing before. I mean, they had allowed assassins to use their diplomatic facilities in several countries, and killed two of his translators and one of his publishers, or badly injured one of his publishers. It was pretty grim.

HH: And so, during that period of time…

CH: In theory, there is a group in Iran that still says the fatwa stands, because it comes from Khomenei and it’s eternal, and they still offer money, but we think that that’s probably a bluff.

HH: Does he live his life differently now than he did in the aftermath of the issuance of it?

CH: Oh, well, he had to live in a bubble for many years, and he decided in the end that it was a defeat to have to live this way. I wish more people thought like this, by the way. And he decided he would rather take the risk of living as a free person than continue to live in this hermetic way, and he now…I mean, I’ve walked down the street with him in New York, you know, with not even the protection that a rock star would have.

HH: How was he as a house guest?

CH: Oh, impeccable.

HH: (laughing)

CH: Great raconteur, great wit. I mean, because his dilemma is so serious, and because he’s obviously recognized as such a major and serious fiction writer, I think a lot of people don’t realize how brilliantly witty and amusing he is, and it’s always to me an absolute astonishing thing also that given the marvelous things he’s done with the language, that English is only his second language. His first language is Urdu.

HH: That is remarkable.

CH: It is extraordinary, yes.

HH: Now let’s turn to your Slate column of this week, “So Mr. Hitchens, weren’t you wrong about Iraq?” This has generated an enormous amount of attention on the internet as a result of your unapologetic stance. But let’s walk through the questions you posed to yourself. Was the President right or wrong to go to the United Nations in September, 2002, and to say to that body that it could no longer tolerate Saddam Hussein’s flouting of its every significant resolution. How do you answer that?

CH: Well, I don’t have to answer it. I mean, the U.N. answered it by saying yes, Mr. President, you’re quite right to recall our attention to this. We have allowed one member state to completely make a fool of all our resolutions. We’ve been making…we’ve allowed ourselves to be humiliated by a gangster regime. Yes, we must recall, become seized again of our standing resolutions, and by a 9-0 vote of the Security Council, very rare, unanimous vote, including the vote of Syria, which was then a member, Iraq was told you must come into compliance, or face very serious consequences. It was a great diplomatic triumph for the President. And all those people who say if they’d known now what they knew then, they wouldn’t have supported him, can’t surely be saying they wouldn’t have supported him going that far. In my view, if you’ve gone that far, you have to take the following steps as well. They’re more or less ineluctable.

HH: Let me ask you about Iran right now, because we’re setting up the same situation where Iran gets presented with Security Council resolution after Security Council resolution, and flouts them. Are we going to see a replay of the 1441 debate?

CH: Well, it’s not as likely. I’ll tell you why, because the evidence that is presented against Iran does not come from the United States of America. It comes from the European Union, which has done most of the negotiating, and has been subject to most of the cheating. And it comes from the International Atomic Energy Authority, which has been doing the monitoring. So it’s unimpeachable in that point, and that’s extremely important, and that’s why even the Russians are coming onside now about sanctions, which I must say, it surprised me. There is…I suppose I should mention that the President didn’t just mention WMD in his famous September speech. It was a very good speech, in which he also mentioned Iraq’s genocide, violation of human rights, invasion of neighboring countries, refusal to account for missing prisoners from the Kuwait war, a whole number of other resolutions that the U.N. had to pay attention to. Iran…and of course, international terrorism and Iraq’s support for it, Abu Nidal, Abu Abbas, the suicide bombers in Palestine, and so on.

HH: You know, I like to remind people that Nick Lemann, now the dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, wrote a piece in the New Yorker in February of 2003, where he listed the six reasons that the Bush administration repeatedly gave for the intervention in Iraq, only one of which was the presence of WMD.

CH: Yes, that’s quite right, and it’s very easily forgotten.

HH: And now you do, however, ask yourself in this Slate piece…

CH: Or rather very deliberately forgotten by some people.

HH: Yes, not forgotten, simply erased.

CH: Yes.

HH: Wasn’t Colin Powell’s performance at the United Nations a bit of a disgrace, you ask yourself. Provide the answer please.

CH: Yes, it was, and so was the sitting behind him, as if the moral support of George Tenet, the discredited head of our most discredited government agency, the CIA. It was really outrageous to give such a cheap presentation on such a slender basis of evidence. There were two things that came out of it that were, I think, worth knowing. One was we did have some audio tape, it’s been disputed, but it seemed reasonable at the time to assume the worst, of the Iraqi officials’ planning to deceive the inspectors. And we did establish that Abu Musab al Zarqawi had moved, one of the most dangerous bin Ladenists, had moved from Afghanistan to Iraq, which was a cause of great concern.

HH: Now you know the response is always that he went to Kurdistan. He really wasn’t in Baghdad. I know that’s wrong.

CH: Well, we think, my Kurdish comrades tell me that they had warned the United States well before Colin Powell’s speech that al Qaeda people were crossing into Iraq, sometimes though…usually trans-shipping through Iran. And that often means crossing the Kurdish border, yes.

HH: But in fact, he was in Baghdad.

CH: Well, we don’t know exactly about that, because there was a group called Ansar al-Islam in Kurdistan…

HH: In Kurdistan, right.

CH: …which seemed to consider its job, it was an al Qaeda type group, seemed to consider, oddly enough, its main job of holy war to kill Saddam Hussein’s Kurdish friends…sorry, to kill Saddam Hussein’s Kurdish enemies.

HH: What about the terrorist…

CH: Now just think about that for a second…

HH: Sure.

CH: Isn’t it odd that a holy war group would think the first thing we must do is kill the enemies of Saddam Hussein in Iraq? If you have a suspicious mind, which I have to say I do, and if you look at some of the other evidence about this group, there’s every reason to think that it was being used as a front by the Iraqis to eliminate Kurdish opposition.

HH: Now the terror connection between Saddam, al Qaeda and other terror organizations has been disputed in the four years since the invasion.

CH: Yes.

HH: Where do you think the balance of evidence lays today?

CH: Well, the 9/11 Commission, for example, said that there was a connection, that there’d been some meetings in different countries, some friendly overtures on both sides, but nothing like an operational relationship. In other words, they weren’t doing joint military operations. I actually think that’s more or less right. I think that Iraq wanted to be interested under Saddam Hussein in any anti-American activity anywhere in the world. We know, for example, they were paying for the Asian equivalent of al Qaeda, the Abu Sayaff group in the Philippines. What is Iraq’s interest in the Philippines? Why is it supporting Islamic fundamentalism there? For the same reason, it inconveniences the United States, and stretches us thin. We know that the guy who mixed the chemicals for the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, Mr. Yassin, an Iraqi, having been released by our brilliant FBI after being arrested on bail, got to Iraq in two days, which is a very difficult thing to do unless the Iraqis want you to come, I can assure you, and remained there under Saddam’s protection for ten years.

HH: Yeah…

CH: And was filmed in a safe house by ABC during that time. That’s as direct a connection as anyone could want. No government can overlook a connection as direct at that. I could go on.

HH: Can I keep you for another segment, Christopher Hitchens?

CH: Yeah.

– – – –

HH: Mr. Hitchens, before we go back to the serious stuff of the war and its anniversary and Iran, I need to play for you a segment from today’s global warming carnival. This is Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar speaking to Al Gore.

AK: Vice President Gore, welcome to our committee.

Algore: Thank you.

AK: It’s not every day that our committee has an Academy Award winner testifying. More often, our witnesses have awards from important, but not so glamorous organizations like the American Chemical Society, or the American Society of Civil Engineers. And so we’re very pleased that you brought all your friends here, so that there can be more focus on this important issue. I can tell you that in Minnesota, contrary to what Senator Inhofe has been talking about, we believe in science. We brought the world the Post-It Note, and the pacemaker, but it’s more than science now. I can tell you that there are hunters in Hibbing, Minnesota, seeing the change to our wetland. And there’s a couple out on Leech Lake who care about this issue, because they’ve seen how long it takes for them to get their fish house out to go ice fishing. And there’s a city council in Lanesborough, Minnesota who decided to change their light bulbs, because they can see the effects of global warming. And there’s a little 8 year old in Roseville, Minnesota, who came up to me at an event with tears in her eyes, because she’d read about the penguins dying, because they were drowning trying to get food.

HH: Christopher Hitchens, are you aware of the penguin drowning problem?

CH: Yes, I am, and also the polar bear overheating problem, and I also know and could have added that Bob Dylan was born in Hibbing, Minnesota, which gives this an imperishable place in history. But I think that the award must go to Most Parochially Minded Senator, determined to mention most parish pump issues in an intro, while apparently thinking globally.

HH: Do you think that this advances or hinders the cause of global warming to have Al Gore and Amy Klobuchar talking about the drowning penguins?

CH: I don’t think it’s a help.

HH: Yes, I agree (laughing). It’s hard to take it seriously.

CH: I have to consider soberly and say I don’t think it’s a big help.

HH: All right. Let’s get back to your favorite couple, power couple, Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson. I assume that you watched with rapt attention the Plame testimony?

CH: Couldn’t tear myself away.

HH: And what did you think of it?

CH: Well, I thought that it was really a terrible indictment of Patrick Fitzgerald, the prosecutor, because if anything she said was true, he’s the stupidest prosecutor in the history of the world…

HH: Yes.

CH: …which I don’t think her supporters generally believe. But in other words, if she says that she was a major undercover, cloak and dagger agent, then it’s really bizarre that he found that there had been no breach of the legislation that protects the identity of such agents. And he didn’t find that there’d been any breach of that already, I think, by the way, very restrictive and repressive act. So that’s that.

HH: Now what about…

CH: As to who sent her…did you notice there was quite a funny…sent him, rather, her lovely husband. Did you see a rather funny correction in the New York Times the other day?

HH: No, I didn’t.

CH: It was on the op-ed page an editorialist correction. They had said he’d been sent to Niger by the State Department, and the correction was, after all this time, only last week, they corrected, he was sent there by the CIA. Yes, we always knew that. That’s what the original allegation was, and they might as well have added, as was found by the Senate committee, that the person in the CIA who wanted to send him was his wife.

HH: Yup, although she denied that.

CH: So it was a slam dunk.

HH: She denied that, did she not?

CH: Yeah, well, we have the letter that she sent recommending him. I haven’t got it in front of me, but it’s very easy to find.

HH: Right.

CH: And recommended him particularly, I might add, on the grounds that he was great friends with the Minister of Mines of Niger, the very man, in other words, who he would have been, if he had been doing an investigation, which he wasn’t, having to investigate. So he gets sent there on the grounds that he’s friends of the person who he’s supposed to be suspecting. It’s extraordinary.

HH: Is it over?

CH: What?

HH: Is the matter over now? It’s…

CH: No, I don’t think it is, because a great injustice has been done to Lewis Libby.

HH: Okay, and Vice President Cheney yesterday saying, asked whether or not he’d want a pardon, said with Libby in the front row, you know how I think about that. Let me play for you an excerpt of an interview I conducted yesterday with Major General Barbero to get your reaction. Here is that excerpt.

HH: General, can the Quds forces, though deployed, operate without the knowledge and approval of the highest levels of the Iranian government?

MB: The Quds force are an arm of the Iranian government. Their mission is to export the revolution. It would be hard to believe that there are any free agents from the Iranian forces operating inside Iraq.

HH: Now this was immediately after he confirmed to me that they were operating inside of Iraq, Christopher Hitchens. Why isn’t the world talking about this?

CH: Well, I think we know the reason, which is a cheap and discreditable one, but has to be faced. I mean, many people now just do not take American claims at face value. It goes back to the argument we were having before about the inept way in which the actually very real connections between Saddam Hussein and weaponry and terrorism were handled by administration spokesmen. I’m afraid that part of the cost of that ineptitude is that people are just very reluctant to take our word for it now. But as I was saying earlier, most of the gravamen of the case against Iran is not made by United States, it’s been made by the European Union and the International Atomic Energy Authority. And of course what the General says just now is common sense. In a case as important as this, in a neighboring country, you are not going to find unauthorized Iranian activity.

HH: And so they are in fact making war on the United States, as they have been since 1978?

CH: Well, you can put it like that, or you can say that they have an interest either in destabilizing Iraq, or in making sure that whatever form it is stabilized is not as a federal democracy. Yes, you can certainly make that case.

HH: Last area of questions. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s confession, have you had a chance to read it?

CH: Sure.

HH: What do you think of it? Is he puff-talking, or is that really his resume?

CH: Well, I’m really…I don’t think I’m competent to decide that. I hate saying I don’t know, but I always do when I don’t.

HH: What do you take away from it then, at least with regards to the relish with which he declares that it was his right hand that held the sword that decapitated Daniel Pearle?

CH: Well, I believe that all right. I really do. It’s…there’s a strange thing. He says at one point, he makes it unclear whether he is or is not a member of al Qaeda. I don’t quite know why he’s doing that, either, but that he’s motivated by a very, very strong hatred of the United States, and that he was willing to take part in the ritual slaughter, because that’s really what it was, the ritual slaughter of a Jew, in order to make his point, is beyond doubt. By the way, I don’t know if you could ever stomach watching that video when it was aired.

HH: No, I have not.

CH: Well, I did make myself watch it. I sometimes do it. I can’t always, but at the end of this, there was a list of demands that came up as a crawler of the screen, over the severed head of Danny Pearle, still dripping…

HH: Yeah.

CH: One of the demands was that the United States stand…what was the word they used? Keep its promise, embargoed, to supply F-16 jets to Pakistan.

HH: Huh.

CH: That was in the name of…it was a campaign for Muslim dignity. Our other demand is the United State lift its embargo on the sale of F-16’s to Pakistan. Interesting, huh?

HH: Yes, it is. Christopher Hitchens, on that note, I must move on. Always a pleasure. You can read his latest at Slate and at Vanity Fair.

End of interview.

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