Mark Danner

The Great Debate: Christopher Hitchens vs. Mark Danner

Author: Gary Kamiya


As President Bush all but declared war on Iraq, journalists Christopher Hitchens and Mark Danner thrashed out the big issues that the country should have months ago.

BERKELEY, Calif. — Will invading Iraq make America a safer or a more dangerous place? Can inspections and sanctions contain Saddam? Will the Arab and Muslim world respect an invading America for showing resolve, or react with violent rage?

These questions became at once more urgent and perhaps more irrelevant around 6:45 p.m. Tuesday, when President Bush set Feb. 5 as the day when the countdown to an invasion of Iraq will officially begin. It was somehow appropriate, in these peculiarly disconnected and weightless days running up to an unreal-feeling war, that an important public debate over the looming conflict took place just a few minutes after that war apparently became inevitable.

The subject of the debate was “How Should We Use Our Power? Iraq and the War on Terror.” The opponents were New Yorker magazine writer Mark Danner, author of “Massacre at El Mozote” and a professor at the UC-Berkeley journalism school, and Christopher Hitchens, Vanity Fair writer and former Nation columnist, whose latest book is “Why Orwell Matters.” The audience at Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall heard out both speakers respectfully, leading one to wonder if any left-wing rowdies who might have been tempted to heckle the pro-war Hitchens were intimidated by his legendarily box-cutter-like wit. (One irrepressible Jacobite did interrupt the expat Brit with a cry of “Bullshit!” leading the moderator, J-School dean Orville Schell, to admonish the audience against such outbursts. To which Hitchens, who probably has an entire case of these verbal stilettos sharpened and ready to hand in his mental cupboard, calmly remarked, “I don’t seek protection from people who make animal noises.”) Judging by the applause, Danner’s dovish position was more popular, but the audience seemed surprisingly receptive to Hitchens’ arguments.

In some ways, the Iraq question has flipped the positions of the left and the right, forcing partisans of both camps to examine their ideological preconceptions. And intellectual ironies and strange bedfellows abounded during the debate. Hitchens, former Trotskyite turned pro-war hawk (it was a strange sight indeed to watch the scourge of so many Republican administrations, the man who argued that Henry Kissinger should be tried for war crimes, quietly clapping his hands for President Bush as he watched the State of the Union address on a TV in the J-School courtyard), took a classic interventionist-Wilsonian line: The U.S. is fighting the good fight, attempting to liberate an oppressed people. Danner, representing the left, took the hard-boiled realist position: Military action and occupation would endanger the U.S.

An even more peculiar irony concerned what was perhaps the central — and most mysterious — question raised by the debate, the Arab world’s response to a U.S. invasion. In an audacious gambit that has also been utilized by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, Hitchens accused Danner and other pessimists of condescending to Iraqis and other Arabs, by not giving them credit for being capable of building a democratic society or assuming they would lash out at the U.S. in impotent rage. In effect, Hitchens was arguing that the left, for all of its defense of Arabs and Muslims, actually clings to an Orientalist, exotic series of Arab stereotypes: they are revengeful, proud, tribal, etc. For his part, Danner tacitly argued that potential difficulties in rebuilding Iraq were not due to Arab backwardness, but to the fractures in Iraqi society and the difficulties all nations face that have emerged from years of totalitarian rule. As for a terrorist backlash, one need not adopt any position vis-a-vis the Arab mind or Arab culture to draw certain ominous conclusions from Sept. 11, which — it is often forgotten — was partly the result of our earlier invasion of Iraq. It’s useful to remember that much of Osama bin Laden’s rage was sparked by the U.S. bases that were built in Saudi Arabia during that war.

Hitchens’ bitter public split with the Nation, precipitated by his outrage over a torrent of America-bashing post-9/11 letters the journal printed, had left some wondering if irritation with the fools of the left had led the quick-tongued polemicist to throw himself, in classic inverted-Stalinist fashion, in with the fools of the right. But those who came expecting to hear Hitchens railing against the left went away disappointed. Although he did throw a couple of nasty jabs at received lefty thinking, Hitchens took the high ground.

The debate started with a coin flip, which provided Danner with the opportunity to begin subtly needling Hitchens by invoking the suddenly-no-longer-evil North Korean leader Kim Jung Il. (“One side of the coin has Kim Jung Il, the other Kim il Sung,” he cracked.) Danner began by referring to Bush’s State of the Union speech. Calling it “a very eloquent speech that was full of fear,” he said it raised an underlying question: “What kind of country are we going to be? On what basis will we act in the world? Will it be out of fear and distrust of the rest of the world, acting as a musclebound troll, secure in our power, flaunting it, blustering, or will we act cooperatively, multilaterally, trying to make the world better?”

Danner argued that the debate over the war on terror represented the third time in this century that America had struggled with its role in the world — the first being Wilson’s attempt to create the League of Nations, the second the establishment of the post-WWII world order. The third iteration was shaped by Bush, and Danner argued that his Manichaean vision — his division of the world into good and evil, and his concomitant doctrine of preemption — were extremely dangerous. Danner derided the antiseptic term “regime change,” noting that “in fact, we’re talking about attacking, bombing, invading and occupying a major Arab country.” He reminded the audience that 100,000 Iraqis died in the first Gulf War, saying “this is regime change.” And he hammered home perhaps his central point: that a prolonged occupation would be required to stabilize postwar Iraq; that this occupation would be fraught with complications; and that it could result in more terror attacks against the U.S. He noted tellingly that Bush did not even mention the word occupation in his speech.

Danner took what might be called the minimalist antiwar position: Confining himself to a bottom-line, what’s-good-for-America analysis, he alluded to other subjects — the morality of preemptive attacks, the true motivations of the administration, and the role of oil — but didn’t really explore them. Danner’s invocation of the 100,000 Iraqis killed in the first Gulf War obviously raised moral questions (at what point do casualty figures incurred in liberating a country make the “liberation” meaningless?), but he didn’t return to the subject. He was clearly suspicious of the administration’s motivations: He read a passage from Bob Woodward’s book “Bush at War” in which Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld says, two weeks after 9/11, “Should we be getting something going in another area other than Afghanistan, where the success and failure isn’t measured just by Afghanistan?” Danner said he believed that strategic interests (read: oil) were the real reason the U.S. wanted to oust Saddam, but he did not seem to find that fact in itself problematic. Suspending moral judgments, he criticized Bush’s Iraq war mainly because it did not serve America’s self-interest.

It did not do so, he argued, because invading and occupying a major Arab nation was likely to destabilize the region and lead to further terrorist attacks against the U.S. “Al-Qaida cannot defeat the U.S.,” he said. “But United States can defeat the United States. It can defeat the United States by occupying a major Arab country and serving as a major target for al-Qaida.” Indeed, Danner argued, this outcome was precisely what bin Laden had wanted: His attacks were designed to lure the U.S. into a massive military retaliation against the Arab and Muslim world, which would blow up in America’s face.

Instead of pursuing this catastrophically risky course, Danner advocated continuing with a beefed-up containment policy — more inspectors, unlimited time — combined with smart sanctions (targeted only at imports that could be used to make weapons of mass destruction) and a tough new policy allowing U.S. or allied air forces to bomb sites to which Saddam did not allow inspectors access.

This latter provision is key: It was clearly designed to get around the central problem, outlined in painful detail in Kenneth M. Pollack’s important book “The Threatening Storm,” that Saddam never gives an inch until an army stands at his door. But since the costs of maintaining such an army are prohibitive — hence Bush’s current hyperactive trigger finger — “we cannot hold the gun to Saddam’s head for as long as it would take to actually disarm Iraq,” in Pollack’s words. But Danner’s proposal addresses that problem: maintaining a much larger number of inspectors in Iraq would not be prohibitively expensive, and bombing noncompliant sites could be done by the planes currently protecting the Kurds by patrolling the northern no-fly zone.

Containment, Danner argued, was working: Saddam’s much-touted nuclear program was nonexistent, his army was half the size it was after the Gulf War, and his ability to make WMD was severely compromised by the presence of the inspectors. To pull out the inspectors precipitously would simply confirm the suspicions of the rest of the world that the U.S. never intended to disarm Iraq, but merely wanted to invade it.

Hitchens’ major counterargument to Danner’s sobering scenario of a post-invasion world, full of seething anti-U.S. resentments, seemed to be the same one Bush used, and which is also made, in frightening fashion, in Pollack’s book: it’s more dangerous to not act, because Saddam is insane and unpredictable and might do something evil at any time, and time is not on our side. (Perhaps aware of the shakiness of the evidence, Hitchens did not try very hard to link Saddam to international terrorists, although he did bring up his alleged ties to the radical Islamist group Ansar al-Islam, which has been battling the Kurds.) But Hitchens spent less time making that counterargument, and considerably more time enunciating the “moral imperative” that he passionately believes requires us to remove one of our age’s most loathsome leaders. His argument was driven less by fear than by idealism.

Hitchens’ position can be summed up as follows: It is our moral duty to strike down evil tyrants like Saddam Hussein whenever we can. We should finish the job we started in 1991. The status quo is too risky to preserve, and inspections will not work. Saddam is going to fall soon anyway, and it would be better for us to push him to avoid the mess of his implosion. The war will be short and painless, we will be greeted as emancipators, and rebuilding Iraq will not be that difficult. The Arab world will not turn against us; moderates and democrats will be strengthened, and radical Islamists who said we would never fight back will be discredited even before we hunt them down and kill them.

Hitchens opened by saying that those arguing against war were missing the point, because “the engagement with Saddam Hussein has already begun” — i.e. the allied enforcement of the no-fly zone, with bombings against Iraqi targets. “There is no escaping this, there is no neutralist or abstentionist position,” he said. As war loomed, “in some ways I find myself exhilarated,” he said. Drawing on the moral capital of his longtime support for the Kurds, who suffered heavily under Saddam and were betrayed by the U.S. after the Gulf War, he said that any of the millions of Kurdish exiles “could tell a story that would chill the blood of anyone in this room. They have the right of return. And it’s a privilege to be able to say that one is on their side.”

Hitchens acknowledged that the United States had not historically played such an admirable role in the region. We had propped up corrupt client or enforcer states like Iraq and Saudi Arabia, turning a blind eye to their brutality. (Hitchens later commented that the real axis of evil should have been Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.) In a caustic reference to the antiwar slogan “no blood for oil,” Hitchens said, “Blood for oil was when Saddam gassed the Kurds and nothing was said by the administration. That was when blood was shed for oil.”

How, then, had the U.S. overcome its imperial past to become the shining force for historic good that he said it had now become? Here Hitchens performed a bit of high-flown razzle-dazzle out of Chapter 36 in Hegel’s “Philosophy of History.” “It does seem to me that by what might be called a Hegelian moment, in his famous phrase the ‘cunning of reason,’ by a long series of mistakes and crimes and blunders, the United States has placed itself on the right side of history.”

Moving smartly on before it occurred to anyone that perhaps even Hegel’s all-encompassing World-Spirit might have rebelled at using Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld as its instruments, Hitchens argued that the U.S. had a moral imperative to fight the likes of Saddam. “Ever since the 1989 revolution (that toppled the Soviet empire), our hopes of peace and of peace dividends have been repeatedly spoiled by the revival of the one-party state megalomaniac despot. Slobodan Milosevic. Saddam Hussein. Kim Jung Il.”

Not surprisingly, Danner responded to Hitchens’ relentlessly optimistic assessment of the war and its outcome by casting doubt on just about every one of his assertions. Referring to Haiti, which has been bloodily jerked around by inconstant, ever-changing American policies, Danner said, “I’ve learned to suspect dreaming imperial dreams.” In an eloquent excursus, he described American foreign policy as a spotlight: everything is fine when it’s shining somewhere, but when it moves on, darkness falls and in that darkness you find death.

Danner expressed doubt that America would stay the course in postwar Iraq. In this context, one of the debate’s more peculiar moments arose when he implied that the presence of big-thinking, “reshape the Middle East” neo-con hawks like Paul Wolfowitz, Doug Feith and Richard Perle as counsels to Bush was a reason for optimism — although he added that how much influence they had was unknown. The reason for this optimism: Their motivation, as opposed to the realpolitik motives of the likes of Cheney and Rumsfeld, was to spread democracy through the region. Danner did not mention that the motivation beneath this motivation was to bring down the regimes that threaten Israel — a fact which might conceivably affect their policies and their reception in various Arab states. (In a peculiar omission, neither Israel nor the Palestinian crisis was mentioned by either Hitchens or Danner.)

Danner went on to argue that the U.S.’s attempt to rebuild Iraq would confront struggles over retribution, the split between the persecuted Shiite majority and the Sunni minority (who dominate the Baath Party and the army), and all the other monsters that could climb in hideous Yugoslavia-like fashion out of the shattered Iraq. Iraq had been a despotic regime for decades: Such states have a very difficult time making the transition to democracy. And he argued again that we would be playing into Osama bin Laden’s hands by occupying an Arab nation.

Hitchens replied that Danner’s hand-wringing about the difficulty of occupation was unwarranted, citing the thriving Kurdish autonomous area as an example of what regime change actually looks like. It wasn’t utopian to think that a rebuilt Iraq could look like this, Hitchens said: “The ones who are being utopian are the ones who believe that regime preservation can go on anymore.” Saddam’s regime was going to fall one way or the other, and the important thing was “to be ready with as large a force as possible, to begin the long process of the rehabilitation of Iraq. The United States is to be congratulated for preparing for this.”

Then the once-more-into-the-breach Hitchens, the vehement denouncer of Islamofascism, emerged. Rejecting Danner’s warning that Islamist radicals would make hay out of a U.S. invasion, he said antiwar ditherers had said the same thing about the invasion of Afghanistan — and nothing had happened. It was time, he said, for Americans to stop worrying about what they thought of us and time for them to start worrying about what we thought of them. “And our reply cannot be mistaken for cowardice,” he concluded. Without a strong military response, he argued, the Islamist claim that the U.S. was a paper tiger would be vindicated.

At this point, the fighters had exchanged jabs, thrown a few rights, gone to the body a couple of times: Now they started to pound each other with a little more oomph. Danner replied, “I have to think there’s a kind of child psychology going on here.” (To which Hitchens, who has known Danner for years, pricked up his ears, leaned forward and dryly said, “This had better be good.”) Danner went on to say that the point wasn’t whether we should think about them, or they should think about us, the point was “we shouldn’t do it [invade] because it’s stupid. … Christopher Hitchens seems to say, ‘It’s a war of civilizations — absolutely, bring it on.'” If someone had said after 9/11 that we should invade and occupy a sovereign Arab state, Danner said, he would have been laughed at.

Hitchens, removing himself from the Samuel Huntington clash-of-civilizations cabal, replied that the Arab world had many democracies. “It’s not a war of civilizations, it’s a war within a civilization. We need to be on the right side of the war within the Arab world.”

He went on to enumerate a huge strategic reason to invade Iraq: Once we brought down Saddam, the “sadomasochistic Caligula, the Saudi monopoly on oil will be broken forever.” This led up to this all-time Hitchens classic: “Some benefits of regime change can’t be publicly avowed by Republicans, but they can be publicly avowed by me.”

They jousted briefly over inspections: Hitchens said, “To inspect a country the size of Iraq you’d need to be the government of Iraq,” to which Danner replied that the inspections had rid Saddam of his nuclear program in the ’90s, that they were deterring him now and that a beefed-up regimen would continue to box him in.

The discussion on this key point remained frustratingly incomplete. It’s true, as Bush pointed out in his State of the Union address, that Saddam has not accounted for some biological and chemical weapons. But it seems that the onus lay on Hitchens, as an advocate of war, to explain why a beefed-up inspections regime would never find those caches, or why in any case Danner’s air-strike proposal would not suffice to keep Saddam boxed in indefinitely.

After Danner cited John Quincy Adams’ famous warning to Americans not to go abroad in search of monsters to destroy, Hitchens said, “I don’t stipulate war, I don’t stipulate occupation, I don’t stipulate invasion. But everyone here knows that there wouldn’t be inspections if it weren’t for the presence of troops. This will be no war — there will be a fairly brief and ruthless military intervention.”

Danner broke in, “Orwell would be proud of that distinction.”

Danner concluded by pointing to all the failed democracies we tried to build: Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba. Citing Napoleon’s credo that “you can do everything with a bayonet except sit on it,” he said, “Nation-building is something that I don’t trust this administration to do.” He urged the audience, despite the apparent inevitability of war, to keep debating and dissenting.

Hitchens finished by agreeing that the Bush team had come in skeptical of nation-building — but argued that that should disprove that the administration had a “drive to war, the drumbeat of war. It’s taken quite a lot to change its mind.” Saying that he believed the U.S. now recognized that the old patron-client state relationship in places like Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Pakistan had born poisoned fruit, he said, “To the extent that the administration’s vision has changed, that’s a good thing.”

Hitchens concluded the evening on a martial “Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton”-like note. The endgame, he said, is upon us. “The president will give an order. [The attack] will be rapid, accurate and dazzling … It will be greeted by the majority of the Iraqi people as an emancipation. And I say, bring it on.”

Since the administration seems determined to go down the path of war, one can only pray that Hitchens is right. I respect his idealism. But he didn’t convince me.