The Hitchens Doctrine

In his September 14 debate with George Galloway at Baruch College, born-again neocon Christopher Hitchens laid out his four-point argument for why Iraq had surrendered its right to sovereignty. In his opening statement, the Trotskyist-turned-Bush booster contended that the American invasion of Iraq was a justifiable violation of sovereignty. (I speak here of the 2003 US attack on Iraq; Hitchens did not support the 1991 invasion of Iraq, but did offer the circuitous revision that he would not have been invited to the debate “if it wasn’t tolerably well known that I think I was probably mistaken on that occasion,” probably about the most contrition we can expect from his pathological ego.)

According to the Hitchens Doctrine, “a state may be deemed or said to have sacrificed its sovereignty:

1. If it participates in regular aggressions against neighboring states or occupations of their territory;

2. If it violates the letter and spirit of the terms of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and in other words, fools around promiscuously with the illegal acquisition of weapons of mass destruction;

3. If it should violate the Genocide Convention, the signatories to which are obliged without further notice to act either to prevent or punish genocide; and

4. If it plays host to international gangsters, nihilists, terrorists, and jihadists.”

Hitchens sums up, “Iraq met all these four conditions repeatedly, and would demonstrate its willingness to repeat them on many occasions.”

There is some ambiguity, on Hitchens part, as to whether all four of his conditions must be met for a state’s sovereignty to be void, or if meeting a single condition would be sufficient. Regardless, let us examine the Hitchens Doctrine point-by-point.

First we have Iraq’s aggression against its neighbors; Hitchens most probably references here Iraq’s invasions of Iran in 1980 and Kuwait in 1990. The former attack was conducted on orders from the US, Hussein’s new sponsor, as a counterweight to the Iranian Revolution. That other Middle Eastern darling of postwar US policy, the Shah of Iran, had been unseated by Islamic fundamentalists hostile to US influence in their country, probably remembering the US overthrow of their democratically-elected leader, Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953, who maintained the unforgivable notion that the people of Iran should control their oil. Here, the US was apparently trying to wrong a right.

The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 was conducted with the tacit approval of the US Ambassador, April Glaspie. In a July 25, 1990 meeting with Hussein (eight days before the invasion), Glaspie told the dictator, “We have no opinion on your Arab-Arab conflicts, such as your dispute with Kuwait. Secretary [of State James] Baker has directed me to emphasize the instruction, first given to Iraq in the 1960s, that the Kuwait issue is not associated with America.” A transcript tells us that Saddam smiled upon hearing this news.

So, according to the Hitchens Doctrine, these aggressions against Iran and Kuwait, with respective covert and tacit US support, and the latter of which was reversed twelve years before the 2003 US invasion, constitute the first condition “under which a state may be deemed or said to have sacrificed its sovereignty.”

Hitchens’s second condition concerns the Non-Proliferation Treaty, an international agreement that restricts possession of nuclear weapons to the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, the US, Russia, Britain, China, and France, and prohibits the possession of such weapons to all other signatory powers. Iraq is a signatory power to the Treaty, so it is not allowed to possess or attempt to acquire nuclear arms. Iraq may very well have been attempting to build a nuclear weapon at one time. On June 7, 1981, Israeli warplanes bombed a nuclear reactor in Osirak in southern Iraq, supposedly just before it was to go online. Iraq claimed that the reactor was intended for the peaceful production of energy (which is allowed under the Non-Proliferation Treaty), and not for production of weapons-grade nuclear material. Despite US Secretary of State Alexander Haig’s futile struggle to get the Reagan Administration to support the attack, believing the Israelis had done the world a favor, the US instead decried Israel’s action. The US ambassador to the UN, Jeane Kirkpatrick, worked with Iraqi diplomats to craft Security Council Resolution 487 condemning the attack, citing Iraq’s having “accepted [International Atomic Energy] Agency safeguards on all its nuclear activities, and that the Agency has testified that these safeguards have been satisfactorily applied to date.” The Resolution went on to note “that Israel has not adhered to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons,” citing Israel’s hypocrisy in having a large nuclear arsenal itself while denying such weapons to others. All of this is indication that Iraq had and still has a right to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, and moreover, that the US was willing to look the other way on Iraq’s alleged production of nuclear weapons when Saddam Hussein was their new favorite client in the region.

As for Saddam’s later attempts to “fool around promiscuously with the illegal acquisition of weapons of mass destruction,” Iraq had already lost its sovereignty in the form of weapons inspections that, had they been allowed to continue rather than being suspended in the face of the US invasion of 2003, would have shown, as the US now admits and the world can see by the absence of WMD, Hussein had no nuclear capabilities.

The third condition in the Hitchens Doctrine refers to Iraq’s alleged violations of the Genocide Convention, which confers not only the right, but the responsibility on the US and other world powers to intervene to “prevent or punish” such atrocities. However, this obligation, as Hitchens would have it, is less than a canon of altruism. The Genocide Convention is an interesting study in international relations. It lays out in specific detail what genocide is, as well as a structure for investigating and punishing acts of genocide. But the catch with this law is the “declarations and reservations” that 31 of the parties to the convention invoke, along with objections to those reservations by 20 signatories. The US, like several nations, will only allow the prosecution of American citizens under the Convention if the US gives its permission to do so. In short, officials of the American government have to give their OK to be prosecuted for crimes against humanity. How well can the honor system be expected to work with mass murderers?

No one denies that there have been horrible acts of mass murder committed by Saddam Hussein and his Ba’ath Party; as with all propaganda, though, Hitchens tells us just half of the story (it is actually more like a quarter of the truth). In the debate with Galloway, Hitchens cites the gas attack against the Kurdish village of Halabja in 1988 as evidence of Hussein’s treachery. Though there has been some speculation that it was actually Iran that carried out this attack during the war with Iraq (CIA officer Stephen C. Pelletiere has written that a study by the US Army confirmed that the gas used at Halabja was cyanide-based, which Iran used, but Iraq did not), Hussein is certainly guilty of massacres against Shiites in southern Iraq, as well as the use of chemical weapons against Iranian troops. Indeed, the Bush Administration cited these atrocities in its ramp up to war. As Noam Chomsky has pointed out, though, citations of these atrocities always leave out three crucial words: “with our support.” The US assisted Saddam in his destruction of the breakaway Kurdish north by granting him agricultural credits. The chemical attacks in northern Iraq, that nation’s breadbasket, had the unwanted side effect of disrupting food production; with US money, though, Saddam was able to buy food abroad and continue his brutal ethnic cleansing of the Kurds.

When we consider Hussein’s use of chemical weapons on the battlefield with Iran, we must remember, as stated above, that Iraq’s attack on Iran was supported by the US. In fact, the US gave Iraq technical support on the battlefield when they knew Hussein was using chemical weapons. As for Hussein’s massacres of Shiite Muslims in southern Iraq, large portions of this atrocity occurred when Hussein was the favored ally of the US before the first Gulf War and, in the immediate aftermath of that war, the US allowed Iraqi Army helicopters to operate in the southern no-fly zone so as to suppress the Shiite uprising that had at first been encouraged by the elder President Bush.

Fourth in the Hitchens Doctrine is Iraq having played host to “international gangsters, nihilists, terrorists, and jihadists.” Given that these terms are all open to interpretation, it is reasonable that the characterizations are accurate for many friends of the Hussein regime. However, the “terrorists” that the US is most concerned with are undoubtedly al Qaeda, which unfortunately, puts the US on the same side of the “War on Terror” as Saddam Hussein. Hussein’s secularist regime was anathema to the fundamentalist ideology of Osama bin Laden; indeed, given that Hussein purports to be Muslim, and is therefore seen as a traitor to the “true faith,” al Qaeda likely hates him more than it hates the US.

I’m sure Hitchens would point to the presence of al Qaeda operative Abu Musab Zarqawi as proof of Iraq’s al Qaeda connections. When Iraq was “playing host” to Zarqawi, he was in a part of Iraq controlled not by Saddam Hussein, but by the Kurds. By Hitchens logic, then, the Kurds, playing host to Zarqawi in their autonomous region, could have been said to have surrendered their fledgling sovereignty, justifying further invasion and repression by Hussein.

The Hitchens Doctrine, like all rules of conduct, must apply to all if they are to be enforced against any. How chagrinned I was to realize, then, listening to Hitchens rattle off his four points, that I am living in a country that “may be deemed or said to have sacrificed its sovereignty.” When the United States isn’t routinely invading its neighbors, (Panama, Haiti, etc.) it is meddling in the affairs of sovereign states (Venezuela, Chile, etc.). And the US doesn’t even restrict its military attacks to its “neighborhood”; President Clinton’s Secretary of State, Madeline Albright put it succinctly when she said that the US would act “multilaterally where it could and unilaterally where it must,” as demonstrated in the attack on a near-antipodal Iraq.

The US violates the Non-Proliferation Treaty in its unwavering support for Israel and its arsenal of nuclear arms, the above-mentioned 1981 denunciation notwithstanding. After all, Hitchens allows for violation of the letter or spirit of the Treaty, and the billions of dollars a year that the US gives to Israel supports, among other things, that country’s violations of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. And let’s not forget that, beyond any “promiscuity” with weapons of mass destruction, the United States, along with the other members of the UN Security Council, are the biggest peddlers of weapons of moderate destruction. Russia, China, France, Britain, and the US, tasked with insuring international security, manufacture and sell virtually all of the weapons used in conflicts occurring in the world today. Certainly one machine gun cannot kill as many people as one atom bomb, but the “Security” Council compensates the old-fashioned way: volume, volume, volume.

As for US violations of the Genocide Convention, let’s put aside the slaughter of Native Peoples on this continent, as well as the brutal enslavement of Africans that built this nation, though both of these would certainly qualify under Hitchens’s third condition. Indonesia, East Timor, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, among others, are certainly all more recent examples of genocide committed by the US. Perhaps most relevant to the current conflict is the genocide visited upon Iraq in the form of US-UK-led UN sanctions between 1991 and 2003, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 1.5 million people. And this on top of what a UN survey team in April 1991 termed a “near-apocalyptic” situation in Iraq caused in large part by the intentional destruction of water treatment facilities by the United States. Who then is “obliged without further notice to act either to prevent or punish genocide” committed by the US?

Lastly, we have the harboring of international gangsters and terrorists by the US. A less well-known case of harboring involves Emmanuel Constant, the founder of the paramilitary Haitian group FRAPH. Convicted in absentia of orchestrating the deaths of 5,000 people between 1991 and 1994, Constant resides in Queens, New York. Despite appeals from the now-ousted government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide demanding his extradition, the US continues to harbor this monster. Most famous among the many Cuban terrorists protected over the years by the US has to be Orlando Bosch. His bombing of a Cuban passenger jet in 1976, killing all 73 people on board, highlights an impressive list of terrorist attacks credited to Bosch. But again, let’s put aside these “small potatoes” for a big fish that Hitchens has rightly gone after for years. Thanks in large part to Hitchens’s writing, Henry Kissinger has been exposed for the sociopath he is. Responsible for millions of deaths from Vietnam to Timor to Chile, Kissinger lives a life of luxury under the protection of the United States. Now, as Hitchens has demonstrated, Kissinger’s residence in this country has caused the US to lose its sovereignty.

Thus, in laying out his case for US intervention in Iraq, Hitchens has unwittingly condemned the US to an almost certain fate of invasion by some “stabilizing” powers. Who would be conducting this invasion? In Hitchens’s estimation, some countries simply cannot be trusted to carry out such an operation. In his debate with Galloway, Hitchens praises the intervention by the US as having successfully forestalled invasions of Iraq by Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. The question must be asked: if Iraq had indeed “surrendered its sovereignty,” then to whom has that sovereignty been surrendered? Couldn’t Turkey, Iran, or Saudi Arabia use that identical justification for invading Iraq (or the US)? Hitchens argues that, “As a matter of fact, all these three foreign interventions are taking place at present, all those three powers are trying to meddle in Iraq but we are fortunate as are the Iraqi people that there is a coalition to hold the ring and to prevent it from becoming another Rwanda or another Congo, another vortex of violence and cruelty and destabilization and war.” Yes, the Iraqis are fortunate that the US “coalition” has prevented “violence, cruelty, destabilization, and war” and, furthermore, that the US is holding the line against “foreign intervention” in Iraq.

What we are left with in the Hitchens paradigm is the unchallenged notion that the US can do no wrong, that the most powerful country in the history of the world can be implicitly trusted to wield that power humbly and judiciously. This is the essence of American Exceptionalism: the US is never guilty of crimes of which it routinely accuses others. But as Colonel Kurtz asked Captain Willard in Apocalypse Now, “What do you call it when the assassins accuse the assassins?”

TOM GORMAN is a writer and activist living in Glendale, California. He welcomes comments at










We published an article entitled “A Saudiless Arabia” by Wayne Madsen dated October 22, 2002 (the “Article”), on the website of the Institute for the Advancement of Journalistic Clarity, CounterPunch, (the “Website”).

Although it was not our intention, counsel for Mohammed Hussein Al Amoudi has advised us the Article suggests, or could be read as suggesting, that Mr Al Amoudi has funded, supported, or is in some way associated with, the terrorist activities of Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda terrorist network.

We do not have any evidence connecting Mr Al Amoudi with terrorism.

As a result of an exchange of communications with Mr Al Amoudi’s lawyers, we have removed the Article from the Website.

We are pleased to clarify the position.

August 17, 2005