Hitchens v. Obama on Iran

I love Christopher Hitchens. I regard him as one of the finest writers, thinkers and speakers on a wide range of topics in the public arena, and some sort of Shaolin kungfu master of debate – willing to meet all challengers and capable of inflicting lethal strings of reason, rhetoric and facts. I’d spend more time with adjectives but I don’t want to seem fawning. Suffice to say he is my answer to that old cocktail party question, “If you could have dinner with anyone living or dead…”

Nevertheless, and perhaps this is why I want that dinner, I don’t agree with Hitch all the time. I would happily go from appetizer to cognac without ever mentioning God as I wouldn’t want to waste a moment.
We are of a mind on matters of theology.
His passionate (and that based on first hand experience) arguments in favor of the Iraq war have at least tempered my position on whether it was objectively right or wrong, but at some point well before desert I would have some things to say about the means employed to justify it both domestically and internationally; in the conduct at each stage; in the lack of awareness or preparation for the obvious and now realized consequences, and whether or not what’s about to happen as America draws down is better or worse than leaving a vicious thug like Saddam (or even his insane criminal offspring) in charge. An argument about the lesser of evils and rather ugly for that.

Writing in Slate, Hitchens suggests that President Obama is being too nice to Iran.
He opens with pedantic critique of Obama’s speech in France: It was too long. It wasn’t designed for the youthful demographic.
It seemed at any moment he might say something bitchy about the President’s choice of footwear. Nevertheless, he admits that in both tone and content, this is an improvement over George Bush…which only makes one ask what sort of dull incompetence it would require to be worse?
Hitchens ramps up the criticism when he accuses Obama of being disingenuous by expressing something like humility. While recognizing that one of Bush’s great failures was swaggering arrogance built on America’s military and economic strength, Christopher suggests that Obama fails to acknowledge the reality of the sheer weight of America in the world.
After eight years of cowboy, “Yer either with us or yer with the terrists,” nothing could be so soothing to the global psyche as a smart Sheriff who doesn’t shoot first and ask questions later. The way one gets that message across is by contrast, and the counterweight to both arrogance and pride is humility – not grovelling, not capitulation – the ability and willingness to treat others as equals even though you are big, stronger, richer, faster and have more stuff. That is a principle Hitchens, a fully justified ego barely restrained by an equally rampant faux humility (if his public persona is to be taken at face value), ought to understand.

While there is no comparison between Afghanistan or some eventual line in the sand with Iran and a bunch of ragtag Somali pirates in a lifeboat (armed with the only true weapons of mass destruction – the inestimable AK-47), the manner in which the later was resolved says something about what sort of costs this president is willing to pay before resorting to deadly force.
It is also true that many of the same and similar criticisms were leveled at Barack Obama for the way in which he appeared to deal with this high seas kidnapping. The pundits mocked him for sending a hostage negotiator…for being willing to talk to criminals in order to secure the release of the hostage. They said he was weak and myopic. We know well the result and the means by which it was obtained.
Leave that aside.

Hitchens moves to a spotty historical review of American-Iranian relations in response to the presidents statement that America is not now, nor ever will be “at war with Islam.”
It requires a bit of hedge jumping, but the facts are that America did send the fleet and the Marines to fight Islamic piracy in the 1700’s. One might point out that the action was to end piracy and white slavery, not Islam. One might also point out that Hitchens fails to mention the overthrow of Mossadeq by the CIA in 1953. I don’t want to quibble over who struck first or hardest. Hitchens is correct that elements of radical Islam seek to extend their power, kill all their enemies and inflict Sharia law on the world. He is certainly correct that those elements are now in control of the government of Iran. The question is how does an American president diminish the threat, empower moderates, reduce harm and remove obstacles to positive progress?

While it clearly rubs Hitchens the wrong way that engagement might occur without insisting that Sharia law be repealed and all victims of it made free and whole; that restorative justice obtain throughout Persia, Central Asia and the Middle East, the argument that Obama is somehow either weak or myopic because he invites Iran to talk demands a degree of stubbornness that is counter-productive practically if not ideologically. It is, in fact, precisely the failed policies of the incompetent neocon administration recently dismissed.

Treating with respect those with whom you disagree ought to be nothing incomprehensible to Hitch. I’ve seen him do it more often than not.
Finding a way to have the intransigent agree to debate, with the aim of using the opportunity to advance one’s own interests, in no way requires that one approve, accept or tolerate the extension of the very elements one seeks to mitigate. It requires statesmanship. And while I would thoroughly enjoy the after dinner drinks in Hitchens’ company (and would stock cases of scotch in hopes of extending it), I would never appoint Christopher ambassador to anywhere. Well…perhaps the Vatican, but only for laughs. Thankfully the Pope hasn’t got much of an army. Although, speaking of global war on terrorism…okay, Hitchens is out. He’d gladly start a war with the Catholics – he’s already waging it.


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