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Vanity Fair’s Christopher Hitchens on Kurdistan, Baghdad, and comparisons to Vietnam.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007
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HH: We begin as we do when we’re lucky on Wednesday with Christopher Hitchens, columnist for Vanity Fair, author of Thomas Jefferson, a recent biography as well as writer at large for many other publications. Mr. Hitchens, welcome back. Good to have you back.

CH: Nice to be back. Happy New Year.

HH: And to you. You were recently in Iraq. Can you give us the circumstances of your journey, and who you saw, and how long you were there?

CH: Well, I went mainly to the north, to Kurdistan, where I encourage everyone to go, by the way. You can take your holiday there. I took my son. A wonderful, open society, there hasn’t been a bomb there since 2004, no coalition soldier has ever even been shot at in the northern provinces, no fighting between Kurds and other minorities, a remarkable achievement. I mean, it is the single greatest achievement of the liberation. I was mainly writing about that, and encouraging people to pay a visit. And if you Google a thing called the Other Iraq, by the way, you can look up how to get there. It’s easy to get, and you can fly direct from Europe now.

HH: Where do you fly into?

CH: Erbil, which is the capitol, it’s where the Kurdish regional government has its headquarters, or Sulaimaniyah, the town of President Talabani, who’s now president of Iraq. You can fly from Austria, direct without going through Baghdad, you can fly from Stockholm, from Amsterdam, a number of other places. It’s really well worth doing.

HH: Michael Totten has written extensively…

CH: I’ve been several times, and compared to what it was like when I first saw it in ’91, when the place had just been gassed and bombed and subjected to genocide by Saddam, it’s a night and day difference.

HH: Michael Totten’s written a lot, and put some great photos up. My question is, can you compare it to anyplace that would be in the frame of reference of most of our listeners?

CH: No, it’s unique, because what’s happening under the auspices of the coalition, and it’s been happening for a while, because they got out of Saddam’s Iraq in ’91, if you’ll remember, when we put the no-fly zone protective umbrella over Kurdistan. They had a 12 year start on everyone else, and they didn’t have to live with the terrible combination of sanctions plus Saddam that we allowed to go on for far too long for the rest of the country. And of course, they’re ethnically different. They’re not Arabs. They don’t speak Arabic. They’re not Turks, they’re not Persians. They’re a unique national group. They’re the largest national group, actually, in the world who don’t have a state of their own. There are about 24 million of them. They live in the rather unpromising neighborhood where Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq meet. It’s not the place you would want to pitch your tent, perhaps, if you wanted a state of their own, but that’s where they’ve lived for thousands of years. So what’s happening is a new nation is being born. They’re not going to proclaim independence, but it looks and feels much more like an autonomous country, if not yet a state, when you’re there.

HH: In your comment with them, and your conversations with them, are they optimists about the rest of Iraq?

CH: Well, no one is exactly an optimist, but I mean if you talk even to the most skeptical, hostile journalists and experts, they’ll tell you that of the few effective ministers in the Iraqi government, for example, a number, probably the greater number, are Kurdish. I mean, Hoshyar Zubari is universally admitted to be a very effective and decent foreign minister. There’s a very good minister of water resources, whose name I’ve just for the moment forgotten, Lotfi I think is his name, is also Kurdish. And of course, there’s President Jalal Talabani, who was elected by the whole of Iraq’s parliament to be the first elected president, who’s the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. What they tell me is look, if Iraq fails, it won’t be our fault. I mean, these are people who remember, were being gassed by the Iraqi government not very long ago.

HH: Right.

CH: They…if they wanted to leave, no one would blame them. But they’ve decided to send their own people south to make it work. The troops that are now being sent to Baghdad, the Iraqi Army troops, are, as you know, mainly Kurdish battalions. These people helped to clear Fallujah of the al Qaeda, they captured Zarqawi’s messenger, the man who was taking the message to bin Laden, making the first very evil proposal that we blew the cover on the story, you know, Zarqawi’s strategy was to provoke a sectarian civil war, which unfortunately has worked. They’re very tough on the al Qaeda people. They’re not allowed to operate anywhere near the north. But they have a Plan B. I mean, if Iraq fails, if it does become a failed state, then the Kurds will insist on what the constitution guarantees them by way of autonomy.

HH: Now I’ve been reading a book called Sons of the Conquerors: The Rise of the Turkic World by a fellow by the name of Hugh Pope, and he spent a lot of time in Istanbul, and he writes about the paranoia that the Turks have, vis-a-vis the Kurds.

CH: Yes.

HH: Do you worry, Christopher Hitchens, that if in fact the Iraq project crumbles, that the Turks will not allow a Kurdistan to exist across their border?

CH: Well, that’s rather up to the United States. We haven’t actually said, I think we should, and I think Congress should add a form of words that says we recognize a Kurdish autonomy as a positive gain, and we won’t compromise on it. The Turks don’t want them to declare an independent state, because they think it would be to trouble among their own very large Kurdish minorities, that Turkey is at least 15-20% Kurdish. Iraq is more like 25%. The Syrians and the Iranians don’t want it, either. But we don’t owe them anything in this respect. I mean, the Turks refused to allow us to use their bases for a northern front, unless they were allowed to send their own troops into Iraq, which naturally we said no to. The European Union would not tolerate them invading Northern Iraq, I’m now fairly sure, and they wanted to get into the European Union. So in this space, there’s a tremendous growth of self-government among the Kurds, and you can’t make a child grow smaller. I mean, it’s going to be a fact of life, and now you see on the airport road in Erbil, you see the signs of large, Turkish construction companies. They’ve decided to be smart and to take part in, and invest in what is now quite a booming little economy.

HH: That’s good news.

CH: Yeah. And then I went to Baghdad, and that’s not so great.

HH: All right, that’s what I’m going to get to. Later in the program, I’m going to talk with Harvard historian, Niall Ferguson…

CH: Oh, yeah.

HH: …about his belief that it’s time for the blue helmets to enter into Baghdad. And I’m going to challenge him on that, because I’m unaware of any U.N. peacemaking operation, other than Korea, led by us, that actually had success. What did you make of this suggestion? Had you seen it?

CH: I hadn’t. I’m an admirer of Professor Ferguson’s work, and I’d listen seriously to anything he had to say, but I don’t know how he anticipates what is a very obvious objection, the very one you make. I mean, the United Nations failed us in Bosnia, very badly, it failed in Rwanda, worse than failed, it betrayed Rwanda. We can see what happens when you take the Kofi Annan line in, for example, Darfur. What is to make us imagine this would be any different?

HH: That’s the argument I’ll put to him, and just stay tuned. Now, to your column in Slate from Tuesday, the critical thing about the much-bruited surge, you wrote, is that it too belongs in the all-important realm of the symbolic. A few extra troops in Baghdad and in Anbar are of scant use in themselves, unless they in some way represent a commitment to stick to Iraq, no matter what. First of all, General Petraeus doesn’t agree with you. He believes that if you triple and quadruple actual combat power in Baghdad, you’re making a significant increase in stability there. Why is he wrong?

CH: Well, I don’t know…triple and quadruple is a lot. That’s not what we’re talking about.

HH: It is in Baghdad, in terms of combat power. It’s not support troops, it’s actual guns.

CH: Well, look, I certainly would not trust myself to have a strategic or tactical argument with General Petraeus, who is very generally agreed to be the most outstanding of our officers in Iraq, and it’s a real shame that he was ever withdrawn, and that it’s taken this long to get him back there. And in a way, that’s what I worry about, that all this is policy that might once have worked, and has commanders who might once have been the answer. But at the same time, you have the Secretary of Defense saying that the purpose of this is to speed up the rate of American…eventual American withdrawal. And when he says things like that, that’s what the other side listens to, people you get the sense, I’m sorry to say, in Iraq, of who are waiting it out. They have a feeling that it’s not going to be long now until they’re left to their own devices, and they make their dispositions accordingly.

HH: Well put. Now let me ask you, if…is the Americans serious, is the American effort serious is they do not either capture or kill Muqtada al-Sadr?

CH: There’s a big division on that very point. Ahmad Chalabi, who I went to see, is very insistent that the most important thing is to reintegrate Muqtada al-Sadr into politics, so that…his forces are not shooting at the coalition. For one thing, actually, they don’t dare. They tried it once, and they came off a real bad second in…

HH: Najaf.

CH: …Najaf and further south, up against the British. The Mahdi Army isn’t an army, in any real sense of the word at all. The difficulty is not their attitude to violence, it’s their attitude towards sectarianism. And the related difficulty, as you know, is that the Maliki government depends in parliament very much on its votes.

HH: So the question remains, does the United States have to go after him to be understood to be serious?

CH: No, I think it’s a matter of neutralizing him, and I don’t mean that as a euphemism. I mean, I think the…it is a matter of drawing his people into politics. The problem is the more he moves towards taking part in a political process, the more he loses control over the more unwashed elements of the Mahdi Army. In fact, what’s been noticed in a lot of towns is that he doesn’t…even in Sadr City, and Baghdad itself, is he doesn’t…his writ doesn’t absolutely run with these people. They splinter off into little ward healing, little warlord militias of their very own. That’s the problem with Iraq is how fissile it is. It’s not a three way split at all. There are splits within the splits, between the sects.

– – – – – –

HH: Mr. Hitchens, in your column at Slate, you write in large parts of Iraq, still there are people who dread what might happen in the event of our withdrawal. After having talked with them about this, do you think in the aftermath of a sudden or even a phased over three, six month withdrawal, conditions in Iraq would be as bad or worse as when the Brits withdrew from the mandate in Palestine, or as bad or worse as when the United States withdrew from Southeast Asia, and the Cambodian holocaust followed?

CH: Gosh. Well, I had an almost surreal, I wish I could have had all of your audience with me, a meeting, again in Erbil, with members of the Kurdistan regional parliament, their elected parliament. And there were two people there in particular, one representing the Islamist party, and one representing the Communist party, both of whom are quite well represented in this parliament, and they both said that there shouldn’t be a withdrawal, and when it came, it should only be with thanks to President Bush, until terrorism had been defeated, and democracy had been established, and law and order imposed. It was really quite remarkable to hear this from, as I say, the Communists and the Islamists. The other parties, of course, already say that. They’re better known in public. You wouldn’t get everyone else in Iraq to say it in quite that way, I have to say. But there are people who know perfectly well that what would happen, man would be a wolf to man, as he already is in Iraq, in the event of a withdrawal, and the difficulty is that in anticipation of it, people are already making their adjustments to the local militia. They’re going back to what they know, to the tribe, or to the clan, or to the Mosque. And that’s a process that started while we are actually still there. So some people argue, well in that case, how could it be worse? You know, this is a phase they’ll have to get over. You may have to go through with it. My objection to that is the same as it would be to what you say about Palestine and Indochina. The British empire was over in the Levant, and everybody knew it. They didn’t know exactly when they were going to go, but the mandate insisted they go by a time and date certain. So there was no real argument about withdrawal, it was only a question of when. And with Indochina, I think we differ, but I don’t think the United States should have ever been there in the first place. It’s something we could have easily have skipped. With the Middle East, and with Iraq now, with Mesopotamia now, we’re faced with the fact that here is a keystone state in the region, voting this month on a budget of $49 billion dollars by the way, right between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and commanding the Gulf. It’s not a country we can walk away from, unless we agree that America is through anywhere east of Cypress, that we just don’t want to know any more about the Middle East. That’s what’s so idiotic about people who say we could withdraw. They fall for this foolish idea there’s such a thing as over there and over here. Iraq has been in our future for a long time, and if we pulled out, we have to go back in. Probably, we’d be begged to.

HH: I think you misapprehend my question. It’s not whether we ought to go, but that if we did go, forced, perhaps, by a Democratic Congress, or an exhausted executive, post-Bush, that the slaughter and the dislocation, would it be as bad or worse than that which followed after the Brits withdrew from the mandate, or as bad or worse as what followed in Cambodia after we withdrew?

CH: Oh, well, I see what you mean. Well, the problem with the British withdrawal from Palestine was they had at different times promised to hand it over to both sides, to both the Zionist movement and the Arab nationalist movement. So they’d already created the conditions for a war before leaving, where we aren’t, I hope, doing that. I mean, though I think the Maliki government needs to be rebuked for some of its sectarianism, we aren’t conclusively identified with one side in this confessional war. And I’ve been relatively scrupulous about that. I worry about that changing, I have to add. When I hear people talk about Vietnam, I always want to say, and in fact, I always do say, we’re not fighting the Viet Cong there, I wish we were. We’re fighting the Khmer Rouge. And that’s what it would be like, and in the areas where even for a brief time these people have been able to take over a town or a village or a district, it’s been Taliban plus. Now under no circumstances could any responsible Congress or president, or United Nations possibly consent to having a country of the importance and sophistication of Iraq run by these goons. It’s just out of the question. It must be agreed by all that cannot happen.

HH: So you believe the holocaust that would follow in Iraq from a precipitous American withdrawal would rival, or perhaps even exceed that of Pol Pot in Cambodia?

CH: It would be a very rash person who didn’t think that that worst case would be the actual one. And look, again, the awful thing is some of it’s happening as we speak. I mean, almost anyone in Baghdad now, at any rate, who has a qualification, or any money, or any education, or any resources of any sort, is already gone. Perhaps as many as a million and a half, we don’t actually know, have moved to Jordan, some of them to Syrian, some even to Iran, anywhere to get out. Life is becoming intolerable there.

HH: Well given that, and this is a key question, given that you think it’s certain that that kind of scale of horror would follow, do the people urging, whether it’s Murtha or anybody else, urging the precipitous withdrawal, will they bear the moral culpability for the slaughter that follows, if in fact, we are obliged to leave?

CH: I know that there are some Democrats who wonder about this in a responsible way, and there are others who worry about it in a more politicized way, thinking in gee, how would we avoid getting blamed if that happened. What they will do is say well, we never asked for the war in the first place, the President cheated us into it, et cetera, et cetera. But that would be a pretty tinny thing to say, if the whole of Iraqi society is denuded and driven back to year zero.

HH: So you’re saying yes, they will bear the moral culpability?

CH: Yes, they will. Yes, I think anyone who talks about withdrawal has to face this question, and indeed has to be faced with it.

HH: Now I don’t recall, I did not know what you wrote during Vietnam. Did you consider the same calculation in urging, if you did, in fact, as I suspect you did, American withdrawal from Vietnam and the area around Cambodia?

CH: Well, yes, it was one of the last ditch arguments, as it became, in fact, evident that the United States wasn’t going to be withdrawing from Vietnam, but was going to be pushed out, which is slightly different. I mean, it was going to happen anyway.

HH: The reason I ask is not to trap you…

CH: They would say well, there’ll be a bloodbath if we withdraw, bloodbath was the word. And the opposite of that was, it seemed persuasive at the time, well, there’s a bloodbath already. Now in the case of Vietnam, I think that was a justifiable argument, and I think everyone who was in the anti-war movement has, or certainly should have, a twinge about what happened in Cambodia. Nobody thought it could get that bad.

HH: See, if I could keep you one more segment, what I want to come back and ask you, and this is actually intensely interesting to me, is how do you persuade a cut and run Democrat now, having been a get out of Vietnam and let the chips fall where they were anti-war protestor in the 70’s, that that was then and this is now, and this is now is different? Fair question, Christopher Hitchens?

CH: Oh, yeah, very much so.

— – – – – –

HH: Christopher Hitchens, when we went to break, I posed to you this question. How is it possible for anti-war activists, as you were during Vietnam, to not be culpable for the Cambodian holocaust, and at the same time that those arguing for cut and run today would in fact be culpable for the chaos and the slaughter that would follow in Iraq, if their advice to cut and run was in fact followed?

CH: Right. Well, deep breath, then. The American enterprise in Indochina was, I think, foredoomed by one thing, namely its direct inheritance from French colonialism in that region. The French empire should never have been restored after 1945. I think if President Roosevelt had not died, it wouldn’t have been. The United States should not have tried to come to its rescue, and shouldn’t have tried to succeed it. It’s not America’s role to succeed Western colonialism. It’s its role to help those colonies to become emancipated. And we missed that chance, and having missed it, engaged in a war where terrifying and illegal methods of warfare, like carpet bombing, the use of chemical defoliant, like Agent Orange, and other terrible war crimes were committed. And part of the reason why Cambodia went to year zero was that it had been half bombed back into the Stone Age already. And I’m sorry that should be on the conscience of anyone who supported the war, which I did not. But thought I don’t try and evade the responsibility for what the other side eventually did, not just in Cambodia, but also in Vietnam, but there was never any chance of keeping Vietnam partitioned, and it shouldn’t have been tried. Now furthermore, no American interest was really involved there. We were told we were fighting against the Chinese takeover, whereas the best insurance against Maoism in Indochina is always Vietam. That’s been proved many times since then. So none of this applies in the case of Iraq, where we went to overthrow a hideous dictatorship that was a local aggressor, a sponsor of international terrorism, had used weapons of mass destruction inside and outside its own borders, was hated by its people, and was in thoroughgoing breach of all important United Nations resolutions. None of this, by the way, was the case with the government of Vietnam. Where furthermore, let’s not be shy about it, we do have a crucial interest, first in keeping the Gulf open, and its oil available, not just for us, but for everybody else, getting it pumped again, particularly important to pump Iraqi oil, because we need to undercut the monopolies of Saudi Arabia and Iran in the area. That’s a vital interest. Second, I don’t think that a single Democrat who doesn’t agree that we are in fact in some kind of war, however defined, with Islamic extremism, and not just in the Middle East either, but in Indonesia, and on the streets of European capitol cities, and that it is completely out of the question to concede a country of the importance of Iraq to these people. We cannot allow them to take over, first for humanitarian reasons, the country would be destroyed, and the people would be put to the sword, and second, because, well, for the advertised reasons. It’s just too strategically and economically important a country to let that happen.

HH: Now that part I understand.

CH: We’ve entered Iraq far too late, Saddam Hussein could have, should have been taken out in 1991, shouldn’t even probably have been allowed to stay there that long, Jimmy Carter should never have been allowed to endorse his invasion of Iran, we’re paying for the price of two generations worth of mistakes that for once, we’re there for a good reason.

HH: But Mr. Hitchens, the key that I didn’t hear answered is, once foreseeability of massacre attaches, regardless of how we ended up there…

CH: Yes…

HH: …as it did in Vietnam in 1972, doesn’t moral culpability attach to those who are indifferent to those foreseeable slaughters? And doesn’t that apply to the Cambodian holocaust?

CH: Well, I will not make this my own argument, but I’ll simply say that argument that I could anticipate being made, which is people would say well, how much worse could it get? All the things you’re afraid of are already happening, and partly because of the bungling of the occupation, and the bad planning of it. And that’s not a completely unfair point. There could come a point where everything we fear happens while we’re still there. And that is my personal fear. That’s what I wake up and go to sleep worrying about.

HH: Last question, because we’re almost out of time. Do you wake up and go to sleep ever worrying about your opposition to the Vietnam war and the holocaust that happened in Cambodia?

CH: Not to the first, no, because if it had been up to me, the war, which is what led to the bloodletting and the starvation and all the rest of it, would never have occurred in the first place. So for me, the Vietnam war was definitively over in 1954, when the French Army surrendered in Dien Bien Phu, and it was at that point that the United States should have recognized…

HH: And to the second?

CH: …Ho Chi Minh’s declaration of independence.

HH: And to the second?

CH: And to the second, well, this is what I would say now, what I hope I don’t hear Democrats saying in the case of Iraq. If since we didn’t ask for the war in the first place, don’t blame me if it all ends very badly, which it did in Vietnam, as it was absolutely bound to do. It wasn’t a just war, it wasn’t a necessary war, and it was fought with atrocious means.

HH: No culpability?

CH: None of these three things apply in the case of Iraq. It was a just intervention, and a necessary and overdue one, and on the whole, our forces have behaved with exemplary humanitarianism.

HH: Fascinating stuff. Christopher Hitchens, we’ll continue again in the future.

End of interview.

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