Delivered at the University of Western Ontario, March 8, 2005, available here.
In light of recent reports of a Jewish Israeli journalist's idiocy in Saudi Arabia: filming himself entering Mecca and posting the video on social media, perhaps I can offer readers my edited and abridged version of real journalism in forbidden places. The late Christopher Hitchens had many stories to tell, and he rather delighted in his own wit. But the famous journalist did not do stunts.
Let me make it clear that I do not call the Israeli journalist an idiot because of how Muslims might react to their apartheid being violated; I call him an idiot for being oblivious to the wider geopolitical developments underway in his region, and for being more interested in a vain stunt.
I was also motivated to transcribe and edit the speech in light of the apparent silence from the quarter that had so much to say, in their hundreds of thousands on the streets of western cities, when the United States and others took action to eject invader Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, but had very little to say when the dictator seized that country to add to his own in the first place, much like their current silence in response to another dictator doing the same to a neighbouring country five months ago. Where are the millions bringing Western capitals to a standstill, now? It seems it's ok for white people to be imperial invaders and occupiers, after all, or is there something I'm missing here?
Without further ado, here is Hitchens's speech in four parts:
Part 1: Overview
I think I’ve become the only person who has, since the year 2000, been on the ground in North Korea, in Iraq and in Iran. In other words, I may now have a stump speech that I can go around giving. This is my prototype for it, as a natter of fact, why I suggested that we might discuss this famous question of the Axis of Evil and what it means, or what different things it might cover.
But I want to back up a little, to about a decade ago, perhaps a little more, the mid-’90s, and Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, where I also spent some time. I've never actually added up the exact number of days, but looking out at you now, it strikes me looking out at you now, that a lot of you are terrifyingly young, and may not even remember what it was like to live in the last months of 1989, or not remember it very clearly, but for those of us of my age, and even quite a lot younger, the sense of human emancipation that occurred with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and the implosion of the ossified form of Russo-Communism that had been imposed on Eastern and Baltic Europe, and some of Balkan Europe, that sense is something I can very vividly call to mind. I was in Romania at the time it actually happened, watching the overthrow of the Ceausescu regime, which was perhaps the most brutal and corrupt, as well as the one that was most centred on a cult of personality.
And it wasn't just that it was extraordinary to see so many millions of people in so many different countries and societies, simply by folding their arms and adopting an attitude of defiance, revolutionising and changing their system. It wasn’t that it was so moving to see that, it was the realisation that the Cold War was over in the other way, too. That it was quite likely now that we would not have to think every day of the possibility of a mistake or a crime, or a blunder leading to what was euphemistically called in my home town of Washington, DC, a nuclear exchange. Imagine thinking of a thermo-nuclear holocaust as an “exchange.” But that was the way we tried to make the thought go away.
It was an extraordinary period. And in those days, some of you will remember, and you can look it up, there was talk of a peace dividend, of the possibility of transferring the enormous resources that we had been putting into warfare, into peaceful projects and into doing something about the real victims of the Cold War, who were the inhabitants of the countries we used to call the Third World. That there would be, possibly, a new internationalism, a new committee, internationally, a new renunciation of force, some spare money, and a common feeling that the values of pluralism and democracy were worth having for their own sake, and had so to speak, proved their worth in ideological combat against both Fascism and Stalinism. It was a blissful time to be around, I tell you. That's November the 9th. That's the day the Berlin Wall fell. Ceausescu fell, actually, not until Christmas day, Christmas Eve in Bucharest. So that's the end of 1989.
The 2nd of August, in 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait — actually it's not really strictly true to say he invaded Kuwait — he annexed Kuwait. He announced that Kuwait was part of Iraq. He did something that had never been tried before, abolish the existence of a member state of the United Nations, a fellow Muslim state, and member of the Arab league – quite an extraordinary thing to have done. And around that time, Slobodan Milosevic tried to impose the idea of a national socialist Greater Serbia on his neighbours in, first, Slovenia, and then Croatia, and then, most heinously, in Bosnia- Herzegovina, and then in Kosovo. And suddenly it hit me: I shouldn't have been part of this naive chorus about the end of history and the peace dividend. I had some reservations about it, which I published, but I had shared in the general optimism.
Of course we were not yet out from under the rule, or the danger that posed by psychopathic dictatorship. So I had to spend a lot of time, first in Northern Iraq and Kurdistan, then in Sarajevo and Moscow, witnessing what happens when dictators are allowed to get their way. And the shameful thought that one had about it, in both cases, the cases of Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic, they had been allowed to get away with the impression that they were thought of by Western democratic societies as allies, even sometimes as clients, or if one couldn't go quite that far, as necessary partners for negotiation. And in fact, Milosevic, I remember, being called by the Clinton administration “a partner in peace” is when he came — he deigned to come — to sign the Dayton Accords with Mr Clinton's negotiator, Richard Holbrooke. Although Mr Holbrooke had to grant Milosevic immunity from prosecution to land on an American airforce base, and this immunity was granted to him. I felt that was a moment of shame, and I began to evolve the following view of it.
Co-existence with psychopathic dictatorships is, in fact, not possible — and that is a good thing, probably — nor is it desirable. Two or three years after Milosevic had been called a “partner in peace” at Dayton, one of his other conditions, as well as not being arrested, was that the name Kosovo not be mentioned in any of the conversations, that the subject not be brought up. That was acceded to as well by the administration so eager to declare a peaceful victory. He had to be, in effect, evicted from power in his own country, just as those whom he had evicted from their homes in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, had to be forcibly taken home, and his ethnic cleansing undone. All the years that were spent in trying to contain, or even to coerce, or to civilise, domesticate this man, had been wasted. They had, in fact, all been exploited by him to advance his program, his mad idea of a Greater Serbia. And the same had been true every time people had ever tried to make nice with Saddam Hussein. It seemed that his appetite for power only grew with the eating.
And meanwhile in North Korea: the war that never stopped. North Korea is still officially at war with the United States. The United States is only in a period of armistice and armed truce with North Korea, ever since the armistice of 1951. It seemed that yet another state of the one party and the one man and the one ideology, wanted to become grander still by the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction. I don’t need to tell you how the last few years have been completely consumed by this question, and how to address and approach it.
And I’ll give you, if I may, three brief capsules: first from Iraq; then from North Korea; and then from Iran. I think the way I would want to put it, about the atmosphere in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the way that is most memorable to me. I will hope will be memorable to you, too.
[Part 2, Wednesday 3 August 2022]