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Vanity Fair’s Christopher Hitchens on Iran, Pakistan, Syria, and the opening act of Obama/Geithner on the economy.

Thursday, March 12, 2009
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HH: On this, the 5th anniversary of the Madrid bombings which killed 191 people, injured 1,800, and on a day to discuss that and other subjects we’re joined by Christopher Hitchens, columnist for Vanity Fair. Mr. Hitchens, I think most of the world wants to forget such unpleasant topics as Madrid.

CH: You’re right about that. People are in what’s commonly called denial. And the Spanish people, in fact on that very day, took the opportunity to vote as if by taking themselves out of the line, by taking themselves out of Iraq and elsewhere, they would cease to attract this kind of attention, which was exactly what we know the al Qaeda planners of the operation were hoping they would do.

HH: They succeeded.

CH: Well, to a point. I mean, of course the battlefield defeat suffered by al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, in Iraq, in Mesopotamia itself, that is to say, I mean, I think more than compensates for it.

HH: Agreed. Now I have to ask you about your adventure in Lebanon. Will you be putting together any guided tours there soon, because it was really…

CH: Oh, I can’t wait to go back, and you’ll soon be able to read me in Vanity Fair about the Arab street.

HH: Were you in fear of your life? Or were you sort of dazed at the time that the assault on you began?

CH: I was, well, with episodes of violence, it’s funny how everything seems to speed up very suddenly, and also to slow down almost to freeze frame of pace, as if you’re watching it happen while it’s happening very quickly. It’s that weird that that mayhem does to you. But yes, I was afraid, because I was actually afraid I was going to be taken away to some secret, private dungeon, which is a feature of Lebanese life, or has been, and where some friends of mine have in their past been dragged.

HH: It’s interesting, Christopher Hitchens, that you go there, because of your visibility. I would imagine that not just the Syrian fascists, but the Hezbollah as well would have a price on your head.

CH: Well, I don’t rate myself as highly as that, though it’s very flattering of you to put it like that. One certainly can’t stay away from places of this sort, and I was invited by a very nice group of Lebanese democrats, and I thought it was my job to go and be witness with them to a very heartening demonstration, I might add, on the 14th of February, the anniversary, another gruesome anniversary, the anniversary of the almost certainly Syrian-sponsored murder by car bomb of Rafiq Hariri, the great Lebanese leader.

HH: You’re anticipating where I’m going. Bret Stephens has the cover story in the new Commentary Magazine on the futility of attempting to engage with Syria. Do you agree with that, Christopher Hitchens?

CH: Not completely, no I don’t. I mean, there are issues with Syria that we would have with any government of Syria, including the occupation of the Golan Heights, which is sometimes called Quneitra Province, including the slightly uneasy relationship that they have with Iran. It’s not absolutely predetermined that the Syrian regime will be always as it is now.

HH: Have you had a chance to read the Stephens piece yet?

CH: I haven’t.

HH: I…

CH: But I know how the argument goes.

HH: I recommend it to you, maybe we’ll talk about it next week or the week thereafter.

CH: I mean, we know that already the Israeli government is in fact negotiating with Syria through the agency of Turkey, which is in theory at least a friend of both parties. And so for one, I don’t think, if the Israelis are prepared to do it, I don’t see why we should say we wouldn’t.

HH: All right, let me turn to a picture I took off of the supreme leader’s website this morning, the Ayatollah Khamenei. It shows Ahmadinejad, Kahamenei and President Zardari of Pakistan meeting and greeting in Iran. What do you make of the Pakistan-Iran connection, if any?

CH: It’s not a very strong connection. The Pakistani Shia minority is having a very thin time at the hands of the Pakistani Sunni majority. One of the ingredients in the ongoing disintegration of Pakistan is the persecution of the Shia. I mean, that may give the Iranians a reason to grant a conversation, if you like. The most worrying news out of Pakistan at the moment is not to do with their relationship with Iran, but to do with their handover of a major province of their own country, a prosperous, hitherto flourishing province, the former kingdom of Swat without a fight to the Taliban.

HH: Yup. Let me ask you about, later in the day I’m going to talk with Ian Bremmer and Preston Keat about their new book, The Fat Tail, about geopolitical predictions and how they effect markets. Do you expect Israel to attack Iran in 2009, Christopher Hitchens?

CH: No, I don’t. I mean, I think they’ve thought about it a lot. I think they’ve worked out ways short of a direct attack of sabotaging and retarding the way in which Iran is advancing towards nuclear status. I think that they, since they were turned down by the Bush administration for a preemptive strike, I don’t think it’s very likely they’d get a better offer from an Obama administration. And since they’ve had to use Iraqi airspace, or Turkish airspace to do it properly, and they won’t probably get that kind of permission, I think they’ll have to find another way of doing it.

HH: Can’t they blinker Syria like they did when they took out Syria’s nuclear reactor?

CH: By the way, that’s one of the most interesting things that’s ever happened, I think, and certainly in the recent past, in this drama. The Syrians have yet to complain to the United Nations…

HH: Yes.

CH: …or to any international body about that raid. Now normally, if Israel does anything at all, there’s a unanimous chorus from the Arab world, and from the Muslim world, and so forth about it. The Syrians have yet to even register a protest at the U.N. about this, which makes one think that the Israelis may have been onto something with that site, and that it may well have been a front for a North Korean reactor.

HH: That’s Stephen’s argument. Now it is like a drug dealer getting rolled and refusing to report his lost gains. Let me ask you about Charles Freeman. Later in the show, I’m going to talk with Glenn Greenwald of Salon.com. There has been so much commentary written about the previously obscure Mr. Freeman in the last week. What do you make of all this?

CH: Well, I just read rather hurriedly, I should confess, but I think enough to get the sense of it, his extremely self-pitying statement of withdrawal. Have you seen it?

HH: Yes, I did. I read it at length yesterday.

CH: I mean, so it’s a real sob story, boo hoo thing. Essentially, I think what he wants you to think is there goes another victim, like myself, of the Jewish lobby.

HH: That’s exactly what he wants you to think.

CH: That appears to be the code for the thing. I mean, all I can tell you is that I don’t know anyone who’s interested in human rights, from anywhere from China to Saudi Arabia, very distressed in Mr. Freeman being even considered for the job in the first place.

HH: But your pal, Andrew Sullivan, believes that the Jewish lobby took him out.

CH: Well, I don’t have any evidence to support Andrew’s contention.

HH: Do you believe there is a such a thing as…

CH: Certainly the people who were writing to me saying why don’t you write something about this, none of them were what I would call in the AIPAC world, at all. Many of them were very much not in it, and they were talking about his attitude towards, for example, Tiananmen Square.

HH: That is to me the most astonishing, that he would be nominated at all in the aftermath of his assessment of Chinese brutality against their own people.

CH: Well yes, having his only criticism of the Chinese at that point was that they hadn’t been more ruthless, and acted more swiftly to massacre their own students in the middle of their own capitol city.

HH: All right, so why…

CH: I mean, not even Henry Kissinger was as depraved as that at that point.

HH: Why is it that so many people are in such a hurry to blame the Jewish lobby for a nefarious influence over everything that goes on in the United States?

CH: I can’t imagine, can you?

HH: Well, I’m asking, because I really, I know that pro-Israeli people, pro-Israel people attempt to influence policy, as do pro-Colombian people. But I don’t know why it’s considered so nefarious.

CH: Somehow, it’s more exciting to some people who want to suggest that there’s a secret government, or a state within a state, or a hidden hand. It’s much more exciting for them to believe that it’s a Jewish hidden hand than it is for, say, a Chinese or a Russian or a Saudi one. Quite why this is? I don’t have time to explain now, but I have written about it in my critique of Mearsheimer and Walt, and other people who can’t stay off this subject.

HH: Well, in states where there really is a hidden hand, Lebanon for example, where the Syrian hidden hand has killed people for the last twenty years, and not so long ago, three successive senior leaders in the government, the anti-Israeli lobby people don’t seem to mind so much about those hidden hands.

CH: Well, you’ll like my forthcoming Vanity Fair piece, I think. I mean, I say that all we know is this. If you criticize Syria, and if you’re a Lebanese journalist or politician, your car blows up. It’s the oddest thing. There seem to be no exceptions to this. That’s all we know. We can’t say we know that it’s the Syrians. We can only say that if you criticize them, you tend to be assassinated.

HH: How can they be so damned efficient in killing off Lebanese, and then lose every time they get into a shooting match with the Israelis?

CH: Well, this is one of those regimes that’s like the Argentine one, it’s never lost a war against civilians yet.

HH: (laughing) Hitchens, I can’t wait to read Vanity Fair. Very quickly, Wall Street Journal reporting that in their survey of 49 economists, many of them, in fact a majority, don’t believe that Obama and Geithner are successful in their efforts to revive the economy. I disagree with them on the economy generally, but what do you make of the Obama/Geithner opening act?

CH: I actually thought Paul Krugman wrote a rather good piece the other day, I don’t always say this, saying that it was by every definition both too little and too late, and that the way the Obama people talk about it as a massive, bold, pump priming matter is the reverse of the case, that it’s actually timid and limited, and already outdone by the increasingly obvious, terrifying magnitude of the crisis.

HH: Christopher Hitchens, always a pleasure, I’ll talk to you again as soon as we can on a Wednesday.

End of interview.

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