Friday, June 09, 2006

Hitchens on the case

While it's sometimes depressing, it's also frequently amusing to watch Hitchens complete his transformation into a Bushite hack. The Slate columns have always provided rich amusement for those in the reality-based community, but his musings on the death of al Zarqawi are a particularly fine example.

We have the usual swipes at the anti-war movement (this time it's Nick Berg's father), designed to suggest that anyone opposing the Hitchens stance is a “defeatist” or “pacifist”. But alongside this he feels compelled to attack those suggesting al Zarqawi was a less important figure than Bush apologists, scraping around for good news, are keen to suggest. Prominent among these is Mary Weaver, whose article in the Atlantic Monthly Hitchens clearly drew on for the various affectations of deep knowledge sprinkled through his piece.

After a vague introductory paragraph congratulating the Americans on their putative “black propaganda”, and the obligatory sniping at MoveOn, we progress to something more substantive, if less truthful. He characterises Weaver's measured piece as suggesting al Zarqawi was “an American creation”, which is something she doesn't do. She makes plain, with detailed background, that he became a jihadist primarily under Jordanian and Afghan influences well before “Operation Enduring Freedom”. What she does say, the factual basis of which Hitchens doesn't trouble to dispute, is that once al Zarqawi was operating in Iraq the US quite probably did inflate his importance. In support of this she cites Jordanian, Israeli and Western intelligence assessments, alongside Washington Post reports of “Pentagon documents that detailed a U.S. military propaganda campaign to inflate al-Zarqawi’s importance”.

While not actually disputing any of this, Hitchens makes the at best feeble, at worst incoherent, point that the article “seems to undermine its own prominence by suggesting that, in addition to that, al Zarqawi wasn't all that important.” Thus, Hitchens's only argument that perhaps al Zarqawi was important was the judgment of the Atlantic Monthly's editor in his cover choice – a judgment that was, in any case, hardly independent of the US government's spin (and also, one might point out, possibly also not independent of Hitchens's own input as a contributing editor of the magazine).

Having erected this most rickety of platforms for criticism, we then segue onto a sequence of question begging generalities and unsubstantiated allegations regarding al Zarqawi's activities:
“Not so fast. Zarqawi contributed enormously to the wrecking of Iraq's experiment in democratic federalism.”
We can't assume this if, as has been suggested, Zarqawi was primarily a figurehead rather than a mastermind for Sunni insurgents. Nor is there any meaning in the revelation that he “was able to help ensure that the Iraqi people did not have one single day of respite between 35 years of war and fascism”. “[H]elp ensure”? So did every other suicide bomber and AK47 firer, not to mention Saddam Hussein and both George Bushes.

It does seem probable that he instigated the bombing of the U.N. headquarters and the assassination of Ayatollah Hakim. But Hitchens offers no reason why, given widespread doubt, anybody should take as necessarily genuine the allegedly intercepted communication declaring “a jihad against the Shiite population in general”. Even if it were genuine, it would hardly establish him as the pivotal figure Hitchens claims unless that declaration had widespread influence – a dubious proposition, given the split on that policy within al Qaida, and the serious possibility that he was betrayed precisely because there was disagreement among Sunni jihadists. (In the first paragraph Hitchens enthuses that he might have been betrayed by people “close to him”. If true, this would seem to cut against the idea that his death would necessarily lead to the diminution of the insurgency).

After gleefully describing al Zarqawi as a “semi-literate goon”, apparently forgetting that this background hardly bolsters his credentials as a terrorist mastermind, Hitchens goes on to mock as kneejerk purveyers of cliche the people discounting the alleged role of al Zarqawi as bin Laden's envoy to Saddam Hussein (they find the questions “easy”, as opposed to Hitchens, who is trying so much harder). Against the strong evidence in Weaver's article and elsewhere, he amasses... al Zarqawi's presence in Kurdish controlled Iraq – that is, the same nonsensical connection Colin Powell tried to make between al Ansar al-Islam in Kurdistan, and Saddam Hussein's regime further South. “I think that (for once) Colin Powell was on to something,” says Hitchens of Powell's U.N. speech, where among other things he mistakenly claimed al Zarqawi was Palestinian and had received medical treatment in Baghdad.

Bereft of actual evidence to establish the connection, Hitchens instead struts into the domain of pure speculation. The clincher is that al Zarqawi managed to enter the Sunni triangle while Hussein was still ruler:
“One might add that Iraq under Saddam was not an easy country to enter or to leave, and that no decision on who was allowed in would be taken by a junior officer.”
The aim is to imply that Hussein must himself have permitted al Zarqawi to enter Iraq and set up camp, even though through much of this period Hussein didn't believe there would be a war and was being pressured over allegations that he was a sponsor of terrorism (and, as Weaver says, al Zarqawi “based himself primarily in Iran”). In these personal border guard duties Hussein was allying himself not only with Sunni extremists who hated him, but with his historic Shiite enemy. How else to explain Weaver's selectively ignored statement that al Zarqawi's “links had been not to Iraq but to Iran”?

After these wild extrapolations we return to insinuation grounded in Powell's widely discredited U.N. speech. “Furthermore,” Detective Hitchens tells us, “the Zarqawi elements appear to have found it their duty to join with the Ansar al-Islam splinter group in Kurdistan, which for some reason thought it was the highest duty of jihad to murder Saddam Hussein's main enemies.” This is presumably a reference to their attacks on Kurds, but naturally Hitchens again forgets that Ansar al-Islam received artillery support not from Iraq, but Iran. “But perhaps I have a suspicious mind,” says Hitchens, invoking the wrong adjective for his sozzled meanderings.

What other circumstantial ambiguities and figments of wishful thinking can he round up? Well, there are the explosives used in the Canal Hotel Bombing. “That bomb at the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, for example, was no improvised explosive device.” Clouseau pounces: “It was a huge charge of military-grade ordnance. Are we to believe that a newly arrived Bedouin Jordanian thug could so swiftly have scraped acquaintance with senior-level former Baathists?”

Well, we can believe a well-funded terrorist who'd been in and out of Iraq multiple times in the preceding year according to Weaver (and according to Hitchens, who was just moments ago documenting al Zarqawi's lengthy pre-war stay in Iraq), managed to collect together the old munitions necessary from an unpoliced country full of discarded weaponry. But “acquaintance with senior-level former Baathists”? That's just a Hitchens invention, unless one believes every Improvised Explosive Device made from an old shell was necessarily constructed by one of Saddam's friends.

Hitchens is right that the al Askari mosque bombing was conducted in military style, but that occurred in February 2006 – surely enough time, even if we swallowed the rest and ignored the lack of clear evidence linking al Zarqawi to the act, to accept that he could have forged an alliance with Baathists (not to mention that the military nature of the operation to which Hitchens excitedly points diminishes the likelihood of al Zarqawi's direct involvement).

Truly staggering is Hitchens's sudden lurch from emphasising al Zarqawi's Baathist connections to considering what's “[m]ost fascinating of all”: “the suggestion that Zarqawi was all along receiving help from the mullahs in Iran”. It's not fascinating because it almost certainly gives the lie, if true, to everything he's previously said. And it's not fascinating because the case is stronger for this link than the one he went to so much effort promoting.

It's only fascinating because Hitchens can use it to lay into Bush's next target: “we have the Shiite fundamentalists in Iran directly sponsoring the murderer of their co-religionists in Iraq”. Bizarre though the switch around is, it's needed to get two-for-one value from al Zarqawi's death: Bush's policy towards both Iraq and Iran can be justified because maybe both evil regimes were helping him, even though both of these occurring together is deeply unlikely.
“If we had withdrawn from Iraq already, as the "peace" movement has been demanding, then one of the most revolting criminals of all time would have been able to claim that he forced us to do it,” concludes Hitchens.
That's true, but it's also true that most of his revolting criminality – the beheadings, the U.N. bombing, and so on, would never have happened if America hadn't invaded Iraq. It's also entirely possible that, had the Americans withdrawn before now and removed their troops as a focus of resentment, al Zarqawi would have been dealt with by fellow Iraqis disgusted by his actions. But anyway, at least we got a new excuse to invade Iran.

4 Comments:

Blogger james higham said...

"It's also entirely possible that, had the Americans withdrawn before now and removed their troops as a focus of resentment, al Zarqawi would have been dealt with by fellow Iraqis disgusted by his actions. But anyway, at least we got a new excuse to invade Iran."

Yes, that actually stands to reason but the Americans had reasons beyond oil - the agenda was clear as there is a lot of Euro-money behind this as well.

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