Patrick Cockburn: Christopher Hitchens made a cogent case for war – but he was still wrong

World View: The late journalist insisted removing Saddam and the Taliban from power was paramount. But what about Syria?

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There was a telling omission from the range of topics mentioned at the memorial for Christopher Hitchens at the Cooper Union in New York on 20 April. The 30 people who spoke, mostly reading excerpts from Christopher's writings, before an audience of 900, focused on a diversity of subjects such as Proust, drinking, the Elgin marbles, Ronald Reagan, a defence of the pig, Charles Dickens, Bill Clinton and P G Wodehouse, interspersed with his reports on countries such as Haiti, North Korea, Vietnam, Prague and Bosnia.

Almost entirely absent from the list was the main feature of Christopher's literary and political career over the past decade. This was his support for the wars fought by the US, with Britain as its main ally, in Iraq and Afghanistan. Of the many selections from his political writings read out, most were from the years before the mid-1990s. Graydon Carter, the editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair, which organised the memorial, spoke warmly of Christopher's many talents, merely referring in passing to his "curious pro-war stance before the invasion of Iraq", as if he was noting a bizarre taste in socks or ties.

Avoidance of contentious issues is understandably the norm at memorials or in funeral orations. A desire not to dwell on Christopher's enthusiasm for military intervention in the affairs of other states was probably all the greater at the Cooper Union as few of those present appeared to share these views.

Nevertheless, it would be a pity if Christopher's words and writing on Anglo-American military interventions should be ignored because of funereal pieties or because they embarrass many of his friends. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been at the centre of world politics for the past decade. He was the most intelligent and eloquent defender of these interventions as a means of removing dictators or preventing massacres (compare his trenchant justification for Anglo-American interventions with Tony Blair's ill-informed maunderings).

Christopher's fellow supporters of the Iraq war generally fell silent as the disastrous outcome of the conflict became evident, but he never altered his position. Moreover, the whole question of so-called "humanitarian intervention" is more relevant today than ever. Nato's apparent success so far in overthrowing Muammar Gaddafi in Libya last year has made more credible the prospect of the US, EU and their Arab allies taking action to change the regime in Syria in the next few months.

The central theme of Christopher's case in favour of foreign military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq was that, if these wars had not been fought, Saddam Hussein and the Taliban would still be in power. He said that to be anti-war was, in effect, to allow the continuation of tyrannical and merciless regimes. "The anti-war people have a lot of explaining to do," he would say.

I disagreed wholly with this, but never argued about it with Christopher. I had known him since I was 18, when we wrote a column together for the student paper Cherwell at Oxford, and, as he used to say, "one does not make old friends". I stayed with him at his apartment in Washington several times when he was dying, over the past 18 months. It was obviously a bad moment to have a rip-roaring argument about Iraq, Afghanistan, or the merits of foreign intervention in general.

Had we done so, I would have argued that it was no accident that the two wars have had such a disastrous outcome for Iraqis, Afghans, and, to a lesser extent, Americans. What were meant to be short wars have turned into lengthy ones. Afghan and Iraqi societies have been wrecked by the conflicts. If these supposedly benign actions were undertaken to change regimes hated by their own people, why were so many Iraqis and Afghans prepared to die fighting what they saw as a foreign occupation?

For all their altruistic claims, at the core of foreign intervention is the national interest of the countries that do the intervening. If this is not evident on day one of an invasion, it asserts itself soon thereafter. Most Iraqis were glad to see the end of Saddam Hussein, but they did not want to be occupied by a foreign power. Iraq's Foreign Minister, Hoshyar Zebari, generally seen as pro-American, is fond of saying "the occupation was the mother of all mistakes". But, for the US, it was necessary because the US did not want its traditional enemy Iran to benefit from the overthrow of Saddam. Washington's solution to this dilemma was to take all power in Iraq into its own hands, thereby sparking off rebellions by Sunni and Shia against the US, as well as a sectarian civil war of exceptional savagery.

In Afghanistan, the position of the US and foreign allies should have been easier. The Taliban never had majority support outside a few limited areas and were appalling rulers. But again foreign intervention turned into a covert occupation. Afghans did want elections, but they soon found that it was foreigners who wielded real power. As in Iraq, the occupiers wanted to have their cake and eat it, making their own choice of Washington-friendly local politicians and notables, but then expressing surprise that they did not have an effective local partner and ally.

Supporters of these foreign interventions should not be allowed to get away with saying that "they got rid of Saddam and the Taliban, so how can any decent person oppose them?". But apologists have to explain why regime change was followed by bloody conflicts, almost immediately in Iraq, and after five years in Afghanistan.

Christopher used to say that he had "seen Iraqis... throwing sweets and flowers at American troops during the invasion". I remember replying: "That was because they wanted to be rid of Saddam, not because they wanted to be occupied by the US." Within a year of the invasion, the American army controlled only islands of territory in southern and northern Iraq.

There is an alarming and self-interested tendency to treat the origins of the Iraq and Afghan wars as if they are as obscure and distant as those of the Korean War. With these grim analogies out of the way, it is easier to argue in favour of foreign military intervention in Syria.

Much the same thing happened after the Vietnam War. In about 2004, I met a member of an American bomb-disposal team based near Fallujah who had just bought an army textbook on Vietcong booby traps. The IEDs used by Iraqi insurgents often resembled these, but the Pentagon had withdrawn the manual because its continued use might appear to contradict the official mantra that there was no parallel between Vietnam and Iraq, so the officer was reduced to buying it from a second-hand bookshop.

Christopher's pro-war writings and speeches on Afghanistan and Iraq are well worth revisiting, not because he was right but because he was wrong. His arguments for foreign intervention at the time it occurred are compelling, until it is recalled how, in practice, these humanitarian missions turned into imperial ventures that destroyed the countries they were meant to save.

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