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NOW with Bill Moyers

Transcript - Bill Moyers Talks to Christopher Hitchens

MOYERS: Tonight we hear from someone who makes the case for war.

Christopher Hitchens is a writer, journalist, and intellectual combatant. He writes books faster than most of us can read them. Books on Bill and Hillary Clinton, Henry Kissinger, Mother Theresa, politics and culture, including this new book: WHY ORWELL MATTERS, about his intellectual hero, the British writer George Orwell.

You can read Christopher Hitchens regularly in VANITY FAIR. But he recently quit his column in the NATION magazine in a dispute with his old comrades on the left whom he said just don't understand the seriousness of the terrorist threat to America.

Christopher Hitchens thinks Saddam Hussein must go, and that only force will get him out.

Welcome to NOW. I know your position on the war. I've read your arguments, most of them. I think maybe all of them. What I don't understand is the process that got you here. Was there a moment of "Eureka," of "ah-ha"?

HITCHENS Not exactly. But the... There was a moment, I guess I'll take a step back, if I may.

MOYERS: Yes.

HITCHENS I've considered myself for a long time-- and when I was on the left, which in many ways I still am-- to be a friend of the Kurdish movement in northern Iraq, the Kurdish rebels.

And of the Iraqi opposition, the Iraqi democratic opposition, known as the I.N.C., Iraqi National Congress. That's a position I held for many, many years.

I held it when-- American governments ruling class imperial ones, indeed, were in favor of Saddam Hussein. At the end of the last gulf war, of which I'd been very, very critical, I found myself in a...

MOYERS: Same here.

HITCHENS Well, there was lots to criticize. I don't take much of it back. But at the end of it, I was bouncing around northern Iraq in a jeep with some Kurdish guerrillas who were people I'd come to admire very much for their bravery.

On the windshield of the jeep was a picture of George Bush, Sr., jogging. And I said to them a couple of times, "now, do you have to have this picture?" I would be just as happy not to ride around in a jeep with Bush's picture. And they said, "no, well, we think we owe them for this."

Now bear in mind, the Gulf War had never had as its intention the establishment of a protective zone for Kurds in the north. That was an unintended consequence of the war.

It was the result of public opinion, it was the result of interesting humanitarian pressure. People saying, "You can't end the war in Kuwait with all the Kurds dying on the mountainsides of Northern Iraq. Being slaughtered by and poisoned by Saddam Hussein. You must do something."

And the no-fly zones, which have since guaranteed this, have actually created that space. For an embryonic Kurdistan and an embryonic democratic Iraq.

MOYERS: Your intellectual mentor, in a sense, Orwell, he didn't much admire people who weren't there when the trigger is pulled.

HITCHENS That's quite right.

MOYERS: It makes me wonder about journalists and writers, intellectuals like you. We're not going to be there when the trigger is pulled.

HITCHENS I don't feel I need to make this defense for myself. But just for the sake of my own testosterone, I will.

I was in the... On the Afghan border last year. I have been... I was in Sarajevo during the siege. I was in Kurdistan, so... And other places, too.

I know enough about it, by the way, I've seen enough of it to know I wouldn't be any good as a soldier. I wouldn't stand up for... Very well for long.

But the second thing is, where I live in Washington, D.C., I've seen the Pentagon burning from the top of my house. I've seen... And where... My daughter's school was just up across the river from that.

MOYERS: After 9/11?

HITCHENS Very difficult to go... tough time getting her back from school that day. The streets were jammed, panic, fire.

Since then, anthrax in my mailroom. I'm now just considering whether to have my daughter vaccinated for smallpox.

I consider myself to be in the front line, and everyone in the United States to be. That's what's different, precisely, about this war. So the whole point is that civilians are probably in more danger than people in uniform. And the enemy specifically makes that its strategy.

MOYERS: But the issue to me is that if it goes wrong, the president, his cabinet, they'll lose the election, and history will be hard on them. The people in Iraq will suffer and be in chaos or dead if it goes badly.

We can advocate war, and then walk on, move on to our next cause, to our next story. That's... Maybe it's a distinction that doesn't hit home with you. But it makes me more reluctant than when I was in government, to think that intellectuals and journalists should be urging people to go to war.

HITCHENS I think the same obligation falls on those who are opposed to intervention, to say, "well do they have any reason to think that the threat from an aggressive, neurotic, sadistic totalitarian dictatorship will not eventually?"

What will it be like if Mr. Hussein gets hold of deterrent quality weapons of genocide? I think I have a very good idea of what life would be like.

He would be able to do, for example, if he wanted to, sort of get attention, would be, say, to reoccupy Kuwait, or perhaps a part of Saudi Arabia, and say, "If you try and push me out, I can irradiate these oil fields. I can poison them for generations." I mean, he would put the world economy into a slump and kill millions of people in doing so.

We know not just from defectors from Iraq, of whom there've been many, some of them known to me, but from people still within his administration who've been interviewed, that he has said to his cabinet... His cabinet. That his big mistake was to invade Kuwait before he got the nuclear weapon.

We know that he was very near to a weapon before then.

MOYERS: We've seen that in the 12,000 pages.

HITCHENS Why does he say that it would have been better to have a nuclear weapon before I invaded Kuwait? For obvious reasons.

Because it would mean he could deter... He could talk to us as the North Koreans now can. I've been there, too.

Saying that they can threaten such terrifying destruction, that they have to be talked to in a conciliatory tone of voice.

And a lot of the anti-war calculus is based on the idea that he understands deterrence, he understands self preservation, he can be deterred and contained. I don't believe it. I think his regime has become demented.

MOYERS: Has there been any experience in your lifetime, except for the defeat of Germany and Japan, where after a war like this, we have been able... Or a democratic experience has emerged from that new reality?

HITCHENS Well, I think Afghanistan at the moment is a very good case in point.

MOYERS: Ah, but they're...

HITCHENS The... Yes, but there's case for the invasion of... I don't even think it was an invasion. The case for the intervention in Afghanistan wasn't any better to begin with than a self-defense one.

By removing a theocratic dictatorship of the most cruel and retrograde kind, the... For one thing, the population of Afghanistan has gone up by a million and a half, because refugees have been able to come home. And life of everybody is better, especially for the female 50 percent.

MOYERS: This is not going to be a war against a standing army out in the desert, is it?

HITCHENS No, it is... It is a war over Iraq. Whether it's on Iraq or with Iraq or not, we can dispute that it's about Iraq. It's a war for Iraq, in my view. But certainly over it. It means the whole country has to be extensively reconstructed.

And we have to prevent things like revenge killings, of which there will otherwise be a huge number, yes, because of the unbelievable sadism of its policy.

MOYERS: How much collateral damage would you accept for removing Saddam Hussein?

HITCHENS It's not knowable in advance. It would sound terrible to say, "Well, once you've started, you know, you accept the logical and probable consequences." That might seem callous, but you do.

How many people have asked me how many American soldiers I think, or British soldiers, or what... You know, how many would be too many. Seems to me that's an irresponsible question.

Forgive me, but one can be pretty sure that a very large number of people will die for sure, for certain, if this regime goes on, and not only Iraqis.

I think that gives one a license to say, "Well, the point of precision weaponry and precision guidance is precisely that." The Defense Department, as I have other reasons to know, has actually listened to the actual movement down the years. It did listen to that critique.

They may say collateral damage now-- it's an ugly euphemism- but they used to just say "body count," and lay 'em out, right. They wouldn't dare do that now. Furthermore, they don't have to.

MOYERS: Well, this was a significant factor, as you know, in the growing opposition to the Vietnam War.

As the body count kept coming back, the reality kept hitting home, and no amount of euphemistic language in defense of south Vietnam would suffice to answer the growing piles of body bags.

HITCHENS Quite. Well, this won't be the case this time.

MOYERS: We have sort of prided ourselves, the Americans, on never going to war, never starting a war, never striking first.

Has something happened in the moral psychology, the gross national psychology of a people, once we have adopted preemptive strikes as national policy?

HITCHENS Yeah, I think it does. I mean, it worries me very much.

As does, for example, the doctrine that's been promoted lately, saying that United States must always maintain a certain... It's something like 10 percent or 20 percent margin of superiority over any combination of rivals.

But...

MOYERS: That's the new National Security Strategy.

HITCHENS And then they go to the British government, say-- or the French or German-- say, "by the way, we'd like your help in fighting the..." They say, "Well, you want us to help fight to keep your superiority?" That's not a very sort of a polite way of soliciting sympathy or allies, for example.

I mean, I think it was grotesque to talk like that.

There's a certain kind of arrogance and hubris about this administration that fills me with horror-- the reappointment of people like Elliot Abrams, John Poindexter, people who've shown their contempt for Congress and for the democratic process, and shown their contempt for other people's constitutions, and democratic processes, as well, and have in unpunished ways, visited, you know, aggression and atrocity on other... On other peoples.

I mean, it's... It's scandalous.

MOYERS: Well, you're making alliances with those very...

HITCHENS Scandalous that the president

MOYERS: You're intellectually making alliance with many of those people you have written about and deplored in the past, Kissinger.

HITCHENS The alliance is not intellectual. I mean, it's... I'm glad that so many conservatives now agree with me about regime change, just as I was very glad when this... Many of them changed sides on Bosnia.

I don't... Wouldn't turn them away, not on this point, but, you know, it's something to keep one's eye on.

And I wish the Democratic Party in Washington was making more noise about it. I mean, these are people who've lied to the press, lied to the people, lied to congress, there are a lot of the right wings still very strongly opposed to regime change in Iraq.

MOYERS: Yes.

HITCHENS Scowcroft. Well, there's a... There's the Scowcroft-Eagleburger sort of conservative pro-Saudi faction. There's the Pat Buchanan group. The sort of "America first" isolationists and anti-Israeli, as well.

There's a good deal of conservative opposition to this. In fact, most of the actual opposition in Washington to the war is from the right. And nobody cares what the left or the peaceniks think. Their arguments aren't considered to be worth listening to.

They say things like, "no war for oil." Well, is that just to say, "oil isn't worth fighting about," or doesn't matter what Saddam Hussein does to the oil reserves of the region. I mean, how irresponsible could you possibly get?

MOYERS: Do you think the Bush administration has a hidden agenda, oil?

HITCHENS No, I think that's an open agenda. The recuperation of the Iraqi oil industry could be a bonanza for everybody.

I don't think the administration is not saying anything that it ought to say, except one thing, which is that with a large part of its mind, the administration wants to recuperate Iraq and change the regime there in order to break the monopoly the Saudis now have.

Saddam Hussein is the Saudi's buffer state. That's why the Saudis are so much opposed to the war. We now know so much about how Saudi Arabia is not our friend, but is a particularly deadly, mean, and vicious enemy. But this can't be said for reasons of real policy. But it's known, and it certainly forms part of the strategy.

MOYERS: Now we have...

HITCHENS One of my reasons for supporting it is that that's the end of the Saudi monopoly.

MOYERS: With all do respect, that's a very tenuous point. We don't know what the Saudis...

HITCHENS Which have anything like the pluralist state in Iraq next door? With the Shi'a from very near the majority in Saudi Arabia having a say in politics? And the oil... And the oil...

MOYERS: If you can get that pluralistic...

HITCHENS Well, it could... It'll... It has to be better than it is now. That's not boasting to say that it'll be an improvement on what we now have. And then to get the oil, the Iraqi oil moving again and its oil industry back in business, every bit of that tells against the current Saudi advantage. Every bit of it does.

MOYERS: But I noticed a good bit of opposition coming from traditional religious circles.

Mainstream protestants, the Catholics, a lot of the religious people who have taken liberal positions in our society over the years and are more consistently opposing the administration than your old allies on the left, your old friends on the left.

HITCHENS Yes. Well, to be blunt, I don't care what religious people think. I mean, it doesn't impress me.

I don't... I think they should declare that the Kingdom of God is not of this world and they should get on doing the best they can. They've also got a lot of repair work to do in their own churches, as far as I can see. I don't... I can't take seriously the statements of people who...

MOYERS: Why?

HITCHENS ...Whose role in life is to proclaim themselves to be ministers of religion. I just... It just leaves me cold. I'm sorry. I find religion alternatively tedious and disgusting.

MOYERS: I disagree with many of your positions, but I listen to you despite the fact that I know you are an atheist.

HITCHENS Yes.

MOYERS: That you do not have any tolerance for religion. I still listen to the arguments you make. Can't you grant that to people who claim a religious basis?

HITCHENS Yes. I get the same thing. But a placard saying, "No War for Oil" is no cleverer being held up by a rabbi or a priest.

MOYERS: I haven't seen that held up by a rabbi.

HITCHENS Some do.

MOYERS: And priests talk about just war, you know.

HITCHENS I went to... I went to Harvard. I went to the Kennedy School last week to debate with Father Bryan Hehir, who was the...

MOYERS: yes. He was on this show once.

HITCHENS He's the head of Georgetown University. He's a very considerable Catholic theologian. And it's tough to be a Catholic clergyman in Boston these days, so I cut him a little slack. Apparently, he also advises the Pentagon, I've been told, on ethical matters.

He put up a perfectly good case about what Saint Augustine or Saint Thomas Aquinas might have thought about this, but I found it very hard to listen to, quite... I can't conceal my... I won't pretend to respect him more than I do.

I thought in the age of weapons of mass destruction and rapid delivery systems and globalization, this stuff is of no help to us any more than the sermon on the mount would be.

I'm very impressed, by the way, that this debate has been going on for several months now, in public. Almost all the stakes are known. Almost all the evidence is out there.

The administration and the British government have both published exhaustive, arsenals really, of information as well as argument. Everyone's had a chance to make up their mind. The United Nations has pronounced on the disarmament of the Saddam Hussein regime. I wish myself that a great deal more was said.

And I consider my role in this argument, if I had one of my own, to be this: to say more about the incredible courage and success of the Kurdish and Iraqi opposition, and to give them all the help that we can, and to publish their manifestos and their experiences to the Arab world and beyond, and to make it harder and harder to back off any commitment that the United States makes, and to make sure that it is in that spirit that the intervention justifies itself and that this is a standard to which the administration can and must be held.

MOYERS: Thank you very much, Christopher Hitchens.

HITCHENS Thank you, Bill, very much. Thanks for having me.