Since I sometimes make scornful posts about Jon Stewart’s occasionally milquetoasty interviews, I should say he acquitted himself well Thursday night with Christopher Hitchens (available on The Daily Show site under ‘celebrity interviews‘).
(Note: I didn’t see it live, but Stewart’s interview with Sen. Rick Santorum [available at the above link] was widely considered to be a low-water mark. Here’s how Stewart summarized the e-mail response from viewers : ” ‘It s-u-u-u-u-h-h-h—c-c-c-c-ked!!’ ” :) )
Hitchens is a so-called Liberal hawk who supports overthrowal of Saddam Hussein and invasion of Iraq.
He thought the U.S. coalition made a mistake in 1991 when it didn’t keep rolling right to Baghdad after it pushed Iraq out of Kuwait.
Hitchens also noted the United States Senate passed a bill in 1998 by a 98-0 margin calling for Hussein’s overthrowal.
“Help me understand why I am wrong about Iraq,” was Stewart’s opening bid. “I’m confused. I don’t know what ‘staying the course’ means. When he says this: ’we’re going to fight them over there instead fightin’ them over here,’ … it wasn’t a nation that attacked us, it was an ideology.”
Hitchens said Bush contradicted himself with the ‘there or here’ statement, saying the war on terror is “either global or it isn’t. If the next bomb goes off in London, people say, ‘I thought we took care of that by fighting them there.’ That’s stupid.”
Stewart then noted that in terms of weapons of mass destruction, the greatest threats are from Iran and North Korea, while Saudi Arabia and Iran are two of the biggest supporters of terrorism (he forgot to mention the unfinished business in Afghanistan). “So why then, the urgency to go into Iraq?”
Hitchens said the mistake was to leave Saddam in power and let Iraq rot for nearly 12 years.
There were four conditions under which a country could be relieved of its sovereignty, Hitchens said:
- Repeated aggression against neighboring states
- Fooling around with the Non-Proliferation Treaty
- Harbouring gangsters
“Iraq had broken all four, more than once,” he said.
In the wake of that, the ‘regime change’ act was passed in 1998, and anyone opposed should have written their legislators and piped up then, he said.
“Here’s why we didn’t write: Because it was an obviously symbolic thing to do, and nobody here thought anybody would be crazy enough to get into the British and Churchillian method of ‘hey, let’s go into the Middle East and redraw the map the way we think it should be redrawn.’ What could happen then,” Stewart said.
Hitchens lost his train of thought, and Stewart helped him by saying, “You were saying to me that you agree that Bush is conducting this incompetently.” :^)
Actually, Hitchens said he agreed — “unfortunately, you go to war with the president you have” — although he thought Bush was right in the sense that the United States has deadly enemies.
“It’s wrong to say the cause of terrorism is our resistance to it, which is the root fallacy that is now being put around. If we weren’t mean to them, they wouldn’t be so mean to us. Absolute bullshit,” he said.
“I agree with all your premises, I disagree that going into Iraq was the way to (clarify?) things,” Stewart said.
Hitchens also said a major fallacy was “there wouldn’t be all these terrorists in Iraq if we hadn’t gone there. That’s capitulation.”
He mentioned that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s presence in Iraq predated the U.S. invasion.
Technically true, but he fled Afghanistan after a post-9/11 missile attack on his training camp (which wasn’t associated with al Qaeda) near Herat, which is itself near the border with Iran.
Zarqawi didn’t show up at one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces; he hooked up with Ansar al-Islam, a Kurdish Islamist group, in northern Iraq, according to this BBC profile of Zarqawi. The Kurds and Saddam didn’t share a lot of love.
According to an NYT profile, Zarqawi was spotted in Jordan in September 2002. Shortly after that, U.S. diplomat James Foley was murdered.
Hitchens tried to make it sound like Saddam was running a bed-and-breakfast for terrorists on the run, when that wasn’t the case at all (he did note, correctly, some other semi-retired terrorists were living there. And Stewart rebutted, correctly, “But that is the old school terrorism and you know it.”).
In addition, the 9/11 commission found no evidence of link between Iraq, al Qaeda and the 9/11 attack — something Hitchens didn’t volunteer. Think about about something else: Saddam is a scotch-loving, Viagara user who lived an opulent life while his people suffered. Osama bin Laden and Zarqawi are pious Islamo-fascists. Saddam’s decadence would have made it hard for the two sides to bond.
Anyways, Hitchens went on: “The people who say the violence of these people is our fault are masochistic and capitulationist.”
Mr. Hitchens doesn’t acknowledge the multi-faceted nature of the insurgency in Iraq. Some of it is religious jihad against infidel soldiers on Islamic soil, some of it is Iraqi nationalism and some is a Sunni and Baathist backlash to a loss of power (the resistance has been much more bloody in Sunni areas).
Anyway, I don’t know too many people who are saying Zarqawi’s savagery is caused by us, except in an indirect sense: U.S. and European meddling in the Middle East hasn’t always been for the best of motives, and it’s provided an opportunity for the Islamists to exploit.
Here’s Stewart’s rebuttal: “The people who say we shouldn’t fight in Iraq aren’t saying it’s our fault. That is the conflation that is most disturbing to me.”
Hitchens: “Don’t you hear people say we’ve made them nasty and mean?”
Stewart: “I hear people say a lot of stupid shit. But what I’m saying there is reasonable dissent in this country about the way this war has been conducted that has nothing to do with people believeing we should cut and run from the terrorists, or that we should show weakness in the face of terrorism, or that we believe that in some way we have brought this upon ourselves. They believe this war is being conducted without transparency, without credibility and without competence (confidence?).”
Hitchens: “I’m sorry, Sunshine. I just watched you ridicule the president (Note to Hitchens: That’s what satirists do!) for saying he wouldn’t give a timetable.”
Stewart: “That’s not why I ridiculed the president. Why I ridiculed the president was because he wouldn’t answer questions from adults as though we were adults and falls back upon platitudes and phrases and talking points that does a disservice to the to the goals that he himself shares with the very people he needs to convince.”
Hitchens: “You want me to believe you’re really secretly on his side, you just wish he was more persuasive.”
Stewart: “I secretly need him to be on my side. He’s too powerful and important a man not to be.”
Wow. Somewhere inside the comedian and entertainer is a journalist screaming to get out. :)
Hitchens was on the show to flog a new book: Thomas Jefferson: Author of America.
He said Jefferson believed American democracy should be exported and that Jefferson once went to war with “Islamic terrorists” on the Barbary coast of North Africa without Congress’s approval.
“Can I say this without even reading the book: Bush is Jefferson?” Stewart asked.
“Yeah. Hold that thought, ladies and gentlemen,” Hitchens said with a grin.