Amongst the Hitchens appreciations and depreciations floating around at the moment is a 2008 piece by Jonathan Freedland, in the New York Review of Books. It's a review of a collection of essays about Hitchens and Iraq (extraordinary that one journalist should be thought worthy of such a volume but there you are, he was an extraordinary figure). Freedland tries to get to the heart of why Hitchens (in Freedland's view), got the Iraq war so disastrously wrong, and he does so with his customary intelligence and flair. I don't want to engage with the whole piece so much as draw attention to two paragraphs that drew mine:
(Hitchens's) starting point is a wholly sound moral revulsion at both Islamist extremism and Baathism. Both are to be defeated swiftly and violently. Any objection to that goal could only, therefore, be rooted in a failure to see the moral evil these forces represent. To be against either Bush’s war on terror or invasion of Iraq is to be “soft on fascism.” What he does not consider is that his opponents might be just as repelled by jihadism, just as determined to defeat it, as he is—and yet, in good faith, believe that Bush’s tactics would not weaken the bin Ladenist enemy, but strengthen it. Which in the case of Iraq is exactly what has happened.
The crucial distinction here, barely addressed by Hitchens, is between the hard-core jihadists themselves and those they would recruit, between the nineteen hijackers of September 11 and those millions around the world who cheered as they saw the Twin Towers fall. It is the difference between Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri in their Waziristan cave and the well of angry Muslim opinion from which they draw. Make the wrong move—torture prisoners or lie your way into the invasion of a Muslim country—and you will deliver recruits to al-Qaeda in their millions.
I think the criticism of Hitchens here is basically fair. What pulled me up short was the argument Freedland makes about jihadism. It was one that critics of the Iraq war made over and over again. The 'recruiting sergeant' became one of the most familiar figures of the whole debate. With hindsight, it's not at all clear that the sergeant did his job.
Did the war really strengthen the "bin Ladenist" enemy? Did it deliver recruits to al-Qaeda "in their millions"? Yes, there were the 7/7 attacks in Britain. Other than that, jihadism doesn't really seem to have taken off here, or in America. Globally, Al-Qaeda is the weakest it's been since 2001. There is plenty of anger amongst people in Islamic countries but it is mainly directed at their own repressive governments. The anti-Western militant Islamist threat survives and may yet thrive, but predictions that it would be massively inflated by the war simply failed to come true.
There are of course, other grounds for thinking the war was a mistake. But the 'recruiting sergeant' argument hasn't stood the test of time.