One does not have to agree with a single thing Christopher Hitchens ever said or wrote in order to admire him.
Not one in the profusion of affectionate online tributes to the scathing, prolific, eloquent, smoking, drinking, infuriating Hitchens mentions how right he was about things. It is easy to see why; few can get through much of his oeuvre without being put off. He excoriated George W. Bush’s counterterrorism policies but supported his war; he railed against the religious for oppressing women (among other sins) but expressed doubts about both the morality of abortion and a woman’s talent for comedy; he abhorred both Israel’s encirclement of Gaza and the sea-bound “activists” who sought to break it.
What kind of person can hold such contradictory views? Answer: Hitchens’ views were not contradictory, which is what made them so unusual. For contradiction, look elsewhere: to conservatives who categorically decry an overbearing federal government while demanding that it prevent states from allowing gay marriage, and to liberals who are culturally relativistic toward Afghanistan but not Alabama. What guides most opinion-making is not a coherent premise, but an unsatisfying cocktail of impulse, inertia, and ignorance. If someone calls you an inconsistent liberal or conservative, congratulations: you may be thinking for yourself.
Foreign policy, one of Hitch’s better-trodden fields, offers stark examples of impulse, inertia, and ignorance at work. We just went into Libya for the oil. The claim exhibits fashionable cynicism, but explains America’s actions no better than it would if we had backed Qaddafi or remained aloof. Or, take this dramatic non sequitur: How dare you question the West Bank settlement project when Israel sits daily under the threat of rockets, suicide bombings, and nuclear annihilation? Regardless of which side it comes from, this species of argument—facile, ideological, illogical—is a contagion in our body politic.
But Christopher Hitchens was immune. He deplored the Bush administration’s handling of the Iraq war, but applauded its aims; he trashed extremist settlers and Hamas suicide bombers in equal measure; he backed NATO’s intervention in Libya, but condemned the execution of Qaddafi. Most of us pick positions first—usually those of our family, party, or social scene—and then work backward to find the arguments to serve them (if we even go that far). Hitchens worked the other way around, drawing from a deep well of knowledge and applying a simple, robust framework based on individual freedom and secularism. These might also be called impulses, but impulses exist on a spectrum. A commitment to human freedom is a deep impulse. “I hate Democrats” is a superficial one.
The key to consistency over contradiction, as Hitchens demonstrated, is to maintain one’s distance from political camps and preserve one’s intellectual (if not ingestive) sobriety. An example, using one of the old man’s favorite topics: Suppose somebody puts it to you that the Iraq War was justified by Saddam Hussein’s nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons programs and aggression toward his neighbors. Now, you’re equipped to disagree with him—you can point, if you like, to evidence showing that Iraq’s weapons program to have been unthreatening (or less-than-existent), or that Saddam was no longer in the mood to invade his neighbors.
What you cannot do is smugly point out, say, that the United States had armed Hussein during his war against Iran in the 1980s. While true (we also armed Iran), it is irrelevant. Our having sold weapons to Saddam Hussein may suggest that American foreign policy in the 1980s was short-sighted, self-defeating, immoral, or amoral, but it suggests nothing about the wisdom of intervening there in 2003. This argument stems from an impulse to shatter illusions about American exceptionalism, to smear some gray onto a black and white worldview. It does not, however, make sense.
Making sense is my chief objective in starting this blog on the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy. To make sense is a humble-sounding aspiration, but Christopher Hitchens taught me how elegantly it can be done.