Critical Thinking with Cristopher Hitchens: Part I

Christopher Hitchens
Christopher Hitchens: master logician.

September 11 had a strong effect on Christopher Hitchens. “I am only slightly embarrassed to tell you that this was a feeling of exhilaration,” he remarked to an interviewer in 2003. “Here we are then, I was thinking, in a war to the finish between everything I love and everything I hate.” Since that time, Hitchens has arguably become the most influential voice in favour of the Iraq War. Not only has Hitchens frequently defended the war on television and in print, he has been invited to the White House to discuss foreign policy with senior Bush administration officials. In November, Hitchens wrote an article for Vanity Fair describing the unusual influence his Iraq writings had on a young man named Mark Daily. After reading an article Hitchens wrote, Daily was inspired to sign up for combat in Iraq, beginning in November 2006. Two months later, Daily was killed during fighting in Mosul.

Hitchens’ most recent defence of the war takes the form of a contribution to a debate in Slate magazine. Former supporters of the war were asked to respond to the question, “How did I get Iraq wrong?” Hitchens’ answer? He didn’t. Unlike the other contributors, Hitchens denies that he has anything to answer for. Instead, he argues that the case for war was, and remains, morally defensible.

For an article published in 2008, this struck me as a surprising position to take. However, beyond the question of whether or not Hitchens’ position is true is the separate question of how well he argues for it. There are questions on which reasonable people can disagree, and we’ve all encountered strong challenges to our own views. On the other hand, some arguments are truly bad as arguments. Not only are the conclusions false, but the support offered for them is so weak, it is impossible to take the conclusions seriously while maintaining any sense of intellectual integrity.

How well does Hitchens argue for his position on the Iraq War? I want to try to answer this question by standardizing Hitchens’ Slate argument. Standardization is something we’ve been doing in a critical thinking course with which I’ve recently been involved. To recast an argument in standard form is to boil it down to its key ideas and logical moves, so that we can critically asses its overall quality as an argument.

Standardization has a downside. Because the standardized form deliberately tries to get past the rhetorical aspects of a piece of writing, it is usually less engaging to read than the non-standardized form. It should also be said that there are judgement calls in how to standardize any argument, and that two people can recast the same argument differently without either being obviously wrong. Despite its limitations, however, standardization can be a helpful way of approaching a written text. It forces us to grapple with what an author is really saying, and to carefully investigate whether his conclusions do in fact follow from his premises.

What follows below are the relevant paragraphs from Hitchens’ article, followed by my attempt to reconstruct the arguments they contain. If you’d prefer to read Hitchens’ essay in its entirety first, it is available here.

Argument One: Hostilities In Iraq Began Prior to Spring 2003

An “anniversary” of a “war” is in many ways the least useful occasion on which to take stock of something like the Anglo-American intervention in Iraq, if only because any such formal observance involves the assumption that a) this is, in fact, a war and b) it is by that definition an exception from the rest of our engagement with that country and that region. I am one of those who, for example, believes that the global conflict that began in August 1914 did not conclusively end, despite a series of “fragile truces,” until the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. This is not at all to redefine warfare and still less to contextualize it out of existence. But when I wrote the essays that go to make up A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq, I was expressing an impatience with those who thought that hostilities had not really “begun” until George W. Bush gave a certain order in the spring of 2003.

Anyone with even a glancing acquaintance with Iraq would have to know that a heavy U.S. involvement in the affairs of that country began no later than 1968, with the role played by the CIA in the coup that ultimately brought Saddam Hussein’s wing of the Baath Party to power. Not much more than a decade later, we come across persuasive evidence that the United States at the very least acquiesced in the Iraqi invasion of Iran, a decision that helped inflict moral and material damage of an order to dwarf anything that has occurred in either country recently. In between, we might note minor episodes such as Henry Kissinger’s faux support to Kurdish revolutionaries, encouraging them to believe in American support and then abandoning and betraying them in the most brutal and cynical fashion.

If you can bear to keep watching this flickering newsreel, it will take you all the way up to the moment when Saddam Hussein, too, switches sides and courts Washington, being most in favor in our nation’s capital at the precise moment when he is engaged in a campaign of extermination in the northern provinces and retaining this same favor until the very moment when he decides to “engulf” his small Kuwaiti neighbor.

The basic idea of the first paragraph concerns whether or not the anniversary of the war is a useful occasion on which to reflect on events in Iraq. Hitchens seems to want to say it is not. However, it is not clear that he offers an argument for this view, as opposed to a bit of rhetorical throat-clearing. As this point seems trivial compared to the justice of the war itself (and would seem directed primarily at Hitchens’ editors), I am going to ignore it.

The first real argument about the war starts to be get going in the second paragraph. It is directed at “those who thought that hostilities had not really ‘begun’ . . . until spring of 2003.” Although that category could technically include both supporters and critics of the war, I suspect Hitchens primarily has critics in mind. Regardless, the argument can be standardized as follows:

1. The CIA assisted in the 1968 coup that brought Saddam Hussein’s wing of the Baath party* to power. [premise]

2. In 1975 Henry Kissinger* convinced Kurdish revolutionaries that United States would support them in an uprising against Hussein, only to abandon them when the (failed) revolution came. [premise]

3. In 1980 The U.S. acquiesced in the invasion of Iran. [premise]

4. Sometime after 1980, Saddam switched sides and courted the favour of Washington. [premise]

5. Saddam enjoyed strong support in Washington in the early 1990s, just when he was attempting to exterminate the Kurds, and he remained in Washington’s favour until he invaded Kuwait. [premise]

6. Significant U.S. involvement in Iraq preceded the 2003 invasion. [from 1-5, linked]

7. If significant U.S. involvement in Iraq preceded the 2003 invasion, then the intervention in Iraq is a continuation of our prior dealings with that country. [unstated premise]

8. The intervention in Iraq is a continuation of our prior dealings with that country. [from 6 and 7]

9. If the intervention in Iraq is a continuation of our prior dealings with that country, then U.S. hostilities in Iraq began prior to spring 2003. [unstated premise]

10. U.S. hostilities in Iraq began prior to spring 2003. [sub-conclusion, from 8 and 9]

What are we to make of this argument? Let’s start with the first five premises, about the legacy of American support for Hussein going back to the sixties (I’ve added the relevant year for each example). I was unaware of Kissinger’s actions before Googling “Kissinger” and “Kurds” just now, but all the examples Hitchens mentions sound plausible to me. (There is a problem with number four that I will get to in a moment, but it concerns its relationship to another of Hitchens’ premises, not whether Saddam actually switched sides or not). Even if some of Hitchens’ opening premises turn out to be false, for the purposes of this exercise, I want to grant that they are true. Getting bogged down in a detailed historical investigation at this early point would distract from my main goal, which is to try to asses the logic of Hitchens’ argument.

If we grant premises 1- 5, would 6 follow? Yes. There is no question that the series of events Hitchens mentions would have had serious consequences in Iraq. So the first inference in the argument is a valid one. That’s always a good sign.

The moves from 6 to 8, and then from 8 to 10 both have a modus ponens structure. What is modus ponens you ask? It refers to any arguments with the following form:

if A then B. [premise]
A. [premise]
Therefore B. [conclusion]

There’s no arguing with modus ponens, a basic principle of logic, and statements 8 and 10 do follow from the immediately preceding premises. Hitchens argument to statement 10, therefore, would seem deductively valid.

Validity however refers only the relationship between premises and conclusions. Crucially, an argument can be logically valid but still not be sound, which requires both validity and true premises. The key question therefore is, are all of Hitchens’ premises true?

Let’s begin to answer this question by looking at statement seven. It said:

If significant U.S. involvement in Iraq began no later than 1968, then the intervention in Iraq is a continuation of our prior dealings with that country.

Where to begin? I’m hard pressed to capture in words just what a bad premise this is. “Orgasmically wrong” is about the best I can do.

Seriously, all the examples Hitchens gives are of cases when the U.S. helped Saddam. It is objectively false to say that a war to oust him is a continuation of the same old story. It would be like if I called you up for years and told you what a great person you are, lent you money, helped you get your dream job—and then broke into your house and smashed you in the head with a baseball bat. “I was just continuing the same old habits, really,” would not be a remotely plausible thing for me to say. Statement seven is equally implausible for the same reason. It amounts to the idea that a reversal of U.S. policy is somehow a continuation.

The deep crappiness of statements seven is enough to prevent Hitchens’ argument from being true. It’s worth briefly noting, however, some additional problems with statements four, nine and 10.

Four involves the idea of a political leader, in this case Saddam, switching sides. Of course, one wonders just how much switching could really be going on if Saddam was already in bed with the Americans as far back as 1968. Leaving that aside, it seems a mistake for Hitchens to employ the idea of “switching sides” anywhere in this argument. The argument’s purpose after all is to deny that any significant change in U.S. policy toward Iraq took place when the bombs began to fall. But if it makes sense so speak of Saddam changing sides, why can’t we say that is exactly what the U.S. did when it went to war with its former client? Hitchens, in other words, seems to hold inconsistent views of what it means to switch sides. When Hussein does so, it represents a meaningful change. When the U.S. does it, it does not.

If that’s the case, it would appear we do have a validity problem after all: statements four and seven employ contradictory understandings of whether switching sides is or is not a change. (The contradiction could be seen by standardizing Hitchens’ unstated premises about the meaning of “switching” and “change,” but for the sake of brevity I will skip that step.)

This brings us to the final problematic statements, nine and 10:

9. If the intervention in Iraq is a continuation of our prior dealings with that country, then U.S. hostilities in Iraq began prior to spring 2003.

10. U.S. hostilities in Iraq began prior to spring 2003.

The problem with nine should be obvious. It would only be true if the U.S.’s prior dealings in Iraq took the form of invasions intended to oust Saddam. But Hitchens himself says they were attempts to help Saddam. Strike two, then, on the sound premises front.

Statement 10 has an Orwellian air, and literally claims that war is peace. Even leaving that aside, it is a bizarre statement for Hitchens to make. If we take the idea seriously, it raises the question of why the war was worth starting. Why go to the trouble of invading, if doing so does not represent any significant departure from what the U.S. was doing all along? If invading and non-invading are indistinguishable, why not just hold off invading and say that we did?

To sum up, Hitchens first argument is not valid, let alone sound. It employs more than one false premise, and draws on contradictory assumptions as to whether switching sides is or is not a type of change. As for the argument’s conclusion, rather than bolster the case for the war, it raises the question of why the invasion was necessary to begin with.

All in all, this does not seem the best start to an article devoted to defending the war. Perhaps Hitchens’ next argument will be better?

UPDATE: I misspelled Henry Kissinger’s last name when I first posted this, and also wrongly said Saddam himself, rather than his wing of the Baath party, came to power in 1968. Both errors have been corrected.

14 thoughts on “Critical Thinking with Cristopher Hitchens: Part I

  1. Hitchens’ arguments, in this article and everywhere else, are premised entirely upon emotion and florid rhetoric.

    Your effort is surely a useful exercise in standardization. But it seems almost mean to subject Hitchens’ articles to a logical analysis. You may as well use physics to understand Chopin.

  2. A long A.M. Lamey polemic! And against Christopher Hitchens! It’s like having ice cream mixed with cookies! It’s a real joy to read and I can hardly wait for Part 2.

  3. Your attempt at standardization appears to me to be deeply flawed. The crux of the problem is your confusion of American involvement with the nation and people of Iraq, which Hitchens refers to, with American support for Saddam. There is nothing paradoxical about describing the switch in U.S. policy from supporting to opposing the Iraqi dictator as a continuation of its engagement with the Iraqi nation. In fact, it might be said that the mistakes of Kissinger, etc., create a historical and moral context that support our current attempt to repair the damage done to the Iraqi people by our previous support of their oppressor. I thought this implication was pretty obvious when reading Hitchens’ essay for the first time, but perhaps he gives his readers a little too much credit by not belaboring it.

  4. Hitchens rarely makes sense on Iraq, but he’s quite right that the invasion represents a continuation of hostilities, albeit in an astonishingly gross and stupid fashion. Ten years of sanctions, the steady aerial assaults in connection with the no-fly zone and of course Clinton’s massive bombing raid, Desert Fox, certainly qualify as hostile. And as invasion proponents often mentioned in the runup to the invasion, Clinton signed into law the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, which made it “the policy of the United States to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq and to promote the emergence of a democratic government to replace that regime.”

    That doesn’t make the invasion and occupation any less crack-headed, but it does support Hitchens’ thesis. However, if I can borrow your baseball bat for a moment, what we’ve done is to notice a poisonous spider on someone’s forehead and take a lusty swing to save them from the creature. So what if we fractured their skull and, on the rebound, our own? Mission accomplished. The spider is dead.

  5. I’m not used to getting so many comments right off the bat. Thanks to everybody who left a note.

    Re Lee Phillips’ comment, I agree that Hitchens’ article does make appeal to the idea that previous American involvement in Iraq gives the United States a special moral responsibility to overthrow Hussein. However, I feel that this idea does not come into play until Hitchens’ refers to the “high level of public participation in our foreign policy” that begins with the American decision to oust Hussein from Kuwait. I took this to mean that, prior to that time, the American public was not directly implicated in what its government agencies and representatives were doing in Iraq. Also, all of the examples gives in the passage above, with the partial exception of the Kissinger-Kurds incident, involve the U.S. government interacting directly with Saddam’s regime. For this reason, up to this point in the article, I took Hitchens to be referring to U.S. interactions directly with Saddam. If I was wrong, I’ll try to be more careful in part 2.

  6. What’s Orwellian is the anti-war Left’s insistence that Saddam “wasn’t that bad.” Or to argue that the Vietnamese who fought the Vietnam War are somehow analogous to Saddam.

    For me, it seemed like Hitchens turned against the pacifist left during the Bosnian war, before 9/11. People like Chomsky didn’t believe the US could be a moral agent and do anything about it.

  7. insistence that Saddam “wasn’t that bad.” Or to argue that the Vietnamese who fought the Vietnam War are somehow analogous to Saddam.

    Who has said either of those things, Peter K.? You have quotations around “wasn’t that bad,” so I hope it’s not asking too much to know who you’re quoting.

  8. I guess Peter K. won’t be coming up with the source of his quote anytime soon. He makes an accusation and then plays stupid when called on it.

    The reason the war went badly is that is never was a real war – in the sense that both sides were at war. Iraq posed no theat, so it really was an invasion by one side and this had no real support and so was not planned as if it were real and with all the historical precident ignored on how to go to war.

  9. Well done – really looking forward to part deux!

    Also, I can’t wait for the opportunity to call something or someone “orgasmically wrong”.

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