TREACHERY is a word you don’t often hear these days, but it is stalking Christopher Hitchens.
America’s best-known British polemicist, he’s fighting on US television, on the campuses of America’s greatest universities, and by firing off a seemingly endless stream of articles (a number of which have just been published in book form as A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq). By supporting George W Bush’s war on terrorism Hitchens has supposedly betrayed the ideals for which he once fought valiantly.
The Left’s critique is that his 54-year-old mind has been addled by booze, rendering him impossibly unreliable. This is sometimes said in a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger kind of way, holding Hitchens up as the kind of bleak example all good-thinking people should note and be wary of emulating.
Since his hefty thirst for liquor was as much in evidence when the Left counted him as a fellow traveller, this crippling addiction to the hard stuff can presumably only have rotted his mind recently. This seems improbable. (Since the booze question keeps cropping up, it’s worth pointing out that lunch with Hitchens, while prolonged, is not an entirely liquid affair. He manages to eat some bruschetta and a crab and mussel risotto. True, a pinot noir from Oregon comes and goes and a bottle of Johnnie Walker is badly dented – “Companero,” he says to the barman, pointing to his empty glass, “I’d like a Xerox of that please.”)
But if a writer can’t enjoy a lunchtime drink who can? He is also wheezing frequently on account of pneumonia picked up on a recent trip to St Petersburg, although this does not prevent him from smoking at least half a packet of Rothmans over lunch.
It may be the case that Hitchens is following the classic, clichd, well-trod road from angry young man of the Left to crusty, right-wing curmudgeon. But Hitchens’ shifting views say as much about the failure of the American Left to articulate a coherent vision, domestically and abroad, as they do about his own journey.
Hitchens considers himself a soixante-huitard, part of a generation of politicised students inspired by the protests and the wave of “revolution” which swept Paris and other suitably fashionable quarters in 1968. Despite his recent political proclamations, therefore, it still jars to hear him say: “I will certainly vote for the re-election of Bush unless something extraordinary happens,” and that even “if I knew how to beat Bush I wouldn’t tell the Democrats”.
He had his moments of doubt about Bush, moments when “I thought they might not do Afghanistan and look for a compromise”. To Hitchens’ great relief, the US decided upon a foreign policy that recognised a muscular sense of moral purpose was in no way incompatible with national self-interest.
Hitchens’ introduction to the questions posed by Islamic fundamentalism came during the Satanic Verses affair. Salman Rushdie was, and remains, one of his best friends, and “I’m sad at the way it’s receded. Most people [failed that test] one way or another, precisely because it was so simple. It also introduced me to the possibility of under-reaction to terrorist culture. People who wanted to give it another, kinder, name and invest it with a multicultural character.”
Toppling Saddam as part of a process of bringing liberalism to the Arab world is part of that same fight. “As an internationalist – which I will be until the day I f***ing choke – it was a betrayal of all the people in the Arab and Muslim world who recognised in Salman’s crisis their own. Though not a majority they are a significant force and solidarity with them was involved. Not to condemn it was to let down the best of the Arab world.”
No wonder he doesn’t give a hoot about the WMD brouhaha. That wasn’t why he supported the liberation of Iraq. Nonetheless, even though confronted by a reluctant congress and dithering allies, he wishes the Bush administration had stated its case for war in more explicitly moral terms instead of using “scare tactics”. “But what if the Left had not been abstentionist? What if it thought we can’t postpone a reckoning with Saddam Hussein?” Hitchens’ point is he hasn’t betrayed the Left – it betrayed itself long ago.
Moving to America more than 20 years ago was “an emancipation in every way”. Throughout his childhood, he says he had the feeling he had been born in the wrong country and frequently dreamt of living in New York. He admired his father, a naval commander, but the pair were not close; his mother committed suicide with her lover in a Greek hotel room and it’s tempting to think Hitchens’ commitment to Trotskyism stemmed from a search for certainty and engagement in his life. By his own admission he idled at Oxford, where he took a third in PPE at Balliol, before landing a job at the New Statesman.
It was when he realised, while covering a Labour party conference for the Statesman, that he didn’t care whether Tony Benn or Dennis Healey became deputy leader that the pull of America became irresistible. He moved to New York and began writing. More than 20 years later he’s still at it. “America is more sexual [than Britain]. At any rate it is to me. When I lived in London almost all my girlfriends were American. I don’t know why that was.”
Many of Hitchens’ closest friends still live in London but he is unlikely to be back. The process of his transformation from English public schoolboy to American citizen is all but complete. September 11 crystallised it all. Hitchens realised then that his transatlantic journey had reached its final destination. From that moment, he realised he was in his mind at least an American citizen. He plans, he says, to file papers to make that mental status official.
Earlier he had said the American experience was “the only revolution that’s still in business. I suppose I’ve always thought that in a way, but I feel it very profoundly now. It’s the only one that has any vitality in it... and it’s pretty good in what it proposes. It combines a certain amount of inspiration and principle with what one might call humanity. It doesn’t ask people to twist themselves into the shape of a pretzel for its accomplishment.”
Now, after excoriating the likes of Clinton, Kissinger (“a one-man rolling crime wave”), the cult of Princess Diana and Mother Theresa (in part, on account of her cosy relationship with the Duvalier dictatorship in Haiti), Hitchens has a new cause. Because of September 11, his mission now is “to defend the enlightenment, to defend and extend the benefits of rationalism. By all and any means necessary”.
Years ago, Gore Vidal annointed Hitchens his successor – or dauphin. Now it seems the pair’s relationship is disintegrating over Hitchen’s support for toppling Saddam and Vidal’s belief that the war was an exercise in oil exploitation and American imperialism. Vidal has accordingly withdrawn his blessing. “I was wondering if he was going to. We had brunch in LA before the war and it seemed to me he was trying to avoid the question. I never asked him for it – he sent it to me in a fax and at first I didn’t quite realise what he’d given me. I waited for many years before using it. He apparently fairly sweetly said he wouldn’t say that now. That’s a huge relief for me because I’ve realised for some time I’ve got to write a review of his last book. I’ve got to. But I didn’t want to seem to be the one who having got a handsome endorsement, wanted it both ways.”
This is typical Hitchens, unable to see a discarded gauntlet without picking it up. Vidal’s latest polemic demands a response – just as Hitchens had no choice, none at all, but to respond, negatively and destructively, to his best friend Martin Amis’s book on Stalin, Koba the Dread, last year or to former Clinton advisor, and former friend, Sidney Blumenthal’s book The Clinton Wars. Amis, he says, should steer clear of politics, Blumenthal’s defence of the Clintons, the work of a “toady”. Hitchens’ creed is simple. He once said: “I devoutly believe that words ought to be weapons. That is why I got into this business in the first place. I don’t seek the title of ‘inoffensive’, which I think is one of the nastiest things that could be said about an individual writer.”
• A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq is published by Plume Books