America is a world power, Hitchens says, so its hands are already dirty. But the domestic opposition shouldn't immerse its own hands in the mud, Chomsky might answer.
The best way to illustrate this difference, which cuts across the American left, is suggested by Hitchens's best point in last year's insufferably titled Letters to a Young Contrarian, where he offered the counsel to live your life "as if." In those two words can be found an old strategy for the powerless against stultifying times. Václav Havel had "proposed living 'as if' he were a citizen of a free society," writes Hitchens. Oscar Wilde acted "'as if' moral hypocrisy were not regnant." Rosa Parks proceeded "'as if' a hardworking black woman could sit down on a bus at the end of the day's labor.
"They all, by behaving literally, acted ironically." And in doing so, they forced the powerful to appear, and to become, absurd.
Chomsky's version of this means writing "as if" the golden rule applied to nations. He has forced us to face many unpleasant facts. For example, the primary UN Security Council resolution concerning Iraq (687, 1991) calls for disarming our clients as well. The U.S. trivializes international justice by ignoring Haiti's repeated calls for the extradition of former paramilitary leader Emmanuel Constant--and by passing a law that allows the president to make war on the Hague should Americans ever be detained there. Our country betrayed the Kurds not once, but twice, and supplied Saddam the means of gassing them. Chomsky writes, in other words, "as if" September 11 had changed everything but the motives of state.
Hitchens counters that American air cover for the Kurdish autonomous zone in northern Iraq might be a model for decent intervention. He posits that the Bush Administration can be shamed out of gangsterism. He takes heart that Henry Kissinger is against the war, as are the Saudis and the Turks. In short, Hitchens argues "as if" September 11 had changed everything--including the motives of state.
One writer appeals to the conscience of citizens, who might be moved to prevent the worst. The other acts on the premise that our leaders can be compelled to keep their promises. At different times, I hope both are right--a monumental hedge, I realize, and one that Orwell would reject. But if Hitchens's love letter to a dead contrarian tells us anything instructive, it's that the most vindicated figure of his time lived and wrote as if he might be wrong.