Journalist and author Christopher Hitchens visited my hometown of Portland, Oregon last week, and I interviewed him at Jake’s Grill downtown over glasses of Johnnie Walker Black Label. My old friend and sometimes traveling companion Sean LaFreniere joined us and contributed a few questions of his own. You can read Part I here.
MJT: The big story in 2010 will be Iran. We have this revolution there—I’m not afraid to call it that.
Hitchens: You’re right, I think it is one.
MJT: We have Iran’s terrorist proxies in Gaza and Lebanon. And we have the regime’s nuclear weapons program.
Hitchens: Also, in each case, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard—the Pasdaran—is the controlling force.
MJT: Hezbollah is the Mediterranean branch of the Revolutionary Guards.
Hitchens: We have the same bunch overseas where they’re not wanted, in Lebanon and even among the Palestinians, conducting assassination missions abroad, shooting down young Iranians in the streets of a major city, and controlling an illegal thermonuclear weapons program. We do have a target. All this has been accumulated under one heading.
Hitchens: I thought that was worth pointing out. It’s not “the regime” or “the theocracy.” It’s now very clear that the Revolutionary Guards have committed a coup in all but name—well, I name it, but it hasn’t yet been named generally. They didn’t rig an election. They didn’t even hold one.
MJT: They never counted the votes. There’s no “recount” to be done.
Hitchens: The seizure of power by a paramilitary gang that just so happens to be the guardian and the guarantor and the incubator of the internationally illegal weapons program. If that doesn’t concentrate one’s mind, I don’t know what will.
MJT: If the Obama Administration calls you up and says, “Christopher, we need you to come in here, we need your advice.” What would you tell them?
Hitchens: I would say, as I did with Saddam Hussein—albeit belatedly, I tried to avoid this conclusion—that any fight you’re going to have eventually, have now. Don’t wait until they’re more equally matched. It doesn’t make any sense at all.
The existence of theocratic regimes that have illegally acquired weapons of mass destruction, that are war with their own people, that are exporting their violence to neighboring countries, sending death squads as far away as Argentina to kill other people as well as dissident members of their own nationality—the existence of such regimes is incompatible with us. If there is going to be a confrontation, we should pick the time, not them.
We’re saying, “Let’s give them time to get ready. Then we’ll be more justified in hitting them.” That’s honestly what they’re saying. When we have total proof, when we can see them coming for us, we’ll feel okay about resisting.
MJT: They don’t think about it that way.
Hitchens: They don’t know that’s what they’re saying, but it actually is.
MJT: They’re crossing their fingers and hoping it never has to happen at all.
Hitchens: Unless an Obama Administration person can say to me, “No, the confrontation can be avoided, there isn’t really a casus belli here,” unless they could persuade me of that, I’d say that once we’ve decided this, the fight should be on our terms. We should not allow them to get stronger and acquire more of the sinews of warfare.
They’ll say I’m asking for war, but I’ll say no. I’m not. I’m recognizing that someone is looking for war. We should be firm enough to say “Alright.” We didn’t look for it. We’ve tried everything short of war for a long time. Everything. We went to the International Atomic Energy Authority and found them cheating everywhere. Their signature on the Nonproliferation Treaty is worthless. We have the names of members of the Iranian government who are wanted for sending assassins to Europe and Argentina. We know what they’ve been doing to subvert Lebanon, to make trouble in Iraq.
MJT: Let me take the Obama Administration’s side. I’ll be the Devil’s Advocate.
MJT: If we actually strike Iran, it is a near-certainty that they’ll instigate violence in Lebanon, in Iraq, and in Israel. That’s at a minimum. There will be violence in Iran, too, obviously, because we’ll be attacking sites in Iran. It’s a near certainty that there will be terrible violence in all of these countries. If we cross our fingers and hope for the best, there’s a real possibility that there won’t be much violence in any of these countries. Within a year or two, the Iranian government might not even exist.
It’s a gamble no matter what we do, but it’s actually possible that we can avoid war altogether. The administration isn’t crazy for thinking we can muddle through this thing.
Hitchens: I know how to do that Devil’s Advocate calculus, as well.
MJT: I don’t even know that I’m playing Devil’s Advocate. I don’t know what we should do.
Hitchens: There are two clocks running in Persia. One is the emergence of a huge civil society movement—which, by the way, I think was partly created by the invasion of Iraq. The Shia authorities—in Iran, Montazeri, and in Iraq, Sistani—don’t take the Velayat-e Faqih view of Khomeini. National minorities like the Kurds and Azeris are also very impatient with the regime.
MJT: Forty-nine percent of Iranians aren’t Persians.
Hitchens: In the long run, the regime is doomed. The other clock that’s running is that of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, which is actually the counter-revolution. These are people who go out into the street and rape and blind and kill young Iranians. They control the nuclear clock, which is running faster. They hope that by acquiring the weapons of mass destruction they can insulate themselves from regime-change. At least this helps us to narrow the target a bit.
How many Iranian dissidents are really going to be nationalistically upset by an intervention that comes in and removes the Revolutionary Guards?
MJT: I don’t think very many, but I could be wrong.
Hitchens: Would we have the nerve to say that was the objective, or would we simply say we’re only talking about sites and don’t care about Iranian freedom? We’d need to have a generous view of the situation, and we’d need to coordinate it with NATO.
The people who most want this to happen are the Sunni Arab governments.
MJT: All of them. The only Arab country that doesn’t want it is Syria, but it isn’t Sunni. It’s an Alawite government.
Hitchens: If the Iranian Revolutionary Guards get the bomb, they won’t use it on Israel. They’re not so stupid. They certainly won’t use it on us.
MJT: I agree.
Hitchens: But they’ll use it to blackmail Bahrain first, then Qatar.
What’s the point of being a superpower if we say to our allies there’s nothing we can do about this, that they’re on their own?
LaFreniere: Can I say something?
LaFreniere: I lived for a while with some Iranian students in Copenhagen. We had some conversations about regime-change, how they felt about their government, how they felt about America. They aren’t in favor of their government, but they have a deep sense of pride. They were partly able to overlook the hideousness of their regime, especially when it came to nuclear weapons. If Iran acquired them, the world would have to take Iranian opinion seriously. They really liked that idea. These weren’t thuggish kids. They were nice students in Denmark. They were of two minds about this situation.
MJT: That was before last June.
LaFreniere: It was.
MJT: I don’t know how much that matters.
Hitchens: Their enemy, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, conducted a military coup in Iran last year. It is the author of all the atrocities against women, political prisoners, students, Kurds, and the like. It is identifiably the incubator of the nuclear program, so we can disaggregate things a little that way.
Second—although it’s a sad thing—there is international law.
MJT: What does that even mean?
Hitchens: If Iran is found to have broken every single one of its agreements, the legal case exists. It may not be a casus belli, but it may be enough for a blockade.
Unfortunately, the votes of the people inside don’t count. We know in Burma, as we knew in Iraq and South Africa, that the people are not with the regime. But if they all had been, it wouldn’t have made any difference unless international law is determined by the people in the target regime, which it can’t be. They don’t get a vote.
I sat with some Iranians in Isfahan, with a family I was staying with. They were secular and they served me booze with one of their cousins who was there visiting. She wasn’t wearing a full burkha, but a veil. She said the least during our discussion, but at the end she said the most eloquent thing, and she was obviously very tortured about it. She said, “Do you think the Americans could come just for a couple of weeks, remove the regime, and then go?”
And I said, “Oh, darling.” Well, actually I didn’t say that to her. [Laughs.] I said, “If only.” If she could have her wish, she would have it both ways. She didn’t want the Americans in her country, but she did want the regime taken away, as if on a magic carpet. I couldn’t tell her I could help. It’s the same with your block neighbors in Copenhagen.
LaFreniere: If we told them we were just going to do a regime-change and leave, they might have been fine with it.
Hitchens: Which is it they feel most strongly about? Their patriotism, or their allegiance to the regime?
MJT: This is almost like a philosophical bull session in college. It’s not going to happen. It’s just not.
Here’s the real question: What would be your advice to the Israelis? They might actually do something. We won’t.
Hitchens: It comes to the same thing.
MJT: If Netanyahu asked you personally for advice, would you give him the same answer that you’d give Obama?
Hitchens: In terms of the repercussions, it doesn’t matter. The United States will be accused of doing the work of the Jews no matter what.
MJT: And vice-versa. All the same negatives apply in each case.
Hitchens: The Israelis blew up the Iraqi reactor, and thank God they did.
MJT: Yes, no kidding.
Hitchens: They overflew Jordan for about ten minutes. The Turks aren’t going to let them use their air space. They’ll have to overfly Iraq. Everyone will know.
There was a great moment in Doctor Zhivago. They get the news that the czar has been killed, and all his family. One character says it was such a cruel deed, and Zhivago says, “It’s to show there is no going back.”
Destroy the Revolutionary Guard and some people will complain forever that it was a terrible intervention in Iranian internal affairs…
MJT: …but the Iranian Revolutionary Guard would be gone.
Hitchens: It’s not as bad as having them running Iran and its nuclear program and stoning women and blinding girls. They rape boys in jail.
We can simply say, “We’re not going to stay. We’re handing the country over to you. We’re not occupying. We don’t want to stay. We can’t wait to get out. And you’ve been de-Revolutionary-Guardized. Cry all you want.”
We will have done them a favor, and ourselves. We have rights, too. The international community has rights. The U.N. has rights. The U.S. has rights. The IAEA has rights. The Iranians made deals with all of them, and they broke them.
MJT: You supported Bush to some extent, and you also support Obama to some extent.
Hitchens: Yes. I think Obama is tougher than he looks, by the way.
MJT: You should be able to compare their foreign policies honestly, without being a partisan hack. I know it’s a bit early—you’ve got eight years of Bush policies to compare with one year of Obama’s—but let’s hear it. What do you think?
Hitchens: There’s something everyone has forgotten, and Obama has never tried to remind them. He doesn’t get credit because he’s never asked for it. Do you remember when the American crew was taken by the pirates off the coast of Somalia? It’s the same country of origin of the axe-wielding maniac who just tried to murder Kurt Westergaard in Denmark.
Someone went to the Oval Office and said, “Mr. President, you have three choices. We can have a standoff with the Somali government, we can negotiate with the pirates, or you can order the Navy SEALs to fire four shots.”
I wouldn’t like to be a newly elected president and have that dumped on my desk. He must have said, however long it took him, “Use the SEALs.”
But that’s not what impresses me. The point I’m making is not the one you thought I was going to make. What impresses me is that he didn’t give a speech later about it. If Reagan had done that, everyone would remember it. There would be hubris. “They can run, but they can’t hide.”
I like his nature. Those who need to know, know. We don’t have to make a big fucking circus out of it.
MJT: Well, let me ask you this: If you’re a terrorist hiding in Afghanistan or wherever, who would you be more afraid of? Bush or Obama? Who do you think would be more likely to get you?
Hitchens: I think it would be a mistake to assume you’d be safer with Obama.
MJT: Obama doesn’t exactly look like Mr. Tough Guy to me. He isn’t as much of a weenie as some conservatives think he is, but I remember when you said one thing you liked about Bush was you just knew that when he woke up in the morning he asked himself what he could to fight Islamist terrorists today. Obama doesn’t do that. You know he doesn’t. He really wishes the problem would just go away.
Hitchens: I don’t think he wishes that. Did you read the Nobel speech?
MJT: Yes, I was impressed with it.
Hitchens: I thought it was pretty good.
MJT: I thought it was great.
Hitchens: It was very solid and thorough.
MJT: I was surprised he said that to that crowd.
Hitchens: I think he’s someone whom it’s a mistake to underestimate. I think he wants it to be made clear that he tried everything, that they pushed him to this. That’s what we’re doing with Iran now. We let them walk over us, spit on us, and laugh at us, but this can’t go on forever.
Even with the Major Hasan thing—which I thought was terrible—when he said, “Let’s not rush to judgment.” That wasn’t only itself an awful thing to say. I wish he’d said that about the Cambridge Police Department.
MJT: He did rush to judgment against the Cambridge Police Department, and he made himself look like an ass.
Hitchens: It wasn’t a presidential question at all. You know what happened, by the way?
MJT: Of course, although I don’t know exactly what you’re thinking of at the moment.
Hitchens: Charles Ogletree, a great lawyer in that hood, is a friend of Skip’s. And he said, “Don’t you worry, I’ll call the First Lady.” He did, and she got him to say something rather dumb.
He should have said, “I’m the president of the United States, and this isn’t even a local event.” I’ll bet he won’t do that again, though. He’s learning.
It comes better from someone who has tried everything.
MJT: I agree. It does.
Hitchens: It’s not that he wishes it would all go away. He thinks, still, that a lot of international disagreements are not the product of objective reality, but the result of misunderstandings.
MJT: I think it is the result of misunderstanding in a small number of cases. I’ve talked to lots of Lebanese, for instance, who support Hezbollah because they truly believe Israel is going to attack them no matter what and that Hezbollah is their only defense. They don’t understand that Hezbollah is a magnet for Israeli invasions rather than a deterrent. They really don’t get it.
Hezbollah’s leadership doesn’t have this problem, however. They know damn well what they’re doing. When they say they’re going to “liberate Jerusalem,” they know what that means, and it is not based on any misunderstandings.
Hitchens: Look at the Cairo speech where he basically said, “If only we could all get along.”
MJT: The Middle East doesn’t work that way.
Hitchens: No. Nor does anywhere else.
LaFreniere: Can I ask a question?
LaFreniere: Right now I’m reading The Great Game by Peter Hopkirk, about British and Russian competition for Iran and Afghanistan. It was recommended to me by the resident diplomat at U.C. Berkeley when I expressed interest in the foreign service.
Hitchens: He also wrote a great book called Like Hidden Fire about the Ottoman Empire staking itself on an alliance with Germany against Britain. They called it the last real holy war to get the Muslims of India to rebel. But they didn’t. They didn’t just lose the jihad, they lost the war and their empire.
MJT: Did the Ottomans actually call it jihad?
Hitchens: That’s what they called it. It was announced in Constantinople by the caliphate that every Muslim in the world must fight against the British Empire. It was one of the biggest historical flops that has ever been. At least when the pope said you had to go on a crusade, he made you. The caliphate said every Muslim must now rise against the British, but they didn’t.
We are both too much afraid of these people, and too little. They overstate their strength. At the airports we treat them as though they are everywhere, yet we don’t realize what a deadly thing it could be and sometimes is. All the proportions are wrong. They threw Joan Rivers off a plane because her passport didn’t look right.
MJT: She was trying to fly from Costa Rica to New Jersey.
Hitchens: “No, ma’am. You can’t do it.” That’s a pity. That was the Costa Ricans doing it.
MJT: It was Continental Airlines staff. It wasn’t the TSA, but it was an American company.
LaFreniere: Here’s what I wanted to ask: Russia was removed from the scene…
LaFreniere: …and there’s the possibility that it will come back. It seems the game is played very differently when we have a clear adversary. When the two sides are clearly delineated as they were during the Cold War and the Great Game, the local players don’t seem to matter as much. The great powers are playing their game, and the locals are just subjects. Today, now that one of the great powers has been removed, the former subjects are now “the game,” so to speak. If Russia gets back in…
Hitchens: Imagine if India had been colonized by the Russians. Call me chauvinistic if you will, but I think India would be better under British rule. That’s what Karl Marx said. He said, don’t imagine that India will not be colonized. It would be invaded by either Iran, Russia, or Britain.
MJT: Well, you know what Karl Marx thought of Russia.
Hitchens: He hated Russia. He loved America.
MJT: How counterintuitive that is if you don’t know it.
Hitchens: Karl Marx’s best writing is on America. He said it was the great new country for worker’s equality. There was free land for the peasants. It was republican, not monarchical, and it was anti-imperialist. If you look at Henry Adams’ memoirs, when his father was at the embassy in London, the Times of London was in favor of the Confederacy. Gladstone helped the Confederacy build a navy. Karl Marx, meanwhile, said Lincoln is our man. The United States is our future. That’s not what they teach you in school about Marx.
MJT: That’s not what the communists taught their kids, either.
Hitchens: Well, that’s true to an extent.
MJT: I mean the schools in the Soviet Union.
Hitchens: For Marxists, Russia was the heart of darkness.
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