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2005-10-18

The Grapple in the Big Apple: British MP George Galloway v. Christopher Hitchens

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We play an extended portion of this historic debate between two of Britain’s most fiery orators recorded last month in New York. The two debate the Iraq invasion, Saddam Hussein, the Bush administration, Palestine and more. [includes rush transcript]

In Iraq, the country’s referendum on a draft constitution is being called into question after the country’s electoral commission announced it will audit what it calls "unsually high" voting results. Sunni leaders have alleged widespread electoral fraud, citing allegations of ballot-stuffing and unlawful absentee voting.

Saturday’s nation-wide poll was hailed by the White House as an another step towards democracy in Iraq and a vindication of the 2003 invasion and continued occupation by US forces.

For the rest of the hour we want to turn to a debate over the war in Iraq. It features British antiwar MP George Galloway against columnist and author Christopher Hitchens. It was held last month last month here in New York City. The match-up was an eagerly anticipated one. In the run-up to the debate the Guardian newspaper of London wrote "Not since the Rumble in the Jungle, when Muhammad Ali fought George Foreman in Kinshasa in 1974, can there have been such an eagerly anticipated punch-up."

Earlier this summer, Galloway visited Washington in a widely publicized appearance to testify before a US Senate Committee and defend himself against accusations that he took kickbacks from Saddam Hussein’s government.

During his visit to Capitol Hill, Galloway and Hitchens briefly exchanged verbal fisticuffs. When Hitchens provoked him with a question, Galloway called him a "drink-soaked former Trotskyist popinjay."

The confrontation added fuel to the fire to last month’s debate, which I moderated. It was held at the Baruch College performing arts center in Manhattan. Speaking before a sold-out crowd of over 1,000 people, both men battled it out for over two hours. This is an excerpt of the debate. It starts with Christopher Hitchens talking about Saddam Hussein.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking over to a sold out crowd of over a thousand people, both men battled it out for over two hours. This is an excerpt of that debate. It starts with Christopher Hitchens talking about Saddam Hussein.

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: A man who planned and ordered and supervised and took delight in the genocide and torture and aggression and the occupation of two neighboring states and the massacres of their people is in jail now and will follow Slobodan Milosevic and Augusta Pinochet into the dark quite soon. I know there are some people here who don’t take delight in this, but I will say that I do, that it’s a long overdue justice, a long overdue act of justice and mercy.

A constitution, a federal democratic constitution is being debated now, as we speak, with the printing of five million copies of a provisional document, debated on six television channels — six — and perhaps as many as a hundred newspapers in a country where three years ago it was death, not just for you but for your family, to possess a satellite dish or to attempt to distribute a leaflet, death for you and your family, and not a quick one either. Does anyone not agree that this is a night and day difference? I invite them to say if they don’t.

The largest stateless minority in the Middle East, the people of Kurdistan, in other words, who have suffered many years of oppression and exile and occupation in Syria, in Iraq, in Iran, and in Lebanon and in Turkey, have begun to scramble, so to say, to their feet, to assume something like their full height as a people. Even before the intervention, they were producing an autonomy, a democracy, a self-determination of their own in the provinces of northern Iraq, which, when I saw them last, were a landscape of desolation and depravity. You could still smell the poison gas, you could still smell the mass graves, the ruined cities, the burned hillsides, the women who had chemical burns that still burn after years. Out of this, the Kurds have begun to build and help other Iraqis build when they could have been chauvinistic. They could have been xenophobic. They could have said, 'Enough with Iraq. We're through with it. We’re leaving.’ Instead, accepted their internationalist responsibilities. President Talabani, it seems to me, is a president of whom any country in the region could be proud, and not just by the sort of comparisons one could make. This is an extraordinary unarguable unambiguous gain.

The disarmament of Libya, the capitulation of Colonel Qaddafi, his abandonment of his covert arsenal of weapons of mass destruction and the walking back of the evidence that he gave us, because we all have it now — thank you, sir — in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, which I think is the right place for it. On analysis, was able to disclose to us that the providence of much of this illegal weaponry was the A.Q. Kahn network in Pakistan, a kind of Wal-Mart for W.M.D. — Nukes Are Us — with a line stretching all the way from North Korea to the Iraqi envoys who in March 2003, as the coalition was preparing to intervene when negotiating in Damascus with the envoys of Kim Jong-Il to buy North Korean missiles off the shelf. And people say Iraq and W.M.D. can’t be mentioned in the same breath.

Now, not everything about this can be attributed to the intervention, but it’s noticeable, I think, that Colonel Qaddafi did not, when he wanted to capitulate, go to Mr. Kofi Annan, for example, or that great statesman Mr. Jacques Chirac, a man so corrupt, as said of Monsieur Dalembert, I think, in Sentimental Education, so corrupt he would willingly have paid for the pleasure of selling himself. Nor to Gerhard Schroeder, the rump figure of what was once a proud German social democracy. No, he came to Mr. Blair and to Mr. Bush and says, ’I’m out of this game now, and you can analyze everything I’ve got.’ That’s not nothing, ladies and gentlemen. And it’s a step towards disarmament and nonproliferation into the bargain.

And then the spread, no less important, of the democratic impulse within the region. Not only is this being spread by the vector of the Kurdish people and their revolution because, as you will be readily able to find if you haven’t read of it already, there have been demonstrations in Kamishli, the Kurdish main city in northern Syria, among the oppressed Kurds who suffer under the ossified theocracy of Iran and, of course, in Turkey, as well, to pick up the message that, yes, liberation is at hand. These demonstrations broke out on the day that President Talabani was sworn in as President of Iraq. There is an unmistakable connection between them. We who have been friends of the Kurds are very proud of their achievement, and we intend to stand by them no matter what.

I will add that the moral leader of the Egyptian democracy movement, the man who has begun to break open the argument in Egypt and who suffered a long period of imprisonment during this time and was written to by Nelson Mandela as Egypt’s equivalent, has told me, and full quotation, that in his opinion, this new mood in the region would be unthinkable if it was not for the removal of the single worst tyrant who was present there. That’s not nothing, in point of testimony. That’s from deep within the bowels of the Egyptian prison system, the man who is the moral hero of their democracy movement. He says — and I agree with him — and he’s echoed by Anwar Ibrahim as far away as Malaysia, who is the Malay equivalent, and by the leader of the Socialist Party of Lebanon, Mr. Jumblatt, have all stated publicly that this for them is the beginning of the end, the fall of the wall, as they put it. This, I think, is also something to take pride in.

Now, I could have said this in front of any audience and against any antagonist, but in my last two minutes I will have to say that I believe it is a disgrace that a member of the British House of Commons should go before the United States Senate Subcommittee and not testify, but decline to testify, and to insult all those who try to ask him questions with the most violent, cheap, guttersnipe abuse. I think that’s a disgrace.

And I’ve got one minute. I’ve got one minute. I’ve got one minute. And it is worse — it is worse than a disgrace. That’s not coming out of my time. If you knew how you looked and sounded, comrades, when you do that. Well, you — the cameras can take care of it. That’s not coming out of my time.

It is not just a disgrace, it is a crime that Mr. Qaddafi has profited from the theft of money from the Iraqi Oil-for-Food program, has told continuous lies about his profiteering from it and the foul associates that he made at a time when Iraqi children were dying and $11 billion from this program, $11 billion, went to the murderer and criminal and sadist and fanatic Saddam Hussein. How can anyone who’s a business partner of this regime show their face in a city like this? And not content with it, not content with it, he turns up in Damascus. The man’s search for a tyrannical fatherland never ends. The Soviet Union has let him down. Albania is gone. The Red Army is out of Afghanistan and Czechoslovakia. The hunt persists. Saddam has been overthrown, and his criminal connections with him have been exposed.

But on to the next, on the 30th of July in Damascus in Syria appearing — I’ve given it all to you on a piece of paper — in front of Mr. Assad, whose death squads are cutting down the leaders of democracy in Lebanon, as this is going on, to tell the Syrian people they’re fortunate to have such a leader. The slobbering dauphin who they got because he’s the son of the slobbering tyrant who came before him. How anyone with a tincture off socialist principle can actually speak in this way is beyond me and, I hope, ladies and gentlemen, far beyond you and far beneath your contempt. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: George Galloway, your response.

GEORGE GALLOWAY: Well, chair, ladies and gentlemen, slobbering was the note that Mr. Hitchens chose to end on. I’m not sure that was wise.

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: Bring it on. Bring it on.

GEORGE GALLOWAY: But I want to begin by praising Mr. Hitchens. In Dundee, my home city, at the annual delegate meeting of the National Union of Journalists, 25 years ago the same Mr. Hitchens made a speech in which he praised me and the city council for what he described as its brave act of twinning the City of Dundee with the Palestinian city of Nablus. He said —

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: No, no. Must have been someone else.

GEORGE GALLOWAY: He said that it was — I didn’t interrupt you. So perhaps you’ll not slobber over my remarks.

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: Someone else.

GEORGE GALLOWAY: You see, it was very important, Mr. Hitchens’s support for the Palestinian people. And it was not easy in 1980. Only a few years before, the Palestinian resistance had seized the Israeli Olympic games team in Munich and had committed what most people in the world described as an act of mass terrorism. Mr. Hitchens’s courageous stand with groups like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the hijackers of many an aircraft, the carrying out of many a military operation, was very significant because it was very rare.

Equally, I want to thank Mr. Hitchens for the brave stand that he made against the war on Iraq in 1991. I want to — I want to say, and I never had the chance to thank him for this, one of the magic moments of that great era was Christopher Hitchens on television with the gun nut Charlton Heston. When Heston was fulminating, desperate to get in there, desperate to attack, Hitchens told him to keep his wig on. And then he asked him, magically, to name four countries with a border with the country he was so keen to invade. And Heston, of course, could name none.

That was important, because it was very difficult to oppose the war against Iraq in 1991. After all, it was ruled by somebody called Saddam Hussein. It was governed by the Ba’ath Party, who continued to govern thereafter. It was only three years since those chemical weapons that Mr. Hitchens could still smell when he was last there had been launched against the Kurdish people whom he will never leave alone, only three years before Halabja had taken place and, of course, perhaps most significantly of all, it was difficult to oppose that attack on Iraq in 1991 because Iraq had invaded and abolished, to quote him a few minutes ago, a member state of the Arab League of the United Nations, a Muslim Arab country.

Notwithstanding all of these things, Mr. Hitchens bravely, fanatically you may say, stood against the idea of President George Bush invading Iraq in 1991. What you are — what you have witnessed since is something unique in natural history: the first ever metamorphosis from a butterfly back into a slug. And I mention slug purposefully, because the one thing a slug does leave behind it is a trail of slime.

Now, I was brought up by my father on the principle never to wrestle with a chimney sweep, because whatever you do you can’t come out clean. But you, Mr. Hitchens, are no chimney sweep. That’s not coal dust in which you are covered. You are covered in the stuff you like to smear onto others, not just me with your Goebbelian leaflets full of selective quotation, half-truth, mis-truth and downright untruth, and the comments you made in your last two minutes of the speech, but people much more gentle than me, people like Cindy Sheehan whom you described — whom you described as a sob sister, as a flake, as a LaRouchie, a woman who gave the life of her son for the war that you have come here to glory in. People like Mr. Hitchens are ready to fight to the last drop of other people’s blood, and it’s utterly contemptible, utterly and completely contemptible.

Now, Hitchens makes much — and I know he will in his next segment, so I shall, to coin a phrase, preempt it — of the nature and character of those resisting the foreign invasion and occupation in Iraq. I spoke last night in Boston in a hall where many of the leaders of the great American Revolution stood and spoke. My favorite member of the British Parliament has a statue. It’s the first one you meet as you walk in the St. Stephen’s entry. It’s a statue of Charles James Fox. He was expelled twice from Parliament for supporting the American Revolution and supporting the French Revolution.

Now, some might say Fox was wrong, supporting the anti-colonial struggle of the American people. After all, some might say, 'Better be careful what you wish for, Charlie. Maybe one day that independent free country you're supporting the birth of will be ruled by crazed fundamentalists like Pat Robertson and George W. Bush and Dick Cheney and Michael Ashcroft.’ They might have said, 'Be careful, Charlie. If this country becomes free, it might one day not even be able to pick up the dead bodies in one of its most important cities a week after they've lain there. Such is the malevolence and incompetence of the government which will rule it.’

But Fox would have said, 'No.' Fox would have said, 'No.' He would have said, 'The American people have a right to be free. Who they choose to rule them is a matter for them. Let them make their mistakes. Let them have their own politics. My country has no right to occupy them any further.'

AMY GOODMAN: British M.P. George Galloway versus author Christopher Hitchens. We’ll be back with the debate in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: The trial of Saddam Hussein is set to begin Wednesday in Iraq. At the debate between Christopher Hitchens and George Galloway last month, I asked both men if they think Saddam Hussein committed war crimes. We begin with George Galloway.

GEORGE GALLOWAY: Saddam Hussein committed real and serious crimes against the people of Iraq, most of them in the 1980s when he was the closest friend of the United States and Great Britain. He invaded Iran at the behest of the United States and Britain in a war which killed a million people on either side, a war in which chemical and biological weapons were used by both sides, sold to both sides by countries like Britain, America and West Germany.

He killed, massacred Kurdish people in Halabja. I was one of those who demonstrated against it. Mr. Tony Blair nor any of his cabinet participated in any of those demonstrations, because then the Ba’athist regime in Iraq, against whom I was resolutely and actively involved, were the best friends and customers of the then allies United States and the United Kingdom. Saddam created a killing field in Iraq.

Like all dictatorships — see, one of the Goebbelian tricks that Hitchens has performed this evening with his little leaflet is to try to give the impression that in my book — I am not the only one — I come out in favor of Saddam Hussein. In fact, I denounce him in the most withering terms. But you wouldn’t get that from the leaflet that Hitchens has given out this evening. So not only do I think that Saddam Hussein committed real and serious crimes against the Iraqi people, I said so at the time he was committing them. I was denounced for saying so at the time he was committing them as a communist troublemaker disrupting the profitable relations between Iraq and Britain.

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: Amy, I know we’re supposed to take it in order, but I think you would think less of me, ladies and gentlemen, if I had no reply to that.

GEORGE GALLOWAY: Well, I will reply to you, then.

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: By all means. Let’s see how this goes. Mr. Galloway claims that at a certain period in the 1980s he was supporting Iraqi democrats and protesting against Saddam Hussein, knowing what he was capable of, knowing what he had done, knowing the genocide, for example, committed in Kurdistan and knowing of the aggressions and the chemical weaponry that had been deployed in Iran. He says he knows that.

I’ve had the opportunity to check with a woman, Ann Clwyd, just a very distinguished member of the Labour left in the British Parliament who was the chairman of the relevant organization, the Campaign for the Restoration of Democratic Rights in Iraq. She says she has no memory of Mr. Galloway’s participation. But let’s say that we take his word for it. It means that when he went — having said that he thought that Kuwait was part of the Iraqi motherland — to greet Saddam Hussein in 1994 in Iraq and to salute him for his courage and his indefatigability.

GEORGE GALLOWAY: That’s another lie. You’re lying again. Your nose is growing.

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: He went — and to take his side again, it meant that he went in foot on his own evidence. He went in full knowledge of the fact that he was dealing with a murderer and a monster and a dictator. So the pit of exculpation that you attempt to dig, Mr. Galloway, has just swallowed you up and the record will show it.

AMY GOODMAN: George Galloway.

GEORGE GALLOWAY: But you opposed the war in 1991 in the full knowledge of what had happened at Halabja just three years before. You’re the one who went on television denouncing President Bush for his plan to invade and destroy the regime of Saddam Hussein. You are the one who did it. I saw you with my own eyes.

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: Yes. I was there, too.

GEORGE GALLOWAY: I saw your lips moving.

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: I was there, too.

GEORGE GALLOWAY: I saw your words tumble out. "Keep your wig on," you told Heston. "Name four countries around the country of Iraq that you’re so keen to attack." You were in completely full knowledge, even better knowledge because it was even fresher in 1991 the nature of the Saddam regime. But you were against the invasion of Iraq in 1991, presumably because you calculated that a tin pot dictatorship in one country in the Arab world was one thing. Unleashing the right of big superpowers to invade and occupy other people’s countries without legal authority, without judicial permission of the authorities, political and legal, in the world was an even bigger danger. Even bigger danger.

I was a small fry in 1991. Nobody in America was watching me on television, as I was watching you on television in America and cheering you for your foresightedness, for your wisdom, for your subtlety in knowing that sometimes in life you have to choose between bad and badder. Sometimes in life you have to choose between evil and more evil. That’s what you did in 1991. The only difference between us is that on the road somewhere, Damascus —

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: I would say —

GEORGE GALLOWAY: I don’t know where —

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: Be careful.

GEORGE GALLOWAY: I don’t know what it was. Whether it was Vanity Fair or whether it was the lucrative contracts that you’ve landed since, but somehow you decided in 2003 — maybe it was the whiskey. Maybe it was the whiskey. Somehow you decided in 2003 to take a line that was the complete opposite of the line you used to take. Now you want us to gloss over that point.

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: No, not at all.

GEORGE GALLOWAY: Yes, you did. You said I can’t understand why so much time was devoted to this point. Were you lying then in '91, or are you lying now? Were you wrong in ’91, or are you wrong now? If you were wrong in ’91, how should we believe you're right now in 2005? If you’re capable of such drastic, dramatic, erratic swings, from being in favor of a devastating war to being against a devastating war, to being in favor of the liberation struggle in Algeria and Vietnam and Ireland, but against the liberation struggle now in Palestine and Iraq.

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: Liberation struggle.

GEORGE GALLOWAY: If you’re capable of such dramatic, almost — if I can use the word that you used earlier — crazed shifts of opinion, how can anybody take you seriously? Do I get a question, Amy?

AMY GOODMAN: Christopher Hitchens.

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: Again, I worry about the plain meaning of words. I believe I said earlier that I held a different view at the time and have since changed it. My articles and statements against the war and my reports from Iraq and its neighbors at the time are all available in a book published by Verso. It’s called — this one is called For the Sake of Argument, and I haven’t repudiated them. It’s, though, I no longer hold to them. I was un-persuaded in the following manner.

GEORGE GALLOWAY: I don’t have the education to work that one out.

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: I was un-persuaded in the following manner. I ended the war in northern Iraq, where I saw what the real consequences of Saddam Hussein’s rule had been. I knew something about it. There’s no question. But I wasn’t prepared to be told by so many people that in their view, the American intervention had saved their lives and the lives of their families. And I hadn’t got a clever antiwar argument to make to that point, and I began a process of reexamination of which I can’t really say or be expected to say that I’m ashamed.

You’re right I had some fun at the expense of Charlton Heston. I mean, I can remember it, too. When I asked him what the neighboring countries were, he said "Bahrain," which is, of course, an island. And it was all good sport, and I’m not ashamed of any of that either. But there comes to a point when you’ve got to be a little more serious. Now, the fact is there was no invasion by George Bush of Iraq, nor was there any U.N. mandate to do so. I’m talking about 1991. It wasn’t an invasion of Iraq. It was an expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait by a coalition which included even Syria. Now if Mr. Assad can change his mind on this, and I can, and many other people too. I suppose we have to congratulate you on being absolutely 100% consistent in your support for unmentionable thugs and criminals.

AMY GOODMAN: Author Christopher Hitchens and British M.P. George Galloway in a public debate last month here in New York at Baruch College. They were speaking before a crowd of over 1,000 people. I went on to talk about them — talk with them about their thoughts on the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. We begin with George Galloway.

GEORGE GALLOWAY: This slander of the Iraqi resistance is self-deluding. You’re fooling yourselves if you believe it, because if you believe it, you must believe that if only you could seal the borders a bit more, if only you could get rid of the foreign fighters, then everything would be rosy, everything would be hunky dory. This is a level of self-delusion, which borders, frankly, on the racist. The vast majority of the people of Iraq are against the American and British occupation of their country. Your own friend, Corbin, writing from Iraq recently said so. The vast majority of Iraqis want this occupation to end. And the vast majority of those fighting to bring it to an end are Iraqis. Get used to it. Get over it. Understand it, or you’re fooling yourselves.

AMY GOODMAN: George Galloway, with one word, do you think the U.S. and British forces should be withdrawn immediately?

GEORGE GALLOWAY: Not only do I.

AMY GOODMAN: Only a word. Yes or no?

GEORGE GALLOWAY: Oh, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Ok. Christopher Hitchens, when do you think the U.S. troops should leave Iraq?

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: I think I can be as precise, though perhaps not as terse, as Mr. Galloway on this point. I should thank him, by the way, for eliciting or allowing me to elicit or you, ladies and gentlemen, to elicit from him what I feared, but didn’t hope. In other words a full declaration of support for the campaign of sabotage and murder and beheading that has taken the lives of brave journalists, demolished — demolished the offices — demolished the offices of the United Nations.

GEORGE GALLOWAY: Are there no depths to which you will not sink?

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: Demolished the offices of the United Nations and the Red Cross in Baghdad, shot down senior clerics outside their places of worship and continues as a campaign of mayhem to this day. It will be —

GEORGE GALLOWAY: Are there no depths to which you will not sink? You’ve fallen out of the gutter into the sewer.

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: You might all care to remember —

GEORGE GALLOWAY: You’ve fallen out of the gutter into the sewer.

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: You might all care to remember that you are being televised, ladies and gentlemen. I trust your mothers are not watching. You’re shouting at me. Down, so I can answer the question. You’re unclear on the concept. I will proceed if I’m allowed to, but I’m just reminding you, you’re on telly, okay? Just hope your friends and relatives aren’t watching.

Now, a campaign — a campaign of mayhem and sabotage, that was most obviously directed — I want to move to my point — in February last against the only attempt that Iraq has ever seen to hold a national election to provide a parliament, a constitution and an elected government. Now, what are the odds, do you think, that those who are blowing up the offices of the U.N. and who recently shot down a senior Sunni cleric in Baghdad, because he, too, wants an end to the occupation but he asked his congregation to vote in the upcoming elections, what are the odds that these people represent the secret, silent majority in Iraq, as, say, the FLN did in Algeria?

Well, let’s just do some simple — relatively simple arithmetic. In the three Kurdish provinces of Iraq, there is really not a single sympathizer either of the Ba’ath Party or of al Qaeda. It can be taken as a certainty that we know at least 20% of the population consider this resistance to be a fascist pest and have committed their heroic armed forces, because there is a rebel army in Iraq. There is a people’s army. There is a guerilla force in Iraq. It’s called the Peshmerga. It’s the people’s liberation army of Kurdistan. And it fights on our side. We, at last — because Mr. Galloway is right that our policy in the past has been heinous — we at last fight on their side, too.

AMY GOODMAN: Christopher Hitchens versus British antiwar M.P. George Galloway in their Rumble in the Jungle, in the Grapple in the Big Apple.

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