Taking Issue: Johann Hari Responds to Nick Cohen

Taking Issue: Johann Hari Responds to Nick Cohen


[Johann Hari published “Choosing Sides” in Dissent‘s Summer 2007 Issue. The following debate between Nick Cohen and Johann Hari will appear in the forthcoming Fall 2007 Issue. –The Editors]

NICK COHEN’S RESPONSE is perplexing, characterized as it is by daft hyperbole (I’m Maoist now?), denial of his own statements, and arguments that he knows I agree with and have done more to advance than he.

It’s disappointing he doesn’t try to defend his positions or engage with any of my arguments, despite the fact I tried hard to fairly summarize his case. For example, he simply repeats his claim that the Iraq War marked a radical break with Henry Kissinger’s influence on U.S. foreign policy—and, to sustain this, he ignores the lengthy part of my review pointing out that Kissinger is now, according to Bob Woodward, “the most senior foreign policy adviser to [Bush] outside the administration.” This information doesn’t fit into his Manichean polemics so, rather than defend his case, he simply pretends it isn’t so.

He asks, “What kind of left is it that shrugs as Iraqi trade unionists are butchered or Iranian feminists are persecuted?” As Nick knows, I have been asking this very question longer and more persistently than he has. While he was opposing the war to depose the Taliban, I was traveling to the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and later Iraq, where I have supported persecuted feminists and backed underground gay groups. I received a slew of Islamist death-threats after I worked undercover at Britain’s most extreme mosque and then appeared on the Islam Channel to expose and challenge the anti-Semitism, homophobia, and totalitarianism of jihadists. So it is deeply strange for him to write, “Every now and again Hari manages to shake himself out of his world of make believe and acknowledge that we’re up against a fascist enemy.”

As anybody who read my review is aware, my criticisms of his book do not consist of a denial that jihadis are a fascistic enemy who must be defeated. We both agree that Islamists are a monstrous foe who would kill us both given the chance. (I am gay; Cohen is ethnically Jewish.) Where we disagree is on how to defeat them. Cohen’s preferred tactic—enthusiastically supporting the Bush strategy—has actually enlarged and spread jihadism, as every major study of the phenomenon shows. One of my Iraqi friends is now living in a Basra neighborhood where Taliban-style militias beat women who walk onto the street without a veil and stone adulteresses. This is the consequence of the war Cohen still claims was necessary and worthwhile in his columns. The caveats he quotes in his response constitute literally a few hundred words out of tens of thousands backing Bush enthusiastically, as anybody who reads his book will see.

I am puzzled that Cohen will not defend his own writing, instead denying much of it exists. For example, he denies ever arguing that the West was right to back Saddam in the 1980s. Here are his words from his recent book Pretty Straight Guys: “The world had little choice but to support Saddam’s unprovoked war on Iran. A victory for the Ayatollahs would have left the Iraqi, Kuwaiti and Saudi oilfields at Iran’s mercy.” If he wants to renounce this argument, that is welcome; but he cannot claim I invented it. Each of his claims about my “deception” has a similar clear quote disproving them. To give another example, he denies he has shown support for the more propagandistic claims of the neoconservatives. Yet he wrote in the Observer in January 2005, “In the long-run the only solution is for the global move towards democracy to get moving again. In these strange times, the only person who believes that this is possible or desirable is George W. Bush…[and he is] feared and hated by right-thinking people the world over for saying so.” And, again in the Observer: “Neoconservatives…[are] hated because of their espousal of causes the liberal-left had once owned but no longer had the moral self-confidence to defend.” And—in a fawning account of meeting Paul Wolfowitz in the same newspaper: “I was clearly in the presence of real power…I was in the presence of a politician committed to extending human freedom.” Yes, this is indeed “blind faith.”

The list of odd misrepresentations goes on. Cohen writes, “For the record, I have written many pieces about civil liberties.” He is clearly implying to readers that he has written in support of civil liberties. Yet if readers go to—for example, this 2006 Guardian/Comment Is Free essay—they will find Cohen arguing that the British state should be deporting terror suspects to countries where they will almost certainly be tortured, because human rights are less important than “national interests.” Then he sadly obfuscates further by building a straw man about George Orwell. In conversations with me, Cohen has explicitly cited Orwell as a long-term inspiration since childhood (see Cohen’s lengthy piece on Orwell featured in the online book review, Democratiya). I cannot understand why he now denies it; I assumed this was an uncontroversial point.

In light of the horrific evidence about how the Iraq War has increased jihadism and the already vast misery of Iraqis, I prefer to develop strategies that actually defeat fascists, rather than handing millions of recruits and the control of entire cities to them. (This has involved painful rethinking of my own previous position, as I made clear in the very first paragraph of my review.) I would like to have an intelligent conversation with Nick Cohen about how to do this—but, alas, it seems he prefers to engage in name-calling and a baffling denial of his own words.

>>Read Johann Hari’s “Choosing Sides”
>>Read Nick Cohen’s “Taking Issue”

Johann Hari is a columnist for the Independent newspaper in London. His work can be read at www.johannhari.com.