One of the great journalistic puzzles of our time is the case of Christopher Hitchens, who is so right about many things, but so wrong about Iraq.
When he started writing his hawkish pieces for Vanity Fair, I had hoped that it was a momentary lapse of reason, or devil's advocacy, but there it is again, a syndicated column. He's down deep in his hole, now, but over the sound of his untiring shovel, his argument comes across perfectly clearly, unmistakable Hitchens with that dry Screwtape edge.
This is a man who just last year wrote a brilliant rebuttal to religious dogmas (dismiss it as "atheist" if you will and snarl at the unnecessarily provocative title, but it is more subtle than that). Yet he has swallowed the official line, hook, bait and sinker, when it comes to Islamofascism.
I get the feeling that Hitchens believes in Al-Qaeda, in other words.
I don't believe in Al-Qaeda, in the sense of John Lennon not believing in certain things in "God". To me, Al-Qaeda's a concept by which we measure...our pain, over 9/11, yes -- but also the size of our defence budget. It's awfully convenient for a lot of things.
As of 2008, it's probably a moot point. We have probably willed Al-Qaeda into existence if it didn't really exist before. The average 14-year-old in Indonesia probably believe there is an organization with a working by-law and business cards.
But I grant it probably started innocently enough. One combatant probably said to another combatant, somewhere under a date palm, around the time of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, "well, let's go back to the base, Hassan", meaning the city centre, and a mic picked it up and transmitted it to some excitable CIA operative not particularly skilled in Arabic, who latched on to it through the chatter: The Base -- must be code for an elaborate secret organization, a maze of tunnels, the Old Man of the Mountain himself behind it...!" Or any number of variations.
What a great name, only inferior to "The Organization" or "Emmanuel Goldstein".
So in the most banal sense, Al-Qaeda has to be tied to everything, even secular regimes, because all things have a "base" or "centre". Except for US policy, where (I just have to bring David Byrne in here for a weird cameo, because talk of surges and permanent war is just that weird) "the centre...is missing". A screaming black hole.
Like Hitchens, I wrestled with the "actuarial numbers", too. All through early 2003, I had a debate with a guy in defence contracting in Houston about whether net lives would be saved by an invasion compared to the status quo under Saddam. We were like Stalinist accountants going over the statistics.
I was pretty well convinced that, no matter how evil the Saddam regime, people were not being exterminated there like they were in east-central Africa. For all of its astounding hypocrisy, political murders, and such shameful things as its female literacy figures, this was a place with a semblance of culture, with museums and cafes. There is no way over a million people would have been killed, even under sanctions.
The cost of freedom is buried in the ground, I concede -- but it doesn't hang over things permanently like a red splattered mist, as it still does outside the Green Zone.
How do you "cost" the loss of peace? How do you cost empty places at tables? They aren't actually un-costable, but they have so many repercussions that it boggles the mind. Some people are still picking up the pieces after a peacetime ferry disaster 14 years ago; how might things be going in Iraq? War and peace, that is what is truly apples and oranges.
Hitchens's claim that all this havoc is offset by our newfound experience we can apply to battling terrorism on other battlefields, is very weak. All I can say is that Hitchens can work on the consolidated balance sheet for "Good, Inc.", but meanwhile we still need to try to do the books on the failed subsidiary known as Enduring Freedom.
Who are his "terrorists" -- are they a special class of combatants, like hoplites or something? No, there are just poorer and poorer armies, until finally you get to the level of underground cells, then to individual members of a resistance who fight with their claws if they have to.
What is driving them is not a James Bond fantasy about a secret base called The Base, but the ideology of poverty and ignorance.